Principles of Networked Unmanagement


Collaboration is working together for a common objective, while cooperation is openly sharing, without any quid pro quo. Cooperation is a necessary behaviour to be open to serendipity and to encourage experimentation. In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration. Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. Cooperation is a driver of creativity.

As we shift to a networked economy, our organizational frameworks have to change. While collaboration inside the company and with partners may have worked in a market economy, cooperation amongst a greater variety of network actors is now necessary. We are seeing this with customers getting involved in product design and marketing becoming more “social”. Shifting our emphasis from collaboration, which still is required to get some work done, to cooperation, in order to thrive in a networked ecosystem, means reassessing some of our assumptions about work.

Cooperation in our work is needed so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by increased complexity. What worked yesterday won’t work today. No one has the definitive answer any more but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. Cooperation is a foundational behaviour for effectively working in networks, and it’s in networks where most of us, and our children, will be working.  Cooperation is the future, which is already here, albeit unevenly distributed.

Since cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate, people in the network cannot be told what to do, only influenced. If they don’t like you, they won’t connect. That’s like being on Twitter with no followers and never getting “retweeted”. You will be a lone node and of little value to the network. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a network you have to be perceived as having some value by many others.


Most of us have seen those fancy teamwork motivational posters on workplace walls, and almost every job description includes teamwork as a critical competency. Teamwork is over-rated, as it can be a smoke screen for office bullies to coerce fellow workers. A big economic stick often hangs over the team; “be a team player or lose your job”.

Teams promote unity of purpose, not openness, transparency and diversity of ideas, essential for building trust in networks. Think of a football team, a common business metaphor in North America. There is only one coach and everybody has a specific job to do while “keeping their eye on the ball”. In today’s workplace, there’s more than one ball and the coach cannot see the entire field. The team, as a work vehicle, is outdated.

As much as organizations advertise for “team players”, what would be better are workers who can collaborate and cooperate by connecting to each other in a balanced manner. There are other ways of organizing work. Orchestras are not teams; neither are jazz ensembles. There may be teamwork on a theatre production but the cast is not a team. It is more like a social network. Teams are what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences as the prime motivator. In a complex world, unity can be counter-productive.


The high-value work today is in facing complexity, not in addressing problems that have already been solved and for which a formulaic or standardized response has been developed. Most workers are paid to do only one thing – solve problems. When dealing with work problems we can categorize them as either known or new. Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management help us to map it. We can also create tools, especially electronic performance support systems (EPSS) to do work and not have to learn all the background knowledge in order to accomplish the task. This is how simple and complicated knowledge gets automated.

Complex, new problems need tacit (implicit) knowledge to solve them. Furthermore, as more work becomes automated & outsourced, exception-handling becomes more important in the networked workplace. The system handles the routine stuff and people, usually working together, deal with the exceptions. As new exceptions get addressed, some or all of the solution gets automated, and so the process evolves. The 21st century workplace, with its growing complexity due to our interconnectivity, requires that we focus work on new problems and exception-handing. This increases the need for collaboration, working together on a problem; as well as cooperation, sharing without any specific objective.

One challenge for organizations will be getting people to realize that what they actually know, as detailed in a job description, has decreasing value. How to solve problems together is becoming the real business imperative. Sharing and using knowledge in new ways is where business value lies. With computer systems that can handle more and more of our known knowledge, the 21st century worker has to move to the complex and chaotic edge to get the valued and paid work done. There are many people who will need help with this challenge.


Workplace leaders everywhere need to help the current and upcoming workforce enter the 21st century network economy. Another change to manage will be getting people to work more transparently. Transparency is necessity for effective networks. For instance, a major benefit of using social media is increasing speed of access to knowledge. However, if the information is not shared by people, it will not be found. With greater transparency, information can flow horizontally as well as vertically. New patterns and dynamics can then emerge from interconnected people and interlinked information flows, and these will bypass established structures and services. Working transparently and cooperatively is much less controllable than many managers will be comfortable with. But in this network era that we are entering, the increase in complex work, and rise of networks as the primary organizing framework, will create an even greater need for cooperation.

“In the long term, +N [network] dynamics should enable government, business, and civil-society leaders to create new mechanisms for mutual consultation, coordination, and cooperation spanning all levels of governance. Aging contentions that “the government” or “the market” is the solution to particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to new ideas that “the network” is the optimal solution.” – David Ronfeldt

We, collectively, are the solution to our problems. We just have not figured out how to get optimally organized. Network theory can provide many of the answers. The first step is seeing that we have a problem and that our current work models are inadequate. Doing the same things better will not help. Looking outward, beyond our organizations, can enable cooperative behaviour. Casting off old management models, like jobs and organization charts, is another step. Shifting to a networked economy is going to take cooperation, and that only happens when we let go of control, just the opposite of Taylor’s principles of scientific management* which have informed us for the past century. Here are my introductory Principles of Networked Unmanagement:

It is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation that more productive work can be assured. The duty of being transparent in our work and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers, including management.

* Here are F.W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911)

It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

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