Management in Networks

In networks, cooperation is more important than collaboration. Collaboration is working together toward a common objective. This is what most workplaces are focused on. It is also what most managers focus on. Implicit in many workplaces is that if you are not focused on the objective at hand, you are not doing any real work. This emphasis on collaboration blinds managers. They cannot see the potential of social networks for enabling sense-making and knowledge-sharing. Many managers do not understand the value of cooperation, or sharing freely without direct reciprocity. Cooperation sounds too much like wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. Most management practices today still focus on 20th century models, such as Henri Fayol’s six functions of management [look familiar?].

  1. forecasting
  2. planning
  3. organizing
  4. commanding
  5. coordinating
  6. controlling

I heard these same functions discussed by a workplace issues consultant on the radio as recently as yesterday morning. Notice that there is no function for enhancing serendipity, or increasing innovation, or inspiring people. The core of management practice today has not changed since the days of Fayol, who died ninety years ago.

But the new reality is that networks are the new companies. The company no longer offers the stability it once did as innovative disruption comes from all corners. Economic value is getting redistributed to creative workers and then diffused through networks. Knowledge networks differ from company hierarchies. One major difference is that cooperation, not collaboration, is the optimal behaviour in a knowledge network. In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration.

So what are the functions of management in the network era?

managing network era

Improve insights – Too often, management only focuses on reducing errors, but it is insight that drives innovation. Managers must loosen the filters through which information and knowledge pass in the organization and increase the organizational willpower to act on these insights.

Provide Learning Experiences – As Charles Jennings notes, managers are vital for workers’ performance improvement, but only if they provide opportunities for experiential learning with constructive feedback, new projects, and new skills.

Focus on the “Why” of Work – Current compensation systems ignore the data on human motivation. Extrinsic rewards only work for simple physical tasks and increased monetary rewards can actually be detrimental to performance, especially with knowledge work. The keys to motivation at work are for each person to have a sense of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. This is a network management responsibility.

Help the Network Make Better Decisions – Managers should see themselves as servant leaders. Managers must actively listen, continuously question the changing work context, help to see patterns and make sense of them, and then suggest new practices and build consensus with networked workers.

Be Knowledge Managers – Managers need to practice and encourage personal knowledge management throughout the network.

Be an Example – Social networks shine a spotlight on dysfunctional managers. Cooperative behaviours require an example and that example must come from those in management positions. While there may be a role for good managers in networks, there likely will not be much of a future for bosses.

13 thoughts on “Management in Networks”

  1. Extremely insightful and elegantly stated. Some metrics or numerical supporting evidence would be useful though not entirely necessary in this case. Thank you.

  2. I think you might also try new stuff – build on what works and learn from want doesn’t. Hard to do in cultures where you cannot make a mistake

    • Agree, Rob. Distributed authority, coupled with a willingness to experiment, is needed to ensure the organization stays connected to its outside environment (tribes + institutions + markets + networks).

  3. Purpose-based feedback loops, in perpetual beta .. help determine next steps, step by step along whatever path of purpose is being trod by an individual, a group, an organization.


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