Building the network era organization

Part of the shift that organizations will have to make in the network era will be not only to add new dimensions, but to retrieve some old ones. Institutional life often required us to leave our family concerns at the door, and focus on the work to be done. In the military this could be for decades and in the church for life. Later we had to stay sharply focused on the hyper-competition of the market era. There was a battle to be done, and most marketing speak is still littered with military terms, taken from one of the largest institutions we ever created.

But we have shifted from a world dominated by Tribes, to one of Institutions, and currently a society of Markets. The next shift is to a world of Networks, as succinctly described in David Ronfeldt’s TIMN theory. According to TIMN, each new form has built upon and changed the previous mode. We are currently a predominantly triform society (T+I+M). What happens as we become a quadriform society (T+I+M+N) and what aspects of the other three will be helpful to provide balance?


TIMN by David Ronfeldt

Here is  a quick overview of David Ronfeldt’s TIMN framework:

According to my review of history and theory, four forms of organization — and evidently only four — lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages:

  • The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature, beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging — the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs.

  • The institutional form was the second to emerge. Emphasizing hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomized initially by the Roman Empire, not to mention the Catholic papacy and other corporate enterprises.

  • The market form, the third form of organization to take hold, enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England.

  • The network form, the fourth to mature, serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. Enabled by the digital information-technology revolution, this form is only now coming into its own, so far strengthening civil society more than other realms.

As we examine the organizational change required for the network era, we should look at what we can retrieve from our past. The feeling for belonging we had in Tribes has been lost in Institutions (which include Corporations) as they no longer offer the stability they once did. Markets are overly focused on competition, and we know that the concept of perpetual growth cannot last on a finite globe.

So what does a connective, cooperative organization look like? It will be one that provides a sense of belonging like a Tribe, but with more diversity and room for personal growth. It will have the Institutional structure to manage the basic systems so people can focus on customers and community, not merely running the organization. It will have Market type competition, but without a winner-take-all approach.

There is a lot we can learn from our common story. Not all organizational change has to be new ‘E2.0’ techno buzz stuff. Builders of the network era organization, perhaps for the first time in history, have an advantage of being able to look back, not beholding to Institutional or Tribal leaders. Builders just need to be careful in listening to the Markets, for they too are voices from the past, but don’t yet realize it.


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