Network Questions for the 1990s:

Linking Organization and Technology


Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps

The Seybold Series, #1 - May, 1989


A New York bank, a Boston hospital, and a Midwest aerospace manufacturer all share a common problem. When they invested in computer networks, they thought they were buying wires and boxes. Instead, they have discovered that what they bought was a communications infrastructure.

Communication is the basis of people's interactions with one another, which is the basis of groups. Computer networks have a powerful influence on the structure of organizations and the process of getting work done.

The new reality of wired organizations is colliding with the traditional MIS view.

The CEO, who is concerned with "how the whole thing hangs together," thinks about strategy and business development. MIS thinks about MIPS, memory, and throughput. Traditionally, these have been very different worlds.

But that is changing. Networks have become "Enterprise Systems," connecting all parts of an organization, crossing many departments, and carrying much more than data on the wires. While technical compatibility and standards are well-known issues in large-scale systems, new issues, organizational issues, are now coming to the fore.

"Too Much" or "Too Little" Communication

  • How do we deal with information overload and online garbage?

  • How do we share information across internal walls?

  • How do we share information with external parties?

As the novelty of the new "everybody-to-everybody" network wears off, organizations often find themselves in one of two unexpected places: the woes of overload and "too much" communication or the agony of disuse and "too little" communication. At one extreme is the manager's complaint, "A hundred urgent mail messages a day are driving me crazy." At the other is the frustrated executive who may be heard, long after the departments have been wired together, despairing, "Engineering and Manufacturing still are not talking to each other."

Not only are internal boundaries crossed by the new technology, but so are external ones. This raises new issues regarding what information can be shared and what is proprietary, and how to maintain the sanctity of company borders. At a time when organizations are increasingly looking to "strategic partnerships" with customers, vendors, and even competitors, as a way of competing effectively in the 1990s, these are critical questions.

From Connections to Intelligence

  • How do we turn connections into access?

  • How do we provide a framework for and navigate through information?

  • How do we capture organizational learning?

Internally or externally, the issue is moving from connections to access. The question, "How can I find what I want when I want it?" also raises the issue, "How can I control what I get and how can we control who sees what?" Without a map that people understand, connection to a vast information store is worse than useless because it wastes time and engenders frustration.

But with all these problems, there are also great opportunities. Because so much communication and information are online, the networked system captures much of the intelligence embedded in everyday work. Solutions to the navigation problem may also have value-added benefits of augmenting the organization's intelligence.

New Era of Distributed Groups

  • How do we support group productivity and group creativity?

  • How do we provide group rewards for group responsibility?

  • How do we develop the organization's networks?

"Can we work together without being in the same place?" Large-scale computer networks are breeding new kinds of distributed human groups. It seems so easy to hook everyone together and provide an environment where everyone is an equally short distance from everyone else. Now, companies are torn between the lure of distributed work and the conventional wisdom that high performance comes with co-location. Successful distributed networks cause us to reconsider the belief that "skunkworks" are the only path to innovation.

What is obvious is that traditional structures are far from ideal for managing distributed groups. Structures shaped by hierarchy and bureaucracy are often lost in the new enterprise systems. Some traditional leadership cues--like size of office, cut of suit, and steeliness of stare--lose their power online. Distance undermines many familiar management controls, while demanding new skills in using various media to motivate, coordinate, and persuade.

But there is hope. There are organizational structures suited to distributed work. People networks permeate the modern organization. It is now widely recognized that many informal networks thread through the formal structure, networks based on friendship, mutual support, interdependent exchanges, and job referral.

Less recognized but increasingly important are the "networks of work," the internal projects, teams, and task forces, as well as the external partnerships, associations, and consortia. Networks are not new, but their newly discovered importance coupled with the new technology requires that we learn how successful distributed groups function. What were once auxillary forms of organizational structure are now becoming indispensable ones, increasingly responsible for core operations and meeting strategic goals.

The Network Paradigm

The network paradigm is a product of its time. Networks connect people as well as devices. People networks use technology networks. When organizations are viewed in terms of their networks of work, their computer networks can be designed to support them.

By regarding both organization and technology as networks, we can bridge these two worlds, using a common language. This makes possible mutual and parallel development of both people and computer networks.

With the network paradigm, we can begin to answer the organization/technology questions of the 1990s.


Article provided by NetAge Inc., Newton, MA, USA.
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