A Network Model:

How to See Both People and Technology Networks


Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
The Seybold Series #4 - September, 1989


Market research shows that CEO's today are struggling with human resource issues, not technology issues. The biggest customers of major hardware vendors, those most computerized and networked, are demanding answers to business and organizational questions raised by the technology.

"How do I work in the new distributed environment? "How do I manage in it?" "How can the company as a whole become more distributed, flexible, and responsive?" New questions at all levels of the organization.

Networking promises to overcome age-old barriers to cooperative work, the shear impact of physical distance on natural communication and collaboration. But "networking," the verb, the action, the "doing something," does not automatically come with "networks," the noun. Just installing technology is not enough. It's how people use it that counts.

People (net)working together all too often fails to occur on the networks. Companies fail to benefit from the potential of a computer-based communications glue that ties the enterprise together. Yet the emerging success stories of incredibly successful distributed work indicate that new ways of working are possible.

Networks and networking can bridge the gap between organizations and technology. By viewing organizations as networks, alongside our conventional views of them as hierarchies and bureaucracies, we have a natural language for mapping onto technology configurations. Or, more importantly, a way of understanding human organization so that technology can be configured to support people.

A Network Definition

For a decade the Networking Institute, Inc. has been studying people networks, from volunteer groups and social movements to distributed businesses and high-tech teams. People networks, we have learned, have the same structure as technology networks

In 1985, as the networking boom was just beginning, Digital Equipment Corporation put out a marketing booklet called Networking: The Competitive Edge, and defined a network this way:

A network comprises two or more intelligent devices (computer systems, intelligent terminals, and intelligent peripherals) linked in order to exchange information and share resources.

Leaving out the now dated parenthetical specifics, DEC's definition shows three essential elements of a network: nodes, links, and purpose. Networks are nodes linked together.in order to do something, to achieve a purpose.

Nodes are the things, the centers of activity. Links are the relationships, the connections between nodes. Purpose, the "in order to," is the critical ingrediant in bringing nodes and links alive as a coherent unity.

Technology Networks

In technology networks, wire, cable, microwave and other links, together with the supporting hardware, constitute the traditionally narrow view of "the network." But wires by themselves are nothing; the network as a whole includes the devices, the boxes from mainframes to PCs, that are connected. And, critically, it includes the applications run on the network, the work processes that embody the "in order to" that is the raison d'etre of the network.

While vendors might be selling wires, boxes, and software separately, their customers are trying to run the result as an integrated whole. When a user sits down and logs on, it is how the network works as a whole that matters.

Organizational Networks

In organization networks, people and groups are the nodes. People individually are linked in networks, both in small groups and in large-scale associations. And, organizational networks may span multiple levels, where small groups are linked together into a larger project or businesses join associations of their peers.

Relationships are the links between people and groups. Organizational networks are perceived in terms of patterns of interaction that support human relationships. While it is notoriously difficult to "see" or quanitify relationships, interaction can be observed. Interaction, in turn, depends upon communication, which is very physical and very concrete.

Organizational purpose is expressed through goals. It is a clear and shared purpose that is the motivational glue that holds an organizational network together. Without purpose, a people network will fail to jell. Without renewed and sustained goals, a human network will disintegrate.

Only people who think for themselves can internalize goals and act to benefit a larger shared purpose without coercion or detailed policies. The decision-making and competence required of people working successfully in a network echos the "intelligence" required of networked technology devices. In both people and technology networks, the nodes have an independence and autonomy of action separate from their cooperation as part of a successful network.

A Common Language

Nodes, links, and purpose--these concepts provide a common language for understanding organizations and information technology. Nodes are people and devices. Links are relationships and wires. Purposes are goals and applications.

For a technology company, network language provides a way to leverage technical knowledge to bridge the gap to organizational understanding. For their customers, and for themselves as companies of people, network language provides a new way to look at the organization, one that supplements traditional hierarchical and bureaucratic views.

Seeing an organization as distributed work processes and networks of people provides a natural configuration template for technology networks, and a challenge to the need for fundamental technology flexibility in adapting to changing people patterns.

The network is a powerful conceptual model, a tool for thinking about technology and people issues. At the top level the model can be expressed with a handful of essential elements--nodes, links, and purpose. This provides a mental model for grasping the distributed complexities of organizations of all sizes, just as a tree diagram serves as a mental model for authority structures of all sizes.

Networks can be the size of nations in international federations, and are a natural model for multinational corporations, industry associations, distributed work teams, Old Boys, and friends.

General Networks

Networks, like systems, have an abstract general structure. That is, the conceptual framework applies to more than one domain of knowledge, in this case organizations and technology. The value of general models is the role they play in integrating knowledge from conceptually different worlds, bridging gaps.

While the concept of "system" has flourished in the technology arena, in the social world it has developed primarily in its "closed" form with a rigid structure. Organizationally, "The System" carries connotations of an "opaque" massive structure that ensnarls and oppresses individuals. In a system, the parts tend to get lost in the whole. It's the whole that's important.

A network is a naturally transparent and open system. Its parts, the nodes, the objects, are clearly differentiated and have an internal integrity. Relationships are a fully visible and acknowledged part of tying the nodes together as a whole. And through its multiple communications loops, a network has natural feedback characteristics and cybernetic goal-seeking abilities, purposefulness even at the level of thermostat in a house.

When the network model is used to describe associations of people, it is the centers of activity and the communications patterns that predominate. This is not to say that authority structures and policy patterns are not important, only that the network viewpoint provides additional value and another way to grasp the complexities of human beings working together.

Flexible networks address core human resource issues. Networks provide a way of designing and managing distributed work, finding and using people and skills where they are and when they are needed, load-balancing and reducing relocation stress. Successful networks tap into the primal source of motivation, individual values and participation.

The network idea has been around for centuries. Now, it is finding new application as a strategy for seeing the future at work today. As our only-decades-old transition from industrialism to the Information Age continues to accelerate, networks will become increasingly important.


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