Network Leadership:

Distributed Leadership in Distributed Groups

By Jean M. Sullivan
The Seybold Series, #6 - November, 1989


Some see networks as just a bunch of friends getting together to share information or to make contacts. Or, as volunteers cooperating on an issue, or participants in a self-help group.

These natural social networks exist inside as well as outside organizations. Now organizations are consciously using the network form to get more focused, time-dependent work done. To do this, leadership is required.

Whoa, just a minute. Leadership in a network? Does that make sense? It is a common misconception that networks are leaderless. In fact, successful networks have multiple leadership.

Networks have, and need, varying amounts of leadership. Their basic structure encourages the development of many leaders. Our model for people networks includes people nodes, relationship links, and the purpose, that which binds the whole thing together. Leadership in a network effects all three components. Network leadership is drawn from the nodes, is responsible for the effective creation and functioning of the links and is central to the articulation of purpose.

Individuals participate in a social network because they are personally interested in the subject or cause. When they have that personal interest, the energy they invest, their motivation, comes from inside, not from an outside source telling them what to do.

Formal organizations, recognizing the power of internal motivation, are trying to harness that energy for use in the workplace. What was never available before, however, is the technological support that allows people never likely to meet in the hallway, to meet in the electronic hallways and conference rooms of the company's communications infrastructure.

But a business can't just sit around waiting for a network to form. When there's a job to be done and the people to do it are spread all over the globe they have to create a flexible and adaptive network of people, with support technology, to respond to that need.

In the beginning of a self-organizing network, the person with the "idea" often goes out as a missionary, converting followers to his/her point of view. He or she acts as the spark plug to the network and is absolutely essential in the network's initial stages. Face-to-face meetings create the environment within which commitment to the issue or group's goal is formed and validated.

When a network is intentionally used to get work done within an organization, the order often comes from the top down, a directive that certain tasks need to be accomplished. If the people necessary to do the job are geographically and organizationally distributed, alternative ways of attaining commitment and helping the group to come together must be found.

Networks of people and technology permeate organizations large and small. They stand beside and within hierarchy and bureaucracy to provide an alternative and flexible way to work. Networks within those organizations must respond to the needs of the hierarchy, recognizing multilevel structures. It must also respond to the needs of the bureaucracy, recognizing the importance of appropriate distribution and use of time and resources.

Multiple Leadership

In the beginning of a network, an initial leader may need to be appointed, just to get things started.

Over time, the leadership needs of a network, no matter how it began, begin to change. Members are recruited or drawn to the network for their expertise and interest in a specific area, for their skills. They must stand up and lead the group as the task demands.

For example, if a team in a high-tech company is charged with developing a new product, the engineer in the group better take the reins during the architecture phase. When it comes to reporting back to the hierarchy on the group's work, the member with the best writing and presentation skills should be ready to contribute. And, when it comes to marketing, the "business-head" in the group will be in charge. Each of these members participates throughout the entire process, but they "lead" the group whenever necessary, within their realm of expertise.

Each individual is called upon to contribute their expertise and skills to enable the network to meet its potential. When one participant fails to work to their greatest potential, it stunts not only the individual's growth, but also the growth and potential of the group as a whole.

Network Manager

The network manager (or coordinator, or facilitator) has been identified as a critical role within network structure. Just as technology networks have managers, so must a distributed, networked group of people.

Take the case of a business issue that is going to need broad participation and specialized expertise. The approach is to recruit a network of globally distributed team players. The best and the brightest from throughout an organization will be linked together without having to relocate, using a full range of technologies. An All-Star team, they may have this assignment on a part-time basis, being participants in other teams as well.

But this is a new game. Players need to learn (and sometimes make-up) the rules as they go along. It's a scary place to be, out there in electronic left field.

So what does this All-Star team need? A coach. Someone not playing, but who's expert at how to play the game and the process involved in creating an All-Star team. Ideally, the coach would go out knowing what the team needs, and recruit. Once the players are identified the coach negotiates with the home-team for that player's time and commitment. As play begins, the coach knows each player's strengths and weaknesses and has the environment ready for that team to learn to work well together--their common goal very clearly defined.

In globally distributed work, team members may be separated by miles, organizational divisions, cultural differences, rungs in the hierarchy, and world views. It is the role of the network manager to bridge those gaps. To provide the communications pathways that cross the miles. To intercede where organizational barriers threaten the work. To understand and respond to cultural differences. To use vertical differentiation to the advantage of the group. And, to encourage diversity, enriching the group's perspective.

The network manager facilitates the communications of the group. This means employing methods from no-tech face-to-face to high-tech conferencing, using a range of support and technologies. In the case of face-to-face, that may mean a lot of one-on-one to begin with, then the linking up of individuals that should work together. When face-to-face meetings are possible, skills in meeting facilitation are necessary.

Electronic media are what makes distributed group work increasingly feasible. They allow communication in real time across great distances and time zones. The network manager must have skills in moderating the communication of online applications with multiple users. The moderation role begins with an understanding of a range of technologies and the ability to determine their appropriate use.

The network manager acts as liaison between the network and the "outside world." The network manager sets up not only the communications pathways between the members of the group, but also the communication of the group back to the formal hierarchy and larger organization.

One function of the network manager is to communicate the vision for the project to the group, particularly at the start. They must be able to relate that vision to the larger organization's purpose and help the group translate that vision into specific goals, strategies and objectives.

The role of the network manager will change as the group develops. At the beginning, the network manager will play a real leadership role, explaining the purpose of the project, clarifying the group's objectives, and setting up the communications pathways that are necessary. The network manager will lead the group into the process. But once the process takes hold and jells, the network manager role changes to one of encouraging others to take leadership roles as indicated by the work.

The network manager leads the group to distributed leadership. He or she takes the lead in establishing a process that has each individual playing a part in the leadership of the group.

As the work progresses, each member needs to search out and recognize the ways that they can contribute, the ways that they can lead the group. It is the responsibility of the network manager to recognize and encourage the development of potential leadership. It is the responsibility of each member of the network to recognize and respond to their chance for leadership.

The network manager is responsible for making sure that major milestones are met. Once the team is in place, the network manager must communicate the work to be done, receive commitment from each member on the tasks that they will take responsibility for, then make sure the work gets done. Especially in teams where commitment may only be part-time, it is very easy for the group to ignore the schedule. This means a constant process of follow-up to make sure the members are following through on their promises.

As the all-star team practices together, and really becomes a "team," the coach backs-off and sends them out to play the game. The players know their positions, have the skills they need to play those positions well, and know that they can depend on the other players.

The role of the network manager may be seen as a new job description, or as a set of skills that managers, in general, need to develop and begin applying. Networks and distributed work are recognized increasingly as the way of the future in getting work done. We should expect that leadership roles, and the skills needed to be most effective, will increasingly change.


Jean M. Sullivan, Project Consultant Networking Institute, Inc., a research and consulting company in West Newton, Massachusetts.


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