A Network Vision:

Four Visions of Networking

by Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
The Seybold Series, #7 - December, 1989

Networks are peers linked for a purpose. Networking is action through a network. Our vision of networks is rooted in their past, cognizant of current opportunities, and oriented to their future. Ancient human skills drive the vision of personal participation. Today's challenge is learning to do globally distributed work. Tomorrow's challenge is to create smarter groups. And, threading through these views, is the vision of a network science.

(1) Vision of Personal Participation

There is immense power in networks composed of myriad people voluntarily interacting to effect a common cause. Networks emerge as people engage with others based on their values.

Networks are egalitarian. Purpose, peers, and peer-to-peer relationships are the basis of people networks. Networks are a form of democracy, based not on representation but upon direct participation.

Egalitarian does not mean there is no leadership in networks. Indeed, in successful networks, there are many leaders. Network leadership is plural and flexible. There is more opportunity for people to be leaders since networks need more leaders more often than hierarchies and bureaucracies.

Networks link work to personal values, the most compelling source of motivation without coercion. Leadership in a network cannot depend upon force or policies for control. It is the appeal to shared values and common purpose that binds a network. People feel good about contributing in a network, feel valued by peers, and have an increased sense of self-worth.

"Peer-to-peer" also describes the key network relationship between the individual and the group. The "citizen" and the "state" are equals in networks. Autonomy and participation are complements. Networks support the independence, integrity, and creativity of their members. At the same time, they serve the human need to be needed, to be part of a group, to feel secure with others.

It is this interdependent relationship between the individual and the group that is fundamental for a global network philosophy. In the West, it is the individual that is emphasized; networking becomes a way to build new cooperative structures without losing individual creativity and initiative. In the East, it is the group that is emphasized; networking becomes a way to let people expand their identity and take more responsibility without losing group creativity and harmony.

Networking is a natural way for people to work and function in groups, but new skills and ways of thinking about groups are needed to take advantage of the transforming technologies of our time.

(2) Vision of Globally Distributed Work

The great promise of today's networks is accomplishing work with physically distributed groups, work traditionally done by people "in the same place."

Through distributed networks, people can "think globally and act locally." By linking together physically dispersed peersówhether people, groups, organizations, or countriesólocal interests can engage in global purposes. Local and global are complements in networks, both intrinsically important.

Global businesses, for example, are becoming networked organizations to meet competitive pressures requiring ever-increasing speed, flexibility, and access. Large-scale networks of small groups of people can acquire a worldwide geographic sensitivity, enabling a perspective on overall world trends, while at the same time being aware of and attentive to local differences. Distributed work offers flexible use of resources, access to limited resources, and load-balancing.

Human resources in particular are benefited in a globally networked organization. Access to a global workforce will go from being a value-added convenience today to an absolute necessity tomorrow. By being able to draw on a broadly-based resource pool, networks also have access to a richer and more diverse skill set than can be available to a colocated group.

Speed in getting new work started, and speed in dissolution upon completion of a purpose, is significantly enhanced by organizational structures that tap people's skills while largely leaving them physically in place. This flexibility translates into more responsiveness and a shorter "time to market."

Both the organization and the individual benefit from distributed work. A networked workforce is a happier and less stressed workforce. By greatly reducing the pressures for relocation, the costs in dollars, family stability, and community support are enormously relieved.

Natural networksówhether informal, voluntary, or businessóare based on interaction, which traditionally has been face-to-face. That historical truth must be incorporated into the new realities of people interacting through global technology networks. In networks, high-tech and high-touch come together. People are happier because distributed work requires personal commitment to a project, and thus some alignment of team goals with individual goals.

Networks promote consensus. By encouraging participationóacross geographic, functional, or other organizational boundariesópeople are a part of group plans and decisions. This enables members to then effectively act locally to accomplish the group's global purposes. People have increased potential for broad exposure, visibility, and responsibility.

Work-at-a-distance is not only about doing better business. It is also about how we can collectively address the really big issues of our time. People are, after all, naturally distributed around the planet and cannot, by definition, come together face-to-face in one place.

Only by learning how to do networked work can all parties effected by a complex problem come together to solve it. And only by creating effective networks to solve our collective problems can humanity avoid the inevitable alternative of authoritarian control.

In combining our knowledge of face-to-face interaction with the new opportunities for global networks, we seek to make routine work-at-a-distance at least as effective as colocated work. However, even now, distributed groups may be smarter and more effective than colocated groups, depending on the nature of the project. Any complex project, for example, benefits from good articulation of purpose and explicit planning. While these are characteristics distributed teams must have just to survive, a colocated group may be more apt to just "muddle through."

But we are looking ahead to when a distributed network is routinely more effective than a traditionally-organized work group.

(3) Vision of Smarter Groups

Human evolution progresses by substituting brain for brawn.

We see the possibility of much smarter groups as new forms of human networks integrate with the electronic world of technology networks. Remember! Only a few generations of humans have had electronic (instantaneous) communications, and only now are we launching groups linked with the historically unique digital (cognitive) technology of computers.

Networks are the organizations of tomorrow at work today.

Networks are growing in scope, developing new patterns, and sprouting everywhere. This growth is driven by cultural and technology changes, the millennia-scale shifts from Hunting-Gathering to Agriculture to Industry to the now-becoming Information Age.

In the broad cultural context, global networks are being stimulated and shaped as the sociological response to electronic and digital technology. They are the unique response to the driving forces of information, just as hierarchy developed in the Agricultural Era and bureaucracy matured in the Industrial Era.

But we don't have to wait for tomorrow for smarter groups. Most people have at some time or another been a member of a group (family, community, work, volunteer) that really "clicks." Most people intuitively know that high group performance with tremendous personal satisfaction is possible. Moreover, some people have even had that experience online. Some amazing group experiences have happened with people who have little or no face-to-face contact, in digital places where space melts and time is instant.

The current effort to create groupwareósoftware designed for the group as the end user rather than individualsóis moving us every day closer to a quantum leap in group productivity. First, we need to develop computer-based tools to enable productive and effective distributed work, then we can extend those tools to enable smarter groups.

It may take only a little general improvement in people's ability to think and act collectively to have a great impact on all issues and problems that are addressed by groups. Networks are able to deal with the global problematique through smarter groups as well as distributed work.

(4) Vision of a Network Science

Networks are knowable. They may be grasped, studied, and started.

A common theory based on existing knowledge ties together our current visions of personal participation, distributed work, and smarter groups. More experience and accumulated knowledge will lead to tomorrow's network science and professional practice.

"Network" is a general concept like "system." Networks of molecules, neurons, waterways, transportation, radios, and computers share common features, such as nodes and links. The network idea is especially applicable to the human, particularly social, context. As we learn more about both people and technology networks, and bring together specialized network perspectives, we will find therein a potent set of fundamental network principles to help guide us.

Networks can really only be observed "in the field," yet are often quite intentionally created and have clearly measurable consequences, such as networks set up for business purposes. Thus, they are natural candidates for action research. Learning while doing also means that along with the principles will come an array of tools, techniques, tested processes, categorized experience, trained professionals, and other forms of applied knowledge.

We have taken some important first steps toward a network science. There is a theoretical model and a structured approach to creating effective networks. This is an iterative process of development with a broad scope, from teams to worldwide enterprises.

We now have network knowledge to use, test, and improve upon. Feeding back our accumulating experience, modifying our ideas and trying again, will give us a constantly improving science every step of the way. Eventually, successful network organizations will lead to new management principles that enhance all work and groups.

Networks are the organizations of tomorrow at work today.


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