A Network Vision:
Four Visions of Networking
by Jessica Lipnack and
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
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
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,
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
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.