Evolution of Networks:
The Stages of Human Organization
By Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
The Seybold Series, #8
- January 1990
In its essence, networking is a way of seeing and interpreting
the social world, a worldview. Our theory is a human lens crafted
to help us see what the eye cannot, reality at a wavelength outside
the electronic spectrum.
Since we cannot "see" social structure, we develop models
to help us interpret our experience and guide our actions. Over
millennia, humans have developed progressively more complex models
of organization. Through networking eyes, we can see the antecedents
of today's organizations in history and culture.
Stages of Human Organization
Networks are very old and very new. To understand what is new about
networks and how they are the new society of the Information Age,
it is important to see how old networking is and its fundamental
Hunting and Gathering Groups
Networking as "people connecting with people" may have
been the great human social invention of the ancient Hunting and
Gathering Age. Perhaps developing in parallel with the growing human
capacity for language, human tribes developed a level of cooperation
and coordinated action that enabled the species to spread throughout
Networking within and between small groups is an ancient human
skill, shared by all the peoples of the planet. It is the skill
that comes from within in our interpersonal relations as part of
a small group.
It is said that civilization began with the planting of a seed.
With the culture and technology of agriculture came a great Wave
of human change. Human groups suddenly increased in size, from tribal
groups of 20 or so to towns of 200, then cities of thousands. A
new form of human organization emerged, hierarchies.
Western civilization began in the great flood-plains of the Middle
East. Some theorists believe that the need for large-scale water
control led to the towering theocracies of Egypt and Mesopotamia,
great human hierarchies topped with a God.
In Japan, with mountainous terrain and narrow valleys, controlling
water to enable agriculture required close cooperation with many
small groups leading, perhaps, to a more decentralized form of hierarchy.
Rather than a sharp top with a paramount individual as is common
in the West, Japanese hierarchy tends to be blunt, a group of powerful
leaders. What held the feudal system together were bonds of personal
Actually, this form of a blunt hierarchy plays a little-recognized
but very important role in the West, best known as "old boy
networks," meaning the interconnected members of a controlling
The second great Wave of human change came in the centralization
of society and development of vast bureaucracies. In the West, bureaucracy
seemed to grow along with industry. Specialized, dependent, formal,
machine-like organization came with steam engines and assembly lines.
While the West was developing centralized administrations for urban
industrial centers, Japan was also centralizing its feudal system
in the Tokugawa era. Instead of Kings and Presidents as in the West,
however, Japan relied on "councils of elders," group rather
than individual leadership.
By the middle of the Industrial era in the late-eighteenth century,
departmental bureaucracies became formalized through constitutions
in both the West and Japan.
As we speed forward into our future, we are on the crest of the
next great Wave of human change based on new technologies and new
global circumstances. With this great change is coming new forms
of large-scale social organization. These are the global networks
Each form of organization has included the ones before. Small group
networks function with hierarchies. Hierarchies provide the framework
for bureaucracies. Today's global networks include hierarchy and
bureaucracy, rather than replace them.
Before considering further what is new about today's networks,
let's look at how hierarchies, bureaucracies, and networks come
together in a modern organization.
Modern Fire Organization
A network is a form of organization like hierarchy and bureaucracy.
Complex organizations todayówhether voluntary, business,
or governmentóhave aspects of all three forms of organization.
One example we believe is common to both Japan and the United States
is the local fire department. For three years in the 1970s we helped
the U.S. Department of Commerce set up America's first national
fire prevention agency. Japan's fire rate is one of the lowest in
the world. As you may know, the U.S. fire rate is by far the highest
in the world. Not a statistic we can be proud of.
In America, the fire-fighting part of the fire department is organized
in a strict, military hierarchy. When faced with the crisis
of actually fighting a fire, a well-trained unit following a chain
of command seems to be the optimal form of organization.
Another important part of every fire department is a bureaucratic
administration. This is the group of people concerned with building
inspections, codes, violations, water mains, and all other laws
and policies surrounding the control of fires.
A third, often neglected, part of American fire departments is
a network of prevention and educational efforts. At the simplest
level, this means the voluntary cooperation of fire personnel with
other community organizations to spread fire safety information.
This is essentially small-group person-to-person networking.
Fire departments also network at the community-to-community
level. Although fire-fighting units are hierarchical, departments
come together as equals in regional "mutual aid" associations.
So, if one community has a very bad fire, other surrounding departments
will send direct aid, while departments on the periphery will move
up to fill in gaps left by the response. Here we have a network
Like other organizations, fire departments and professionals within
them also form peer-to-peer associations at the state (Prefecture)
and national levels to exchange information and influence policy
changes. Many of these are like the voluntary grassroots associations
dedicated to causes like the environment and the consumer.
Modern fire departments, found in every community throughout the
world, show the basic forms of human organization applied to a specific
function: hierarchical fire-fighting, bureaucratic codes, and networks
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.
Network organizations based on global media are appearing in grassroots
movements, large-scale organizations, and in everyday work. These
networks operate alongside, within, and between the hierarchy and
bureaucracy in any large organization.
Global media are leading to a global workforce and global work.