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 people-to-people origin.

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 the world.

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.

Agricultural Hierarchies.

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 loyalty.

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 elite.

Industrial Bureaucracies

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.

Information Networks

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 emerging today.

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 of hierarchies.

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 of prevention.

Today's Organization

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.


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