The Architecture of Complexity:

A Network View

By Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
The Seybold Series, #9 - February, 1990


The key to understanding the significance of networks lies in the relationship between the part and the whole; that is, between the individual and the group, between smaller groups and larger groups, between members and their networks.

Hierarchy is a traditional way of organizing people into groups. It seems to work in some situations, and not in other situations. Underlying its success is a general principle. Underlying its failures is a narrow reliance on just one type of human relationship.

In human groups, the term "hierarchy" stands for two profoundly different concepts. One is the nesting of parts within wholes within larger wholes, the relationship of levels. In nature, these are levels such as cells that compose organs that make up living bodies. Second is "top-down" control, the relationship of vertical command.

Hierarchy (1) in the first sense of clustering and levels is a natural aspect of all forms of complex organization. However, hierarchy (2) in the second sense of a superior-subordinate status structure is but one of many possible forms of human relationships.

The first meaning of hierarchy, the principle of part-whole organization, cannot be over-emphasized. It is "the architecture of complexity," according to the Nobel Prize winning pioneer of information theory, Herbert Simon. To dramatize how important it is to natural evolution, Simon constructed a parable of two watchmakers, crafters of complexity.

Suppose each watch consists of 1000 pieces. The first watchmaker constructs the watch as one operation assembling a thousand parts in a thousand steps. The second watchmaker builds intermediate parts, first 100 modules of 10 parts each, then 10 subassemblies of 10 modules each, then a finished watch out of the subassemblies, a somewhat longer processó110 steps longer.

It would seem that constructing a watch in a single sequential process would progress faster and produce more watches. Alas, life being what it is, we can expect some interruptions. Stopping to deal with some environmental disturbance, like a customer, the watchmaker puts down the pieces of an unfinished assembly.

Each time the first watchmaker puts down the single assembly of 1000, it falls apart and must be started anew, losing up to 999 steps. Interrupting the second watchmaker working on a module of 10 using hierarchical (in the first sense) construction means a loss of at most 9 steps.

For organizing complexity, the moral is this: taking a few extra steps in the short run, saves many steps in the long run.

In anything less than an environment of no change, the second watchmaker will be much more successful in finishing the complex whole. Using an elegant mathematical demonstration, Simon shows how dramatically more successful the modular-levels principle is in producing stable and flexible complexity. Nature, he says, must use this principle. And, indeed, systems scientists have extensively documented this level pattern of organization, whether physical (such as particle, atom, and molecule), biological (like the example of cell, organ, and body), social (for example, local, regional, and national government), or technological (one example is phones, local exchanges, and long-distance networks).

Networks and Hierarchy

Successful networks, like all complex organization, will reflect the hierarchy (1) structure. In a typical national voluntary organization you can clearly see these levels of structure. First there are people grouped together locally. These local chapters may be very diverse in size and structure. Local groups form into regional associations. National coalitions form out of regional associations. International alliances grow from national coalitions. Here, action at each level is important. Initiative comes from "below" as well as "above." Grassroot decisions can lead to national and international policies.

Networks are clustered and multi-leveled. In this respect, they are like social hierarchies. Level structure is critical to understanding the potential of networks of the future, as flexible forms of complex organizations. "Flat" is not an appropriate metaphor for decentralized networks. Networks are lumpy.

It is the second meaning of hierarchy, the exclusively superior and subordinate relationships, that marks the profound difference between traditional hierarchy and networks.

Part/Whole as Yin/Yang

In networks, peer-to-peer relationships predominate. This is not only for the relations between members of a network, but in the structural relations between the members as parts and the network as a whole. Members and networks, parts and wholes, are complements.

In networks, individual and group are yin and yang. The individual is not subordinated to the group. Nor is the group secondary to individual interests. Individual and group are equally important, but the relationship is one of energetic tension constantly changing to meet new situations.

While yin and yang can take on unbalanced superior-subordinate forms, the more natural situation is when yin and yang are equally powerful, but different.

It is society that assigns a dominating importance to superior-subordinate relations. One example is the traditional Chinese set of five basic relationships: ruler/subject, father/son, husband/wife, elder brother/younger brother, and friend/friend. Of five types of relations, only one is peer-to-peer, friendship.

In the now-emerging Information Age, peer-to-peer relationships are multiplying and diversifying. Relationshipsóbetween co-workers, classmates, professionals, spouses, and volunteersówill increasingly be lateral rather than up-down. This tendency is linked to a strong underlying drive from information technologies towards peer-to-peer relations. Each phone and fax are equal on the network. On a computer network, each address is the same, whether a president's or a clerk's.

East vs. West

East and West are moving to network organizations from complementary directions. In the East, the whole group has historically been considered more important than individuals. In the West, we put more emphasis on the individual, the social part, than the whole group. Thus, we find ourselves explaining networks in the U.S. as a way of developing more cooperative and group-oriented organization without diminishing the importance of individuals. We emphasize the group in seeking a balance with individualistic thought.

In Japan, we found, the need is just the opposite. Networking becomes a way to foster personal development, enhancing individual creativity, initiative, and responsibility without diminishing the traditional importance of the group. In Japan, networkers emphasize the role of individuals in seeking a balance with group-oriented thought. This may be a major difference between Japanese networking and American networking.

Networking is a global philosophy. It has roots in the changing human condition, growing from opposing needs in East and West to a dynamic merger in the future.


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