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 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
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 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.