Chairman Ed

Connecting people, ideas and processes

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Hierarchy, Networks and Tyranny

A friend and former business associate, Harry Stevens, or more formally Dr. Chandler Harrison Stevens, was an early pioneer in the use of online communications and processes for having greater participation. He conceptualized, and with the technical expertise of a partner, George Reinhard, created a software product for group communication called Participate. This all happened in the early 1980s and started on a public computer service called The Source.

Somewhere in that time Harry wrote a short poem that captured his thoughts about the power of online networks and the possibilities they provided for society. As you read it below, note the shift from industrial age mechanical metaphors to information agent computer metaphors.

THE NETWORKER’S CREED

I’d rather be a node in a network,

Than a cog in the gear of a machine.

A node is involved with things to resolve,

While a cog must mesh with cogs in between.

A cog in a niche can never question

An instruction from a superior.

It does what it’s told and seldom acts bold,

Except when bossing an inferior.

A node’s a crossing of lines of action,

And in the center there is inner peace,

Where choices are born and memories form

Mutual respect makes tyranny cease.

As I read this again after not having looked at it for a number of years, and as I think about it in terms of current social movements in many countries assisted and enabled by the Internet, I’m fascinated that even back then Harry was thinking about the power of these tools to impact tyranny.

Do you note the shift in values that Harry expresses as we move from hierarchy and mechanical metaphor to network and computer metaphor?  Much of what Harry expresses is about greater freedom. What lines speak to you about greater freedom?

Occupy Wall Street and Positional Leadership

I’ve been looking at the Occupy Wall Street movements through the lens of a network organization and feeling that traditional print and television media view it through the lens of a hierarchy.

 

The people on the street talk about it being “leaderless”. Viewed through the lens of a hierarchy that makes no sense, but from a network perspective it means there are no “positional” leaders. There certainly still are leaders, but that leadership is more likely based on energy, expertise and initiative then someone being given, or appointed to, the position. This is a situation of naturally emerging leaders versus designated leaders.

 

Because of my work with business executives I hear the changing demands being placed on businesses in an information-based economy. Expert speakers address my business groups and talk about the need for greater collaboration, flexibility and initiative in today’s business environment. There seem to be a lot of people involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement and its connected nodes in other cities who are demonstrating those qualities in great abundance.

 

There is a website called occupytogether.org created by two people who felt that there would be a need to make others aware of similar expressions of protest in other cities. No one told them to do this. No one authorized them. They just took the initiative. This is what has been preached in many businesses under the expression “it’s better to say you’re sorry then ask for permission”. Hierarchies may advocate that behavior, but they really have a difficult time adjusting to that kind of initiative. For a network it’s very natural.

 

Take a look at my note that contrasts hierarchies and networks in terms of characteristics. Do you see any other characteristics that apply in this situation?

The Military and Networks

A number of months after the 9/11 attacks I wrote my first op-ed item for a local newspaper. I explored the implications of calling this group of terrorist the Al Qaeda network. We did not call them the Al Qaeda bureaucracy or the Al Qaeda Army. We called them a network. I speculated in my newspaper item about the challenges of the traditional military hierarchy dealing with this new organizational form of a network.

Approximately 5 years later I stumbled upon a copy of the military counterinsurgency manual that had been recently produced by General Petraeus. I was intrigued to find a whole section that dealt with network organizations and how to understand them. The diagram below is one illustration from that section:

Counter Insurgency Manual Diagram

Counter Insurgency Manual Diagram

 

The military had learned that network organizations, terrorist or otherwise, are about relationships. The traditional organizational chart was not the tool that would help them understand a network organization.

Sometime in the mid-1980s I was exploring ways to represent a network organization. Since I studied electrical engineering, I was familiar with the idea of networks, but had not thought about them in an organizational sense until I was first introduced to that concept in April 1985.

I started trying to make a model. I tried using ping-pong balls and straws and strings and other such items, but I was not satisfied. I finally assembled a series of small plastic eggs of different sizes and colors and connect them with a series of rubber band of differing elasticity. I then had a three-dimensional model of a network that I thought more accurately reflected what I was learning from a new professional group I was part of called the Electronic Networking Association.

The plastic eggs represented individuals with the colors representing different personality types or learning styles. The rubber bands represented the relationships with the elasticity representing the strength of the relationship. With this more dynamic, three-dimensional model it was easier to get a sense of what would happen if one individual in a network attempted to move in a particular direction. The relationships would either bring other members of the network along in the same direction or they would show the strains of someone attempting to move in a way that was not followed by other members of the network.

Having a model that was three-dimensional and dynamic felt more appropriate. A two-dimensional paper diagram can fool our thinking into perceiving an organization as something that is static and not dynamic. Computer graphic modeling techniques could perhaps better represent that today than my makeshift model, but I am not really sure if I have seen anyone do that yet. I would like to see someone create a piece of software that could model organizational relationships as both three-dimensional and dynamic. I would also like to see such software be able to be used by a group of people planning an organizational change in an interactive process.

Have you seen representations of network organizations in other forms? Do you know of software that can be used to model organizational dynamics and change?