The Military and Networks
October 8, 2011
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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
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?