Chairman Ed

Connecting people, ideas and processes

Category Archives: Network Organizations

Network Organization Concepts and Tools

I am continuously looking for information that gives some indication of the development of tools and concepts related to new organizational forms, particularly network organizations.

I recently came across the TED video of a presentation by John Maeda, the president of Rhode Island School of Design. Although the video makes a number of interesting points about art, creativity and technology, two particular items related to network organization stood out for me.

His two column list from the video, shown below, contrasts two styles of leadership, Authoritative and Creative. For me, the list also reflects two styles of organization, hierarchical and network. This list is about the person and a similar list I produced in this earlier entry of mine contrasts characteristics of the organizational form.

Authoritative Leader Creative Leader
Symbol of Authority
More Sticks
Linear Path
Plan and Execute: Launching with 1.0
Sustaining Order
Yes or No (clear)
Literal in Tone
Concerned with Being Right
Think like a General or Conductor
Delegates Actions
Closed System
Close the Ranks
Follows the Manual
Loves to Avoid Mistakes
Orchestra Model
Community in Harmony
Wants to be Right
Open to Limited Feedback
Your Opinion Matters
Symbol of Inspiration
More Carrots
Nonlinear Path
Iterate and Do: Living in Beta
Taking Risks
Maybe (comfort with ambiguity)
Metaphorical in Tone
Concerned with Being Real
Think like an Artist or Designer
Hands-On Driven
Open System
Improvises when Appropriate
Loves to Learn from Mistakes
Jazz Ensemble
Community in Conversation
Hopes to be Right
Open to Unlimited Critique
What are You Really Thinking?

In the TED video at about 12 minutes, John Maeda demonstrates a software tool that provides ways to make the network of relationships within an organization apparent. It appears to be an interesting combination of network organization diagram and functions and skills that can be hidden or made visible based on the view you desire.

He seems to be realizing that organizational authority is changing, and he is experimenting with ways to put these realizations into practice. But, he is still trapped by the restrictions of the hierarchical organization he heads and all of the behaviors that are expected of him in his traditional role. He is advancing the cause of this new way of working, and organizational form, and he is also making it obvious that there is a long way to go before we understand the tools and behaviors necessary to fully benefit from network organizations.

Have you seen any similar information that illustrates concepts or tools related to network organizations?

Who Is That in the Video Talking about Network Organizations?

Thanks to Jeff Tintle, president of THRIVE Media  I have my first Internet video interview.  Jeff produces a number of magazines including Lehigh Valley Entrepreneur TV

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.


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 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?

Hybrid Organizations – Part Hierarch, Part Network

It has been my observation that when society transitions from one set of concepts to another we often use hybrid, or bridging, concepts to help us in that transition. For example, we currently are talking about e-books, which are a hybrid of something old, “books”, and something new, “electronic”. We know we’re inventing something new here, but we don’t know what it is going to look like yet.


What I’m calling a hybrid organization is a similar bridging concept, like my hybrid car. My hybrid car is a step toward an electric/electronic vehicle – an e-vehicle. How, and if, we get to fully electric vehicles and the  infrastructure necessary to support them is still undefined, but many people are bringing forth their ideas and products as steps to create a more concrete definition.


I believe we are in a similar process in terms of creating network organizations. Many people are working on the Internet tools that can become the infrastructure for supporting network relationships and organizations. Social networks are a part of this process.


One of my beliefs about the value of a network organization over a hierarchy is that it can scale to larger size. In an era of increasing globalization we will need organizations of sufficient size to span the globe and potentially have millions of people involved in the organization. Hierarchies with their need to add additional levels as they increase in size become less responsive, because things have to move through channels or chain of command, which continues to lengthen.  Go back to my Shaky Pyramid post and think about what that diagram looks like as you keep on adding more layers.


In terms of scaling think about Facebook. It currently handles something in excess of 750 million users. To support all those users it has about 2000 staff members, or one staff member for each 375,000 users. Now imagine that every one of those users was part of the same organization and not simply using the system for chitchat. What if instead of Facebook it was “No Book University” with a global learning community of 750 million people?


Perhaps in that light, we could see Facebook as a hybrid organization, a small hierarchy that creates and manages the infrastructure and a very large network organization of learners, facilitators and teachers. Can you imagine that scale of a learning organization with these tools? Now try imagining what the organization chart would look like for a hierarchical organization that might have that same scale. Do you think it’s possible for a hierarchy to function at that scale?

Image of a Network Organization

Connecting Minds

At the same time that the drawing for the “shaky pyramid” in the last post was created, this drawing was made to illustrate a network organization. In both cases I was pleasantly surprised by the artist’s choice for illustrating these ideas, based on very sketchy information that I provided.


In a very real way this illustrates the electronic connection, and energy flow, that is the Internet. It is a way of connecting minds, which is illustrated here by only having people’s heads.


This diagram also makes apparent in graphic form some of the characteristics of a network organization when comparing it to a traditional hierarchy as illustrated in a previous post.  It is more apparent that in this form there are no “rigid levels” as there are in a hierarchy.  It is not “position” based. Rather it is a “relationship and bandwidth” oriented.

It is also obvious it is more about “brain” than it is about “muscle”.  I recall reading an article that critiqued the state of Pennsylvania, where I live, because people tended to talk more about someone being “a hard worker” or “working hard” than “working smart”. To me working smart implies more learning and more education – more brain power – while working hard implies more physical effort and muscle.  Does this way of expressing ourselves lead us to undervalue education and learning? Would our public support for education be much stronger if more of our informal conversation was in admiration of people who work smarter?

The Shaky Pyramid of the Hierarchical Organization

Looking at the Hierarchical Organization from the Outside

When I first started to learn about, and think about, alternative organizational forms, one of my explorations was to have an artist produce some images that I used in public presentations. This is one of illustrations which the artist generated, and that got me thinking about the hierarchical organizations that I had worked within.


The guy at the top has a great view. He can see further out than anyone else, but his head can be in the clouds. He really needs to keep everybody else in line or his position is at risk. The folks at the bottom are well grounded, but have very little freedom. If they should all decide to leave at once, the pyramid is in jeopardy, which is why unions are so powerful, sometimes.


Some people look like they can only deal internally with others in the pyramid, while others might be able to see or communicate with people outside the pyramid. Moving forward is a real challenge of coordination otherwise things could get very shaky.


What other thoughts does this illustration generate for you, based on your experience in hierarchical organizations?

From Owner Managers to Networks

How the corporation evolved - March 3, 1986

This diagram is from Business Week magazine. It is another illustration of organizational evolution, here with the focus on the Corporation. This diagram predates the time when the Internet began to get major public attention around 1994. It illustrates how computer technology enables network organizational forms.

Organizational Forms Over Human History

Network Form Enabled and Needed in the Information Age

Illustration from Jeff and Jessica's Book Cited in Earlier Post

Here is one view of how organizational forms developed over human history. The “information age” both enables and requires the network organization as a new form. It enables it because of the continuing evolution of the Internet and the tools that are being developed for coordination and collaboration. It requires it because knowledge must be used where ever it is found in an organization, and it cannot be assumed only to be located where the organization chart says it should be.