CCK08 Week Five: Groups vs Networks vs Communities

collective decision making
Week 5 of the Connectivism MOOC is about the distinction between groups and networks. One of the key readings for the week was written by my friend Stephen Downes when he was obviously high on something (possibly New Zealand, which will do that to you).

The point of the lesson is to distinguish groups, which are apparently inherently homogeneous and hierarchical, from networks, which are apparently neither. Members of both are connected to each other. George Siemens asserts that most organized collective activity (like education) fails to recognize the identity of the selves within the collective. Rather than groups vs networks, he distinguishes collectives (in which the self is subsumed) from connectives (in which autonomy of self is retained).  “As we integrate our ideas and concepts with others'” he says, “and we extend them into some kind of collective activity, there is an important protection of self in which we retain our identity and our contributions.”

I thought this dichotomy rather interesting in the context of the diagram above (which Chris Corrigan and I collectively, or perhaps connectively, created) of the dynamic of decision making which moves from individual engagement and cognition through collective conversation and consensus and thence to individual action, following a Scharmer “U” pattern.

Are we not, I thought, iteratively and simultaneously collective and connective, producing some “work product” that is collective, that of the integrated group, and some that is connective, the individual acceptance of responsibility and resultant actions, whether they be done alone or with others?

George goes on to warn that groups will coerce individuals with deviant ideas to conform to the group norm, with the result that groups stifle innovation. Networks are positioned as the compromise in the continuum from highly diverse independent individuals and conforming, structured groups.

This model doesn’t jibe with what I’ve observed in workplaces throughout my life. Using the terminology of the Wisdom of Crowds, my experience has been that:

  • “crowds” that are diverse have particular talents (decision-making and prediction among them) that are better than that of either “expert” individuals or non-diverse groups;
  • innovation works best when there is a balance between creative thinkers and critical thinkers; and
  • groups and networks that do not share a common understanding of an issue spend most of their time and energy trying to find a common context, and often never get around to applying their abilities to finding solutions to the issue.

Can groups be dangerous? Of course. Groupthink has ruined many once-great companies. Cults are one of the scourges of civilization. Mobs, of organized criminals, religious zealots or drunken college students, can cause havoc and heartache and ruin lives.

But groups of people with a shared purpose and shared set of values and principles have also, as Margaret Mead has said, achieved important changes that would not have been possible any other way. They are what we call communities.

Networks are useful for the reasons explained in Granovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties”. They are ‘farm teams’ for the communities that you do your most important work with, the ‘trade routes’ between communities. They are often delightful, stimulating, and helpful when you need something in a hurry. But to me, networks are too loose, too fragmented to be communities or to accomplish any of the important things that communities can do.

Communities are connective and collective and only they can fully enable the powerful activities depicted in the graphic above. As I’ve said before, love, conversation and community are the essence of what it means to be human, alive,connected, part of all-life-on-Earth. 

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One Response to CCK08 Week Five: Groups vs Networks vs Communities

  1. sandra says:

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