The Dynamics of Social Networks

my networks
Social networks are by nature complex phenomena — they can never be fully known or understood, and there are an infinite number of variables that affect their evolution and their success or failure. My observation is that they are also very fragile — while some ‘bonds’ of a network may be eternal or resilient, most networks as a whole seem to be in a constant state of flux, and easily disrupted. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is, and what might be done to make whole networks more resilient and more effective.
Dave Snowden has pointed out that our networks do not include us as individuals, but rather as identities. This means that you may have people networking with you in your various identities e.g. as a parent, as a co-worker, as a member of a project etc. He says we have both formal (formed for us) and informal (self-organized) manifestations of each of three different types of identity:
  • role based (e.g. as CIO or as acknowledged facilitator)
  • membership based (e.g. as employee in a division or as cohort of some association)
  • event or project based (e.g. as part of a project team or as player in a pick-up game)
Dave argues that informal, self-selected, self-organized networks tend to be more effective than formal networks, for various reasons such as greater trust and less hierarchy. But while formal networks can be controlled and directed to some extent by those with appropriate authority, informal networks are much harder to influence. The best way to stimulate and influence them is through what Dave calls boundary conditions (or rules), attractors and barriers, instituted early in the network’s evolution.
To be effective, informal networks need to have (I’ve amplified Dave’s list somewhat here):
  • a complex, shared problem, and either a sense of urgency to address it or a strong affinity to make it durable if the problem endures (e.g. the Toronto Maple Leafs’ failure to put together a decent team for its fans)
  • a means to measure success, so that progress can be assessed
  • meaningful (to the members) rewards to belong and contribute
  • some constraints on the formation and membership to prevent it becoming uselessly elitist, hopelessly conflicted, an echo chamber, or unwieldy (Dave says the ‘natural limit’ of a network is 15)
So, for example, if you have identified a customer need in your enterprise, but you are stuck because of some limitations of current technology, you may try to establish or join a network of people, perhaps around the world in different organizations and capacities, who care about that particular technology constraint. In this case success is easy to measure — you either invent or discover something that overcomes that constraint or you don’t. Some members will tell stories about what they have been doing or read about. Others will just lurk — they may not have enough to contribute but be waiting to jump as solutions and approaches to the problem emerge. If you add an attractor ( e.g. a prize) you may get some members to work harder on the problem. If the network gets too small to be doing much, or too short on diversity of members, or too large to keep track of who’s doing what, it may dissolve or fragment. You may be able to impose some constraints on membership to keep this from happening.
This is an example of an informal network that attracts members based on their interest in the specific project, i.e. it is project-based rather than role- or membership-based. Once an effective solution to the technology problem has been found, it is unlikely that the network will endure.
Blog networks probably combine all three types of identity basis: Some people will ‘join’ (e.g. subscribe to a blog’s feed and comment regularly) because they have role affinity — other knowledge management directors or consultants, for example, subscribing to a KM blog. Some will be attracted by membership affinity — a shared belief in or love of something, such as Gaia, or vintage cars. Some will be drawn by project/event affinity — getting Obama elected, for example. My blog covers so much diverse territory that it creates dissonance for some readers ( e.g. those who love my practical articles on KM but loathe my political views). The networks of people it attracts are not always congruent (though I’m surprised and delighted how often they are).
Role affinity draws principally on shared or related actions and behaviours. Membership affinity draws principally on shared beliefs or passions. Project/event affinity draws principally on shared objectives.
What makes informal networks so fragile is that our identities are constantly changing. If I move from a job as Chief Knowledge Officer to one as Facilitator, it’s likely to affect which networks I select to belong to. If I give up on the political process, I’m likely to abandon networks whose members still believe in it. Once the election is over, by campaign networks are likely to dissolve. Shared problems eventually lose interest or urgency, or are given up as insoluble, or get solved. Progress may become impossible to measure or impossible to achieve. Rewards may lose their lustre. Or despite membership constraints, the cohesion of the network may just dissipate to the point there is no focus or purpose left.
While informal networks are fragile, formal networks are, usually, ineffective. There is something in human nature that makes us object to being told who we must network with — it’s like being forced into an arranged marriage. Imposed formal networks depend on hierarchy and power, and on sanctions for refusing to work within the prescribed network. Given our affinity for sharing peer-to-peer, this means communication in formal networks is usually forced and dysfunctional — instructions go down and are (often) ignored, while data is extracted (often) begrudgingly and reported upward. We share knowledge only when and to the extent that we have to.
The most powerful phenomenon in formal networks is workarounds. These are the ways we find to do things effectively despite the formal networks pressuring us to do things (usually) ineffectively. It’s not that those high in the hierarchy want us to be ineffective. They just don’t know any better. They have never done our jobs so they don’t know the best way to do them. And because messengers are shot, they are not told what isn’t working or why, so their decisions are inherently flawed by lack of essential information.
Workarounds are what make the world work as well as it does, despite the dysfunctions of hierarchy and size. Courageous organizations (those that are small enough to be able to do it, anyway) recognize this by not establishing any formal networks, by having no hierarchy. They have no need for workarounds, just trust in people’s ability to figure out how to do their best given the constraints they have to live with.
This doesn’t just apply to the workplace. Family members learn that “it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission” from a domineering parent whose advice makes no sense. Likewise team members with a bad coach. Wherever there are formal networks, there will be workarounds to make them work better than they otherwise would.
All of this explanation of social network dynamics presumes that you subscribe (as I do) to what Lakoff calls the liberal-progressive worldview. Those who have a conservative worldview tend to prefer formality and hierarchy and organized order, and they would have written this article from a completely different point of view.
While they are welcome to do so, the fact is that there are, in many networks, formal and informal, conservatives. These people prefer formal networks to ‘messy’ informal ones. They like to be told what to do and how to do it by someone with the authority to do so, and they trust authority more than they trust the ability of their peers to make decisions. They loathe workarounds.
What does their presence do to the dynamics of a social network?
First, they will be reluctant participants in informal networks, hesitant to trust them. This will inevitably make informal networks less effective, or, more likely, because these conservatives will self-exclude from such networks, making them poorer for the lack of their knowledge, ideas and experience.
Secondly, they will attempt, with the best of intentions, to try to formalize informal networks (to add ‘discipline’ to them), to denigrate them when they run counter to the operation of formal networks, and to disable or at least formalize workarounds.
Third, their obedient success in the organization may make them pariahs among the by-passed informal networkers, and may well drive the informal networkers out of the organization entirely.
So what you end up with in many larger organizations are two modi operandi going on simultaneously and at cross-purposes: One group improvisationally and creatively finding the best way to do things by networking informally peer-to-peer, and working around imposed constraints, and the other trying desperately to make things work as they are ‘supposed’ to, according to the manual, the boss’ edicts, and the organization chart, trying to impose ‘best practices’ and block workarounds.
No wonder so many large organizations are such unhappy places, since the dissonance between these two ways of working must be infuriating to both groups. In fact, it is even more complex than that, because most of us sometimes see the value of doing things differently from our normal modus operandi: Liberal-progressives see the need for organizational rigour in areas where there is considerable risk, while conservatives see no harm in informal networks for some creative tasks or as an outlet for frustration with the organization’s rules.
And as liberal-progressives move up in the organization, they generally become more inclined to see the value in formal networks that can exercise their new power and authority (and by embracing them, they often find they move up even faster). Meanwhile, conservatives who’ve been around awhile start to learn what works in reality and what only works in theory, and may tend to become more accommodating of informal networks, workarounds, and those who beg forgiveness instead of asking permission.
They’re like the stern parent who discovers to his astonishment that, when the rebellious kids are given the chance to set their own rules, their self-discipline is far more stringent and effective than imposed discipline ever was.
Every once in awhile I take a look at my networks, formal and informal, and the different identities in which I find affinity with others. They are so complex and so dynamic that they cannot really be mapped. And what’s most fascinating is that, if I asked the people in my networks (in their various identities) to map how they saw their networks involving me, I’m sure they would be utterly different from how I would draw them. Dave who?
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1 Response to The Dynamics of Social Networks

  1. Isn’t that sad, to think of each other as an identity rather than attempt to know the person as a whole? I’m of the liberal-progressive worldview, and I agree with less hierarchy and more trust. I think the biggest problem with conservative worldview today as it relates to networks is the new, tighter twist on the old Judeo-Christian-based definition of family. It saddens me to see that people don’t know how to be good neighbors anymore. Maybe they never did, except in old racial and religious identities. What does it serve to be impersonal, to look at everyone outside one’s tight little family unit as “other” and suspect? It makes us all less human.After six years of fear-based leadership in the US we have escalating violent crime in every city. There have been no new terrorist attacks, yet this is a more dangerous place to live than before. I don’t think choice in networks is the answer to why people resist working well in networks. The problem is in imagining we ever have much choice in our networks. Economics, genetics, culture, in some cases gender and even luck, all control our networks for us. The important choices are in how we handle the situations we’re in. If we mutually attempt to understand and know each other, we can make the compromises needed to work together, because we’ll understand the others’ needs and priorities. That takes honesty and trust in all directions, willingness to make it work, an understanding and acceptance of our interdependencies. Encourage honesty and trust in all directions (rather than only expecting trust up the hierarchy and calling that patriotism), and trust grows. Feed fear and reward lies, and all hell breaks loose. Compassion and mutual respect have to be at the heart of any sound relationship, which is what every network is. Until people realize that trust and love for one’s fellows belongs everywhere, not just inside our homes, the world will be at odds. This will be more difficult and more critical as world population grows.

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