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A “Network Perspective”

“Build Community!” “Social Media” “Twitter!” “Facebook” – the battle cries of a new generation in business, government and media. But what do these demands mean? What practical impact do they have?

Intuitively, we know that many people together are stronger than few people acting alone. Yet, in most walks of life we live in a linear value chain model dominated by “experts” and specialization. This means that almost every process in every organization tends to be hierarchal – dominated by people acting in well-defined roles, with presumed expertise, responsibility, and accountability.

For sure, command and control structures, and well-defined value chains are important and necessary. But standing alone they do not reflect the transformations taking place throughout the world – transformation built on the power of networks.

A network perspective

I first heard the term “network perspective” from well known network scientist, Valdis Krebs. I am sure that Valdis could provide even more clarity, but here is what I believe having “a network perspective” means.

Everything in the world is a network. Our families, work, church, communities, schools, partners, are all networks. And every process involves networks. Marketing, product innovation, governance, transparency, defense, health care, planning, manufacturing, education, and acquisition all require collective cooperation of network members, individuals.

Do you believe that every organization and every process within every organization in the world can be improved through inclusion – consumers, partners, employees, citizens- in collective problem solving and innovation? Is it important to leverage our networks? Can we accomplish business purposes better and faster? Can we arrive at better decisions in everything that we do? And are we doing it?

That is “a network perspective”. A network perspective simply is the recognition that networks permeate our lives, and when we incorporate members of our networks in decision-making, we arrive at better results. This is not a new concept. It is written about often. See Seth Godin (Tribes), James Surowiecki (Wisdom of Crowds), Rod Beckstrom, Ori Brafman, (Starfish and the Spider) amongst many others. But how do we make investment in our networks practical?

Going deeper….

When we are faced with common organizational problems how do we solve them? If we want to know what our customers think about us – is our reflexive response – surveys and focus groups? If we want to make good impressions – brand impressions – with customers, is our first response to conduct an expensive advertising campaign and/or to buy Google searches?

If we are in government, do we believe that we can make better policy decisions and solve really big problems by involving citizens? Do we try to improve the delivery of services, and perhaps acquisition systems through involvement of government employees?

If meeting our goals depends upon our partners do we try to buy their loyalty with partner conferences and incentives, or do we involve them in product design, and lead generation by facilitating network relationships between and amongst our partners? These questions all create contrasts – a contrast between an old world and new world.

Living in an “old world” we often choose the high cost, lowest benefit, most time to market solution – publishing – pushing our messages. We see a world where we “engineer” results. In a “new world” we ask others what they think. We include them in a dialogue. And we act on the constructive thoughts that they share with us and with each other. In other words we foster organic processes that lead to solutions. Results find us.

There is one question at the heart of “a network perspective”: Fundamentally, do we listen? Do we understand life’s most basic human emotion – the need to be heard? And do we put the need be heard to work for us – to accomplish really big things?

Keeping it simple

Organizations and individuals “network” naturally. We have to. Our success depends on it. Individuals rarely work in isolation. For organizations, public and private, we build partner, employee, and customer networks. These networks are assets in which we have often invested a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy as well as financial resources.

New world social networks like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter, have brought home the fact that we have just scratched the surface of what is possible in a networked world. They have shown that simple technologies can enable connections and exchange that build even bigger networks than those in traditional organizations – networks that create more value. But our opportunities don’t end there. That is the point. If we start with a network perspective, much more is possible. But how?

It is easy to get caught in the hype of social media – it is everywhere. So if we are an executive or manager with a specific business challenge – driving more revenue, making better decisions, improving products and services, how do we know what to do, how to apply networks to solve the challenge?

Network science and social network analysis are disciplines that have been around for a while. They seek to explain the network dynamics – how to create value. But the language often seems complicated. See Identity and Control, Harrison C. White. A network perspective should be simple. Just ask 3 questions:

(1) What is the organizational or business challenge?

(2) What is the desired outcome? Do we want to find new ideas, develop inclusion, drive transactional revenue, or something else? Do we want to learn?

(3) Do we believe that networks can help? Can we go faster, better, together?

Keeping it simple

Despite the common wisdom of many social media pundits, there is rarely one formula for successful use of networks. Nor is there one type of network. The permutations and combinations of network behavior are as complex and infinite as life itself.

The simple key is to link networks to results. Do we enable our customers, partners, employees, and citizens to connect with each other, and with us? How do we enable exchange between network members where everyone – every member feels like they win – that they receive value?

Understanding networks is really that simple – can we use networks to get results? Do we believe that networks will help us to achieve outcomes not today possible? That is a “network perspective.”

Please feel free to connect with me on twitter @kpkfusion

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Daniel Bevarly

Nice post, Kim. This reminds me of early discussions when social networks were gaining notoriety; specifically about the use of the word “social,” especially in a governance setting. Would the word cause issues and limit or even restrict their adoption by government that “social” implied informal and unstructured? So far, I believe that to be the case –not the word, but that SN are too informal and unstructured.

As you state, there is no standard type of network. But, I am thinking there are clear distinctions about their use in a government or in a corporate setting. For example, consider the first and last questions you posed to keep a “network perspective” simple:

(1) What is the organizational or business challenge?

In government, this could be defined in different ways and by different people: policy makers or the public. Typically in business, these are self-determined.

(3) Do we believe that networks can help? Can we go faster, better, together?

How many times do we hear from a decision maker (in business and government) that “this is not a democracy.” Usually uttered to expedite or streamline a decision making process because we know that (inclusive) networks create bureaucracies and these are inherently slow and incremental in their ability to act and advance –and that is not necessarily a negative in this case.

Your mention of value is something I was looking for in your analysis and you touched on its importance. It is a major motivator among network members for forming and maintaining networks.

As you correctly identified, the network perspective not new. What is new is how the historical network perspective that can be leveraged to “go deeper” and “kept simple” utilizing social media, or Web 2.0 solutions. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts about its refinement using social media to empower these networks.

Kim Patrick Kobza

Dan, as always you are very gracious. I think that your points are well made. The value perspective – what it is and how it is created, is central to whether government agencies truly adopt network behaviors. It almost comes down to whether they see networks as making our decisions, and government roles as easier or harder – by the presence of the network. It is exactly what you have said here. HIstorically, government has viewed networks as creating more complexity and making decision making harder. But today, perhaps some of that is changing and some of our social characteristics are rising in importance as an organizing or enabling trait.

Overall, we have to take the broadest view necessary to alter the old world mindset if new world networks are going to deliver on their promise to make government better.