The signs of the network economy are all around us, but perhaps the single most obvious manifestation of modern-day networking is found in the technological platform of our society, the Internet. The networks that the Internet enables have revolutionized the way that we interact—socially, professionally and geographically. In this day and age, it is clear that networks rule. But what exactly are they? How do you find them? How do you become a part of one?
Barry Wellman from the University of Toronto is one of the leading theorists on the topic. He uses terms like "multiple ties" and "webs of connections" to explain the concept. Quoting from a colleague, John Barnes, Wellman says, "In a sentence, [to recognize a network] means to discover how A, who is in touch with C, is affected by the relation between B and C."
Networks, then, are about relationships, but are not limited to the relationships of kin or family, neighborhood or community, or even the workplace. Networks are more open, more permeable and flexible, and in many ways operate outside the boundaries of traditional norms and systems of control.
Yet the concept of Internet-based networks is still a relatively new one. Mention the word "network" to people in the baby boomer generation or older and for most people it conjures the thought of the three television behemoths, NBC, CBS and ABC. Reference "networks" to someone in their 30s or early 40s and they might think you are referring to professional connection-building or possibly even online dating. However, when you use the term "network" with anyone 25 and younger, be prepared to be educated about interactive social connecting Web sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and YouTube.
For the Millennial Generation, the concept of being connected and in multiple networks is natural. For them, networking is about being connected, tapped in, having a finger on the pulse of the newly forming, constantly changing but self-affirming communities. In the minds of boomers and some Gen Xers, the term has a less sanguine ring. In the post-9/11 world, thoughts of "networks" can evoke feelings of threat or danger. We are never far from reminders of terrorists or online predators—criminals who use networks for the purpose of destruction. Even in the more benign environment of the workplace, the proliferation of networks raises serious questions about privacy and confidentiality. For example, social networks encourage more personal openness than the norms in the typical workplace, which could lead to unwanted reprisals from co-workers and/or employers. With all the hype about how networks can be used disruptively, it is no surprise that there are fears surrounding the formation and use of networks.
Yet this fear is generally not justified, and it is preventing some businesses from understanding how networks can really benefit their organization. Again with reference to 9/11: Yes, we were attacked by a network, or "cells" of terrorists, but it is also true that a secure peer-to-peer network collaboration software program allowed some within the Pentagon to communicate with others when all other communications systems had failed, or were overloaded. As some experts say, "It takes a network to fight a network."
Another concern often voiced by skeptics of Internet-based networks is that the Internet is replacing "real" communication and social interaction. Real in this case means a face-to-face exchange or at least a phone call. In the networked organization, it is alleged, communication is degraded, and thus decision-making and performance are compromised. Not according to a new study by the Pew Institute’s Internet and American Life Project.
In one of the project’s recent reports, "The Strength of Internet Ties," the authors state that their extensive study of Internet use suggests, "In a social environment based on networked individualism, the Internet’s capacity to maintain and cultivate social networks has real payoffs." The authors make a compelling case for the idea that Internet use strengthens social ties, including ties in the workplace.
A new report, "Rise of the Participation Culture," by Connecting the Dots, a division of Marketing Directions Inc., as well as our own research on the Millennial Generation, strongly supports the case for participative networks as the core unit for organizing work. Why? Because it is within these new and shifting networks that organizations find their best ideas along with the innovations and applications that will determine success.
Engagement in participatory networks is clearly practiced by the new generation of young workers, who are armed with unprecedented access to broadband and mobile technologies and who intuitively understand the power of these technologies. The understanding of the value and enrichment provided by participatory networks is ingrained in the Millennial Generation’s concept of relationships and connection, positioning them to operate fluidly within a networked framework socially and professionally, and ultimately allowing them to be leaders in revolutionizing the workplace.
So how do we translate the benefits of participation in social networks into value-adds for the workplace? It is clear that technology has changed the historic equation of power and control. What the "movers and shakers" always had was exclusive access to the information that really mattered. Information has always been the real coin of the realm. Now, we enter an era where Microsoft promises information at your fingertips and Google has the audacious mission of organizing the world’s information and making it accessible and useful. What can be done? I will summarize my view of the three options.
I call the first scenario "Ride the Tiger." In other words, recognize the inevitable, jump on board the new networked organization and see where it takes you. This is a great strategy for a startup or relatively new or small company. Companies should look to tools that they can use to better manage projects, such as Base Camp, a Web-based project management tool that allows them to create a flexible value creation chain by networking with programmers and graphic designers from around the globe.
The second scenario is to "Cage the Tiger," which is about hierarchy, chains of command and, ultimately, control. Most organizations have moved beyond this "that’s so 20th century" thinking, but few organizations are harnessing to the fullest potential the power of the knowledge networks that exist within their organizations—especially the untapped savvy of the hyper-networked Millennial Generation. Some more traditional managers might wish they could put this social networking genie back in the bottle, but they will probably fail trying.
The final scenario is called the "Eye of the Tiger," and this is the one I recommend my clients adopt. This scenario starts with a core principle best articulated by Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes and Microsoft’s chief software architect.
A few years ago Ozzie wrote: "It is impossible to predict the precise business model that will prevail. There is no doubt however that the traditional model of the firm is well along the way towards evolving into the connected enterprise.
"In some instances the Connection Age has burst onto the scene; in others it is in quiet transition; and in others it is so subtle as to be barely perceptible. But make no mistake: it has arrived."
If you substitute "networked" for "connected," this quote tells us how to assess where on the spectrum of "connectedness" your organization belongs. Managers must look for the networks in their organizations, the visible and the less visible ones. Ironically, it may be the least visible networks that are providing the greatest value to the organization. And if you are looking to identify new leaders within your organization, look no further than the individuals at the center of your organization’s formal and informal networks. The role of leaders in organizations today is to encourage, nurture and listen to these networks. That is the Eye of the Tiger.