The Power of Networks

Networks and alternative ways of thinking are two things I’m pretty interested in so this videos on the power of networks came of particular interest to me.

I particularly enjoyed the contrasts that were made between trees and networks as organisational structures for knowledge and I liked Ron Weaver’s different approaches to complexity. Expanding on this I had a couple of thoughts about how the metaphor of the network could be used to shape thinking and being with regard to careers work.

How could networks shape how we think?

The idea of thoughts having a shape or us having system in which we organise them to make sense out of them seems very appealing. I feel the tree metaphor comes out in a number of ways about how we think about careers I think especially around ideas of specialization and progression.

Tree “thinking” tends to look at us as branches linked together in a trunk but separate from each other, the branches are in effect specialisms. We sometimes use this explicitly such as buy talking about “branches of medicine” and other times it is implied by how subjects are divided up in schools (sciences vs. humanities vs. arts vs. languages or life science vs. natural sciences vs. social sciences) or how jobs are divided up in organisations, specialisms as part of a whole. This makes development often about getting more specialised (think about doing a PhD for an example) and so in effect moving away from other things. Networks by contrast encourage us to thinking of connections as opposed to branches and specialisms. Nodes in networks grow by making more links and opening up new possibilities. So a node would by asking “how do I relate to other things?” “how can I bring my connections into play?” We often ask people to think of the “one” thing they are really good at, their one passions, their one dream. Rather than honing in on a point what if we encouraged people to expand out. Let me give some examples of what this might look like:

  • Encouraging people to think about how they can develop more skills not just one at the cost of others.
  • Encouraging people not to see themselves as a specialist focussed on one thing but as situated in a number of different networks.
  • Encourage people to think in a trans-disciplinary manner, using links to learn from other domains.
  • Encourage people to focus out on the many things they can do not the one thing they should do.
  • Encourage them to think about many places their skills could be used not the “best” place it could be used.

On the whole this will encourage creativity and multiplicity rather than specialism and simplicity.

But is this actually a good thing? Specialism appears to work quite well in the world of work. Don’t people get ahead by showing they can do something better than others? Doesn’t this focus on expansive thinking make it harder for people to manage decision making and by extension their careers?

This question brings me on to the second area I want to look at, careers development. Development can itself be often shaped like a tree. We see a future ahead of us where there are several branches getting more and more specialised and moving upwards and upwards with specialism. The tree in effect creates a grid we move through, a pathway to success. This view of success has two main elements I want to discuss, success is linear and success involves isolation. To say that success is linear is to show a tree assumes people are more successful by moving through the system, by advancement and promotion. The network provides a different model of this. In a network by contrast there is no fixed point of success just varying relationships with others. This encourages us to think of success in terms of relationships and encounters. Success becomes a personal construct we can have in multiple areas through how we relate to other people. This makes success linked to concepts such as reciprocity, generosity, service and relationship building. In simple terms it is how we treat other people and have relationships that makes us successful. It also notes how linear structures are subject to disruption in the changing of world we live. Networks are more robust to change and the unexpected. So building social capital and consider the links the individual has to multiple futures are common parts of planned happenstance and chaos theories of career.

This brings us to the concept of isolation I mentioned above. Trees have an inbuilt concept of hierarchy inside them which links to this concept of success and promotion. As people move through this hierarchy and are promoted they are encouraged to relate mainly with people of a similar point in the hierarchical tree. The problem with this is that there are normally less and less people at a similar level of an organisation making you more and more isolated as you progress. Alongside this specialism and hierarchy often encourages people to give more and more time to their role. A specialist has few people they can share work with as they have different specialisms and few people they want to relate to in the hierarchical structure they are part of. This alongside the demanding nature of many organisations means that success is often at the cost of other relationships and commitments outside of work. Work sucks in more and more of the individual.

This is moving slightly away from traditional careers development to think about how organisations are structured. But I thought it would still be worth noting a few points of application for individuals and for organisations.

  • Encourage individuals to think about how success is linked to other people and isn’t just individualistic.
  • Encourage individuals to think about the limits of hierarchy as a model for experiencing meaning.
  • Encourage people to build social capital and multiple futures as a response to uncertainty.
  • Encourage organisations to limit hierarchies and build relationships and share skills in a more organic way.
  • Encourage organisations to build networks around managers including all parts of the organisation.

These are just some starting thoughts, I feel there is more to come in this areas. I would love to hear of theories you know of related to this, your experiences around this, any responses to my thoughts or any new ideas you have of how networks could change how we think and act.

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