Networks, control and the fear of loosing it

Talking with Nancy White and reading her last posts about community management triggered a whole network of thoughts around why the idea of a network organisation and network structures appeal to some people (and some organizations) while they make others shudder.

And I think this has a lot to do with the balance between control and trust. Network memberships can be temporary, the strength of links between nodes often depends on their own willingness and motivation to maintain them, linking unlikely parts of a network can lead to explosions of creativity and innovation (but also to uncontrolled flows of gossip), multiple connections in a densely knit network reduce the control that individual actors have (reducing their betweenness centrality), informal networks can outweigh the formal ones… etc. Scary stuff.

People who look at the world through a frame of mind that puts control in the center, will realize that a vibrant network is out of control. If you believe that people only do things because of fear of punishment or fear of being found out, again, in a complex network structure (such as “the real world”) it is even difficult to track down cause and effect.

But what happens if you use a different tint of sunglasses and look at your network as if you trusted that people have motivations that go beyond the fear of direct punishment? All of a sudden you can see the great opportunities that arise from pairing the unusual, from the speedy informal exchanges and those links that are maintained and backed by intrinsic motivation of the actors involved. And instead of the fear of loosing control and ending up in chaos you might start thinking in metaphors of growth (as in the way plants grow), add your contribution to the network and see what happens.

And all this reminds me of something I observed in Ghana, where my friends had a very long term perspective on the give and take in their social networks: One friend came out of a poor household and the other boy often shared his lunch with him when they were kids – which was in the hunger years of the 80ies and thus more than just a friendly gesture. Now 20 years later the poorer friend has a good and stable job while the other one floats in and out of employment and hits one hard rock after the other. So his old friend gives him money to open a little store – not because he thinks this is an economically sound investment but because what goes around comes around… one day. You don’t count the amount you give or how long it takes that something comes back to you but just invest into the network whenever you have something to give and hope that it will take care of you the same way.

While this sounds like a romantic story with a slight “noble savage” tint to it, I am sorry to inform you though, that my friend has transformed the shop into his bedroom – so while he is not earning any money with it, he at least has a place to sleep…

Now, what I am really interested in is what happens if you take a middle ground between trust and control, which deserves a lot of self discipline (as it is so much easier to see everything either black or white). I don’t know but I will think about it some more…

One Response

  1. […] resonates with my believes about network structure and control and how sustainable networks grow up (mature) into structures with less and less central node […]

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