When do you need centralized – less centralized networks?

Social network analysis gives me a language to talk about and think about things I see people do. I rarely use the network measures quantitatively (does it help to know that actor A has a betweenness centrality of 0.2?) but more as structural descriptions of what I see and to explain what might happen. Centralization for example has come up a lot in my recent work with various development projects. Centralization describes the structure of the network as a whole, a highly centralized network is a hub and spokes network, one actor in the middle with a star shaped network linking him to others who are not linked to each other. In a network with low centralization on the other hand, everyone is linked to everyone.

When you start a project, you are often the mover and shaker and connector who develops links to all other actors and you move your project forward from this position being the hub, everything happens because you are there, you are in control. We all know projects which only got off the ground because of one tireless visionary who pushed and pushed and pushed for his or her vision. Great.

The only problem is that what is one of the most effective strategies for getting projects off the ground is not always the best for making them sustainable. So while it is only human to think that “more of the same” will make us successful in the future, it is important to understand that hub and spokes networks are
1. highly vulnerable to shocks: This could be a heart attack of the visionary or the hub being overworked or corrupted by power and stopping to be the mover he/she used to be,
2. Don’t harvest the wisdom of the crowd: Because all information is filtered through the hub, people don’t get together independently to think together, inspire each other and come up with new solutions. This is one of the reasons why hub and spokes networks are especially well suited to implement simple repetitive tasks where all answers are known and these networks are especially useless in solving complex messy problems where the answers are not known and might differ between locations or situations.
3. They don’t develop the bottom-up energy to maintain themselves and grow: Because everything is always a reaction to the push from the center, everyone starts to rely on that push and waits for the center to come up with ideas, activities and funding. This can lead to the typical situation in donor funded projects: As the funding expires the activities die down, even if they were extremely useful to the people involved and it would require only little own contribution to maintain them.

What does that mean? If you are really passionate about the change you are aiming for, remember: This is not about you. This is not about your organization’s signboard or your own name attached to the change. Go in, move and shake, develop your hub and spokes network as necessary but AS SOON AS YOU HAVE THAT, start implementing your exit strategy (which might take most of your project) by connecting actors that you work with and making sure that they will eventually be able to do their work without you. Get over the fear of loosing control because loosing it is a pre-requisite for having an impact beyond what you alone / your organization alone can do.

2 Responses

  1. […] When do you need centralized – less centralized networks? […]

  2. […] have written about this before and I will write about it again, because it is one structural issue that I see in so many exciting […]

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