Routing around the damage

Untapped Networks, an article by sociologist Duncan Watts in Technology Review, got me thinking about networks as the form for organizational design.

I’ve been pondering alternative perspectives on learning. First of all, the majority of eLearning to-date has failed to meet expectations. Furthermore, “learning” is not a concept that sells. The word brings to mind all the bad aspects of school, another effort that generally fails to meet our expectations for it. Organizations don’t want learning; they want action.

Shifting the target from learning to purposeful, positive action goes against layer upon layer of beliefs and perceptions of how things work. Our pattern-seeking brains have simplified our view of the world. We see linear, cause-and-effect relationships where none exist. We picture a logical organization like this:

but the real world looks more like this:

    Watts: “You see, most of us view human organizations as if they’re trees: you chop off the trunk and nothing gets to the peripheries. But really, they’re more like leaves. A leaf may look like it has the same branching structure that a tree does, but if you chop a hole into the middle of a leaf and then pump fluid in it, the fluid oozes around the hole and then goes to the rest of the leaf. And that’s what human organizations are like. You can blow a hole right in the middle, but still pump information around the damage.”

The connections between the yellow boxes of the highly structured organization are semi-permanent. They change as people are hired, fired, promoted, or demoted. If there’s an org chart, everyone sees the same structure.

    People have a local view of the world. I have my friends, and everyone else is ?out there? somewhere?I don’t know about them or care about them and certainly can’t affect them. The science of networks is the antithesis of that world view. You affect things out there and they affect you. Sometimes that’s good because you can draw on resources that you didn’t know about yesterday, and sometimes it’s bad because you get affected by a disease or your computer crashes from a virus, and the only thing that you did wrong was buy Microsoft. So, the world is both small and big. All these metaphors are true, and the trick is to figure out an analytical framework that?s precise enough to give you some traction on these problems.

The connections between the nodes of the networked organization are dynamic. They shift continuously. Each individual in the organization has a different network. There are at least as many org charts as their are members in the network.

An individual with no connections is powerless. Only an individual with high-quality connections can be effective.

When I point out the irony that most corporate learning is informal, while most corporate investment is funneled into formal learning (replacing the 80/20 rule with the 20/80 rule), people often ask how one can invest in the informal side. (“Can we buy a course in this?”)

The answer is to invest in beefing up everyone’s ability to make connections. A corporate yellow pages and a rich intranet are a baby step every organization should take. Beyond this, researchers are making exciting breakthroughs in putting people together. Some are technical (if I’m coming in on a slow connection, don’t shovel live video at me). Others replace dumb tech with tech that learns (Amazon suggests things other people who share my interests are buying). They are creating ways you can built your reputation and check the reputations of others (as do vendors at eBay). They are ushering in an era where connecting online will be more like connecting in person. Some of us are starting to work on standards for social frameworks that parallel the movement toward content standards.

This is the tip of an iceberg. I’ll be back with more on the subject.

For once in my life, my decision to major in sociology as an undergrad is starting to look rational. Whew!

Posted by Jay Cross at March 8, 2003 10:29 AM | TrackBack

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