Like the economy, old mental models of our organizations are bankrupt. We've been developing a new model of organization for many years, one we believe is fit for these times. We're collecting and posting the more technical aspects of this new model, a small book's worth, as NetAge Working Papers, of which we're posting the second today. We'll post several more over the coming weeks.
"Understanding Nodes and Links: Core Concepts of People, Positions, and Relationships," the second working paper, provides the technical background to the idea that all organizations, including hierarchies, are networks. This is a topic we've been beating to death in our writings and on this blog. So for you deep conceptual divers, this one's for you. (Download Understanding Nodes and Links)
A little more formally put, this paper contains the foundation for a management science of networked organizations. Networks are known by their nodes. Key to this approach to nodes is the idea of the position, the central ingredient integrating the ephemeral organization with the flesh-and-blood people who populate it. Connecting the nodes in networks, of course, are links. Here we lay out a taxonomy for these relationships: directed links, both horizontal and vertical, with strong and weak versions. Nodes and links together generate dynamic representations of organizational realities. These ideas contribute the conceptual basis for the design of OrgScope, our tool for mapping, navigating, and analyzing organizations as networks.
Here are the opening paragraphs of "Understanding Nodes and Links:"
What Are We?
A formal organization is an emergent network of positions, a configuration of roles filled by people.
Simple idea, yet significant in consequence. Who or what are we? What is the us that works together as an integrated whole, from families and teams to enterprises and nations. It takes but a small shift in perspective to see individual people working together as an organization that is tangible, knowable, and measurable. An organized us happens when we step into roles and bring a particular configuration of positions to life.
An organization is its people—simple and obvious.
Yes, but…is that all? Is there something more, or different, something that is human in essence but separate from the people who comprise the organization?
Every organization tells a story, is its own play. It has a cast of characters and a plot. To perform their parts, actors step into their roles. Different personalities and capabilities emerge, depending on which actor plays the role. Whether great or poor, an individual’s performance takes place within the same set of formal relationships any actor playing that role must contend with. Thus, the role or position is part of the play’s structure, existing quite independently of the person playing that role. King Lear is William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear is a role in the play, and Sir Lawrence Olivier played the King Lear role to great acclaim. Shakespeare and Olivier are dead. The play—and the King Lear role itself—lives on, and has for four hundred years.
When people step into positions, they take on roles that link into a network of other roles. But that doesn’t prevent them from being the people they are, who come to their jobs with their unique preferences and idiosyncrasies. Organizational life is both:
Formal, with its the network of positions, constituent units, and working groups that stand apart from the people; and
Informal, with its social interactions among particular people, who stand apart from the roles they occupy in and around the organization.
These two kinds of networks--organizational and social--are inextricable (see Figure 1). When we think about all the relationships relevant to organizational life, their entanglement contributes to our sense of chaotic complexity. But we can distinguish these two types of networks. By clearly defining and specifying the organizational network of positions, we can more easily identify relationships that make up social networks of people.
Currently, social scientists and management theorists are trying to understand group life largely by examining the network of relationships among the group’s members. Social relationships are not only highly complex themselves, but they are especially obscured because the formal organizational framework is itself dynamic.
The network of positions moves to its own beat while the entwined people network has its own different rhythms.
The complexity of these two fundamental sorts of human networks is awesome, understandably hindering our ability to develop social and organizational sciences. New insights from network and complexity sciences, however, help us establish a new management science of organizational networks.
-- Jeff Stamps