Leaders and the Networked Organization

6 Apr

Lately, I’ve been reading Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, a book detailing the effects of the Internet revolution on social activism. The author, Allison Fine, explains that the increased connectivity brought about by the digital revolution has not only empowered previously marginalized groups, but has changed the nature of practical organization structure and employee/customer engagement. The capacity to build and leverage networks has become one of the most powerful skills in the modern world.

Allison Fine isn’t the first to suggest that networks have become the new expressions of power today. A network-centric trend has started and gained momentum through the 21st century, professing that networks, and organizations centered around them, are far more effective. Mrs. Fine explains that the Department of Defense has adopted a network-centric structure below the initial department heads. John Husband, on his blog, refers to this transition from a traditional, top-down power structure to a networked, distributed power structure as moving from “hierarchy to wirearchy.”

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To facilitate this change, Mrs. Fine supports the creation of, maintenance of, and continued interaction with a community centered around the organization. The community would be given as much information as possible, in line with the growing push towards organizational transparency. Their opinions would also be vitally important to organization decisions, and the organization would respect and, when possible, use their considerable power.

This sounds lovely, but where would this leave the role of the leader? Mrs. Fine addresses this, and suggests that the leader’s new role is that of facilitating the community’s organization. This can be done through four separate functions: listening, leveraging, knowing how and when to make decisions, and being curious.

Listening

According to a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, serial entrepreneurs, while strong in several key skills, are usually lacking in empathy. Honestly listening to the opinions, perspectives, and feelings of others, is far more important in today’s age than before. One of the best paradigms for listening comes from an Ashoka series on developing empathy. They suggest that one of the best words to describe healthy listening is the verb, absorb. When leaders focus on “absorbing” all the emotions and ideas placed before them, they’ll be better equipped to facilitate healthy interaction.

Leveraging

Good network leaders respect and utilize the power inherent in social networks. Mrs. Fine compares social networks to the ideal power grid: instead of weakening as they spread and are used, networks grow stronger. Understanding this and using it can help organizations conduct market research, raise funds, or petition a lawmaker.

Knowing How and When to Make a Decision

There will be times when, instead of leaving the decision to the network, it will be wiser to make a decision yourself. John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers and the principle author of the Constitution, stated in his Federalist Papers that one of the purposes behind the structure of the US government was to protect against when the masses were actually wrong. Leaders will have to use their authority when what the majority wants is either in conflict, taking too long for practical action, or is actually headed in a harmful direction.

Being Curious

Curiosity can be one of the greatest boons of a leader. If the head of an organization is intensely curious about current events in the world, organization, and network, he will be in a better place to facilitate helpful, honest, conscious communication.

While the change may take significant effort, the results reaped will far exceed any cost. Ceding our pretended authority as leaders will grant tremendous power and resources to the organization. I look forward to implementing these practices in my own efforts later in life!

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