In enthusiasm for our ability to connect people in networks and to see the potential of new ways of working, we can lose sight of an important element. Networks are composed of human beings. The rules of human relationships still apply and there is no magical technology that allows us to escape these fundamental rules.
Networks need to Form, Storm & Norm to Perform too
The process of forming a group dynamic in a networked community follows that of a team. Because a network is a mix of strong and weak ties the process of reaching community norms may well be a difficult and extended one.
In a network, each individual forms a sense of the community, its purpose and the practices that prevail. At times for some individuals or groups in the community this sense of meaning can be quite out of alignment with the broader consensus. However, in some cases the interactions in the community do not surface the differences or do not make that misalignment obvious to those in the community.
If each participant proceeds on and does not meet a conflict with their sense of meaning, then they will not discover the need to revisit their view. Often this failure to develop common meaning and norms will create major challenges for the network later when conflicts arise. People who feel that their sense of the norms ‘are obvious’ and have been acting on expectations of the same from others may experience a deep breach in trust at this moment.
A key role of social leaders is to foster the meaning in a network and alignment of norms and value creation. Leading these conversations early in a network’s life will help accelerate the community development and avoid later issues.
Remember weak ties means limits
One danger of the weak ties found in large networks is weak accountability. Without a strong connection to you, I can easily engage in the avoidance of conflict and the hard work of leadership. Rather than deal with a difficult situation it is human nature to see if we can’t ignore it or pretend that it is someone else’s responsibility to respond. See a conversation in a network that disturbs you and you can let it go or worse filter it out, if there is no accountability to engage.
Equally weak ties can mean that there is little cost to me for the snide remark, the cutting comment or even troll activity. Personal accountability for our actions through strong ties to others cuts down on this behaviour. I may not have accountability to the individual but I have a reputation to maintain with others and so I moderate my behaviour.
Leaders need to foster an environment of accountability in networks. Encouraging all participants to engage, to challenge and to clarify understanding helps accelerate the value in the network.
Build a network up from a single conversation
In this wonderful video on innovation by Sylvain Carle from Creative Mornings Montreal, there is a description of Unix and the need to build up complex systems from smaller systems that work beforehand. Networks are complex systems composed of smaller connected systems.
The smallest systems of a network is two people in conversation. The conversations in your networks should work as great stand alone conversations. If those conversations don’t work the way they work in the rest of your life, then something is wrong.
This week I was asked ‘why can’t we just let the network do its job to create a community virally?’ Networks don’t create a community. They only connect people. Conversations create communities. Conversations help people understand the purpose of the network and the personal and collective value that will be created. Those conversations are the work of leaders. Engaging movements of people in sharing and spreading ideas is the work of leaders through stories and conversations, not the networks themselves.
Start your leadership work by focusing on creating effective, valuable and engaging conversations. Build your network back from there.