Simon Terry

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On Accountability in Networks

Following on from my recent posts on accountability in networks, I was asked recently whether a network could be accountable for an action or an outcome over an individual. This is an important question as we move into new ways of working. Anxiety over changes from the perceived effectiveness of alternatives to hierarchical models of accountability is a major barrier to management adoption. 

Answering a question about accountability usually involves a number of layers because management tends to be vague when it uses the term accountability. The linearity of hierarchy makes accountability an easy concept to use loosely.  Hierarchy often conflates accountability to make decisions, accountability for the outcome and responsibility to do the work

Let’s pull apart each of these meanings of accountability. 

Accountability vs Responsibility

First, we need to separate responsibility to do the work from accountability to deliver an outcome. Of course, you can have single accountability with networked responsibility. We do that every day. Almost every work scenario has one person to hold to account.

However you will need the holder of the accountability to understand the network leadership required to ensure the outcome from the network. This is why CEOs should not fear working like a network. It is how they actually work.  Most CEOs know their orders go through so many layers that influence and authority in the organisational network matters more than the power inherent in their order.

Accountability in a Group

If you wish for network accountability, remember every network has sub-networks that will hold & manage that accountability on behalf of the group and manage the responsibility of other sub-networks to do all or part of the work. An every day example is a board of a volunteer, movement or not for profit organisation. Often the accountability can be diffused in a formal or informal executive committee of managers, the chair and other key influencers.  The responsibilities for work are widely spread in free agent volunteers. This kind of accountability works but requires strong leadership in the group and the wider network.

Remember human networks have lots of accountability mechanisms like gossip, trust, reputation, authority, shunning and ultimately exclusion to manage situations where there may not be a hiearchical power to enforce accountabilities. Many of these techniques work without resort to force even against countervailing power. There’s a good reason volunteer organisations have lots of ructions.

Accountability to Decide

If you focus specifically on accountability as defining who holds the decision making rights, then network accountability needs a decision making system. Humans have lots of network decision making systems from consensus to democracy to more authority based models.

Networks work

Networks are how humans get stuff done. We have solved these issues in our history. Jon Husband’s definition of wirearchy captures this capability of networks neatly:

“a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”.

We need to work differently and we need to use different approaches to leadership, trust and authority to make network accountabilities work. That doesn’t make it less effective. Managers just need to learn new skills to leverage the exponential potential of human networks.


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