Social networks have become an omnipresent element of modern life. We have become tied to our phones and tablets, keeping up with each ‘update’, ‘like’ and ‘friend request’. How many followers you have is in some circles a new measure of social standing. Isn’t it curious how an essential element of living systems, one of our Big Five has become so allied with technology? At one level it is sort of inevitable. If our world is built on networks, then we will of course find them through our technology. The advances in our ability to engineer smart devices haven’t created a new phenomena, they have simply allowed a new expression of one of the fundamental characteristics of how we organise to become more visible and explicit.

I use a number of social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn to name but three. In my work in China I have found WeChat essential to connect to the real conversation about my work there. First, it allows me swift and easy translation, not unimportant when my mandarin is so limited. More importantly though it allows me access away from the formal conversation about my work to the informal network where people are making sense of it in their own context. This is one of the primary functions of networks. Through the networks in which we exist, we make sense of data, be that experience or emotion, and determine what is the appropriate way to respond in that setting. By tapping into the informal conversations about the work I am doing I learn what is working, what isn’t, the contextual factors I am touching and the key ones I am missing.

We all operate in multiple networks. I have found this never more obvious than when working with a key employer in a small town. If the manufacturing plant is where most people in the town gain their income, either directly as employees, indirectly as suppliers or maybe previously through their pensions, then this mixture of networks becomes visible in many ways. First and most obviously is the organisation chart network. This describes the supposed functioning of the plant with its bosses and production workers. It is a clumsy, poorly connected network that doesn’t really work that well. It relies on the other networks to really function. Pretty soon you see the family networks. Fathers and daughters may be working in the same plant but in different parts of the organisation chart. It is quite clear which network will be stronger there! And these family networks spread through the plant, through the organisation chart, by blood, by marriage, and on into the wider world outside of work. And then there may be more social alliances, football clubs that are supported, people who all went to the same school, bars where people drink or places where people fish together. And what of professional networks? The societies of engineers? The unions of machine shop workers? All of these are places in which the living system that is the manufacturing plant makes sense of its activity and determines how to respond to each change in its environment.

The immediate and close networks act to maintain the status quo. My small number of friends on Facebook are real friends. If I meet them in the flesh we will take time together, have a drink, tell some stories. Probably those stories are the same ones we have told for years together. We re-live past experiences that have formed a part of our identity, made us part of a group that has a bond together. If I am looking for change and breakthrough it rarely comes from this group. Instead it comes from much more tenuous connections. Of the hundreds of people that I connect to on Twitter or LinkedIn, most I know only slightly. I have with them, as Granovetter puts it, a weak tie. The strength of these weak ties is that they bring new information into the network. In my work in helping organisations change this is part of my value to them, I’m not part of the in-crowd, the tight social circle, and rarely get beyond the periphery. Instead I bring in new thoughts, experiences and meaning from other settings and help them interpret it in the light of their world view. This is the strength of weak ties in living networks, it is a trigger for adapting to new states.

Cesar Hidalgo at MIT tells us more about networks. He describes the limit of information that one individual can hold as a ‘personbyte’ of data. As tasks become more than very basic, the individual’s capacity to hold all the necessary data is soon outstripped and a network is needed. Networks therefore are containers of knowledge and know-how. They are how we maintain and spread the information necessary to get things done and the means of applying that information. It therefore follows that very complex tasks require well developed and maintained networks that store the vital knowledge and know-how. On a global economic scale, this is why certain complex industries only exist in very distinct geographies. At one stage, as part of my work on what it takes to lead a place, I read the vision statements for numerous English cities and counties. Each described themselves as the next Silicon Valley. Lacking the networks that created the real Silicon Valley, none of them have become one.

This also explains why models of change that rely on pilot and roll-out are so ineffectual. The knowledge and know-how about how to make the change work are retained in the network that created them, not in the technical solution that arises. You cannot roll-out a network. It is like picking up a jigsaw to move it to another table. Some clusters might stick together but mostly it breaks up, falls apart and you may even lose important pieces in the carpet! The result is a need for slow and sometimes painful re-building, even if we do now know what the picture is that we are trying to make.

So if we are to understand how we might grow change in a living system then an understanding of networks and how they work is critical. It is in the networks that knowledge and know-how are retained and sense is made. Unless we engage at this level, below the obvious, then the system keeps mitigating change and building it back into what it already knows. This takes time. Getting to find the real networks, connect with them, engage with the stories within which they hold the tacit knowledge of the system is at the heart of the art of change making. This never happens in formal sessions. It happens when you take the time to learn a system and connect to its natural rhythm and mood.

© John Atkinson (2016)