Shannon Clark on Wed, 12 Apr 2006 17:11:16 +0200 (CEST)

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re: <nettime> Organised Networks: Transdisciplinarity and New Institutional Forms

Well a quick answer to your question (I'm the organizer of a conference
on Networks - MeshForum which will be may 7-9 in San Francisco):

- Hierarchical organizations ARE just one example of a network (albeit
one with a fairly simple theoretical structure usually with a single or
very small center "hub")

- what "standard theory" are you talking about (more specifically - what
field's standard theory). In terms of the study of organizational
structures - or social network analysis which I am very familiar with
all groups and organizations can be represented by networks - just
networks that may (or may not) have different structures to them.

It is also important to keep in mind what you are talking about when you
say "the network..." some people who study network structures focus less
on the structure than on what happens over that structure (often
referred to as the "flow") - an example might be people who study
transportation networks. Other people who study networks focus on the
analysis of a specific network map and structure - looking at the
features of different nodes (which are more "central" etc). Other people
look at using networks to gain understanding of what is happening within
a group/organization - and then to use that understanding and
perspective to change the structure OVER time (i.e. using phrases such
as "connecting" people whose connections would result in a new structure
overall etc.)

But I have to emphasize - hierarchies ARE networks - the difference
between them and what you are referring to as "large scale networks" is
in how the "nodes" are "linked" - in a hierarchy the structure that
emerges is "hub and spoke" with just a few nodes tying together the
overall network. In the "ideal" large scale network instead of a single
hub there may be a deeply connected core. However these differences are
not all that sharp or precise at many times.

There is also much to consider by how you define "connection" when you
model the structures: 

* Is connection a formal thing (i.e. a formal org-chart)? 

* Is it based on actual interactions? (most organizations interact in
ways that differ, often radically, from the formal org-charts) 

* Are the connections limited by activity within a period of time (to
illustrate the issue - just who you spoke with this past hour? Past day?
Past week? Past month? Past quarter? Past year? Etc.)

It may be more useful to look at what are the differences in not how the
nodes are connected, but in how (and perhaps why) connections are formed
(or equally unlinked/destroyed). In a hierarchy, perhaps, these are slow
to form and externally motivated. In some other organizations, perhaps,
connections form in other ways, perhaps more internally generated.

In either case, however, it may also be useful to think about not just
how the organization can be represented (either at a point in time, or I
would usually argue more usually over a period of time showing changes)
but to look at and ask how activity is conducted within the organization
- and how (and indeed if) the organizational structure impacts the
activities of the organization.

Consider a theoretical network where everyone has access ("connection")
to everyone else (if you prefer a real example, think any organization
with email and access to a list of everyone's email addresses). In this
model people may, from time to time, try to figure out who within that
network can help them with a specific question. This could be done via a
"connection" to everyone else (i.e. a blast email) or it could be done
via a series of more targeted queries (perhaps random emails to specific
people) - however in the absence of other information neither approach
is likely to work or scale. 

Instead, most organizations have other data visible and apparent about
the "nodes" - as well as, perhaps, a process to exercise connections and
use them effectively (or ineffectively). In a hierarchy this may be to
pass requests "up" until they reach someone who can pass them back down
(this approach can be used technically as well - in a simplistic way it
is how DNS name resolution works). In other organizations there may be
less structure to the interaction but perhaps there are established ways
to reach a specific "core" - technically for example you might email a
mailing list where the core people all participate (or people who are
close to the 'core' people do, thus offering a short path to get to
someone who could resolve the issue).

It is a tough problem, however, to look at not just the shortest
"theoretical" path, but to understand how people within a given
structure actually perceive it and work within it/navigate it. And there
is some suggestion that the information about the structure can (and
often does) actually change that process - i.e. think transportation
networks - if you are the only person who knows about a shortcut to
bypass a busy road then you can save time - however if everyone
traveling learns of the shortcut then everyone within the network - both
those on the shortcut and those on the "normal" path may take longer (in
part because the time delays in shifting from one path to the other
might impact the overall network such that all routes take longer).

If you are interested in learning a great deal more about all of these I
invite you to join me at MeshForum 2006 - May 7-9 in San Francisco (see 

I also invite everyone to listen to the sessions from MeshForum 2005 on
IT Conversations
( which are
available for free. In particular, Dr. Anna Nagurney's presentation
outlines the paradox I touched on above. Later this year we will make
all of the sessions from MeshForum 2006 available online as well.


Shannon Clark
Founder, MeshForum
"Connecting Networks"

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