What I Learned from the Woodstock of Networking

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What I Learned from the Woodstock of Networking

Last month, I earned a lifetime of bragging rights for being part of an event that was only slightly jokingly deemed “the Woodstock of networking.”

The 120 of us who gathered for the Connected Commons Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia sensed that we are part of an important cultural, social and business shift – one where networks will override the hierarchy as the standard for getting things done.

Understanding and leveraging the power of both informal and purpose-built networks has been a big part of my work in recent years. At the same time, I’ve joined up with several colleagues to create the Connected Commons.

The goal of the Commons is to pursue the large-scale application of networks to improve individual and organizational well-being and performance. What does network analysis show us? How can network insights be utilized to achieve goals and solve problems? How can networks help us innovate and change? Lead and learn?

Obviously, I’m a believer in the power of networks. As recently documented inHBR, our network efforts at Juniper are exciting and evolving. I’m steeped in network analysis through collaborations with Rob Cross. I’m up-to-date on the network perspectives of other Commons founders. I’m involved in network research through a project with the Center for Creative Leadership. And, still, for me the Summit headline was:

“Networks: More Transformative Than You Thought.”

The experience and ideas that were presented and talked about – as well as the unknowns and struggles – fueled my thinking. The possibilities for network insight and application in our everyday work and big-picture challenges are seemingly endless. Here are some of the things I learned and am still thinking about:

Networks can do what leaders do. We have to show it. This is a paradigm shift – and possibly the biggest barrier to using networks as the basis for improving how our organizations work. It is also the only way out of the too-big, too-complex and too-fast realities that formal leadership and management hierarchies face. CCL’s Bill Pasmore pointed out that the hierarchy cannot manage the rate and complexity of change we are experiencing. The formal leaders’ new job is to manage the networks that manage the change, make the decisions, solve problems and get things done. How we (as individuals and as organizations) learn to do this is the work of the Commons – and the stories and examples I heard from organizations ranging from Johnson & Johnson to the World Bank helped to point the way forward.

Create “red line” structures alongside “blue line” structures. Chris Fussell, former SEAL, talked about how most companies are like the military: we have the hierarchy, the org chart and the rules of who knows what, who makes what kinds of decisions, how information flows. We only have this one model, so we try to force everything into it – even when it’s obviously not working. Chris drew a picture in blue of the typical boxes and lines of an org chart. Overlapping and beside it, he drew a network structure in red, with shifting lines of communication, expertise and decision making. The “red line” structure was needed – more people, more fluidity – to deal with situations that required speed, responsiveness and real-time information and input. The trick is to develop the organizational and personal capacity to know that when you have to do X, you stay in the blue structure. When Y is needed, you move into the red.

Network technology is growing up. The analytics that have created the foundational knowledge for how our informal human systems work have gotten more sophisticated. They are also more useful and accessible to HR and business leaders. At the same time, new tools and approaches are being developed and prototyped. Tracking patterns of verbal interaction, email traffic or social media connections can provide more and different data. This is an exciting development – with plenty of questions and uncertainty. We need to keep asking ourselves: what are we trying to learn and for what purpose? We also need to recognize that tensions around transparency vs. privacy, individual vs. organizational and insight vs. action are all at play.

Finally, I was reminded that our systems, structures and well-intended efforts are, ultimately, about people. The networks we map, the data we analyze, the training and coaching and re-invention we advocate are always for and about real people. It about having difficult conversations and engaging resistance (thank you, Doug Stone) or helping employees to learn small behaviors that energize and engage rather than drain (thank you, Annie McCallum) or appreciating generational differences (thank you, Tammy Erickson). Network knowledge always has a very personal, human component.

Energized by the ideas I heard and people I met, I am excited to continue writing and sharing my experiences here in Silicon Valley, with the Connected Commons and through interactions with other organizations. Stay tuned for more posts on themes of particular interest, including innovation and networks and the personal aspects of networks. I’m also curious about the ways organizations are experimenting with different structures and practices along the continuum of hierarchy to network.

Woodstock was a cultural phenomenon – and one of the great network experiments of the 20th century. Who knows where the network knowledge and experiments of today take us in the 21st century? Join in and you, too, can be a part of something to remember.

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