Networks are People, Too

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Networks are People, Too

I’ve been working in Silicon Valley for several years, so it’s easy to start thinking of networks as a technological phenomenon.

And, learning more about network analysis software via people like Rob Cross and Peter Gray of UVA and Andrew Parker of Grenoble Ecole de Management, I can get excited about the possibilities for using data to better understand and use networks. The technology is impressive.

But, I always bring myself back to the human, personal truth of networks.

Networks are made up of people, each of whom is complex and variable. People create, shape and re-create networks that make up the informal structures in our companies and communities.

So, as we run our data and map our networks, we cannot leave out the personal perspectives, experiences and feelings of the humans that are involved. At theConnected Commons Summit in September, two people gave me new angles for thinking about this.

Tammy Erickson is a well-known author, professor and consultant whose work focuses on the changing workforce, demographic trends and what we should be doing about it in our organizations.

Generation plays a role in why people form networks, the purpose of the network and who gets included, said Tammy. Generational perspective – just like other factors of demography, hierarchy, function or culture – affect our thinking about networks and our behavior within them.

The importance of including people who span generations into our networks – especially those for innovation – is not new. What got my attention was the idea that people would actually respond to the concept of the network differently because of their generational perspective.

Tammy’s research shows, for example, Boomers view networks as a signal of prestige and utility. Xers, who came of age in a time of rising divorce rates and widespread layoffs see networks as security, giving them access to options and information. Millennials use their networks for immediacy, providing real-time information to calibrate what they should be doing next.

Generational differences, then, offer clues to why formal leadership teams of Boomers and Xers struggle to engage with the networks created by the Millennials around them. Or, why some people may be motivated in one kind of network, but not in another. Or, how expectations people have of a network can affect how it functions.

Of course, expectations and assumptions of all kinds affect our ability to act, influence and get things done with others. As Doug Stone pointed out, these hidden factors are often the conversation behind the conversation.

Doug teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School and is co-author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. He reminded us that what is unsaid (the narrative going on in your head while you are having a conversation) is very powerful. Doug also described conversations happening on three levels: facts, feelings and identity. We need to explore why we see the facts differently, admit that a lot of difficult conversations are tied up on our feelings and how we see ourselves.

If a single conversation can be complex and difficult between two people, imagine how that multiplies within networks. Each additional interaction – which includes both an “internal what I’m thinking” and “external what I’m saying” conversation gets multiplied by every other interaction, and things get complicated quick.

The unique takeaway from Tammy and Doug’s work is that while there continues to be impressive advances in social network science, you should never lose sight that networks are ultimately about relationships. After all, networks are people, too.

What do you value most about the network of relationships around you? How has this changed over the course of your life and career?

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