From technological networks to social networks (2)

April 29, 2009

There has been in the last decade much emphasis in American strategic thinking on technological network, following the work of Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka on network-centric warfare. Mark Drapeau and Linton Wells’s paper, Social Software and National Security: An Initial Net Assessment is testimony of the fact that the awareness of social networks and of their pertinence to National Security is increasing. This of course does not mean that technological networks and social networks are mutually exclusive; much to the contrary, they are eminently complementary.

It is capital to stress that it is no longer a question of thinking in terms of opposition between technological networks and social networks, as in this early twenty-first century people are increasingly at ease with technology. They don’t see the machine anymore, but rather the people they are connecting with through the machine. The emphasis has shifted from mastering the technology to using it to interact socially and create personal content. A strong sense of presence can thus be felt in the social networks that are emerging through technology. The connections that we see form today – friendship, business and even love relationships – have existed since the beginning of mankind. What’s different now is the scale and breadth; never before has it been so easy to interact and connect with people outside of our physical, geographic and cultural space. Technology, more than ever, has become a relationships and connections enabler and that’s (mostly) a good thing from a personal perspective.

From an institutional point of view the increasing prominence and openness of social networks can however be perceived as a threat, especially for security reasons. Inward and outward sharing within large institutions and governments often requires some degree of confidentiality and since the most popular social networking tools are open access, hosting them behind the institution’s firewall can present challenges. Behind the security reason that is often evoked, management also often perceive the use of social softwares as a threat to employees’ productivity. It can be, but previous studies have also shown that awareness of what’s going on within the organization and the feeling of belonging to a community have a positive impact on employees’ morale and productivity. Although formal studies on the impact of the use of social network tools have yet to be widely published, my guess is that they will show, in the long run, that social networking increases productivity, not the contrary.

So why is the use of social networking tools in larger institutions – and even smaller ones – so controversial? Resistance to change and to decentralisation is part of the answer. Social networking has very serious implications on communication, work structure and networks, policies, and raises issues regarding the control of information (inward and outward sharing of information in particular), which is evolving rapidly. Such lack of control can appear very frightening to these large institutions which are traditionally top-down driven. By contrast, the use of social software tools is far less controversial for inbound and outbound sharing because it is seen as a good way to communicate with clients and potential clients, and has great potential from a public relations perspective. What is often forgotten however, is that social software tools – like Twitter especially – could potentially turn out to be invaluable tools for managing intra- and inter-institutional change (idea of inward and outward sharing). In particular they could be used to detect trends and “weak signals” from employees and their perception of what’s going on within the organization. As such, they would enable management to ‘redirect’ focus or stop a negative trend before it gets out of control. They could also not only contribute to fostering a feeling of community and closeness and increase loyalty towards company/institutions, but also give employees a broader view and encourage them to participate, to become more involved.

When it comes to national security, and to think beyond what is envisaged by Mark Drapeau and Linton Wells in their thought provoking paper, it might be interesting to think about whether social networking could also have useful applications in the area of strategy development itself. As we all know, traditionally the military approach to strategy development has understandably been one which is very much top-down. In Developing Strategy, a study published a couple of years ago, in the Dutch journal Militaire Spectator, Zoltán Jobbágy has attempted to look at the phenomenon of war as a complex adaptive system, and has very perceptively stressed how two approaches to strategy development could complement one another: “The top-down approach … points toward a cerebral and formal process decomposed into distinct steps and checklists. It is mostly elitist and harnesses only a small proportion of the organisation’s creative potential. The bottom-up approach emphasises learning and adaptation, which require a peripheral vision in order to detect and take advantage of unfolding opportunities.” Whilst the top-down, control and command approach, is obviously necessary in some contexts, however facilitating a bottom-up approach is perhaps necessary in other contexts. This suggests the pertinence of further exploration of the potential of social networking for leveraging distributed cognition and increasing bottom-up inputs in the process of strategy development itself, and in so doing allowing for a greater degree of adaptability and flexibility in ever changing circumstances. One could be tempted to argue that the greatest challenge will be to find a way to catalyse the collective intelligence of the organisation to inform its central function, strategy itself.

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