Sherry P. Johnson
The Power of Networks
I'm really excited to write about networks today. They've been on my mind a lot lately, because networks are key to understanding how to responsibly move, shape, and influence complex adaptive systems—human systems. A lot of times organizations are enamored with doing Big Things—the re-org or the strategic plan—when what they really need is to understand some of the intuitive, simple ways that influencing a human network can make a huge difference in the way a system behaves and functions. Networks determine productivity, sure, but they also define how good or bad it feels to be in that system, depending upon your orientation within it.
When we think about networks in our society, we tend to center on visions of social media or computer networks--diagrams of nodes and connections floating in space. But I'm talking about networks where humans are connected to other humans, which is a lot more like networks in natural systems. If you're in community organizing circles you've probably heard about mycelial networks—how mushrooms are connected underground in massive networks that we barely understand. Tree roots are another natural network, captivating researchers by the ways they silently communicate with one another.
We can get captivated or overwhelmed by this concept in nature, but the fact is we're the same. As humans we connect in very much the same way, in complex patterns where the whole is greater than the sum of our parts.
I’ll unpack a lot of my thoughts in the next few posts, but let’s first define some terms. When I'm talking about a node in a human system, I'm referring to a person--a human being in a human system. Think of them in your head as a little dot scribbled on a piece of paper. Every node is connected to at least one other node.
We can then describe the thickness of a connection and the closeness of a connection. Thick connections, to me, are between people who must work or communicate with one another regularly. Think of well-trodden paths through a forest that gets wider over time. Then, the closeness of a connection is the distance between nodes, where a short line denotes intimacy, care, and trust...and a long line may indicate mistrust, coldness, or a sharp disparity in power. Where things get complicated, of course, is that the people we must communicate with all the time may not be those we most trust, or the other way around.
I'll get to the other more complicated stuff later—like the collective quality of connections in a system—but these are the basics. As you move through the next week or so, be thinking about how you are connected at home, in your community, or in your workplace. Draw that map, starting with the nodes, writing their names. Then think about the number and quality of connections within that place--their thickness or closeness. It's a fun exercise that I highly recommend, because it can open up your curiosity and mess with some assumptions you’ve have been carrying. You may find it almost suggests its own action when you do it!