Contrasting Network Communities: Transparent, Efficient, and Invested vs Not

Different networks and different communities have different amounts of social capital going for them. As was originally described by Putnam (1993), some networks are organized hierarchically in a command-and-control structure. The top layers here are the autocrats, nobility, or bosses who run the show. Rigid conformity is the name of the game to get by. Those in power can make or break anyone. Market transactions in this context are characterized by the thumb on the scale, the bribe, and the kickback. Everyone is watching out for themselves.

At the opposite extreme are horizontal networks characterized by altruism and a sense that doing what’s good for everyone will eventually come back around to be good for me. The ideal here is a republic in which the law rules and everyone has the same price of entry into the market.

What I’d like to focus on is what’s going on in these horizontal networks. What makes one a more tightly-knit community than another? The closeness people feel should not be oppressive or claustrophic or smothering. I’m thinking of community relations in which people feel safe, not just personally but creatively. How and when are diversity, dissent and innovation not just tolerated but celebrated? What makes it possible for a market in new ideas and new ways of doing things to take off?

And how does a community like this differ from another one that is just as horizontally structured but that does not give rise to anything at all creative?

The answers to all of these questions seem to me to hinge on the transparency, efficiency, and volume of investments in the relationships making up the networks. What kinds of investments? All kinds: emotional, social, intellectual, financial, spiritual, etc. Less transparent, inefficient, and low volume investments don’t have the thickness or complexity of the relationships that we can see through, that are well lubricated, and that are reinforced with frequent visits.

Putnam (1993, p. 183) has a very illuminating way of putting this: “The harmonies of a choral society illustrate how voluntary collaboration can create value that no individual, no matter how wealthy, no matter how wily, could produce alone.” Social capital is the coordination of thought and behavior that embodies trust, good will, and loyalty. Social capital is at play when an individual can rely on a thickly elaborated network of largely unknown others who provide clean water, nutritious food, effective public health practices (sanitation, restaurant inspections, and sewers), fire and police protection, a fair and just judiciary, electrical and information technology, affordably priced consumer goods, medical care, and who ensure the future by educating the next generation.

Life would be incredibly difficult if we could not trust others to obey traffic laws, or to do their jobs without taking unfair advantage of access to special knowledge (credit card numbers, cash, inside information), etc. But beyond that, we gain huge efficiencies in our lives because of the way our thoughts and behaviors are harmonized and coordinated on mass scales. We just simply do not have to worry about millions of things that are being taken care of, things that would completely freeze us in our tracks if they weren’t being done.

Thus, later on the same page, Putnam also observes that, “For political stability, for government effectiveness, and even for economic progress social capital may be even more important than physical or human capital.” And so, he says, “Where norms and networks of civic engagement are lacking, the outlook for collective action appears bleak.”

But what if two communities have identical norms and networks, but they differ in one crucial way: one relies on everyday language, used in conversations and written messages, to get things done, and the other has a new language, one with a heightened capacity for transparent meaningfulness and precision efficiency? Which one is likely to be more creative and innovative?

The question can be re-expressed in terms of Gladwell’s (2000) sense of the factors contributing to reaching a tipping point: the mavens, connectors, salespeople, and the stickiness of the messages. What if the mavens in two communities are equally knowledgeable, the connectors just as interconnected, and the salespeople just as persuasive, but messages are dramatically less sticky in one community than the other? In one network of networks, saying things once gets the right response 99% of the time, but in the other things have to be repeated seven times before the right response comes back even 50% of the time, and hardly anyone makes the effort to repeat things that many times. Guess which community will be safer, more creative, and thriving?

All of this, of course, is just another way to bring out the importance of improved measurement for improving network quality and community life. As Surowiecki put it in The Wisdom of Crowds, the SARS virus was sequenced in a matter of weeks by a network of labs sharing common technical standards; without those standards, it would have taken any one of them weeks to do the same job alone. The messages these labs sent back and forth had an elevated stickiness index because they were more transparently and efficiently codified than messages were back in the days before the technical standards were created.

So the question emerges, given the means to create common languages with enhanced stickiness properties, such as we have in advanced measurement models, what kinds of creativity and innovation can we expect when these languages are introduced in the domains of human, social, and natural capital markets? That is the question of the age, it seems to me…

Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations. New York: Doubleday.

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