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This page complements Society and Computing. It presents another barrier to progress, the networks that links people involved in IT business. Though human networks depend, like most matters discussed in Society and Computing, on the culture their principles are probably universal.
A human network is a secret organization that links some people to share secrets and give to these people a competitive advantage. This organization is frequently so secret that its members would sincerely reject the idea that they belong to a network. New members of a network are chosen by the network incumbents. The existence of a network is often more obvious for outsiders who suffer from the consequences of not belonging to the network.
Network perception is an issue of its own. A network is everything but palpable. A pure network is a loose organization without any member list and statute. Network members do not meet in catacombs. They use phone and (cautiously) e-mail. It is possible though not easy to demonstrate the existence of a network using the fact that networks carry information: if you enter a piece of information on one side it will spread to the rest of the network. You may be witness of network actions but never when you are the victim of these actions. Because a network is not palpable you may imagine that you did not get a promotion or suffered because that served a network purpose even when no network was involved. When a network is actually involved you may feel that the situation is hopeless. This is not completely true. First a network is an archaism unable to grasp a technical issue - regardless of the technique - and we live in a world where technical knowledge is increasingly important. Second while it is powerful as an offensive weapon a network is worthless as a defensive weapon. When it is attacked a pure network vanishes.
Networks probably played a part in all revolutions. This is especially obvious in case of American and French revolutions with Free Masonry. This statement seems to contradict our statement that networks are barriers to progress. In this case networks were counter powers that spread enlightenment ideas and helped changing the World. Network perception probably played a part in the rise of anti-Semitism at the end of nineteenth century.
Networks play a part in stabilizing the Society. Linked by networks people belonging to the same social class or making the same job represent a power that other networks and central powers have to respect and to deal with. A network defends the special interests of its members but at the same time, as far as these interests are protected, supports its central power. Central powers and networks had a symbiotic relationship. Because there are many networks with different special interests the central powers are not challenged. With the networks’ support the central powers can achieve a higher level of control of the Society.
The same thing happens in companies. Networks help management but this help has a price: networks transform management messages and prevent change and adaptation. This price may be too high today. Networks are useful when two conditions are met:
Communication is difficult. New media like Internet can make networks unnecessary.
A company needs more order. A company always balance between order and anarchy. To produce a company needs order. To listen customers, identify new business opportunities and adapt to environmental changes a company needs freedom and to some extend anarchy. Networks add more order. When there is already too much order networks are harmful. This is especially true nowadays. When they fear to be laid off and lose their social status people ask for more order and network more, which is the opposite of what they should do to cope with change. This reaction is normal and maybe even wired in our genes: since the emergence of mankind the most effective strategy has always been to gather and to organize like an army to face the danger. The problem is that a company usually declines not because it faces similar organizations with more resources but because it faces sounder organizations with similar resources.
Networks are an archaism at least in business but they last because while they have an adverse impact on the business growth they improve the competitive position of their members. Here lies the paradox: network members intensively communicate with each other and share a lot with them. However their attitude is selfish: a network is an extra burden for a company. A network is not a framework where people cooperate to solve a company problem. A network is a framework where people cooperate to serve their own interests.
Some networks played an important part in structural changes. In these cases some visionaries dreamt a different Society able to address some issues that the existing Society was unable to address. In these networks the visionaries’ ideas were spread, discussed and supported.
However these networks, such as freemason’s lodges, were not pure networks. In a pure network people do not necessarily feel that they belong to a network. People were proud to belong to these self-conscious networks whose statutes commanded members to help and lead non-members. These networks were actually using the network means to achieve a purpose, which was the opposite of the vast majority of the networks. They succeeded because:
They linked forces that wanted a feasible change and were as strong as forces that did not want this change.
Freedom of speech was not enforced. In a Society without censorship they would have been useless.
There is a universal temptation that these networks wonderfully satisfied. You have got ideas that your close circle does not understand. You feel alone, weak or even mentally defective. One day you meet someone with the same ideas. This person introduces you to other people with the same ideas. Now you belong to a community. You are ready to form a network to defend and spread these ideas. You feel comfortable with the method because you were taught that even the greatest religions and resistance movements spread that way.
Company networks are evil because they are barriers to change, put valuable non-networked employees at an unfair competitive disadvantage and misrepresent the facts.
However if we do not restrict our observations to company networks and consider all networks we must note that networking is just a way of socializing. Networks are the continuation of gangs and parties in a more convenient and socially acceptable way. Networks may forge the culture, the identity and the history of a group thank to their capability to massage data, ignore some facts and to build a coherent and simple representation of the group believes and knowledge. Maybe the best example of non-networked environment is the Web. On the Web whatever proposal is proposed to you, you are always at a couple of clicks of the example that contradicts the proposal. The simplified and false representation produced by networks has two virtues:
this is a good starting point for children and newcomers;
people need to agree on a common representation to communicate.
We must also agree that networks make conservative choices never too far from the truth. Networks aim to ensure the prosperity and security of their members, not to misrepresent the facts. They may change the names of the heroes; they will not change what has been done.
A network member has two objectives and two corresponding functions.
The objectives are:
Know more and earlier than non-networked people about subjects that matter. In a company typical subjects are who will get promoted, which project is going to fail.
Achieve some purposes, such as getting a promotion or eliminating a rival.
The functions are:
Influence and act in order to achieve some purposes.
There are two rules in networking:
A network member has to look as strong and trendy as the other network members. Otherwise she will be ejected from the network.
The other members scrutinize the outputs of a member. New outputs are compared with known facts, outputs of other members and thoroughly checked for inconsistencies. Eventually outputs are measured in quality and quantity. A network is a competitive environment. Because output processing is complex it can only handle simple data: who is in love with whom, where a newcomer comes from but not how class loaders are working in Java. Even top management networks of of a high tech company are only able to handle the kind of data that make the plot of sitcoms.
A network member can be involved in a failing project. She can face difficulties that other members would not consider as serious. She can simply be hopeless incompetent. This is frequent because belonging to a network gives a competitive advantage. Higher are the networking skills of a person faster she reached her level of incompetence. In such cases the network member has no choice but to massage the data. This is a complex task. Her output must draw a picture in which she is the center; for instance every good idea has to find its origin in her suggestions. Her output must also present the same facts as those presumably reported by other network members. Her output must eventually show an improvement on the outputs sent before. The massage task is so complex that it typically involves refinement cycles. The massage task is the reason why networks can be slow (while they can be quite fast for neutral data) and why they misrepresent the facts.
From the network principle we can deduct two interesting observations:
If Peter is right, if people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence then networks tend to become Peter networks where all members are incompetent and that process and output complete fantasy.
Networks are unable to handle complex data and their consistency checking requires a stable environment. Networks can only ignore complex contingencies and deny change.
A network member needs to massage only the data related to her own activity. As we have seen this is a tough task. She can be ejected either because she confessed or because she invented too much. If networks had only to handle data related to their members’ activity they would be the hell. Fortunately there are the secrets. A network secret is usually an anecdote about something which happened a level above. A network member can forward a secret without processing. The secret has typically no intrinsic value but it allows network members to feel privileged and strengthens the links between members. Very few true secrets transit in networks. Valuable data like the share value, 10K form and press releases are public and executives do not take any risk with sensitive data that they do not have to publish.
A company network is usually a peer-to-peer network. This is a consequence of network rules. A level x employee can neither compete with a level x + 1 employee nor scrutinize her outputs. This is a matter of hierarchy but also of knowledge. The level x + 1 may have attended management trainings and seminars that were not offered to the level x employee. The level x + 1 may participate to meetings where the level x employee is not invited. The superior knowledge of the level x + 1 employee gives her a competitive advantage. Furthermore the level x + 1 employee is not allowed to use the superior authority she owes to the company to help the level x employee. To summarize in a company network the most powerful members can ask more and give less than other members. This is a point where company networks differ from other human networks.
A network may be a Peter network and still be able to inflict damages to non-networked employees. For the victims this may be more than not getting a well-deserved promotion or the recognition of their efforts. Network members may mob their target and because they are able to coordinate their efforts to induce others to do the same. Even when it does not go so far networks send clear messages: "Do not try to resist, we rule this place: if you make a mistake it will be your mistake; if you succeed it will be our success.", "You are less clever and knowledgeable than you believe. Otherwise how can you explain why you are in trouble?" and "You are the problem. You will face the same difficulties wherever you go."
The reason for the second message is easy to understand. As we have seen a network member must output a picture in which she tries to get the best from people of inferior skills, intelligence and maturity. Therefore the network victim has to be incompetent, stupid or insane. Insanity sometimes expressed in gentler sentences like "she is not a team player" or "we cannot work with her" is the ultima ratio because it makes the network visible. Insanity like intelligence is rather evenly distributed and a network may be at pain to explain why this insane person is a good fellow and why it is impossible to work with this other insane person. Furthermore management and human resources may decide to give a second chance to a productive victim and move her to another department, which is pretty close to disapproving a network recommendation. Therefore a rational network member has to incite the victim to be less competent and less clever and to feel less competent and less clever.
The apparent logic of "You are less clever and knowledgeable than you believe. Otherwise how can you explain why you are in trouble?" may convince the friends and family of the victim but usually not the victim herself. The victim may choose to think and learn less and lose self-confidence because she expects a relief from doing what the network member is asking for. It depends on how much she is convinced by the latter statement: "You are the problem. You will face the same difficulties wherever you go." This statement may be worded in a gentler way but is always present. If it was not the case it would mean that the network acknowledges that it defined special rules to which the victim does not conform.
Networks silently break the self-confidence and kill the motivation of their victims. As we have seen networks link peers but they are usually even more homogeneous. Most of the time their members have the same age and made the same studies in the same country. Being younger or older, having a different background or coming from a different country may be enough to qualify for the network malevolence.
Network victims feel that networks are omnipotent. To explain their weakness they tend to attribute to network members superior mental capacities and ill intents. Then they are plain wrong. The network strength comes from the number of members. A network can be perverted if a member has a perverted mind but this is unusual. For other members there are only drawbacks at teaming with an insane person. Usually networks only aim to contain or eliminate a danger. Eventually networks are not omnipotent.
Company networks are sunny days organizations. They allow people doing reasonably well in a healthy organization to do even better. When the company is no longer doing well networks suffer. There are objective reasons. When the company is struggling to survive it no longer takes care about culture and identity. Because employees keep still anyway the company no longer needs the help of the networks. The crisis breaks the symbiosis between the management and the networks. However, beyond these reasons, networks tend to disaggregate at the moment they should be the most useful - to save member jobs at the expense of the jobs of non-networked employees. This is because of the network principles. You may have noticed that the network protocol only needs three messages:
I would like this thing;
here is the secret I’m happy to share with you:
I made this great thing.
There cannot be a message "Help me! I’m in trouble." Such a message would imply that the issuer is no longer in a position to act, influence and inform the network and therefore trigger her ejection from the network. A cell informs other cells when it is attacked. A network member does not. Weakened members are ejected one by one up to the time the network ceases to exist.
This inability to cope with adverse fortune may be the strongest weakness of networks for business. They simply cannot make the difference between individual failures and environmental changes and raise an alarm when needed.
Networks will not disappear tomorrow even in companies. Networking is part of our culture. However we have observed that company networks:
already have an adverse impact on business;
already have an adverse impact on the employee motivation and on the capability of the company to integrate new cultures;
help their members only in stable conditions and when the company is doing well.
Company networks should become increasingly unpopular and decline in importance, which is a good thing because they are intrinsically unethical.
Cuckoo Ptah Algorithms Graphs Kalman Air Transport Society Networks Device
©2001-2004 Alexis Grandemange Last modified