Magazine article People & Strategy

What Happens Next?

Magazine article People & Strategy

What Happens Next?

Article excerpt

Karen Stephenson articulates the need for organizations to think across boundaries and suggests a new meta-organizational form, the heterarchy. Her article provides a good set of descriptors for what these networks look like. I am personally invested in understanding how to create and sustain networks, and would have liked to see in this article some guidance on working with these new forms.

Networks come about in several ways. There are those that are intentionally designed by (1) clarifying the network's purpose; (2) establishing a model for its structure and governance; (3) paying attention to the style of how the network is operated and led; and (4) ensuring that the network produces value to those who are in it as well as to the ecosystem in which it operates. Professional association networks, cooperatives and communities of practice are examples of designed networks.

Other networks are truly emergent in that they self organize around markets and ideas or in response to opportunities, threats or crises. Small groups of volunteers provide whatever they are capable of to assist survivors in the wake of a hurricane, and then connect with other small groups until a larger network is perceived and the ecosystem becomes tangible. Consider also the growth of the Linux open-source community that began with an individual's desire to create a free computer operating system and to tap into any and all available talent to develop and maintain it.

We can think of these two approaches as the top-down and bottom-up, with most failed examples being those imposed from the top down (the U.S. intelligence agencies example that Stephenson cites). The idea of heterarchy suggests that there is a third possibility: An external actor (or agent) provides a framework within which a network or networks find fertile ground for connecting and building relationships. A company may use a so-called "shaping strategy" (Hagel et al. …

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