Friday, 21 October 2011

How to Become a Central Hub in a Network World

Communication technology is rapidly changing the way we interact as humans; affecting social, democratic and corporate cultures. The flow of information now increasingly happens through networks, which in many ways communicate faster and more effectively than so-called traditional hierarchies. Networks have become the new metaphor used to explain human interaction. As Newman, Barabasi, and Watts write in The Structure and Dynamics of Networks, “Networks are everywhere. From the Internet and its close cousin the World Wide Web to networks in economics, networks of disease transmission, and even terrorist networks, the imagery of the network pervades modern culture.” So what constraints does a network system put on a leader, and what does leadership mean in such a system? Network Leadership has two prominent features: attracting attention, and persuading cooperation through a transcendent vision.

In Thinking about Leadership, Nannerl Keohane (referencing Kenneth Janda) describes how leaders are selected in ‘on-going groups of long duration’ by “occupying a position in a formal structure or being given formal status by a legitimizing agent” (55), and that an individual thus selected only needs to “exercise that power base to demonstrate leadership” (55). This may work in a traditional hierarchical organization, but in a network it becomes more complicated. As Newman, Barabasi, and Watts point out, networks that arise naturally (such as social networks), evolve “in a manner that is typically unplanned and decentralized.” Rather than looking at questions of authority and power relations, leadership in a network can be analyzed through centrality indices . . . and measures of social capital,” with a vocabulary of “actor centrality, path lengths, cliques, connected components” (Newman, Barabasi, and Watts), etc.  A great example is the analysis of our Economy which identifies the 50 best connected companies (and therefore most powerful) in the world economy (full article at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228354.500-revealed--the-capitalist-network-that-runs-the-world.html).