Groups Versus Networks

“A group is elemental, defined by mass and sameness . . . a network is diverse and changing, defined by interactions – like an ecosystem.”
– Stephen Downes

Leadership isn’t always about getting everyone “on the same page,” or speaking with one voice. Sometimes it’s most effective when we’re listening to diverse opinions and ideas, and taking advantage of the wisdom resulting from the diversity of the collective voices. Diversity is critically important, and the way to leverage its value is through networks.

You hear a lot about the importance of networking. The value of networks, however, do not simply lie in meeting or knowing increasing numbers of people.

The ideas here come from the work of the prolific and insightful Canadian educational theorist, Stephen Downes.

groups vs networksOrganizing as networks rather than groups also helps to cultivate shared leadership. The sharing that takes place in networks is an indicator of people finding and acting on, their shared interests and values.

In the sort of network that I’m talking about, every member can find a communication connection to every other member. The network is distributed, rather than centralized. Think of the way social media facilitates communication, as opposed to the way a monthly newsletter does.

A commitment to networks requires trust in the idea that people will make the right decisions if given a variety of options or scenarios from which to choose. A distributed network is also an effective way to identify emerging leaders. Distributed networks cultivate shared leadership.

(Note: For dozens of stories of how networks of creative, sharing people are changing the world, I’d recommend Clay Shirky’s insightful book: Cognitive Surplus.)

[post updated 9/22/2016]

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