Connecting Dots and Valuing Networks

“More people, sharing more resources, in new ways, is the history of civilisation.”

The above quote comes from Howard Rheingold’s 2002 book Smart Mobs and its sets a suitably grand tone for this post that I‘ve been chewing over for a while. I’ve always been interested in new way of connecting & networking & relationship building and recently have been spurred on to write this post by 3 unrelated events, described briefly below:

  1. Amplified08 – A ‘network of networks’ event that brought together 250 people and 40+ creative and technology led networks from across the UK. A self organised conference that is anticipated to be the first of many, that sparked lots of commentary and excitement. See here for various blogs and here for the huge volume of comments on twitter.
  2. V-Jam – A Virgin Atlantic innovation workshop to explore the future of air travel and in particular the role that social media can play. The event brought together a diverse group including lots of their customers, suppliers, partners, and various other interested parties. Again, this sparked much commentary on blogs here and on twitter here.
  3. Learning Dreams – A small gathering hosted by Tessy Britton to hear about a successful scheme that has been running in Minnesota for over a decade, led by Dr Jerry Stein, which has been successful in building a more joined up education system in the state.

In each case many people were very excited by the events themselves (myself included) and the opportunities that the events and networks presented. However in each case there was also a significant minority asking the valid question ‘well what was the point of that?’. To be more precise, what I think they meant by this was ‘what real transactions occurred on the day?’ or ‘what commercial/social value was created?’. However I think this is possibly the right question at the wrong time, and misses the immediate value of networking.

Conversations first, then relationships, then transactions

There is a sequence of activities that occur in networks that can seldom be bypassed. Namely you start with lots of conversations, some of which will lead to a smaller number of some kind of relationships. Eventually, and almost certainly long after the first time people met, some transactions may follow that create value, be it commercial or social.

Therefore to judge an event by the number of transactions on the day misses the point. I think you can only observe the conversations and relationships that were created. Over the longer term you may be able to analyse the transactions that followed but this is still very hard.

  • In the case of Amplified08, the number of conversations sparked before, during and after the event, leads me to conclude that a host of new relationships were formed and transactions will follow. On that point alone I judge it a huge success. Whether Amplified exists as a network in 12 months time is not the point and whether it could have been managed a bit better is undoubtedly true but not what’s important.
  • Regarding V-Jam, I think the event represented a big shift in the way Virgin engage with their customers, suppliers, and various other partners and interested parties. It also sparked a host of conversations and should be perceived as a success. I am fairly confident that this will lead to an array of new projects and transactions but it’s too early to specify what these will be.
  • In the case of Learning Dreams, Jerry Stein (the lead protagonist) almost innately felt compelled to connect up all the disparate education organisations and services. But it started with him going door to door to chat to excluded students and their parents, and the value/transactions followed later. He has been very successful and it is a model that is being copied elsewhere including in Britain. 

Our Big Hairy Audacious Goal for Britain

I kick started proceedings at Amplified (see qik video here – apologies for the terrible audio) setting the following big hairy audacious goal:

“to make Britain the most connected country on the planet”

Now I know how difficult that is and had my doubts about saying it out loud (it’s not very British to be so bold is it but then again I’m not very British – I’m happy to explain my gene pool separately to anyone who is interested). However I am certain of the value that it would create for Britain. If we could achieve this goal, or even get anywhere close. I actually think that Britain is already something of a hub in the global economy culturally, economically, geographically and financially, and so it is realistic.

However, the value of networks is, by definition, highly distributed, and therefore it is seldom in any one person or organisations interest to support them. This is where public institutions like Nesta may have a role to play in connecting the dots, people and networks for the wider societal and economic good.

Connecting the Dots – a mathematical interlude

The theme at Davos this year, I’m reliably informed, is ‘Connecting the dots’ which is interesting but who know what those clever and influential people will talk about. But allow me to start with some simple maths that might help. Here are 47 dots connected in 3 different ways.

 

There are lots of different ways in which they could be connected but there appear to be 3 main different ways as follows:

  1. hub and spoke – to me looks like the Britain’s motorway or high speed rail network
  2. multi hub – to looks like the global energy network (oil and gas)
  3. distributed – looks like the network upon which the internet is based

In fact, this chart comes from this classic paper, that was very influential in determining how the internet infrastructure should be distributed to maximise safety.

Anyway, looking at these 3 different ways of connecting, and thinking much more widely than just internet technology, I think we’ve got too much a) and b) and not enough c). The problem is, c) has lots of supposedly random links that are often considered redundant and costly.

Towards a Distributed Innovation Ecosystem

For innovat

ion to flourish in a country or a place, requires the contribution of many actors, from universities, to corporates, to small companies, to public sector institutions etc. However looking at the supposed innovation ecosystem in most countries, there is a at best a multihub network where universities, governments and corporates have undue power.

I would argue that good ideas come from anywhere and we need a much more distributed (along the lines of picture c above) economic and social landscape to allow these to flourish. This has numerous implications for intellectual property regimes and other structures which are more than enough for another blog post so I won’ t go into that here.

Our mindset needs to change from ‘what’ to ‘who’

We have seen the cost and speed of accessing information plummet over recent years, decades, centuries. I believe that in the not to distant future we can essentially assume that access to all information will be freely available to all (who have internet access – I‘m well aware of the 5bn who don‘t). And I do mean all.

Now much of this information will be classed as misinformation and much of it will infringe all kinds of peoples intellectual property so I’m not suggesting this is a universally good thing. However I think that if this happens, then it will require a major shift in the way individuals and organisations perceive themselves and create value.

Currently we identify ourselves (as individuals or members of organisations and institutions) based on our knowledge. It’s just what we do. However if access to all information is freely available then it is never more so a question of ’who you know, not what you know’. And by this I really don’t mean some kind of closed old boy network. In fact is quite the opposite. It’s very much an open and global network.

In future we will create value not on the basis of our knowledge, but on the basis of how we can leverage our relationships or social networks to capitalise on the information that we all have access to. This will not be easy but I would argue that those unable to make the shift will be left behind.

What’s Next? – Network Value

To try to assess the value of networks or events such as Amplified, V-Jam or Learning Dreams based on the transactions that occurred on a particular day is to miss the point and value of networking. There are a variety of ways we can connect the dot, people and networks and I would argue that we must strive to maintain diversity and distribution in the networks we create, and foster, so as not to further entrench existing silos.

I’ve heard somebody say recently, and I can’t remember who I’m afraid, that 20 years ago companies couldn’t quantify the value of their brand, which they now can through a variety of methods. It’s called ‘Brand Value’ and it tends to be the biggest number on the balance sheet for companies like Coke. What needs to happen now is a similar shift from knowing that networks are important, to being able to quantify the value of our networks – our ‘Network Value’. There have been fledgling attempts at this over the years e.g. the net promoter score but I’m aware of some of the concerns with this and needless to say our understanding of how to calculate ‘Network Value’ this needs to get much more sophisticated.

And Finally…

I’m not sure quite how to summarise all of the above but needless to say it’s important to me, and the work we do at Nesta Connect. As always I’d be really interested in the thoughts or feedback of others.

Needless to say I think networks are increasingly crucial and we should set ourselves as big hairy audacious goal to make the UK the most connected place on the planet (whilst being aware and welcoming that other countries will have, or may already have, the same objective).

So as connectivity continues to grow exponentially, it up to us to understand what this means socially, economically and politically; to continue to build networked organisational models that better share risk and reward, and to share what we are learning.

Comments

  1. The move from (a) or (b) to (c) seems to involve two things:
    (1) Creating new links where no links existed before;
    (2) Redistributing power across the network;
    Unless power (the ability to be heard, to make things happen etc.) gets redistributed, I would hazard that (c) collapses back into (b) in most relevant respects.

  2. I guess it is in part James and thanks for the link to the Doc Searls article. I get a bit annoyed when people go into sales mode as soon as you first meet them at an event and it completely misses the point of networking in the first place which, as far as I’m concerned, is to build relationships, some of which will be useful to you later on but you never know which ones.
    Tim – I agree that building new links are important but they will erode existing power structures if they are effective. I’m quite inspired by the principle of ‘organising without organisations’ which is potentially disruptive in all manner of contexts.
    Anyway, thanks both for persisting with an overlong post. I didn’t have time to write a succinct one!
    R

  3. Roland: I think there is an interesting question about whether or not building new links /will/ erode existing power structures.
    It would be good if they did. But I think the redistribution of power needs to consciously addressed. Though I don’t want to suggest there should be a top-down redistribution – rather that we each as participants in the networks need to be conscious of how we each become individual distributors of authority and power (somewhat like human parts of a google pagerank system) in the network.
    For example (on a very basic level), do we retweet the best ideas whoever they come from (building the network links and distributing power/authority), or do we tend towards retweeting the ideas of the established, high-follower twitterati primarily /because/ they are the high-follower high profile twitterati?
    Whereas in organisations we could build in (or in many cases fail to build in) structural constraints designed to level out disparities in power – in the networked organising without organisations world this ceases to be an organisational responsibility – and becomes a responsibility of all individuals in the network.
    If Rohan and you will forgive me for using your blog posts to muse aloud, I think what I’m trying to get at here is that – as we shift from organisations to networked organising – we need to consider the individual behaviours which will nudge networks towards the most positive outcomes. From a philosophical angle I’m thinking of this as creating/articulating individual ethics for networked interaction to create more ethical networks. From an innovation perspective, it may be thinking about the sorts of behaviours I should adopt as a node in the network to promote innovation, and then encouraging those behaviours in some way…

  4. Geoff – my pleasure. It was good to get it off my chest too, but really pleased it struck a chord.
    Tim – I admit that I am prone to idealism however I do think that people are now able to bypass existing powerstructures in a way that is exciting and previously not possible. For instance, in the film Us Now (see http://blogs.nesta.org.uk/connect/2008/12/my-mission-to-ungeek-the-nation-.html for a trailer) Paul Miller of School of Everything talks about the education system being broken and not having to rely on governments to do something about it. I find that inspiring and suspect that kind of thing will happen more and more.
    All organisations and networks have hierarchies and it’s not straight forward to level out power inequalities, but it’s easier in a network than in an.
    As Jimmy Wales says regarding the success of Wikipedia, namely that it’s not just a free for all, rather it’s one part anarchy, one part democracy, one part aristocracy, one part meritocracy and one part monarchy.

  5. Roland -“Paul Miller of School of Everything talks about the education system being broken and not having to rely on governments to do something about it. I find that inspiring and suspect that kind of thing will happen more and more.”
    Have you taken a look at the US education system (broken by almost all accounts) and the failure of Federal and State government’s to fix it? The US has spawned a plethora of educational alternatives for those with money and imagination but scant all for the remaining majority condemned to live with government indifference. It is too easy to focus on the upside and forget there is always a down side and I doubt if this is what you want for the UK.
    There seems to be a trend in the UK for Government to give-up on anything that is difficult hoping that private enterprise and personal initiatives will plug the gap. This may be true for those with money and imagination but it takes no account of the longer-term consequences of such a policy and an increasingly fragmented and divided society that may result.
    I think the challenge is not to abandon the need to govern and fix the big things that are broken (such as education and health) but to find better ways to govern and provision services that satisfy the more diverse and varied needs of citizens. In my view leveraging new ideas and enterprising individuals should be a part of this transformation and not an alternative approach, otherwise government will become ever more marginalised and irrelevant to everyday life with potentially disastrous results for democracy.
    I think at least a part of Obama’s huge success was down to his desire and promise to change (not abandon) government, the trend under Bush. US citizens still want to be led and governed and they clearly want better education, health and other services previous government’s have left to others to do something about.

  6. Brendan – I couldn’t agree more. The quote from Paul is perhaps misleading. I think governments and institutions have a crucial role to play, but what we have now, is the opportunity to organise outside of existing institutions as well as more formal organisations. I think small examples like School of Everything, if successful, might then feedback into bigger decisions about local or national education policy which is a good thing. I guess fundamentally I believe that more linkages will lead to more opportunities for innovation, and this is provable on a small scale, what we now need to do is prove it on a large scale. Roland

  7. roland, great goal, there seems to be more awareness these days about the power of networking, and not only online as the connotation of the word mostly implies these days , but also and more so with face to face events . While the “online only” remains sometimes more superficial , and the face to face one-offs may fail to capture the thinking which follows as a result of the energy of the event, linking the two and creating that continuum where participants feel comfortable to contribute , i hope could bring more impact, connect the stages, and help go more organically from (a) to (b) and possibly (c).Just to take the example of Vjam event,it was a great day, lots of ideas and conversations which now thanks to Ning can continue to develop,and may be followed by another face to face Vjam2 and so on

  8. A quick question: why is C preferable to B ? B has the attractive property that it takes fewer links for any node/point to get to any other node/point (a ‘shorter path length’). Think of moving from the bottom left corner to the top right corner in C – a veritable slog. In other words, B is a world where we are more likely to access the information, resources and people we need faster and more efficiently.

  9. Fair comment Sherlock but in B there is a central node (e.g. government, heathrow, the ceo) upon which the whole network depends heavily and therefore is susceptible to danger/delays. It is better than A though!

  10. I do think that a big challenge in all of this is to find real world assets and revenue streams to reinforce the connecting points in the networks that are built. This doesn’t have to be money. It can be transactions in other things that can be translated in to some form of currency. And ‘distributed communication networks’ are all fine and dandy but the key bit is how they are grown and people jumping off cliffs to make a start on something that happens organically.

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  12. […] difference between activity and action. In a post that is not unrelated to these thoughts, titled Connecting Dots and Valuing Networks, Roland Harwood explains: “There is a sequence of activities that occur in networks that can seldom be […]

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