Monday, April 02, 2007

Reading :: The Age of the Network

The Age of the Network
by Jessica Lipnack, Jeffrey Stamps

David Ronfeldt offhandedly cited this book in his monograph on societal organization, so I put it on the list. It's oriented toward business readers, and perhaps in consequence it is thin on the scholarly side and overpromises the results of networked organizational structures. However, it does provide a useful introduction to the differences among organizational structures.

Lipnack and Stamps' central argument is in a pull quote on the first page:
The network is emerging as the signature form of organization in the Information Age, just as bureaucracy stamped the Industrial Age, hierarchy controlled the Agricultural Era, and the small group roamed in the Nomadic Era. (p.3)
Sensibly, the authors point out that networked organizational structures do not supplant earlier forms of organization, but coexist with them. Hierarchies don't cease to exist. (Ronfeldt cites this argument in his similar argument about societal organization.) And although the distinctions are made a bit superficially, the authors do provide some good examples of how networks coexist with other structures and how they are implemented through "teamnets," "coopetition," and boundary crossing.

Lipnick and Stamps argue that networks have five key organizing principles: unifying purpose; independent members; voluntary links; multiple leaders; and integrated levels (p.18). Networks, they say, exist at the top of "organizational sediments" that include previous forms (bureaucracies, hierarchies, and "small groups" or what Ronfeldt calls tribes)(p.35). Like Ronfeldt, they peg these organizational types to epochs (p.38) and, later, to human evolution (p.140). In this latest phase, the Information Age, "relationships are the dominant reality" (p.42) and links across agents increase dramatically, leading to greater horizontal complexity across and within organizations. Those links convey the benefits of flexibility, power, and speed (p.70), but only if the complexity can be managed.

That's the meat of the book; the authors go on to discuss case studies and extract principles, but also to offer heuristics that seem a bit too simple (such as a "hierarchy ruler," p.137). They get positively giddy in Chapter 7, which is about online communication, and promise far too much. But the first few chapters serve as a worthwhile primer for net work.

1 comment:

jlipnack said...

Thanks much for mentioning The Age of the Network. Of all the books we've written on this topic, this one continues to attract the most attention. That you found us "positively giddy" in our chapter on online communication makes me want to point out the year we wrote those words: 1993. Consider asking your readers to list the year they first went online. In 1993, the web was still called "the world-wide web," browsing was something people did in books, and surfing was limited to coastal communities. All the same, many thanks!

--jessica lipnack