Networks and Autonomy

“Networks  are voluntary connections between autonomous peers.”

Connected AutonomyOrganizations are autonomous when they have final say over their own future. People are autonomous when they have final say over their lives. I might be autonomous at home but not at work, by the way, just as I’m free to decide who I vote for in an election or what movie to watch this weekend but not to decide whether to merge my organization with another one. That latter type of decision is checked by an organizational reporting structure, so I’m not acting autonomously when I make it. Similarly, a division of a corporation isn’t autonomous because final say on important matters sits outside, in the parent corporation.

What does this have to do with networks? Hang on, we’re getting there – but first a word about relationships that are voluntary. As an employee, the connection I have with my organization is not voluntary – it’s part of an institutional hierarchy just like the corporate division that reports to its parent. These relationships are power relationships – institutional power relationships, to be specific. They’re not voluntary, and they’re usually backed up by the force of law through things like employment contracts and corporate bylaws.

Networks are an alternative organizational structure to hierarchies; not necessarily better, just different. You join them voluntarily and they connect you, not to a reporting structure, but to peers. Networks connect peers in ways that help them safely and voluntarily shed a little bit of their autonomy – just enough to be able to get work done together.

To illustrate, let’s talk about a partnership, a simple form of network that connects just two entities. True partnerships are between equals. When two people decide to marry or move in together, the resulting partnership is voluntary and between equals. When two firms decide the advantages of ongoing collaboration outweigh the costs of coordination, the resulting partnership is voluntary and between peers.

In true partnerships, the relationship between partners is definitely not a reporting relationship where one controls the other. It’s much more complicated and nuanced than that – just ask anyone whose been married or in a significant relationship for any real length of time. The same is true for partnerships between two independent companies.

It’s also important to note that if a third party were to force the collaboration, the connection between ‘partners’ wouldn’t be voluntary and they wouldn’t really be acting autonomously. In networks, there is no external controlling force. It’s not only the individual members of the network that are autonomous; the network itself is also autonomous.

Why is autonomy so important to networks? Because, as we’ll see in future posts, they run on a different set of principles than organizational hierarchies. Networks collapse when we use the wrong operating manual to run them. Networks aren’t the answer to everything. Many situations really are best solved by organizational hierarchy. Lots of good stuff has been written about working with hierarchies. You’ll find it in the “management and leadership” section of your favorite bookstore. In comparison, less has been written about networks, so that’s the focus here.

Understanding that organizations voluntarily give up a little bit of their autonomy in order to work together is a critical first step in understanding how networks function. How that happens and what that means is were things get a little more interesting…