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The Xpragmatic View #196, June 3, 2012, by
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There is no such thing as the network

The Xpragmatic View #196
June 3, 2012
by Marc Buyens, Xpragma
marc.buyens@xpragma.com
url: http://www.xpragma.com/view196.php

When trying to explain new concepts or paradigms, analogies can be a great tool. However, we should avoid using them for carrying the message of the guarantee of future success.

We humans love analogies. They help us making sense of our changing environment by linking concepts and paradigms that we are not familiar with to things that we already know and (think) to understand.

According to Wikipedia, an analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject to another particular subject.

At the start, every aspect of a new concept or paradigm is weird. However, using analogies, we associate them with things that we already know, we find similarities and we gradually build understanding. It helps us deciphering the complexity of the world we live in.

However, we should only use analogies for the purpose they serve best: building an understanding of something new. Unfortunately, all too often, we also use them for carrying the message of "proof" of the future success of the new thing.

As an example, in the endless stream of posts and articles about the so-called "social enterprise", it has become very popular to make analogies with things we observe in nature. Especially the species that live in groups such as colonies of bees, ants and termites seem to be the perfect analogy for our increasingly networked enterprise.

A couple of weeks ago, we already wrote this small post on our Snippets blog, 'Let us all build rafts', as a reaction to one of these "ant analogies" and now, there was another one by Ross Dawson, 'Creating emergent, adaptive systems in organizations'. Ants seem to be very popular these days.

If we want to build a greater understanding of the workings and the potential of the social enterprise, then such analogies can indeed help. However, if we start using them as some form of proof or guarantee for the future success of social enterprise tools and approaches, then we have a problem.

Indeed, if we really want to "link" the future success of subject B to the observed success of subject A, then we must also make sure that all conditions that exist(ed) in the context of subject A are replicated in the context of subject B. Otherwise, the outcome will be random.

In the examples above, reality is that there is no such thing as "the network". Every network is different and its future success will be function of the individual characteristics of the participants, their mutual interactions and the interactions of the network with its surrounding context.

If you want to think about it that way, you will immediately find countless characteristics where our comparison of the social enterprise and the ant colony is not really "perfect", but for the sake of this post, we will only highlight one difference that already blows away any direct comparison.

In the world of the ants, life and work form a single dimension. The work of the ants is their life and vice-versa.

To some extent, we humans also can have this kind of "alignment". In the past, it was likely so that for craftsmen and farmers, their work was indeed their life. Perhaps that today, this is still true for some artists.

However, since the rise of company structures and especially, after the industrialization, reality is that for the majority of humans, there is a huge chasm between the needs and wants of their private life and their activities as an employee within the enterprise.

We can all dream about the social enterprise but it is extremely difficult to envision how the needs and the wants of the individual and those of the enterprise with its stakeholders can be "aligned".

As we have written in the past, an enterprise is an artefact, an artificial ecosystem, of which the existence is governed by specific objectives, rules and laws that allow it to exist as a whole at the size and the level of complexity that it has.

And the employees work in that artificial ecosystem and their life is outside, somewhere in the real world, where the ants live.

A somewhat unfortunate analogy, of course.

Tags: enterprise 2.0, organisational change, social business

Short biography of Marc Buyens

About Marc Buyens

Marc Buyens is analyst, management consultant and owner of Xpragma. He started Xpragma in 1999 after a 20+ years career in the IT sector. Today, he provides advice, training and mentoring services focusing on the intersection of technological evolution, organisational change and business strategy: a messy world of unfulfilled promises.

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