Why your network is your life support system


smart systemsThis post is about why your social networks are so powerful and essential for learning and well-being. It’s a follow-on post from my last one, Complexity Yourself – And Others.

According to Neil Usher, we’re all “serial incompetents.” I love that. It perfectly expresses the fact that work for many is constantly changing and we are having to do things we’ve never done before. And because work for many is becoming more socially and culturally complex, and knowledge more abstract, this means that more and more people in organisations – particularly at operational levels – are having to deal routinely with complex issues.

21st century skills

So what are some of the 21st century skills that will equip us to cope with complexity and warp-speed technological developments, which are as potentially disruptive for the future as the Industrial Revolution was in the past? As I see it they include:

Operational skills – Operational skills are about knowing what needs to be done and how. But complex, dynamic contexts are full of conflict and ethical dilemmas. You have to be aware of constraints and risks – taking them into consideration as far as you can at the outset (things are typically as clear as mud at that point) and carrying on sensing them as they emerge in action. The thing you’re trying to do is a moving target

You have to be able to make judgements about what you are going to do, choosing from a range of alternative options – all of which have unpredictable and risky outcomes. How do you choose? Using what criteria? Why those criteria rather than others? What ethical and moral judgements are you having to make? Where are the risks? And many other questions.

Organisational skills – who will be involved in delivering agile, customer-focused performance?  What structures will best facilitate their interactions? What rules, tools and places do they need to get on with doing stuff together?

Systems thinking skills to sense patterns, to appreciate the complexities of relationship dynamics, and to understand how interacting systems (for example information, physical and online workplaces, learning, leadership and technologies) influence performance.

Intellectual skills – these are about asking questions, thinking critically and challenging the status quo.

Personal effectiveness skills – these cover a whole raft of practical skills like how we manage our time, for example. This is really outside of my expertise, except for one specific set of skills – developing the confidence and ability to unlearn, learn and adapt within complex contexts. How we assess our own abilities to do these things can put barriers in our way – if we believe we’re not up to doing something that can become self-fulfilling.

Social skills – these include being able to communicate and cooperate effectively within and across culturally diverse boundaries (organisational, geographical, demographic, professionally) – experimenting, innovating, connecting, sharing, learning together and supporting one another.


How to go about developing these skills, that’s the question. I’d argue that the best way is to connect to your network and learn from the people you know. Why is this such an opportunity – and so crucial? I need to talk a bit about viability before saying why networks are so increasingly vital to us.

I mentioned Stafford Beer in Complexify yourself and Ross Ashby’s idea that “only variety absorbs variety” – where ‘variety’ can be used as a proxy for complexity. Beer uses Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety to support the idea that responsibility for self-determined action (doing, coordinating and adapting) has to be pushed down and throughout an organisation to the point where the work is being done.

This is partly because the people doing the work are best placed to know what to do. But it’s mainly for the reason that those at the top of a hierarchy must distribute these responsibilities – otherwise they will not be able to absorb the complexity coming at them from the external business environment.

This is the crux of why the Law of Requisite Variety has always been so practically relevant – and why its relevance increases as the external business environment becomes more complex. The concept implies that organisations that fail to distribute responsibility for absorbing complexity will eventually cease to be viable – they will not be resilient against shocks coming at them from their external environment.

As well as top-down / bottom-up dynamics, Beer’s Viable System Model also explicitly includes tapping into sideways-distributed capabilities to increase an organisation’s resilience and ultimately its viability. This theoretical modelling of vertical and horizontal coordinating dynamics echoes what happens in practice. Networks and hierarchy co-existing is one of the ‘dualities’ that Pettigrew and Fenton observed in the international research they did more than a decade ago exploring the characteristics of innovating organisations.

By the way, hierarchy as an organising principle is currently getting another one of its periodic assessments – is it a Good Thing or is it a Bad Thing? The American academic Bob Sutton is busy defending hierarchy. This is going round and round in circles. See Elliott Jaques’ article In Praise of Hierarchy from more than 20 years ago.

So networks and hierarchy together? Always was and always will be. But networks are increasingly the dominant life-support systems that both people and businesses need to stay alive and kicking. This is partly about the enormous potential of Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus. But I think that’s far from the whole story.

Our own viability

One of the most spectacular possibilities that social technologies offer is that our individual creativity and knowledge is exponentially expanded by connecting to our personal networks – both within and outside organisational boundaries. Our need to learn and be socially connected are profound. And social technologies let us do both of those things on a massive scale.

So far so obvious really.  But our networks are about much more than finding information and co-creating stuff together, important as they are. We’ve always needed each other in the workplace and the informal bonds people form have always been linked to effective performance. I wrote about it in Social Business Comes Full Circle.

And learning in complex contexts seriously challenges us. When was the last time you felt incompetent? Out of your depth? Think what you’re trying to is overwhelming?

I said at the end of the Complexify post that I was part of a team who pioneered practical, experiential and project-based learning (a complex undertaking) with senior executives who were themselves trying to do very complex things. Again and again I realised working with these people how emotionally challenging it can be as a ‘serial incompetent’ trying to make sense of horribly complex situations.

I also know what it feels like to be a serial incompetent. I can think of several specific examples in my working life where I was thrown into particularly difficult sink-or-swim situations.  Emotionally challenging? Yes, and some.

Why our networks keep us viable

Your network is a life-support system – literally as it turns out. I started thinking about this in a post I wrote last year,Dead Man Working. Any of you kind enough to read these posts regularly will know that I am a fan of Professor Sir Michael Marmot. His research over more than thirty years suggests that participation in social networks and having a range of social ties are important for health and well-being. This is what he says about social capital in Health In An Unequal World:

Taking social networks and supports to the level of the community leads to ideas of social capital—the idea that some communities are marked out by cohesiveness and trust. The evidence supporting the links between the social capital of a community and health is suggestive.”

And then our networks keep us viable by helping us to update out skills. Who are the experts? Who knows what? Who’s trying out new things? How can you learn together and from each other?

The crucial thing about networks is not only about knowledge and information, it’s about the abundance of social support you can get from your friends – and kind, generous people you’ve never met on the other side of the world.

That’s where I think our social networks are particularly crucial. It’s there we find empathy, support, pull-your-socks-up challenges, playful conversations, friends who act as sounding boards, sources of advice – and so on. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the people in my network. They are indeed my life support system.

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