Leading in a networked world

Success will mean changing the hierarchy and traditional control structures of management.
By Doug Macnamara
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/03/2001

The new economy is a networked economy — a system of systems. Key to understanding a network is the inter-connections and inter-relationships among the systems and components.

This connectivity will become a fundamental consideration in leadership thinking and decision-making. Leaders must now act with the awareness that everything they consider, and potentially everything their employees do, is indeed connected to everything else. For example, many companies now depend on a complex web of advice and work from employees and contractors often connected electronically around the world. A decision made in Toronto might affect a team member or business unit in Calgary, Hong Kong or Delhi.

If “leadership” is fundamentally about sensing and identifying the need for adaptation, then leaders will have to help employees shift perspectives and adapt frames of reference for a new context.

Today’s global network leader will become known for a focus on sustainability — financial, social and environmental. This will require a commitment to the exploration of alternate perspectives, the active sensing of changes in the network around him, collaboration, facilitation of adaptive processes, creative expression, innovation for mutual benefit, and the courageous “push back” against outmoded bureaucracy and narrow interests.

The trouble is, with the speed of change, things are often happening faster than one’s scanning can detect.

It may also be difficult for people to perceive the need for changing frames-of-reference, especially if they are personally benefiting from their current frame.

Surely though, in 2001, there are enough signals for some to recognize organizations cannot continue solely under the old models of management.

Network leadership

So what might this “network leadership” actually look like?

1. Creating a leadership dashboard. Leaders in the networked world will require the ability to scan and process information quickly and efficiently in order to ease the apparent disjointedness that often results from information overload. To do this, successful leaders will use technologies available to construct some kind of “leadership dashboard,” to integrate and channel information.

2. Re-think traditional structures, processes. Success will mean changing the hierarchy and traditional control structures and forms of management. In replacing these structures, network leaders must facilitate the creation of highly adaptive and regularly changing organization structures, teams and communications. Employees, contractors, alliance partners, suppliers, customers or clients are labels that might all apply to the same person at different moments in time. Successful leaders will change to accommodate this.

New structures that reach across organizations, and indeed into other organizations, will have to be created to share context, communications and knowledge. These forums might initially appear ungainly or even top-heavy as a large number of senior decision-makers gather to share ideas.

Traditionalists might scoff at these teams or wonder how efficient such involvement could be. In the traditional model of leadership, small numbers of senior people gathered to make important decisions. But the reality is that today, very few executive teams know enough about what is going on in their business to have all the answers. Input must be gathered from a far greater number of sources then in the past. Good leaders will be able to harness the unruliness to make the most informed decisions possible. And indeed, these new structures are proving to be incredibly effective at sharing context, leveraging knowledge and fostering inter-team innovation.

3. Facilitate connectivity, energize systems. Not surprisingly, most of the leader’s time will be spent improving the connections among network members. Bringing people together (in person or virtually), decreasing isolation, improving the confidence of the various players to take initiative and connecting one worker’s ideas with another team’s initiative will become key characteristics of leadership activity.

Creating the conditions or environments for collaboration and creativity will mean focusing people on paradoxes or uncomfortable issues that need to be addressed, while containing an issue to a reasonable size and timeline for action. Occasionally, leaders will need to release the tension or anxiety so that the pressures and feelings of being overwhelmed don’t become debilitating.

Energizing the network (bringing energy to the system or removing the demotivating elements) so that trust, meaning, perspective and wisdom build momentum, requires leaders to also be energetic. This critical element doesn’t mean that the only energy in the system will be the leader’s. It does mean that the leader will need to be a catalyst — bringing together the elements — for all the partners to “spark” and release their own natural energies.

4. Prioritize the priorities. A collaborative network, like a bio-system, is robust and adaptive in its mature state, but vulnerable to greed and conquest in its developing state.

Leaders will have to help colleagues and employees determine the priority of the challenges before them to see the big picture that contains the whole network. Sub-system priorities will have to be themselves “prioritized” within the larger network, balancing emergent, self-directed activity with more planned and designed overall direction. This will ensure each part of the network is creating and enhancing value while not being destructive to the others.

Developing network leaders

What if the leader doesn’t currently have the capacity for this type of work? Can it be developed? Yes, but it will be up to the individual to take the initiative to develop the requisite skills and competencies.

Network leadership is highly personal and requires a great deal of initiative. Leading a team will take a higher level of engagement and demand more energy, intellect and responsibility than it did in the past.

More than ever leaders in the networked economy will have to be well-informed and eager to explore new terrain to recognize the patterns of success and innovation around them so they can be applied by their team.

Network leadership means continually adapting structures, processes and communication mechanisms and doing so quickly.

Things have happened quickly in the past few years and they are not going to slow down. Leaders will have to be able to anticipate the potential consequences of decisions before actually going ahead with them. “We’ll figure it out later” doesn’t really cut it anymore. And while the complexity of the networked business world may often prevent leaders from understanding exactly how the network might respond, the leader must at least stay close to the network to monitor changes and make adaptations quickly along the way.

The challenge of developing this kind of leadership and putting together these components will always remain with the individual. Engagement to become a network leader will be by choice. Organizational successes may well rely on a few good men and women making the commitment to evolving to this new and higher state of leadership practice.

Doug Macnamara is the vice-president of The Banff Centre and general manager of The Banff Centre for Management in Alberta. He can be reached at (403) 762-6431 or doug_macnamara@banffcentre.ab.ca.

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