The Age of Networking

Illustration used by kind permission of the VM Foundry.

Visualisation of network effects. Illustration used by permission from the VM Foundry.

The legendary historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote a four-part history of Europe which broke down the key stages of modern European history like this:

  • Age of Revolution: 1789-1848
  • Age of Capital: 1848-1875
  • Age of Empire: 1875-1914
  • Age of Extremes: 1914-1991

If Hobsbawm were to continue his series into the 21st century, I’d like to suggest that he’d have to call the current era the ‘Age of Networking’.

Clearly the rise of online and digital media has shown that the killer apps online exploit the network effect. Consider these examples:

  • Google – the networks of links.
  • Ebay – the networks of buyers and sellers.
  • Facebook – the networks of friends, family and colleauges.
  • Twitter – the network of like-minded people.

But networks aren’t just limited to popular websites. In his fascinating book on the subject, Linked: The New Science of Networks, Barabasi explores the ways that network effects are transforming our understanding of many other areas of enquiry:

The robustness of the laws governing the emergence of complex networks is the explanation for the ubiquity of the scale-free topology, describing such diverse systems as the network behind language, the links between the proteins in the cell, sexual relationships between people, the wiring diagram of a computer chip, the metabolism of the cell, the internet, Hollywood, the world wide web, the web of scientests linked by co-authorships, and the intrcicate collaborative web behind the economy, to name only a few.

This new perspective provides new insights into familiar phenomena. I will take some examples at random to illustrate the point:

  • Project management – new theories of extreme project management put networking at the heart of the process. As Rob Thomsett says in his book Radical Project Management: “Build a relationship with your stakeholders and you will be doing your job. It is all about relationships.”
  • Media content – user generated content, commenting, peer reviews.
  • Business – empowerment, ownership, partnership.
  • Knowledge management – wisdom of the crowds, Wikipedia, etc.
  • Marketing – the Cluetrain Manifesto.

Living in the age of networking means applying network thinking throughout all areas of activity. Try applying network thinking to your own work and you will find new opportunities and perspectives emerging.