Markets, networks and management

by eskokilpi

The claim is that the best way to understand complicated systems is to investigate the workings of each of the parts. If a car does not start, the mechanic looks for the problem and finds a dead battery. In a similar way a doctor finds a wounded muscle. The idea is that the best way to understand life is to investigate the workings of the parts separately from those of other parts.

In the economic world, the concept of markets is based on the same idea: autonomous sellers and buyers engage in discrete transactions where each agent is independent from the other agents and each transaction is separate from other transactions. The unit of analysis is the individual agent.

Network scientists have recently made very different claims. They say that all human systems are connected and that connected systems cannot be understood in terms of isolated parts. The study of isolated parts offers little help in understanding how the parts work in combination and what emerges as the result of network connections. The notion of emergence is central. Their aim is to discover emergent patterns: is it really so that individual greed turns into a pattern that can be called public good, as proponents of free markets have suggested following the rhetoric of Adam Smith?

The suggested unit of analysis is now communication and emergence, not entities.

This changes many of the beliefs we have taken for granted. The first change deals with the assumption of a knowing individual, the basic idea of Cartesian philosophy. The individual was understood as having a knowing mind. Individuals were thus treated as if they possessed properties such as expert knowledge. On the bases of her personal properties the knowing individual is then understood as the designer and controller of an internal and external world.

The perspective of network science views knowledge as socially created and socially re-created not as stuff of the mind that can be shared and stored by individuals.  Knowing is a process of relating. From the network-based, relational perspective knowing is viewed as an ongoing and, never-ending process of making meaning in communication.

Management literature typically emphasizes individuals and locates explanatory power in their personal properties. Leaders are the sources of motivation, control and direction. The manager’s perspective is taken for granted as setting the limits of action and what is thought of as right or wrong.

Management theory is based on the same Cartesian assumptions of the self as subject, the other as object and relationships as influence and manipulation. This is why the present management thinking severely restricts what is thinkable and doable in the world of networks.

The potential of social media cannot be realized without a very different epistemological grounding, a relational perspective. Independently existing people and things then become viewed as co-constructed in coordinated networked action. Accordingly, the role of management is different, opening up new possibilities: power in networks is about “power to” or “power with”, and not “power over”.

The emergent pattern changes when the local interactions change. Self-interest in the network economy looks different from self-interest in the market economy; individual success is likely to take place through enriching relationships and being part of networked interaction aiming to facilitate both the individual and the collective effort.

Cooperation is the new competition.

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Thank you Dian Marie Hosking for great conversations

More: Reid Hoffman interview.