Networks and complexity – a feedback loop


Just posted a review of Grouped on the Brilliant Noise blog. It is such a fascinating book, I think I could happily blog about it all week – in fact I may do…

One of the insights which tickled me, was the idea that increasing amounts of information and complexity could make us more reliant on social networks than ever before.

When we are uncertain about what to do, we turn to others to help us make a decision…. In a world of exponentially increasing information, decisions will be harder because our capacity for memory will remain the same. With exponentially increasing information, and limited capacity for memory, we will increasingly turn to others to help us decide.

We are becoming hyper-connected: we are using online networks to stay in touch with more people. These may be more people who are on the periphery for us, but we are connected all the same.

These networks, along with the wider increase in available content that the web brings, means there is more noise out there. More choices, and more complexity in trying to make decisions.

Accord to Paul Adams, author of Grouped, this means that we will rely on our social networks to help us make those decisions. We do this a lot of the time anyway, but with more choices and more complexity we will do it more so.

Which means the complexity which is revealed and created by our living in bigger networks, will in turn make us more reliant on those networks.

I’m going for a lie down in a dark, un-networked room now. But it is an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it?

Networks Thinking: Adapting for Complexity

These are the notes, slides and suggested further reading for the lecture I’m giving today at Warwick Business School as part of its Complexity, Management & Network Thinking business module entitled Networks Thinking: Adapting for Complexity.


Networks became a focus for me about seven years ago, as I began to look at the effect that social networks and the web were having on the industries I was working in, marketing communications and media. The more I learned about networks, the more it seemed to me that they were incredibly important in re-thinking how our business worked – the business of attracting attention, essentially – and that they were important both as the cause and context of disruption we were experiencing (and would continue to experience for some years to come).

When it came to media and marketing, channels were being replaced (displaced, disrupted) by networks as the dominant model. The implications were profound for industries that had been built on building big channels, for big audiences with big advertisements and big budgets attached.

At iCrossing, the digital agency which gave me a home and let me develop a social media and content practice, we started re-designing the whole process of brand communications, from research through to measurement, with three principles

  1. Understand your networks
  2. Be useful to your networks
  3. Be present in your networks

It became clear very quickly, that once you started to adapt your customer communications to the new reality of networks, you started to look at the rest of the business very differently and that the impact of networks, the need to adapt to the age of networks, was going to be felt throughout the organisation. Networks were disrupting the existing media and communications models so much that soon politics, commerce, culture and society as a whole would begin to feel its effects.


Networks are a model for managing complexity

Some of the topics and themes addressed in the talk include…

  • Embracing complexity
  • Scales from individual, to team, to division to team…
  • Understand networks (& then your networks)
  • Develop organisational and personal networks literacy
  • Networks thinking: design for networks
  • Beginning to lay down principles
  • As well as understanding… your networks… principles…
  • Presence first, process second: more important to be in play and prepared…

Sources cited

Recommended reading (some already cited as sources):

Recommended blogs




Influence: It’s complicated


Image: Streams, emergence – insert your own wry analogy here…

I liked the idea that “Strength of community supersedes influence” laid out in a post by Geoff Livingston.

What the post is saying is that in many ways the community is more important than a singled-out influencer, and yet a lot of effort is expended trying to identify the influencers and then, er, influence them. And I agree with that – the networks are more important to understand, and usually less understood by everyone from media/marketing planners to policy makers.

There is influence in networks, multidirectional influence at that. It is just wrong to boil down influence to being all about influencers. There are people who are important, who can pass on a thought or idea or link to a whole lead of others, but it’s not a a predictable, simple, sustainable thing.

It makes me remember what Duncan Watts said about accidental influencers. Very often someone is made to look influential or are influential within a network because an idea, a thought has started with them.

You influence the networks you join, you are influenced by your networks, by the actions of people you know and don’t. And networks also have a mind of their own, the rule from Connected that chimes with what Geoff is saying.

Thinking about the idea of influencers in that context, it is almost as if networks choose their influencers. Or maybe that influencers are an emergent phenomenon in social networks.

Customers in networks: slides and notes from ChangePlayBusinesss

ChangePlayBusiness was an unusual event, to say the least, living up to its promise to be an unconference. About 40 innovators and entrepreneurs gathered at the ICA to play a game about creating businesses, the playing of which included connecting with one another (there were a lot of interesting people) and meeting subject matter experts on everything from financing to marketing (which is where I came in).

My role was to deliver a “masterclass” on understanding and communicating with customers in a “changing economy”. I chose to interpret this as an opportunity to talk about businesses in the age of networks, in the age of complexity.

The slides are here for those (with the push/pull error reversed!) who attended the session:

And these are the links that I promised to post:

Embrace complexity to find simplicity

If you really want to understand networks, complexity is the place to go. Once you understand a little, you see complex adaptive systems everywhere, from traffic to the weather, and especially – if you are in my line of work – when you look at human social networks.

So, people who really understand how complexity works, as it were, are really worth listening to. Eric Beinhocker, who applied complexity theory to economics in his book The Origin of Wealth, gave me my first taste of it and I have been hooked ever since.

Ecologists are, naturally, enough steeped in complexity theory, as their field is all about the intricate relationships between environments and the many organisms that inhabit them.

So this TED talk, by ecologist Eric Berlow, is a three-minute eye opener about one simple lesson he has learned. You have to be able to see the complexity around any given issue in order to   

In his words we have to “embrace complexity” rather than trying to oversimplify problems we are examining. Look hard enough at a complex system and the simple patterns and answers will begin to emerge.

If you see a complex system, be excited rather than afraid, says Berlow. It means that you will be able to find a better answer quicker.

Embrace complexity is a phrase i’ve used myself before, beginning with the Brands in Networks e-book I wrote at iCrossing in 2008. It’s a hard thing for brands and organisations to accept, but refusing to oversimplify the challenges they face, particularly in online networks, can be a virtue rather than a cause of confusion.



Complexity is everywhere, so try everything at once


Image: It’s complicated (and adaptive)…

Thinking about complexity again, the strategy that the best players use in complex adaptive systems use is to hedge their bets.

In Brands in Networks I talked about that from the perspective of brands needing to hedge their communications, have different creative and even strategies running to give them the best chance of success.

In Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column I read about Rebecca Costa and her thinking about the increasing complexity in our personal life:

Any given solution won’t work, by definition: Costa defines complexity as when “there are many more wrong solutions than right ones”. Worse, they lull us into thinking we’re tackling the matter, so extinguishing the sense of urgency. (Are you eschewing plastic bags, imagining you’re “doing your bit” for the planet?) The only rational tactic may be trying everything at once – what Costa calls “parallel incrementalism” – in full knowledge that most methods will fail….

We need to think, Costa says, like venture capitalists, who make a fortune despite 80% of the businesses they invest in failing; they know that 20% won’t, but not which ones. For complex problems, trying one solution and getting upset when it fails is preposterous: any single solution is likely to fail. The mindset we need isn’t the positive-thinking mantra that failure is impossible; it’s that failures are inevitable, and for good reason. It’s an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion: we may never really understand how to get what we want, or stave off the very worst – yet we may manage it anyway.

I kind of like that approach…

Why is CSR silent in social media?

“I think Richard Dawkins was sent to test us. Like fossils. And facts.”

It’s not just religious fervour that facts can get in the way of – a good dose of facts and rational discussion is the best cure for disinformation and malicious rumours too. So why aren’t more CSR programmes using social media to fight negative perceptions of their organisations?

It strikes me that one of the richest sources of useful, interesting and inspiring information that organisations have is the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) work that they do. By that I mean in part, their charitable, social works, but also their ethics and principles and how these are put into practice

It’s not just about shouting about all the work you do for charity. CSR at its best (and I think of M&S Plan A first in this respect) is about explaining the principles and the ethics the organisation subscribes to.

In my student days i was lazily radical in my views about corporations. Twenty years later I will hold my hand up and admit my views on, say, McDonalds or Nike were informed by word of mouth, rarely backed up by evidence or data beyond that which was presented to me by campus activists. I think I got quite worked up about some of it, and I think a lot of it was nonsense.

There were and are two issues around responding constructively to anti-corporate criticism:

  1. Organisations aren’t individuals: The Corporation has a fascinating premise (essentially, if corporations were individuals they would be psychopaths) but it stops being useful when you try to understand how corporations or any large organisations behave. They aren’t individuals, they aren’t monoliths, they aren’t even machines in which their employees are all little cogs and moving parts. Large organisations are networks, complex adaptive ones at that – we deploy management and metaphors to control them, and direct them and shape them, but essentially they are human social networks.
  2. The issues are complex: My sense over the years is that corporate communications and issue management teams have been schooled in managing communications in mainstream media. That means control and simplification are the order of the day. Soundbites aren’t useful when you are trying to explain complex issues around, say, social responsibility, tax or regulation. Success is being in control of the news agenda, mindshare, even if most people don’t believe a word they are reading and just assume that because you are big company you are up to no good.

Actually, both these points are about complexity. The perfect place to share information, discuss it openly, link to evidence, discuss issues openly, share examples of doing good, are the social web.

Yet, according to a new report from the pretty thorough and credible guys at Social Media Influence:

fewer than half of nearly 300 North American and European companies currently communicate their corporate and social responsibility accomplishments. Just one quarter have a dedicated social media sustainability channel or advocate.

This compares to about 85% of the Social Media Sustainability Index Report  sample who are happily trying to promote their products and services through social media.


Bureaucracies defend themselves to death.

Media & incumbent business models: it's complicated...

Vested interests, protectionism, conservatism are the enemies of diversity, innovation and change.

This idea has been at the heart of liberalism since John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty. He used the example of China, a civilisation so advanced and sophisticated that it invented paper, printing and gunpowder centuries before Europeans ever got near them.

Then China got bureaucracy. Got complexity combined with central control. And it stopped. Nothing changed, the elite decided how the world would be and how it would be forever. It’s a kind of societal Amish effect.

Clay Shirky’s written a fascinating essay about all of this called The Collapse of Complex Business Models. I especially love this quote:

Bureaucracies temporarily reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it?s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

He uses examples of AT&T backing off from web hosting because of an obsession with up-time and reliability that didn’t fit the market. It’s what’s happening now with media companies that expect to be paid for their IP in the way they choose because the alternative does not compute for them.

It’s an interesting thought that the inability to see how things could get simpler might be what chokes an industry, a business. Does it jar with the Russell Ackoff call to ignore the “Keep It Simple Stupid” oversimplification that middle managers are so often englamoured by? I don’t think so – understanding complexity doesn’t mean you have to defend it.

Thanks @neilperkins for the point…

Ada Lovelace Day: Shona Brown

Image: Ada Lovelace
Image: Ada Lovelace

Suw Charman has asked people to join her today on Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the first computer programmer, in writing about women in technology that they admire.

Now, I’m a cultural rather than a tehcnical geek, so the woman who leapt to mind that I admire most in the tech industry is Shona Brown, SVP of Business Operations at Google.

Shona Brown took on responsibilities for Google’s business operations in 2003, following almost a decade consulting with technology clients in Toronto and Los Angeles for McKinsey & Company.

Image: Shona Brown, Google's SVP of Business Operations
Image: Shona Brown, Google’s SVP of Business Operations (image source: Google)

I first heard about Shona Brown in this 2006 profile of her in Fortune called Chaos by Design. She took on one of the most interesting cultural and business challenges in the world when she stepped into  Sergey and Larry invited her to come and take all of this on after reading Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos:

Brown has made a career of arguing that anarchy isn’t such a bad thing — which is why Page, co-founder Sergey Brin, and CEO Eric Schmidt hired her in 2003. A business theoretician in a company dominated by engineers, she considers Google the “ultimate petri dish” for her research, though her job is anything but theoretical. In addition to overseeing human resources (called “people operations”), Brown runs a SWAT team of 25 strategic consultants who are loaned out internally on ten or so projects at a time — restructuring a regional sales force here, guesstimating a market size there.

This isn’t about just management. It’s about how you manage companies and people in the age of networks, when hierarchical approaches are inadequate and an embrace of chaos.

The company’s goal, says Brown, is to determine precisely the amount of management it needs — and then use a little bit less. It’s an almost laughably Goldilocksian approach that Brown also advocates in her book, co-written with a Stanford business professor. The way to succeed in “fast-paced, ambiguous situations,” she tells me, is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either. In other words, just make it not too hot and not too cold, and you’re done.

Early on in my iCrossing experience I had left a lot of the certainties and structure of the PR agency world and embraced a start up mentality, drawing heavily on Guy Kawasaki’s thoughts in Art of the Start. when I read her interview Fortune magazine, I felt reassured and inspired simultaneously when I read her quote: “If I ever come into the office and I feel comfortable, if I don’t feel a little nervous about some crazy stuff going on, then we’ve taken it too far.”

It still inspires and informs the way that I think about the way that organisations need to adapt to be successful in networks, in an age defined by the complexity and pace of the web revolution.

Via Euan Semple.

Faris on the “natural selection of interesting”

Image: From The Origin of Species
Image: From The Origin of Species

After Mr Obama got sworn in some things threw me off kilter – sorry for the indecent silence…

Warming up with some things catching my eye, I’ll be building to an outpouring of pent up thoughts about social, strategy and the business of everything.

Hail Faris Yakob for weaving together two of my best-loved skeins of thought:

  1. Evolutionary theory and complexity (see Beinhocker)
  2. Competition for attention

He’s musing about why things win out in attention markets and rolls out a lovely phrase from his brother – it’s all about the “natural selection of interesting”…

Ants in colonies don’t require any conscious top down organisation – local rules exist and individual behaviours leave pheremone trails that get reinforced if the behaviour is imitated, which leads to directional changes of the whole.

We leave links and tags, tweets and posts, instead of pheremones – and these guide the allocation of attention.

Oh – that’s just beautiful. An elegant analogy for the social web if ever there was one…

Image: If it's interesting, we'll help each other find it
Image: If it's interesting, we'll help each other find it (Image: Budslife Busy)

He continues:

As Duncan Watts has pointed out, the structure of the network is as important as that which seeks attention, and the same thing that becomes an attention grabbing hit one day, may not the next.

This chimes with the story of Dogster and impact horizons that its founder Ted Rheingold talks about. This is how I tell it in the Brands in Networks e-book:

When Ted started Dogster he was developing new content and features with project times – from spotting a need to getting something out there – of about a month. As revenue began to come in from premium subscriptions and sponsorship deals he began to invest in more ambitious projects with longer lead times.

Suddenly, it seemed, the failure rate for projects began to increase. When a review of projects that were failing was conducted, a common factor was quickly spotted: almost all of the failing projects had taken six months or more from idea to public release. They were failing because the community had moved on; was interested in other things. Their needs had shifted.

Ted calls this effect: the impact horizon. Ever since, he has been working on bringing down the development time for new features to as close to a month as possible.

You start thinking about competing for attention in this environment and you get to thinking about the production process for your lovely useful/interesting ideas, bits of content, data, whatever that you’re going to send out into the big bad networks ecosystem. And suddenly building one thing starts to look like a very precarious approach.

Much better to build a process or platform for producing lots of things – because there’s a better chance of some of them working. When an idea takes, earns some good attention, ask why before the narrative bias kicks in and you’re tempted so it was always going to be that way.

Then ask how you would do it again.

Anyway – more of that later…