When is a network a network, and how do you know?

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Have you ever heard the story of the blind men and an elephant?  It’s a story that’s often used as a metaphor to understand complex systems and networks.  Each person within the network (or touching a different part of the elephant) sees or feels it a different way.


Blind men and an elephant (Image credit)


Having worked with several movement networks at various scales, I’ve noticed that sometimes, things that are called networks, but they don’t always feel like a network.  How do you know what you’re working with is a network?  And what would that feel like?

Below, I’ve put together a table that describes a few characteristics that I see as important in a network, what it feels like when they’re present, and what it’s like when they’re not present.



For a more diagnostic approach to answering this question, check out the Monitor Institute’s Network Diagnostic tool.

We’re in the process of creating a network reading room, but here are a few introductory resources to get you started in the meantime:

Distributed leadership

Generative spaces, culture of emergence

Collaboration, sharing of work

Network-level perspective held by many

Internal communications ecosystem

Commitment to strengthening the network

(Featured Image credit: “Blind Men Appraising an Elephant by Ohara Donshu, Edo Period (early 19th century), Brooklyn Museum” downloaded from the Wikipedia page.)

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One thought on “When is a network a network, and how do you know?

  • Putting a stake in the ground around an abstract concept! Nice, Ari, important… and brave! 🙂

    Overall, the spirit of what you’re describing resonates with me. I do, however, have a bunch of quibbles.

    My biggest quibble is your description of a network that is something that’s binary (it either is or it isn’t a network), whereas what I think you’re actually describing is the quality or effectiveness of a network. The latter is not binary, but more of a spectrum, and I think it’s problematic to treat it as binary (which many people do).

    (I do in fact think that networks are binary, but much more broadly than you define it. Networks are simply people and relationships. Or, if you want to define it more abstractly, entities and relationships. This isn’t just a generally agreed upon technical definition, but an amazingly useful one, because it centers your attention on… well, people and relationships. How you choose to define relationships gives you a different lens on which to view a group. I wrote down a bunch of thoughts on this here: http://fasterthan20.com/2014/01/the-real-importance-of-networks-understanding-power/)

    My other quibble is also an offshoot of this binary definition. In your two columns, there’s a general bottoms-up, action-oriented bias. And yet, in your “What it feels like when it’s not there” column, a lot of the missing elements are actually described in a way that feels top-down. For example, “Lack of intentionality, formality, clarity around network and its purpose.” Fear among whom and how many? At which stage? Who gets to decide the “purpose”? How does it get decided? The way you word this and other items in the column feels top-down — as if the group needs to get together and agree on all of these things in order to be a “network.” This is certainly one way of doing things, but there are lots of effective networks where this never happens.

    I think it’s better to frame these things as potential aspirations that might help a network act more effectively. I don’t think it’s useful or accurate to use these as a way to say whether something is or isn’t a network.

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