Exploring Network Structures to Manage Complexity
Organizations have been engaging in networks for a long time. Most common are networks of suppliers associated with providing various parts to produce an end product known collectively as a supply chain. Clear examples of supply chain networks include the making of a PC where parts come from across the globe or Amazon.com where a host of service providers are linked to create a seamless delivery of goods to my doorstep. While this type of arrangement benefits all parties and fulfills a common goal—it builds a product or provides a service—the engagement is primarily transactional in nature and the structure tends to be hierarchical rather than a partnership. However, these types of transactional networks are not robust enough to adequately address more complex issues facing organizations today.
To effectively manage in today's complex environment we need a new type of organizational structure that engages multiple interdisciplinary stakeholders, invites collective collaborative action, and shares responsibility for outcomes. Recently, I was involved in a participatory action research workshop directed at identifying actions that would engage citizens and communities in emergency management. The organizers of the workshop were seeking to incorporate the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and build awareness of network management to increase coordination and accountability in advance of and during an emergency situation.
The workshop group engaged in brainstorming novel ways to involve already intact organizations into emergency management to explore new opportunities for engaging in the preparation for and recovery of emergency situations. Given the intent of government to reduce spending, the workshop also focused on how we as citizens not only need to wean ourselves off of government reliance, but how we also need to step up our actions to participate in networks aimed at maintaining service levels.
Lessons learned from the events in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina coupled with the recent reduction in government spending in the U.S. for emergency management have made the need for change apparent; these challenges have made it clear that a new model for addressing the complexity is needed. It is widely recognized that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people helping people on an informal basis saved many lives, while the formal emergency management organizations lacked the necessary on-the-ground coordination to be effective. Many participants from the workshop I attended understood these lessons and conveyed the importance of systematically involving more "volunteers" (organizations and community groups) to participate in a network that coordinates emergency management services and specifically fulfills roles previously funded by government.
It seems that we are at the forefront of a collective movement and a significant shift in how we approach the management of complex issues. It also seems that this collective or network approach has greater potential to generate more positive outcomes for our communities and social well being. Networks cut across boundaries and "glue" together diverse resources to address the ambiguity and systemic nature of complexity. We can't always control the level of complexity, but we can organize differently to manage it better. However, we need to change our mental models around collectivism and shared responsibility. In a network the key elements essential for productive partnerships include the following:
- Freely sharing of information,
- Engaging multi-disciplinary stakeholders,
- Providing resources to support network activities,
- Distributing authority based on expertise rather than position, and
- Valuing and embracing diversity and listening to all voices
When dealing with complexity and challenging situations, organizations might want to shift away from traditional transactional cooperation and explore the use of the above elements in a network structure to find progressive ways of generating creative, sustainable solutions.