Future Here Now: On the Forefront

Your network tomorrow. Not like today.

This is a selection from the Future Here Now newsletter. For a regular dose of insight and information that helps you become a Future-Ready leader in your community, subscribe. https://wiseeconomy.substack.com/

Today I’m trying out a new category where I’m sharing concepts that I’m working on or….having trouble seeing clearly, because it’s farther out in the distance, and the dust in the metaphorical foreground, is getting in my way. Or maybe it’s just my old eyes. Where are my glasses??

I thought that readers of this newsletter (1) might enjoy playing with that bleeding edge with me (wait…ow…) and (2) might be able to shed some light on something I’m not seeing or understanding. “Bleeding edge” generates all sorts of nasty in search engine optimization, so we’re gonna go with something a little more gentle, until I can figure out something colorful but not so painful. Or creepy.

One of the questions I can never quite seem to answer is: Why do I have such resistance to the term “Network Era” to describe the emerging economic/social/cultural era that is following the Industrial Era. That’s the term a lot of writers are using.

But I hate it. And I haven’t fully figured out why. 

I think part of it has to do with what “networking” has meant for most of my professional life. Through the lens of a million conference receptions and “icebreakers” and business card swaps over all these decades, it’s hard to think of a Network Era as meaning anything impactful, substantial.

Certainly no more substantial than the box of obsolete business cards on the corner of my desk. Half of them have probably moved or retired anyways. And I almost never go looking through them. So what’s the point?

Perhaps I’m using the wrong definition of the term. People who are comfortable with the term “Network,” like Harold Jarsche or Gen. Stanley McChrystal, probably haven’t spent at ton of time at those kinds of conferences. I assume generals have business cards, but I also assume they don’t use them much.

Instead, I think they’re mental picture of a network looks more like a computer network. The internet doesn’t just collect business cards, it shares multitudes of information of all types across all kinds of computers, including many computers that you didn’t know were part of a given transaction. Because it’s mostly seamless, we regular people don’t see the complexity. The internet, is orders of magnitude more complex than a bunch of chitchat and business card swaps.

But I have trouble picturing what that kind of network would look like in the world of breathing humans. Despite all of the ways in which technology advancements are replacing people in routine tasks, all indications right now are that the ability to creatively problem-solve will remain the sole domain of people for the foreseeable future.

Which means that we can’t just count on the technology to do the Network Era things while we act the same as we do now.We’re going to have to change ourselves, our own definition of “Networking” to capitalize on these tools. Kind of like our ancestors did when the Industrial Era took hold.

So…hm. What describes the business card swap kind of networks for me? Well, they’re

  • Transactional. The purpose is mainly to find someone among all the people you talk to who can benefit you. A potential customer, client, referral, mentor, and so on. If a given person can give you no transactional value, you might smile and nod and take their card, but you’re not going to notice if you lose it.
  • Focused on me. If I took all those business cards in the box and made a chart of connections, most of them (from my point of view, at least) it would look like a bunch of spokes coming off of a hub –the hub being me, of course. Becaus of the transactional nature, I’m most interested (and most knowledgeable about) how these people relate to me. There would be a few cross-connections between people where I knew they had worked together or were at the same firm or something, but mostly I only know how they relate to me.
  • Fragile. Because I only know them from my own point of view, if my connection to one person breaks (they die or retire or I tick them off), then I have lost my connection to whatever they could have connected me to. I don’t necessarily have another route. And if their purpose changes, or my purpose changes, there may be no purpose to that spoke on the network wheel anymore. I might maintain it for personal reasons, but then that relationship goes in a different bundle from The Network.

So, if we think about what network means in an era where that’s the driving force, what do the Network Era’s networks look like? Maybe like this:

  • Relational. Chances are, I may not have a clear transactional reason for connecting to a given person, because the level of uncertainty surrounding what I or they may be doing or working on in the future. This means that (1) my initial assessment of the value of the relationship may very well be wrong in the longer term, and (2) some opportunity may be likely to arise that neither they nor I are aware of yet.
  • Science says that we are only capable of managing a small number of traditional personal relationships, but with internet technologies that allow me to tell my own story and talk to people far from me, I can maintain far more connections, albeit at an emotionally limited level. And in theory, that allows me or anyone else to activate a larger number of mostly quiet connections when a new opportunity arises. I benefit from this new dimension of network in a limited sense when someone reaches out to me because of something I’ve written.
  • What happens when we can play hundreds of relationships simultaneously, like a symphony? We might be seeing an early version of this in some of the new fully grassroots political movements.
  • A mesh, not a hub and spoke. That more complex relational piece means that I cannot view myself as the center. If I lost a connection under the old system, I can’t replace it as easily, but I also don’t have to worry quite so much about that loss damaging other relationships. In my early consulting life, I watched a competitor work in city after city, making the same mistakes and broken promises over and over again, because the city leadership often didn’t know what had happened elsewhere. Now there would be little chance of keeping that out of public view.
  • In the emerging system, I can’t assume that any information stays between myself and the person I was sharing information with, as recent high-profile court findings have shown us. We have to assume that it’s interconnected.
  • I’m not at the center. There’s no benefit to maintaining a hub-and-spoke-centered-on-me point of view, because the new network makes clear to me how interdependent I am on others. If I stick to my old perspective, I not only lose out on a whole host of opportunities, but I also probably rub others in the mesh the wrong way. I have to be a team player, giving to the network as much or more than I receive, because otherwise the network will not want me.

So the difference has more than just the number of connections. The real difference is the …density? responsiveness? feedback? of the new type of network. Is it more like a hive of bees than a hierarchy? I am still struggling to find good descriptors and metaphors. The lack of which makes writers irritated and not very effective.

Additionally, working within this new network would seem to requires a whole nother order of skills.

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s