Soft hierarchies, hard communities - RSA

Soft hierarchies, hard communities


  • Social networks

Watching yesterday the distinguished economist Paul Ormerod, and the RSA’s own rising star Gaia Marcus, discuss the theory and impact of social networks a surprising thought occurred to me.

When we think of two dimensions of social power – hierarchical authority, on the one hand, and solidarity, on the other, we tend to assume that each works through difference transmission mechanisms. One broad way of summarising might be that hierarchy works through expert knowledge and structure while solidarity is driven by shared experience and values.

But, as I have written in various posts the modern world transforms the context and foundations of both hierarchy and solidarity. In relation to the former, many of the problems now faced by leaders of hierarchies – particularly in the public sector – are what some analysts describe as ‘wicked’; not only are they are complex and contested but their resolution requires changes in stakeholders’ norms, expectations and capabilities. Meeting the demands of population ageing and achieving greater social mobility and inclusion are two examples of these problems – things most people want to solve but which feel right now intractable.

Professor Keith Grint has explored the approach needed to address these wicked issues and speaks of the need for leadership which is ‘about questions not answers, ‘about reflection not reaction’ and ‘about relationships not structures’. To that I would add the thought (derived from this book) that leadership in less complex, more deferential times was about push (driving out instructions, messages and products) while now it is about ‘pull’ (finding ways of engaging people, fostering collaboration and attracting talent).

Moving from hierarchies to communities, there is huge and growing interest in social networks. This is leading to innovations in understanding, analysis and application (I am proud to say the RSA is at the forefront of this movement). At the same time we are getting to understand better the power of networks, and the complex and sometimes volatile ways they work, changes in patterns of living and identity formation means the most fruitful foundations for solidarity may be also be shifting. Broadly speaking, the basis for constructive collaboration may be less about our inherited characteristics and more about our lifestyles, less about shared identities more about shared interests.

These developments offer the prospect of more data-driven and technical interventions to promote collective change and collaboration. For example, the mapping of social networks creates the possibility for ‘network weaving’ in which holes between networks – holes which may present barriers to new perspectives or opportunities - can be bridged. A further development may be a mathematical understanding of networks; equations which allow policy makers, organisational analysts or community activists to work towards the point at which a whole network changes character in ways which are beneficial for its members and wider society.

Which takes me back to my starting point and a speculative observation: perhaps in the conditions of the 21st century we will come increasingly to see hierarchy as a domain in which effectiveness depends upon the articulation of values and the development of a culture of shared commitment, while community is increasingly seen as a domain whose outcomes are shaped by knowledge and the use of that knowledge to develop new structures of communication and connection.

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