All power to the network, please

February 3, 1995

Academics are used to being pilloried for being out of touch. But in two rather important ways their normal working methods may be harbingers of the future for the rest of society. The first is JANET, soon to be succeeded by SuperJANET, which provides a free communications medium for all Britain's universities in parallel to the Internet. The second is professional networking.

JANET, based on the principle of free access, was an odd institution to grow up in the 1980s, when almost every other public institution was putting charge codes on everything from photocopiers to telephones. But free access has huge advantages: it makes it much easier to learn about the system and to experiment. It also makes a lot of sense when the main thing you are trying to make is ideas which can never easily be planned or foreseen, and where the value of any conversation only becomes apparent in retrospect.

Alongside the electronic networks in universities there are formal hierarchies of departmental heads and professors, but in practice the highest status academic work of writing and research takes place in the informal networks around scholarly journals, conferences and meetings.

These are almost perfect examples of "self-organising systems" that run themselves, monitor their own quality, and that split and reform as intellectual currents change.

For much of this century the formal study of human societies has tended to try to lump all forms of organisation into the two grand categories of the market and the hierarchy. Now, however, partly as an indirect consequence of the ubiquity of communications networks, we are again coming to understand a third category, the networks, which are less formal, and less constrained by authority than hierarchy, but which are also not based on price-like markets. In practice, throughout history, all markets and bureaucracies have depended on parallel networks to keep them functioning.

After nearly 30 years of work on understanding and mapping networks, both in localities, firms or government, a radically different view of the world is appearing. In it good governance is as much about enabling networks to function - such as in health - as it is about rulings and decrees. In it the human element of relationships is as important as the formal things that can be set down on organisation plans or in contracts.

Our problem, however, is that the dominant approaches to running big organisations are still predicated on the old models: orders sent down through the hierarchy, or competitive markets exchanging goods as if the participants would never have to meet and deal with each other again.

Universities are a good example of where these ideas break down because they have learnED, over centuries, that networks are an efficient way of running things, certainly such indefinable things as the pursuit of truth. They are also efficient at encouraging people to do the sharing usually essential to developing workable ideas, whether in the physical sciences or in social science.

Unfortunately the people who with such foresight have funded networks like JANET, and created an oddly fertile self-organising world amid the performance indicators and the perpetual restructuring, have yet to learn the full import of the creature to which they have given birth.

Geoff Mulgan is the director of Demos, the radical think tank.

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