Posted by: Tony Shannon | December 21, 2015

Human Culture: Nations v Networks: Tension & Tools

Human Culture: Nations v Networks: Tension & Tools

As we look around the world, as we see endless creativity and never ending crises, we naturally look for ideas and principles that help us make sense of it all. Faced with complexity, a search for the patterns at play is often most fruitful. One of those key patterns that can be seen all around is the natural tension inbuilt in the human endeavour – that inherent tension between the hierarchies and networks of the world.


Human History: Hierarchies vs Networks

Human history has taken a scenic course, from nomadic hunter gatherers to settled farmers, then onto those families who grew into tribes, then small city states and over thousands of years evolved into the nation states as we know them today. Most/all of us have grown up with the accepted power of the nation state, those geographically defined borders that help define who we are, what tribe we belong to, the core culture we individual humans value.

The theory that surrounds the state is that they are hierarchical in structure, our leaders were/are to be trusted and respected, so could/can make decrees from on high that we all should follow. Indeed in recent decades we have seen the rise of super states, such as the EU and the UN, the IMF, that are an extension of the same principle. As these bodies are newer yet larger organisations they are often seen as much more detached from our daily lives, perhaps an evolutionary step too far?

Anyway the theory generally continues that the nations’ leaders, be they princes or prime ministers, serve the people that have gifted them this high office. If they do not serve that role well, the theory goes that the people will rise up.


Yet another even more powerful influence pervades our culture.
Ingrained in our existence as humans is another powerful force, explained by what we call the network effect, or more recently known as the “social network”. This networked world is nothing new to human life, rather in many ways a more natural fit with the human experience, even if now seen as an alternate slice through human organisation. Networks as we understand them take many sizes and shapes, from our friends and neighbours, to our local village, community council, to our professional peers and to most recent international movements such as facebook, twitter etc. etc.

Networks are well understood as more informal organisational forms, agile yet influential. They are perfect examples of complex adaptive systems, without any single point of control, but made up of many parts and many interactions between those parts. They therefore self-organise, exhibit perpetual novelty and are an essential source of both innovation and disruption.


While we expose these two differing aspects of human culture we note that many organisational entities span this range of organisational forms. From the past, ancient religious groups such the Christian church has grown to reach from the Vatican to the multitude of prayer groups that now span the globe. So too are many modern business corporations, who have head offices and regional offices at a national and international level that exhibit a hierarchical form, yet also display the features of a social network that spans international boundaries with a range of cultures within.


There is of course an inherent tension and challenge between these 2 organisational forms of hierarchy and network that lies at the root of the many challenges humans have always faced.


Today at the highest level if we look at the challenges such as climate change or international terrorism, we also see both of these forces at work, sometimes in union, sometimes against each other.

Most modern nation states are well aware that they face the real threat of climate change yet struggle to take meaningful action. Networks within and around nation states vie to wield influence over the decision makers.  On one side, the climate change lobby network are keen for more action on climate change. On the other, the networks of large oil and corporations are rather less keen.

Many nation states also face some level of threat from international terrorism. On one side humans naturally flee from terror, over borders etc, using their networks to guide them where and when to travel. On the other side, the terrorists using their own networked tactics to scare and monger.


What can nation states or supernations do-  to “do the right thing” in this networked world?


Certainly nation states can bring their cultural might to bear and can rally their people into action, we certainly see this happen during times of an outside threat, i.e. in times of war. During peacetime it’s a little harder but they can use the cultural value of stories and weave a narrative that is also very powerful, such as “the birth of the NHS”. When called to action, nation states can bring legislation and funds to bear and yield their formal power to mighty effect.

Yet while people change in a range of ways, they are most especially influenced by the network of people around them and they usually fall into one of the following categories.. a few are early adopters of change/ more form an early majority/more still the late majority…while few enough want to be seen as the last to change.. the laggards.

So networks are absolutely vital and key to real change, yet we know they are naturally “complex” rather than just complicated, so are harder to control. On their own they own lack the benefits that stable hierarchies provide such as pooled financial resources, legal structures, etc.


So what balance is to be had here? What are the patterns that can and do unite these hierarchical forces of nation states and the diverse force of networks towards common causes?


Firstly the key issue here is these challenges are all about people, the human species, gifted with the opportunity and responsibility to look after this planet, for better or for worse.
We arrive into the world as unique individuals, grow up in our family and neighbourhood networks and as we do so are educated as to where we fit in the  structure/“hierarchy” of our local nation state. In the past, movement up the social hierarchy to positions of high office was something to aim at, yet in this age of the social network that mindset is changing and folk are increasingly aware of a new world order, where one’s rank is based on the value that you add to the meritocracy rather than ones place in the pecking order. So regardless of whether we sit in high office or elsewhere in this networked world, we can all change the world.


Secondly, the next key issue is that of change, another universal and perennial truth .. change is one of the few constants in our world. Amidst the complexity around us, an iterative, evolutionary approach to facilitating change is perhaps the most effective way for a hierarchy to foster change in its surrounding networks. Certainly “big bang” change can happen, but such change driven from the top down is often not well received by networks on the ground. Rather, encouraging competition and collaboration are both established ways that hierarchies work to harness and direct the energy and effort from the networks that surround them to achieve major goals. To do so usually requires 2 key ingredients … information and tools.


So we now draw attention to is the power of information and tools.

Information is now understood to be intrinsic to our human existence. It’s not a nice to have or optional aspect. It is fundamental. The Data/Information/Knowledge/Wisdom pyramid as a relatively recent construct highlights our evolving understanding of the value of information and knowledge to our world. While little understood in the past, certainly the “information age” we now live in has grasped this pattern dearly

Yet for all the undeniable power of information, to make it truly useful, we need something more.. that is “technology”, aka tools.

Tools are another key part of our existence.. be they language or laws… brick or building.. we humans have defined our history based on our tools.. the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution etc. What makes tools so special is that they generally make tasks easier. Any tool that makes life easier generally spreads like wildfire.

Think of the wheel, the knife, the plough, the loom, the engine, car, boat, airplane.

Think of the internet, PC, smartphone, Google (search), Amazon (shopping), Kindle (reading), Uber (taxi) etc etc etc.

Tools change the world because they help get stuff done.



So if we go back to look at the challenge our nations face and look at the opportunities that networks offer, let’s examine these patterns together..


In each nation, governmental bodies are struggling with delivering high quality, timely and cost effective services such as education, healthcare, transport in addition to their responsibilities around law & order, support for business and enterprise, culture and heritage and the environment.


If we take the example of healthcare, which is my own field, networks of physicians have pioneered and progressed the advancement of medical science as we know it over hundreds of years. Yet each national body of medical professional (eg General Medical Council, Irish Medical Council) draw up their own walls that regulate the movement of doctors across borders. There are pros and cons to this, but it serves as a good example of nations versus networks in action.

At a healthcare service level it is clear that in each nation the civil service are working with healthcare systems under pressure in relative isolation from each other. Certainly ideas and efforts are shared across borders in some shape or form, yet cultural differences between nation states do not make that easy and certainly limit the sharing of ideas. Journals and international conferences and associations do go some way to spreading ideas but they are limited in reach and effect..


It is generally recognised that those in senior positions in the civil service hold much responsibility, so their higher education is expected to be of a high standard. Yet in a time of information revolution, how can they keep up, how can they ensure the best information and ideas is shared and has the most positive impact in their local networks?


So the essential question is …
How can those in positions of authority in hierarchical organisations/nation states… harness the power of the network?
A blend of hierarchy and network to solve our greatest problems sounds at odds and problematic…. how can this possibly work?


Well it’s happening already.


Real innovators and leaders around the world are joining forces to tackle some of our greatest challenges.. they are sharing and combining information and related tools/technology , as they understand that they are more productive as a group than in isolation. They recognise the siloes all around them, the many busy people who choose to reinvent wheels locally.

They understand that there are universal patterns at play and seek to pursue best practice internationally by learning from others and sharing their work openly.

They are comfortable with business and enterprise as they seek to move their efforts up “the value chain” with a sense of purpose that comes with being the true leaders in their field.


Before we look forward, we take a brief look back to get some context. If we look at just one field of human endeavour, we see this key pattern from history that foretells future waves of innovation to come. We could take a similar look at many other fields in the arts (eg photography) or the sciences (eg anatomy) but lets us just pick one.


The field is chemistry.

That area of interest is the Periodic Table of the Elements

The backdrop is a field that considered the world to be full or magic, alchemy and 4 elements

The history of the Periodic Table of the Elements spans over 100 years

The geography of the Periodic Table of the Elements spans at least 10 countries


No one nation state begat this progress in isolation. No one corporation could lock all these secrets up nor control this progress. Rather this tale of progress is made up of the stories of leading men and women who were part of an evolution/revolution in the field of science, doing so by publishing/presenting (i.e. openly sharing) their learning, sharing key information and their tools, in the knowledge that in doing so they were helping to transform the world. So indeed the world has been changed, with progress in chemistry and biochemistry that has made countless contributions to the welfare of mankind.

This pattern of human innovation and collaboration will continue across our history for centuries and millennia to come.

Real Leadership: Open & Sharing

Most recently modern day legends such as Tim Berners Lee and Jimmy Wales have transformed our world with their contributions to the development of the World Wide Web and Wikipedia. They could have chosen to use their knowledge to progress their ideas and their tools within the walls of a national boundary, or within a corporate entity, but they chose not to. They chose not to as they had a higher calling, and because they knew. They knew -that pioneering efforts within any one nation state or corporation alone cannot really thrive. They knew that the power of the network was stronger still, so they openly shared their knowledge and tools and the rest is history.


Slowly but steadily, we are seeing many more examples of such leadership emerge across the globe. Leaders in many fields are working to change with world, one challenge at a time, openly sharing their information, knowledge and related tools. Other leaders in hierarchical organisations are simply setting the right conditions for such networked innovation to thrive. One aspect of that movement is known as “open source” and it’s changing the world.

While the grand challenges of climate change, counter terrorism and healthcare in crisis stand before us as universal “wicked challenges” these will be transformed. Not by nation states on their own, nor even in unison, not by super states as large as they may be. What will happen is that real leaders will emerge from the crowds, be they in formal hierarchies or informal networks and they will understand. So though we know not where or when the key information or tools will emerge, but emerge they will and they will yet again transform the world. 21st Century climatology and security solutions will emerge, indeed they may be here already, waiting to spread across the human network. In healthcare too, the fields of management and medicine will be further transformed by an open platform that will transform care in this 21st Century.


Hierarchies and networks will always remain a feature of the human species in flux, ever changing…there will always be a healthy tension between these forces.

Real leaders… be they in formal positions of power in hierarchies or informal positions of power in their networks…. will see understand this as they see these universal truths.

We lead to change and improve the world around us.

We may be leaders but to change the world we need to share information and tools.

We each have our motives but we progress when we open our minds and share our efforts.



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