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Network Organizational Strategy

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Published as Appendix 10 of the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential (1976)


The conventional approach to any problem situation is to elaborate a strategy. But, as this publication attempts to show, the number, variety and interrelationships of the problems are such that it is legitimate to question whether any conventional strategy could be even partly adequate. A fundamental difficulty today is the predilection for simplistic hierarchical representation of the interrelationships between concepts, between organizations, and between problems. This is so despite constant exposure to evidence that these hierarchies do not contain the complexity with which society has to deal.

It is for this reason that it is questionable whether conventional strategy, which is based on the assumption that it can be formulated and administered through a hierarchical chain of authority, can respond to the needs of the time. Neither a hierarchical organization nor a hierarchy of concepts can handle a network of environmental problems, for example, without leaving many dangerous gaps through which unforeseen problems may emerge and be uncontainable.It is rather like trying to use 18th century (redcoat) military strategy to fight guerillas, The redcoat military hierarchy and mode of warfare is completely outmaneuvered by guerilla network activity. (An even more uncomfortable parallel may be that of the admirable attempt of the Polish cavalry to contain a tank invasion in 1939)

The elements of the strategic problem at this time include:

  1. a vast and largely uncomprehended network of perceived problems and problem systems, on which no single body has (or possibly could have) adequate information;
  2. a vast and fragmented network of conceptual tools and knowledge resources, which is not (and possibly could not be) comprehended by any single body;
  3. a vast and largely uncomprehended network of agencies, organizations, groups and active individuals spanning every conceivable human interest and extending from the community level to the international level, and on which no single body has (or possibly could or should have) adequate information, These networks, and others, are not static structures. They are rapidly changing, growing and evolving in response to pressures, tensions, needs and aspirations perceived in very different parts of the social system.

These networks, and their component subnetworks, are not controlled or controllable by any single body, if only because the complexity cannot be handled by any single body or group of bodies,

The strategic problem therefore is how to ensure that the appropriate organizational resources emerge, and are adequately supported and provided with appropriate conceptual tools, in response to emerging problem complexes. But it would seem. that this must be achieved without organizing and planning such organized response, for to the extent that any part of the network is so organized, other parts will develop (and probably should develop) which favour alternative approaches.

The challenge is therefore to develop the meaning and constraints of what may be termed a network strategy. This is an approach which facilitates or catalyzes (rather than organizes) the emergence, growth, development, adaptation, and galvanization of organizational networks in response to problem networks, in the light of the values perceived at each particular part of the social system,

To the point that such values may not be the 'right' values, it is only possible to respond that the challenge is to use the dynamics of the social system to heal itself, to compensate for inadequate values (by the educational action of group 'on group), and thus to mature the social system. The strategic problem is to ensure that all possible resources bring themselves to bear on the perceived problems, but without introducing at the highest level any element of organizational imperialism, or, in its absence, what might be called conceptual imperialism (or even fascism).

The most enlightened developed-country value may well be an inappropriate straitjacket in a developing country's cultural context. Any such strategic simplification can therefore only lead to alienation. possibly apathy, and of course even to compensatory action. The degree of organization introduced by a body thus defines the level at which that body is competent to operate -- the greater the degree of programme control and organization. the more restricted the scope of its possible effective operation, The challenge is to speed up some of the dynamics of the social system to that organizational, conceptual, and value inadequacies become more rapidly evident in order that more appropriate substitutes may be evolved. This is a learning process essential at every point in the social system.

To the point that any such strategy needs to be coordinated, the response can only be that at this time all that is possible (or even desirable) is a form of augmented auto-coordination within organizations and organization networks. The challenge is to find the right means of facilitating whatever auto-coordination is possible, recognizing that to the extent that the degree of coordination is considered inadequate by one part of the network, it will attempt to elaborate tighter forms of coordination, whatever the views of the other (possibly alienated) parts for which a different approach may be successful. (It is interesting to note that some of the more recently created United Nations structures place great emphasis on the notion of a network and de-emphasize the notion of central organization -- the United Nations University, the UN Environment Programme's information service, the UNESCO/ICSU UNISlST system)

The greatest unrecognized resource at this time is the vast uncharted network of organizations of every kind, with every kind of preoccupation and with every degree of effectiveness, It is not known either what this network could achieve if its processes were facilitated, or what is the nature of its synergistic potential. Just as there is a Third World of underdeveloped countries constituting the greater proportion of the world's population, so there is a Third World of underdeveloped organizations which could (and do in part) constitute the most vital resource for the solution of world problems,

At the close of the First United Nations Development Decade (19601969), the Secretary-General of UNCTAD stressed the importance of the creation of 'political will' to avoid a' Second Decade 'of even deeper frustration than the first one' (TD/96). Following remedial action by the UN Office of Public Information, in the UN Secretary-General's review and appraisal of the 'Dissemination of Information and Mobilization of Public Opinion Relative to Problems of Development' (E/535B, 21 May 1973) it is noted that:

'the state of public opinion on matters of development, particularly in the industrialized countries, is generally less favourable today than it has been in the past'.

The report notes

'it would probably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like a closing of the gates to a pattern of generalizations perceived as outworn by over-use'.

Over the same period the problem situation has worsened considerably,

It would seem that there is a case for considering an alternative approach to facilitating the response of the organizational network to the world problem complex ·in order to avoid a Third United Nations Development Decade of even deeper frustration than the second.

One facilitative technique is to make accurate, readily comprehensible maps (see Appendix 7) widely available so that new structures and their auto-coordination can emerge wherever possible. Hopefully this publication will stimulate further thinking on the meaning of a network strategy in such a context, in place of continued faith in the planning and action of a limited number of organizations (which have proved unable to contain the problems of the recent past and are therefore unlikely to be able to contain the more complex problems which are emerging).


Alvin Toffler. The USA, the UN, and transnational networks. International Associations, 27, 1975, 12, pp. 593-599 (extract from testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations of the US Senate. 94th Congress, First Session, 7 May-4 June 1975)

Donald Schon. Beyond the Stable State; public and private learning in a changing society. Temple Smith. 1971

Donald N. Michael. On Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn. Jossey Bass, 1973 (does not consider organizational networks but summarizes many of the relevant arguments in available literature)

Anthony Judge:

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