The Spread of Network Forms of Organization

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10. What Next for Networks and Netwars

David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla
Editors’ abstract. As with other new modes of conflict, the practice of netwar is ahead of theory. In this concluding chapter, we suggest how the theory of netwar may be improved by drawing upon academic perspectives on networks, especially those devoted to organizational network analysis. Meanwhile, strategists and policymakers in Washington, and elsewhere, have begun to discern the dark side of the network phenomenon, especially among terrorist and criminal organizations. But they still have much work to do to harness the bright side, by formulating strategies that will enable state and civil society actors to work together better.
The Spread of Network Forms of Organization

The deep dynamic guiding our analysis is that the information revolution favors the rise of network forms of organization. The network appears to be the next major form of organization—long after tribes, hierarchies, and markets—to come into its own to redefine societies, and in so doing, the nature of conflict and cooperation. As noted in the introductory chapter, the term netwar calls attention to the prospect that network-based conflict and crime will be major phenomena in the years ahead. The chapters in this volume provide early evidence for this.

Changes for the Better

The rise of networks is bringing many changes for the better. Some hold out the promise of reshaping specific sectors of society, as in writings about the promises of “electronic democracy” and “networked corporations” and “global civil society” and even “network-centric warfare”.1 Other likely effects are broader and portend the reshaping of societies as a whole, such that writers herald the coming of “the network society” and “the network age,” and even the redefinition of “nations as networks”.2 In addition, key academic studies of “globalization” revolve around observations about the growth of global networks and their interconnection with networks at local levels of society.3 Many writings are speculative, but others, particularly in the business world, are usually quite practical, inquiring into exactly what kinds of network structures and processes work, and which do not.4

At a grand theoretical level, age-old ideas about life as a “great chain of being” or as a progression of nested hierarchies are giving way to new ideas that networks are the key to understanding all of life. Here, theorists argue that hierarchies or networks (or markets, for that matter) are mankind’s finest form of organization, and that one or the other design underlies essentially all order in the world. In the social sciences, for example, some key 1960s writings about general systems theory (e.g., Bertalanffy, 1968) and social complexity (e.g., Simon, 1962) took stances lauding the roles of hierarchy in many areas of life. But since the 1970s, and especially in the 1990s, ideas have come slowly to the fore that networks are the crucial design. Thus, it is said that “most real systems are mixtures of hierarchies and networks” (Pagels, 1989, p. 51; also La Porte, 1975), and that “the web of life consists of networks within networks,” not hierarchies (Capra, 1996, p. 35; also Kelly, 1994). So many advances are underway in the study of complex networks that “In the longer run, network thinking will become essential to all branches of science as we struggle to interpret the data pouring in from neurobiology, genomics, ecology, finance, and the World-Wide Web” (Strogatz, 2001, p. 275).

The Dark Side

Most people might hope for the emergence of a new form of organization to be led by “good guys” who do “the right thing” and grow stronger because of it. But history does not support this contention. The cutting edge in the early rise of a new form may be found equally among malcontents, ne’er-do-wells, and clever opportunists eager to take advantage of new ways to maneuver, exploit, and dominate. Many centuries ago, for example, the rise of hierarchical forms of organization, which displaced traditional, consultative, tribal ways of doing things, was initially attended, in parts of the world, by the appearance of ferocious chieftains bent on military conquest and of violent secret societies run according to rank—long before the hierarchical form matured through the institutionalization of states, empires, and professional administrative and bureaucratic systems. In like manner, the early spread of the market form, only a few centuries ago, was accompanied by a spawn of usurers, pirates, smugglers, and monopolists, all seeking to elude state controls over their earnings and enterprises.5

Why should this pattern not be repeated in an age of networks? There appears to be a subtle, dialectical interplay between the bright and dark sides in the rise of a new form of organization. The bright-side actors may be so deeply embedded in and constrained by a society’s established ways of doing things that many have difficulty becoming the early innovators and adopters of a new form of organization. In contrast, nimble bad guys may have a freer, easier time acting as the cutting edge—and reacting to them may be what eventually spurs the good guys to innovate.

The spread of the network form and its technologies is clearly bringing some new risks and dangers. It can be used to generate threats to freedom and privacy. New methods for surveillance, monitoring, and tracking are being developed; and the uproars over the intelligence systems “Echelon,” “Semantic Forests,” and “Carnivore” manifest what will surely be enduring concerns. Critical national infrastructures for power, telecommunications, and transportation, as well as crucial commercial databases and information systems for finance and health, remain vulnerable to computer hackers and cyberterrorists. Furthermore, a growing “digital divide” between information “haves” and “have-nots” portends a new set of social inequities. All this places new strains on the world’s democracies. Even worse is the possibility that information-age dictatorships will arise in parts of the world, based on the skillful exploitation of the new technologies for purposes of political command and control.

Ambivalent Dynamics of Netwar

As this volume shows, netwar, in all its varieties, is spreading across the conflict spectrum. Instances abound among violent terrorists, ethnonationalists, criminals, and ideological fanatics who are anathema to U.S. security interests and policies. At the same time, many militant yet mainly peaceable social netwars are being waged around the world by democratic opponents of authoritarian regimes and by protestors against various risky government and corporate policies—and many of these people may well be agents of positive change, even though in some cases they may be hard on particular U.S. interests and policies.

In other words, netwar is an ambivalent mode of conflict—it has a dual nature. In some instances, it is used against the United States. In other instances, it may deserve American encouragement. While it should not be expected that the dystopian trends associated with the dark side of netwar will prevail in the years ahead, they will surely contend, sometimes bitterly, with the forces of the bright side.

Netwar is not likely to be a passing fancy. As the information revolution spreads and deepens around the world, instances of netwar will cascade across the spectrum of conflict and crime. So will the sophistication and the arsenal of techniques that different groups can muster. At present, the rise of netwar extends from the fact that the world system is in a turbulent, susceptible transition from the modern era, whose climax was reached at the end of the Cold War, to a new era that is yet to be given a good name. Netwar, because of its dependence on networks, is facilitated by the radical increases in global and transnational connectivity, as well as from the growing opportunities for increased connectivity in another sense—the ability of “outsiders” and “insiders” to gain access to each other, and even for insiders to be secreted within an organization or sector of society.6 All this should mean that netwar is not a transitional phenomenon; it may prove to be a permanent aspect of the new era.

When is a network Really an organizational network

Netwar rests on the dynamics of networks. Yet, what does the term “network” mean? What should it mean? Discussions about networks are proliferating, and three usages are in play, with clear distinctions rarely drawn among them. One common usage refers to communications grids and circuits—as though networking were a technological phenomenon, such that placing a set of actors (military units, for example) atop a grid would make them a network. This is a limited usage; we have spoken about its pitfalls in this and earlier studies, and thus will not dwell further upon it here.

In two other prominent usages, the term refers either to social networks or to organizational networks (or to a conflation of both). But social and organizational networks are somewhat different organisms. This is what needs discussion here, for it is a significant issue for theory and practice, affecting how best to think about the dynamics of netwar. The field of network analysis, writ large, has been dominated by social network analysis, but organizational network analysis can be more helpful for understanding the nature of netwar.

Our main point is that netwar (not to mention counternetwar) is principally an organizational dynamic, even though it requires appropriate social and technological dynamics to work well. But our deeper point is that there is still much work to be done to clarify the meaning of “network” and come up with better, easier methods of analysis for policymakers and strategists. Both the social and organizational schools can contribute to this—but in different ways, for they have different tendencies.

To put the differences rather starkly, the social school tends to see networks everywhere, in any kind of grouping. It does not regard organizational networks as a distinct form. It does not specify what kinds of network structures are best for what purposes, or under what conditions. And it is not suited to determining how to create organizational hybrids of hierarchies and networks. It is essentially analytical and not oriented to being prescriptive. In contrast, organizational network analysis has treated the network as a distinct, purposeful form, and is suited to normative and prescriptive tasks. It may well be the better source of ideas and observations for analyzing netwar actors, even though its theorists have focused mainly on business designs and practices.

Social Network Analysis7

Social network analysis is an important academic specialty pursued by a relatively small number of anthropologists, sociologists, and organization theorists. It has grown in influence for several decades. Generally speaking, their view—see a book like Networks and Organizations, or Social Structures: A Network Approach, or Social Network Analysis, or the website of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA)—holds that all social relationships, including all social organizations, can and should be analyzed as networks: that is, as sets of actors (nodes) and ties (links) whose relationships have a patterned structure.8

Social network analysis traces many of its modern roots back to efforts, decades ago, to develop sociograms and directed graphs to chart the ties among different actors in particular contexts—what gradually became known as a network. Later, some social network analysts, along with social psychologists and organizational sociologists who studied what were then called organization-sets, observed that networks often come in several basic shapes (or topologies): notably, as chain or line networks, where the members are linked in a row, and communications must flow through an adjacent actor before getting to the next; as hub, star, or wheel networks, where members are tied to a central node and must go through it to communicate with each other; and as all-channel or fully connected or full-matrix networks, where everyone is connected to and can communicate directly with everyone else (from Evan, 1972).9 Other shapes have also been identified (e.g., grids and lattices); so have combinations and hybrids, as in sprawling networks with myriad nodes linked in various ways that are sometimes called “spider’s web” networks. Moreover, any particular network may itself be embedded within surrounding networks. Yet, few social network analysts say much about such typologies; their concern is usually to let the data sets speak for themselves.

Classic studies concern topics like friendship cliques among school children, interlocking memberships in corporate boards, job search and occupational mobility patterns that depend on personal connections, partnerships among business firms, and even the structure of the world economic and political system. When a social network analyst studies a primitive tribe, a hierarchical bureaucracy, or a market system, he or she searches for the formal and informal networks that undergird it and emphasizes their roles in making that social organization or system work the way it does (e.g., as in Granovetter, 1985).

In this view, power and influence depend less on one’s personal attributes (e.g., resources, attitudes, behaviors) than on one’s interpersonal relations—the location and character of one’s ties in and to the network. The “unit of analysis” is not so much the individual as the network in which the individual is embedded. Not unlike complexity theorists, social network analysts view a network as a systemic whole that is greater than and different from its parts. An essential aim is to show how the properties of the parts are defined by their networked interactions, and how a network itself functions to create opportunities or constraints for the individuals in it.

Many social network analysts stress the importance of location: as in whether an actor’s power and prestige stem from his “centrality” in a network, or whether he has greater autonomy and potential power if he is located at a “structural hole”10 (a kind of “nonredundant” location that can provide an opening or bridge to an actor in a nearby network). Other analysts stress the importance of the links between actors: whether the ties are strong (tightly coupled) or weak (loosely coupled), and what difference this may make for acquiring and acting on information about what is happening in and around the network.11 Other questions may be asked about the overall “connectedness” of a network, and the degrees of “reciprocity” and “mutuality” that characterize flows and exchanges within it.

For social network analysts, then, what is keenly interesting about individuals is not their “human capital” (personal properties) but their “social capital” (interpersonal or relational properties). Social networks are said to be built out of social capital; they thrive when mutual respect and trust are high.

Social network analyses tend to be intricately methodological, placing a premium on mathematical modeling and visualization techniques.12 Though there are exceptions having to do with measures of efficiency and effectiveness, these analyses are generally not normative or prescriptive, in the sense of observing that one kind of network structure may be better than another for a particular activity, such as a business alliance or a social movement. Moreover, these analyses are not evolutionary, in the sense of observing that the network may be a distinct form of organization, one that is now coming into its own. For many social network analysts, the network is the mother of all forms, and the world amounts to a network of networks.
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