“Wrap” by Kevin Dwyer/

“In groups we can do together what we cannot achieve alone. With networks and new computer-based tools now ordinary people can become a group even without the benefit of a corporation or organization. They can make decisions, own and sell assets, accomplish tasks by exploiting the technology available. They no longer need to rely on a politician to make decisions. They can exercise meaningful power themselves about national, state and local—indeed global—issues. Senior citizens and teenagers use networked handheld computers to police the conditions of urban land use. The Google search engine offers a “Google Groups” service to make it easier for people to create and maintain groups and to do everything from “treating carpal tunnel syndrome [to] disputing a cell phone bill.” The mobile phone “smart mob” allows groups to self-organize a political protest or campaign, such as the one that elected the president of South Korea. Young people are meeting in video games and using the virtual world to organize real world charitable relief for victims of natural disasters. When the Chihuahua owners of San Diego, California, get together via, they discover not only a shared animal affinity, but also their ability to change the conditions of local parks, affect local leash laws, and police the park for themselves. Meetups have no offices, secretaries, water coolers, or other appurtenances of formal organizations yet they have as much effect. Parents come together to decide on policy in their children’s school or a group of scientists collaborate to overthrow an age-old publishing model and distribute their research collectively online.”

—Beth Simone Noveck, “A Democracy of Groups”1

“Wherever we look, we see a landscape of movement and complexity, of forms that come and go, of structures that are not from organizational charts or job descriptions, but from impulses arriving out of deep natural processes of growth and of self-renewal. In our desire to control our organizations, we have detached ourselves from the forces that create order in the universe. All these years we have confused control with order. So what if we reframed the search? What if we stop looking for control and begin the search for order, which we can see everywhere around us in living dynamic systems?

It is time, I believe, to become a community of inquirers, serious explorers seeking to discover the essence of order—order we will find even in the heart of chaos. It is time to relinquish the limits we have placed on our organizations, time to release our defenses and fear. Time to take up new lenses and explore beyond our known boundaries. It is time to become full participants in this universe of emergent order.”

—Margaret J. Wheatley, “Chaos and Complexity: What Can Science Teach?”2

“Wikis and other social media are engendering networked ways of behaving—ways of working wikily—that are characterized by principles of openness, transparency, decentralized decision making, and distributed action. These new approaches to connecting people and organizing work are now allowing us to do old things in new ways, and to try completely new things that weren’t possible before.”

 —The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, “Network Effectiveness Theory of Change”3

If you want to have an effect on poverty, hunger, human trafficking, immigration, labor rights, the torture of political prisoners, the economic development of your region, education, healthcare, or any one of a number of issues we discuss and work on in this sector, it is likely you will be working in networks.

While networks have always existed in our work in the civil sector, we are all on a learning curve about their use. Our perception of them and our approach to working with them are changing with the facilitation of technology and the Internet. The potential of leveraged learning, reach, and impact through ever-expanding networks of networks calls us to engage—but if you take networks seriously, you will be working in a brave new world, with new dynamics and a lot more promise for change.

In this framing article, NPQ will try, in short form, to introduce you to some of the current thinking around the uses and benefits of networks, without hitting you with a lot of maps and discussions of qualifiers like “density.” To do so, we have compiled material from some of the thought leaders in this field. Please, though, read this with the understanding that we know you are already working in networks at many different levels; our goal with this article is to reveal some of the thinking around their strategic uses in achieving much bigger impact and influence than you have likely in the past enjoyed. (We do wish to acknowledge that we talk less here about networks of service or production than of those of social change. And, there are some fascinating models developing in the economy that we will address in our next edition of NPQ.)


“Both organisations and individuals can participate in networks. But the participants in networks are characterized by their diversity, including geographical diversity, as well as cultural, lingual, and at times also ideological diversity.”

“The way actors participate in networks is very diverse, ranging from voting in elections to participating in campaigns. Participation in networks is sporadic; at times very intensive, at times non-existent.”

“A network may cease to exist once it reaches its goals, or the goals may be so broad and far-reaching that there is no reason for it ever to stop existing. Participation in a network will last as long as the members remain committed.”4

Curtis Ogden describes some of the values we have to hold in order to make good use of networks:

  • Adaptability instead of control. Thinking in networks means leading with an interest in adaptability over time. Given contextual complexity, it is impossible for any actor or “leader” to know exactly what must be done to address a particular issue, much less keep what should be a more decentralized and self-organizing group moving in lockstep. Pushing “responseability” out to the edges is what helps networks survive and thrive.
  • Emergence instead of predictability. As with any complex living system, when people come together as a group, we cannot always know what it is they will create. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Vying for the predictable means shortchanging ourselves of new possibilities, one of the great promises of networks.
  • Resilience and redundancy instead of rock stardom. You see it on sports teams all the time. When the star player goes down, so goes the team. Resilient networks are built upon redundancy of function and a richness of interconnections, so that if one node goes away, the network can adjust and continue its work.
  • Contributions before credentials. You’ve probably heard the story about the janitor who anonymously submitted his idea for a new shoe design during a company-wide contest, and won.