How can we prepare organizational leaders to work in a networked world? | Beth's Blog

How can we prepare organizational leaders to work in a networked world?

Leadership, Networked Nonprofit

Photo by Eugene Eric Kim

Guest post by Patti Anklam

Guest blogger, Patti Anklam, author of  Net Work: A Practical Guide to Creating and Sustaining Networks at Work and in the World, explores the role of organizational leadership in a network world. This post is part of a series of articles exploring topics related to network leadership hosted by Leadership for a New Era or LNE, a collaborative research initiative launched by the Leadership Learning Community ( in 2009.  LNE focuses on promoting leadership approaches that are more inclusive, networked and collective.

The principal task of preparing organizational leaders is to provide them with the language and tools they need to be able to discern and describe network activity, the insights they need to understand network structure, and an appreciation for the vital yet often subtle tasks of managing a network’s context. When leaders can take the network view, or (as we like to say) look through the network lens, they can distinguish the ways in which networks – both formal and informal – are supporting or detracting from the work at hand; they can also identify and leverage the people who are key brokers or connectors in the network or work to stimulate or weave the network to increase connections supporting knowledge flow, innovation, and social capital.

We have always had, and will generally always need, two forms of networks in organizations: the formal and the informal. The formal organization is represented by the (usually) hierarchical organization structure. The links, or ties, in these structures are reporting relationships. They represent commitments and obligations that go in both directions. Formal structures are essential for processes and tasks that require discipline, measurement, and decision-making. This formal organization provides the illusion of control; however it is the informal organization, the organization between the lines and in the white spaces that supports the scaffolding of the hierarchy. Leadership in a networked world implies being able to distinguish the formal and the informal and to understand how to balance the two.

Leaders also need to work at three levels of network: the personal, the organizational, and the ecosystem in which the organization lives.

Without a strong and diverse personal network, a leader will lack the ability to influence decisions, be unable to bring expertise into the organization as needed, and may not have the emotional resources required to thrive in a complex environment. Leaders need to learn how to cultivate their personal networks, and know when and how to manage the time required to maintain these networks.

The organizational network is best served by a leader who can manage the “net work of leadership:” that is, they create the capacity in others to understand and work in networks and they know how to steward the network by creating conditions for networks to emerge and succeed. These include intentional “weaving” of organizations by developing joint project work, initiating linkages between organizations, creating incentives for people to collaborate across boundaries, and so on.

Successful leaders know that the organization does not succeed or fail on its own, that it is part of an ecosystem of groups and organization that extend well past the boundaries of the corporate hierarchy or even its formal partnership agreements. This value network, or web of formal and informal relationships that must be managed, is the third level of network a leader needs to understand and articulate.

At all three levels of network, and across the formal/informal dimension, leaders need to learn to leverage technology. Social media in its many forms – blogs, Twitter, social networking sites, wikis, etc. – can strengthen existing networks as well as stimulate new networks. Collaboration sites and communication services enable networks to circle the globe, enhancing personal and organizational networks with channels for information flow, listening, and feedback that were never before possible.

This is what it means to live in a networked world. There are tools that leaders can learn to use that will help them see the structure of networks as well as models for network stewardship that emerging from practice and evolving through technology. It is among the greatest challenges that leaders face; harnessing this knowledge also provides some of the greatest opportunities for innovation, learning, and sustainability.

What other elements should we consider when preparing organizational leaders to work in a networked world?  Please share your ideas!

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7 Responses

  1. marià cano says:

    Great post. Congratulations

  2. Beth Kanter says:

    Eugene Eric Kim just pinged me and mentioned that the drawing was from a session he did with Monitor and Packard Foundation in 2008. The exercise was from June Holley. Hoping to get a link to a description …

  3. June Holley says:

    Here is one of the versions of the Network Mapping Activity.

    I find it works best when a small group that is working on a collaborative project or has some common interest does it together. If you try to get a larger group doing it, the map gets too complex to make much sense.

  4. Hello Beth, Patti, June and like-minded souls I’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting.

    Just have a minute, but thought I’d mention two related resources. I could send an electronic copy of my dissertation to people really involved with these directions (though it does not use SNA or related processes and tools). I’ll paste the abstract below.

    Also a colleague has just written a book that looks very promising: I’ve ordered it but it’s not yet arrived.

    Looking forward to following this conversation and digging into links more.

    Perceptions and Uses of Boundaries by Respected Leaders:
    a Transdisciplinary Inquiry
    Alice Elizabeth MacGillivray


    We work in organizational structures designed by industrial era architects, yet find ourselves in a knowledge era that is more like an ecosystem than a machine. We measure things, yet the real value may lie in the relationships amongst these things, especially as leaders face multidimensional challenges including climate change, terrorism and enabling organizational learning. This empirical research is driven by the need to better understand leadership in complex, unpredictable, horizontal, boundary-spanning environments.

    This study explores how persons who are respected for their leadership in horizontal environments understand and work with boundaries. Each participant also brought current or recent experience as a leader in a vertical hierarchy, enabling them to compare and contrast these environments.

    Data were gathered through interviews and—in many cases—direct observation of leaders at work. Phenomenography, ethnography and the integration of theoretical material were combined as an experiment in systemic phenomenography. This approach revealed detail and diversity of potential value for practitioners working in varied contexts. It also added to theoretical work about boundary critique and complex system leadership.

    Participants generally described their vertical environments with factual statements about numbers of employees, structures, software, products and services. They generally described horizontal environments—such as communities of practice and shared leadership teams—with more emotion, revealing passion and frustrations. They had moved into horizontal work for several reasons including problems not being resolvable through traditional, vertical approaches. Frustrations sometimes related to the marginalization of horizontal environments, difficulties bringing learning and innovation from the horizontal into the vertical, and workload.

    Participants understood boundaries and edges in different ways. One of the most common was to see edges of organizations and groups as places for the mixing of ideas to enable learning and innovation.

    Some participants thought consciously about boundaries in their work, and all worked implicitly with boundaries in several interconnected ways. Their behaviours included scanning the environment for potentially productive connections, making context-specific boundary decisions and maintaining adaptive tensions. Many worked consciously to integrate multiple identities associated with work in different cultures and disciplines.

    KEYWORDS: Leadership, horizontal, boundaries, communities of practice, complexity, knowledge management, governance, counter-terrorism, narrative, systemic phenomenography.

  5. Thanks so much for this, Patti. I find very useful work done by Grady McGonagill with the Bertelsman Fdn, and in particular a table he has developed to distinguish between different levels and different fields vis-a-vis leadership, including for networks. You can see more at

  6. CA says:

    There could be a link with a recent article on networks as a political project: Y. Rumpala, “Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project”, Twenty-First Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009 (see also: ).

  7. […] topic. My most recent thinking, part of a collaborative effort, was posted as a guest blog “How can we prepare leaders to work in a networked world?” on Beth Kanter’s […]