Networked organisations

What do we mean by ‘networked organisations’?

When we think about the way work is managed inside an organisation, we might imagine a clear hierarchy, perhaps, with bosses and boards, leaders and teams. There might be a vertical structure where the lines of communication are pre-defined and clear. Communication beyond the organisation might typically be one-way broadcasting, advertising, newsletter updates or pre-arranged face-to-face conversations.

This image, while perhaps comfortingly recognisable, is changing fast in the face of the exponential adoption of social media, online networks, and personal devices. We are seeing changing ‘digital’ behaviours in which anyone with a web-capable device can communicate independently and on a global scale. In response, organisations are rapidly evolving the way they engage with customers. For example, Amazon purchased the GoodReads social network to boost the way readers interact and recommend texts amongst themselves. Even members of the New Zealand Parliament tweet from question time, opening new pathways so anyone can access previously ‘authorised’ information from parliament.

Such social networks create two-way, one-to-many communications enabling responsive engagement with the public in ways that are now an expected part of the way today’s organisations work. Engagement and forming relationships with customers and communities is vital in a time when a more personalised approach is being demanded.

And inside organisations, structures are changing too. Traditional hierarchies are evolving into adaptable heterarchies. Distributed leadership models ensure that individuals throughout organisations have increased agency but also shoulder more responsibility. Teams work as communities of practice. Internal social networks, such as Yammer, are beginning to be used as well as emails.

What might networked organisations look like?

Networked organisations:

  • collaborate
  • connect across teams in its structure
  • offer open pathways so anyone can engage
  • make the most of cloud based, virtual platforms
  • encourage self-selected networking and personal growth.

The value of networks lie in the potential for spreading opportunity and challenge and for joint creation and innovation by enabling the competencies, knowledge and expertise of the group.

David Rogers describes networked organisations as:

  • Borderless: Networked organisations tend to have relatively porous boundaries separating their own departments from other schools, parents, and other key constituencies.
  • Collaborative: Rather than settling for mediocre, these organisations actively seek out ideas from students, parents and partners, exchange information with them, and involve them in innovation and value creation.
  • Pervasively-networked: All divisions and functions of the organisation are engaging with customer networks, and digital technologies are used to connect across disciplines and departments within the organisation as well.

In the self-managing schools of New Zealand Aotearoa, we are beginning to see these ideas emerge in the way schools organise teams, design professional learning, engage with their communities and whānau, and access and contribute to the wider education network.

What is driving this shift towards networked structures?

This shift from a constrained, imposed hierarchy to a fluid, more personalised network is being driven by a range of factors, from technological to social and educational.

Technology-driven networking

At a social level, the rapid adoption of social media, mobile personal devices and ubiquitous, fast fibre wireless create conditions for increased personal demand for information and engagement. While businesses increasingly appreciate that client satisfaction must inform their ongoing success strategies, so schools and learning centres understand that modern education practices require professionals who can adapt to their communities’ and learners’ evolving needs.

Learner-driven networking

Contemporary, Western educational models are premised on learner-centred, socio-constructivist curriculum. To sustain such a learner-centred design effectively demands a level of adaptability and resourcing from educators that single schools cannot provide on their own. There are increasing expectations that schools also make contributions to the wider network themselves, sharing their understandings and expertise with others, even if, at times, this collaboration rubs up against the competition for resource and students. When education, including professional learning, is wrapped around the learner, global networks can help support increased personalisation of inquiries, of programmes.This demand for personal learning has been enabled by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and Open Educational Resources (OER), huge, often grassroots-driven, networks that cater for individual learning demands.

Examples of networked organisations in education

Looking across the current educational landscape, examples are emerging of schools, learning centres and educators that model a networked disposition in terms of their internal organisation:

  • The fluid curriculum design at Albany Senior High, described by Bolstad & Gilbert (2012) as a ‘networked campground’:
  • Cross-curriculum and cross-team hubs and networks being developed at Hobsonville Point Secondary School [via Steve Mouldey’s blog post, ‘Enabling constraints’]
  • VLN Groups network: Visible learning across staff and clusters is being supported by groups dedicated to staff PD, the ICT PD clusters, the GCSN, blogging and e-portfolios that are staff wide.

We are also seeing an increasing range of examples of schools and educators forming networks to support their growth:

  • VLN Primary and VLN community: Networks of schools across NZ who willingly network to bridge curriculum gaps in learning.
  • VLN Groups network: A 13,000+ educator strong social network of educators who respond to each others’ questions and share expertise.
  • Dedicated education networks on Twitter and grassroots communities such as #edchatnz, #TeachMeetNZ, #educampnz

Challenges, opportunities and implications

Changing leadership models

It can be challenging to change prevailing models of leadership, to shift from a power-centric approach to one that acknowledges that all staff have strengths to bring to the organisation, offering real decision-making opportunities, not just delegated ones. Hierarchies can be limiting compared to a truly collaborative, networked structure:

Changing cultures

For schools to work as connected networks, leadership needs to foster a culture of trust and which is predisposed towards transparency and openness. To help educators make the most of networks beyond their school, it is helpful to look for ways in which the professional learning models in the school can integrate informal ways of exploring inquiry and collaboration cross-teams.

Changing dispositions and understandings

To make the most of networked learning, modern educators require a digital toolkit of literacies. It is helpful for educators to understand that influence in networks operates through social investment of time and effort, relationships, and recommendations. There are also challenges in the ‘default social’ disposition. Networked organisations privilege socially-adept working behaviours. By being part of quality conversations, research and relationships gain in value and more can be achieved. Such digital confidence also needs to include understanding how to filter information strategically and in ways that are manageable.

Changing perceptions of schools: From islands to archipelago

On a broader level, a further challenge and opportunity is for schools to see themselves as nodes on a wider network rather than isolated islands. Modern, networked schools pursue collaboration, rather than competition, and adopt Tim O’Reilly’s maxim that you should “create more value than you capture”.

Questions to consider
  • How collegial, open and distributed is your school’s internal management structure?
  • What opportunities are there to redesign professional learning and management models to encourage greater distribution of decision-making and increased control of individual inquiries?
  • How can you support those people who are keen to lead and encourage networked approaches?
  • How can digital technologies support a networked approach in your school, to ensure greater access to learning and to support a transparent, collegial approach?
  • Where do opportunities exist for your school to ‘thin the walls’ and share expertise with other educators locally/globally as part of rich, inquiry-driven professional learning?

Learn, participate, and share

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