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Everything IS Connected to Everything Else

 

By Mark Johnson

 

A review and response to Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan

Have you noticed that conversations these days are often about cell phones, palm pilots, blackberries and digital paraphernalia? Cyberspace consciousness has replaced the weather as the social convention for breaking the ice. Perhaps because, like the weather, it surrounds us in ways we cannot ignore or change.

Connectivity, caughtness in the web of the digital, is the truth of our times.

We all know that everything is connected to everything else today; that is a cliché of modern science.  But how does it affect our behavior?  What out of “everything” is important?  How is it “related” to everything else?

 

Connectivity…is the truth of our times.

At one level, a fairly deep level at that, we are simply discovering laws that have always held true. Just as the position of the moon affects the tides and the temperature of H20 the texture of matter, we have always influenced behavior at a distance through other people. Network theorists are discovering eternal truths that cross species lines and time.

But the world is also different. This impacts the ways in which we can use the laws and tools of science and technology to change how we behave. Pluralism is a function of global mobility, both of people and ideas.  The physical mixing of people of different faiths without regard to national and institutional boundaries is different today. Cell phones and pagers, the internet and wireless world are new in future shaping ways.

In global YMCA work, membership is the aspect of relationship and connectivity that most intrigues us. Through membership comes the sense of belonging, the possibility of intimacy, the identity shaped by interaction, the support we need to succeed in reaching our goals.

Current information theory characterizes relationships as links. Links are the nature and character of connectivity.  By understanding links we can increase our appreciation of membership, friendship, community and organization.  This may sound mechanistic, and there is an orderedness to it that is typical of laws of nature. But our proverbs and literature and lives are full of the human impact of physical realities.  Intimacy grows deepest in proximity; membership is strongest with interaction; discipline requires repetition. The organic and dynamic interact with the mechanic and the static.

One of the more powerful underpinnings of network theory is Mark Granovetter’s concept of the “strength of weak ties.” In studying patterns of successful job searches, Granovetter discovered that more people found their jobs, or people to fill jobs, through friends rather than family, and usually friends one or two steps removed, available only through acquaintance links, not directly. MOST jobs.  The MAJORITY of jobs.

If we are looking to fill positions, increase membership, find volunteers, expand donor bases, we would be well advised to identify weak ties and engage networks, and to do so consciously.

Word of mouth is our colloquial description; an intuitive solution and not new. The other linchpin of the theory is the role of the hub.  Not all nodes are equally connected.  And here an element of chaos enters the orderliness of a lawful universe. Over time hubs, somewhat randomly, become the attractors of more and more links. 

The high connectors of the world are more effective paths to more people.  These are the people we want on our boards.  These are the individuals who should be heading up our annual and capital campaigns. There are simple tests for ferreting them out: how many names are in their address books?  How many steps removed from key leaders in the community are they? How many members have they recruited already?  Using tools of data collection and data mining creatively will identify the hubs. Know your hubs!

Both patterns are critical to network theory.  Hubs make the systems efficient. Weak links insure they never break down.  The positive attributes of the system are that information is seldom totally lost, there is no one correct answer or path to an answer, complexity creates conservation.  The negative attributes of the system are that mistakes are hard to expunge, errors are self-propagating, terrorists create cells, and diseases evade eradication.

Barabasi is a key theorist of networks; Buchanan is a science writer covering the field.  Both are thoroughly accessible, delightfully engaging, enormously provocative.

 

 

This article first appeared in Perspective: Publication of the Association of Professional Directors of YMCAs in April of 2004 under the title “The Power of a Strong Web.” 

 

Mark Johnson is the Director of National Executive Initiatives for the YMCA of the USA. In his 34 years with the YMCA, Mark has served in Beirut (Lebanon), New York City, Silver Bay New York, Chicago and at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

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