Learning to Network and Networking to Learn

2010 - Book - Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL Cover

If the comparison is allowed, the way how the Systems theory became a macro paradigm to study complex structures during the first decades of the last century, is similar to the importance acquired by the Network theory as a perspective to study the current society.

In those years the Systems theory provided a trans-disciplinary approach to understand systems as a set of self-regulating and interacting parts, independent of their substance, type, spatial or temporal scale of existence.

It is well known that an accurate and detailed description of principles that explain the functioning of the systems was provided by Bertalanffy’s in his publication: General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (1968). One of his main contributions was the emphasis on a more holistic approach to knowledge but also the creation of an area of study knows as the science of systems (source).

As it can be seen above, there is an increasing interest in studying and understanding the structures of networks. It is noteworthy to see how relevant this analytical perspective has become, particularly in the last decades. It may be too early to know how the current century will be remembered, but we guess that networks will have an important place in the picture of the XXI century.

For instance, today we can find a wide adoption of the networks*, in areas such as : biological-*, artistic-*, satellite-*, political-*, innovative*-, knowledge*-, computing*-, entrepreneurial-* and, of course, social-*.  Podolny and Page (1998: 3) wrote: “From a structural perspective, every form of organization is a network”. An outstanding example of that can be found at You Tube EDU, where Castells can be found describing Networks theory “if not a common ground at least an interdisciplinary conversation… as a common language, a common approach toward the understanding of nature and society “.

Here we offer some questions and ideas (quotes from various fields) about this widely adopted network-centered perspective:

What are the advantages of the network perspective?

Networks are, however, a very old form of social organization. But throughout history, net- works had major advantages and a major problem. Their advantages are flexibility and adaptability, characteristics essential for managing tasks in a world as volatile and mutable as ours. The problem was the embedded inability of networks to manage complexity beyond a critical size”. (Castells, 2000 p.695)

How networks evolve?

A network is a set of interconnected nodes. Networks are flexible, adaptive structures that, powered by information technology, can perform any task that has been programmed in the network. They can expand indefinitely, incorporating any new node by simply reconfiguring themselves, on the condition that these new nodes do not represent an obstacle to fulfilling key instructions in their program“. (Castells, 2000 p.695)

What is the importance of networks?

The emergence of interactive information networks as the backbone of social structure makes even more acute the need to take up the greatest methodological challenge for empirical research in sociology“. (Castells, 2000 p.698)

What do you understand by networking?

Networking is a broad concept referring to a form of organized transacting that offers an alternative to either markets or hierarchies. It refers to transactions across an organization’s boundaries that are recurrent and involve continuing relationships with a set of partners. The transactions are coordinated and controlled on a mutually agreed basis that is likely to require common protocols and systems, but do not necessarily require direct supervision by the organization’s own staff”. (Child, 2005:15)

We define a network form of organization as any collection of actors (N> 2) that pursue repeated, enduring exchange relations with one another and, at the same time, lack a legitimate organizational authority to arbitrate and resolve disputes that may arise during the exchange”. (Podolny and Page, 1998:3)

How Does a Network Work?

A network is a set of interconnected nodes. Nodes may be of varying relevance to the network, and so particularly important nodes are called “centres” in some versions of network theory. Still, any component of a network (including “centres”) is a node and its function and meaning depend on the programs of the node and its interactions with other nodes in the network. Node increases their importance for the network by absorbing more relevant information, and processing it more efficiently. The relative importance of a node does not stem from its specific features but from its ability to contribute to the network’s effectiveness in achieving its goals, as defined by the value and interest programmed into the networks. However, all nodes of a network are necessary for the network’s performance, although networks allow for some redundancy as a safeguard for their proper functioning. When nodes become unnecessary for the fulfilment of the networks’ goal, network tend to reconfigure themselves, deleting some nodes, and adding new ones. Nodes only exist and function as components of networks. The network is the unit, not the node“. (Castells, 2004. p.20)

Could you describe the network structure?

Thus, networks are complex structures of communications constructed around a set of goals that simultaneously ensure unity of purpose and flexibility of execution by their adaptability to the operating environment. They are programmed and self-configurable at the same time. Their goals and operating procedures are programmed, in social and organizational networks, by social actors. Their structure evolves according to the capacity of the network to self-configure in an endless search for more efficient networking arrangement“. (Castells, 2004. p.21)

Also in the reading was mention of three major features of a network:
Flexibility: reconfiguring to changing environments
Scalability: Expanding or shrinking with little disruption
Survivability: resisting attacks on the nodes

It is fair to say that also some isomorphic structures can be found between the system and network perspectives. One of the most relevant similarities for the research that we are developing now is the proximity between “adaptive system” and “learning networks” as open structures:

Adaptive System:

A system that can change itself in response to changes in its environment in such a way that its performance improves through a continuing interaction with its surroundings” (systems engineering).

“…an autonomous process that uses the outcomes of those interactions to select a subset of those components for replication or enhancement” (Levin, 2003).

[The system needs]…to solve the problem adaptively by dynamically accumulating information about the problem at hand and using this information to generate an acceptable solution” (De Jong, 1980: 566)

Networks that learn:

Network forms allow participating firms to learn new skills or acquire knowledge, gain legitimacy, improve economic performance and manage resource dependencies […] The ability to operate in a network form of organization is a skill or capability that must be learned”. (Podolny and Page, 1998)

They [network or organizations] can encourage learning by promoting the rapid transfer of self-contained pieces of information […] This understanding of learning through networks is quite consistent with some of the early network research on information transfer”. (Podolny and Page, 1998)

This conceptual proximity could be very illustrative for this analysis. If we combine both approaches, we may comprehend the “learning practice” (networks) as an “adaptive process” (systems). At the same time the capability to be  “adaptable” (systems) is also a signal of “learning” (networks). In other words, either systems or networks are “living” structures which are continuously being transformed in order to evolve (or survive).

Another possible approach to understand the closeness between the Network and the System theories is framing the network as a system itself, but I’m not sure that those who promote the Network theory as the main paradigm will be pleased with that idea.

There are still some questions to be answered about the Network theory and its relevance:

– How long for the social network bubble to burst?
– Are the networks being used just as metaphor or as a macro theory?
– Is the Network theory an opportunity for interdisciplinary studies?
– How this theory should evolve in the future?

To better understand the links between networks and systems we recommend to download the presentation: “Network in System Architecture“, pdf (develop by Daniel E. Whitney, 2006. Published at the MIT OpenCourseWare).

Disclaimer: The title of this post was borrowed from: Stubbs, M., and M. Lemon. (2001). “Learning to Network and Networking to Learn: Facilitating the Process of Adaptive Managementin a Local Response to the UK’s National AirQuality Strategy.” Environmental management 27(3): 321–334.


  • Castells, M. (2000). “Toward a sociology of the network society.” Contemporary Sociology: 693–699.
  • Castells, M. (2004). Communication power. Oxford . Oxford University Press.
  • Child, J. (2005) Organization. Contemporary Principles and Practice. Blackwell Publishing.
  • De Jong, K. (1980). “Adaptive system design: a genetic approach.” IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics 10(9): 566–574.
  • Levin, S. A. (2003). “Complex adaptive systems: Exploring the known, the unknown and the unknowable.” Bulletin-American Mathematical Society 40(1): 3–20.
  • Podolny, J. M, and K. L Page. (1998). “Network forms of organization.” Annual review of sociology 24(1): 57–76.