Making sense of social networks, social graphs, collaboration, and cooperation in the new way of work: Leanership

A post from last year by Sharon Richardson (Collaboration is not the same as Social) has inspired to the revisit some terms and clarify what I think are the differences and overlap between them, and to makes a case for the growing interest around cooperative work.

A social network is best thought of visually as a graph, where people form the nodes and relationships are the arcs between them. These arcs can have all sorts of semantic values and can be directional so one person can ‘trust’ another while that might not be reciprocated, or similarly ‘twitter follower of’. But some relations are reflexive, like ‘second cousin of’.


The individual is the new group.

Most importantly, a social network is a mathematical model that highlights some but not all aspects of our extremely layered, deep, and changing social relationships, both in work and out of it.

Social network is a term that is applied to a growing number of web services that provide a way for people to communicate and connect online, like Facebook, Twitter, and business variants like Yammer, Podio, and IBM Connections. That reapplication of the term has caused some confusion, but in general it makes sense to use the term in both ways.

The idea of a social graph is a step beyond the social network concept, as I recently outlined:

Next generation work tech has to build on the work graph, not just social networks

[...] the social graph idea has added to the mix the idea of social objects: the photos, messages, likes, and other signals and information that are shared across social networks. So a simplistic but helpful way to think about it is this:

social graph = social network (people) + social objects (things)

This is an important enhancement, because it pulls the things we are working on,  the places we visit, and the topics that we talk about into the graph, and give them a place in our sociality. And in the workplace, the social graph is the work graph, with social objects made of deals, campaigns, products, and strategic goals.

As Richardson points out in her piece collaborative groups are not just any old network or graph:

A collaborative team is a small group of people working together directly towards a specific outcome, something that can’t be achieved, or can’t be achieved as well, by one person alone.

socialnet richardson

[...] the red dot is the leader of the collaborative group. The black dots are members of the collaborative team who are closely connected within the wider social network [...].

So the same people form a collaborative, shown on the left, and a part of a larger social network shown on the right. Collaboratives are united — like a team — subordinating their personal goals to the goals of the collaborative. And that’s what collaborative work is like, and it shapes the social graph in a direct way: the work products and information needed for the collaborative are often under the control of the leader of the collaborative, and other members can be added and removed from the collaborative work group by the leader, and may therefore lose access to their own work, and work history.

Cooperative work is based on  different premises from collaborative work.

First of all, in cooperatives each person is the autonomous master of their own work, which they can choose to share opening, or to specific others, for whatever purpose. In this way (as I have been saying since the early ’00s), the individual is the new group.


We don’t have the perfect tools for cooperative work, but I find that using open and flexible, small and simple social tools is probably the best way to go, given the nature of computing infrastructure today.

Secondly, each person operates within a subset of the larger social graph, which is composed of the person and all those others with which the individual has direct relations with. These can be people in the same department, sharing the same floor in the office, but also people with who the individual may have only an informal relationship, or people outside of the company, altogether. And each person is the center of their own set, connected to everyone else, while the others may have no other connections among the set than the one with the set’s ‘leaner’. (Yes, I am using ‘leaner’ as a noun to indicate the central individual in a set. It is based on the idea of ‘leanership’ replacing ‘leadership’ in the new way of business, as I discussed in Leanership trumps leadership).

So, another way to look at a social network — for example, the social network in a business — is as a set of these sets: the union of all the social sets, each defined as the collection of people connected to a single person in the network.

And, that reflects on cooperative work. Imagine that I want to get something done here in Beacon, like a series of open forums on bettering the city, so I reach out to a few contacts in my set, asking for ideas and interest. two people are interested, and they both suggest other people that I don’t know. And after connecting with them, they have ideas and invite another aboard. Every one comes together at some meetings, people start to segregate into different activities, and I continue to lean this ‘scene’ of people — both the set of people directly working as members of a committee, and the outside connections we all have to informally build support and offer added ideas — as we roll out the forums over the year.

In this model, each participant is pursuing their own agenda. I did not demand that everyone agree to a specific ‘mission’ except in the most general notion of increased public discourse about issues important to Beacon NY, no one can task anyone else to do something they don’t volunteer for, since the only means of control is persuasion and affiliation.

This is cooperative leanership. Each is the leaner of their own work, their own aspirations and goals. There is no one ‘in charge’, exactly, and people find common cause and moving together in the same general direction for the duration of the project good enough. Afterward, the activity and its temporary social network of overlapping sets falls apart, while each person’s set — perhaps with new connections and ‘settlers’ — persists.

We don’t have the perfect tools for cooperative work, but I find that using open and flexible, small and simple social tools is probably the best way to go, given the nature of computing infrastructure today.

Mission and purpose for a cooperative business emerges from the decisions and drives of people across the scenes that make up the business. Yes, the business has to have more leanership than this. Hiring must happen, investments must be made, and the myriad activities across the company must be balanced. But that is likely to be another scene, a social graph uniting people from the many activities and cooperatively guiding policies, not a management cadre sitting above the rest like a rider astride a horse.

Leanership is the new way of leadership, putting aside the slow and static power controls of collaborative work, and loosening controls to become fast and agile, replacing leaders with leaners.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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