Want to Build Influence? Create an Open Network

As a reputation and influence agency, Handshake provides counsel to its clients on how they can use their business model to make the world better. Handshake was founded on the principle that nothing of consequence is achieved alone. As a result, for our clients to make a meaningful difference for society while also growing their business, they must act in partnership with a wide variety of individuals and organizations.

To that end, we have spent a great deal of time understanding how reputations are built and influence is used in collaboration with others.

That curiosity has led us to a great deal of research on how networks of influential people, ideas, and organizations come together around specific topics or issues. Those can range from anything from understanding how urban areas can create more efficient means of transportation to analyzing how financial capital is allocated to global development projects.

In the coming weeks, the Handshake team will further explore the concepts of network theory and explain how networks are essential for building and using influence to make the world better. Please check back here – the Handshake blog – for future posts on this interesting topic.

What is a Network?

Networks are made up of people and organizations sharing ideas and information through all forms of communication – conversations, social media, participation at events, and so on. As a result, networks are the infrastructure of influence, driving the exchange of resources and ideas.

Engaging in and influencing these networks empowers individuals and organizations to deploy their expertise and resources in the pursuit of achieving any number of outcomes – innovating to improve business performance, solving a pressing social challenge or shaping a discussion around a particular idea.

The Staying Power of Networks

Networks have been around since humans started interacting with each other. As noted historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote, “Networks are the spontaneously self-organizing, horizontal structures we form…These include the patterns of migration…that have distributed our species and its DNA across the world’s surface; the markets through which we exchange goods and services; the clubs we form, as well as the myriad cults, movements, and crazes we periodically produce.”

With the rapid acceleration in how humans are able to communicate (particularly through the use of instant messaging and open social media platforms), networks form more quickly and share more ideas than at any time in history. 

Not all networks are created equal. Some are much better than others in taking often disparate ideas and unifying them into something enduring and consequential that improves society. Unless you are an avid reader of Naill Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower, you probably are not familiar with Alfred Milner’s network, “The Round Table” and its premise of making South Africa a “white man’s country…in which a largely increased white population can live in decency and comfort.” Although Milner’s network only lasted a few years, its extreme ideology laid the foundation for Apartheid and triggered decades of internal strife in South Africa. 

In contrast, there is the network of the “Founding Fathers” that came together in the 1770s in the then British North American colonies. The network they formed was driven by a vision of freedom from Great Britain and more autonomous government that led to the founding of the United States. 

Because the Founding Fathers’ network was underpinned by compelling and far-reaching principles, much of the network stayed intact through the ups and downs of the early years of the country when its long-term survival was by no means assured. If the network had disintegrated prior to the ratification of the Constitution, it is very possible the United States as we know it would not have come to fruition.

Ingredients for an Effective Network

Effective networks (such as that created by the Founding Fathers) share five important traits:

  1. Consequential. The Founding Fathers successfully used their network to achieve something that went beyond anything ever done before. That is not to say every network needs to envision a new country, but the vision and purpose behind it must be highly relevant to people and institutions outside the network. 
  2. Accessible. To bring the best ideas forward in a way that achieves impact, a network must be open to entrants with different points of view and a forum for constructive criticism. A closed network of like-minded people will never grow and evolve to something enduring. While the Founding Fathers were not diverse from a socio-economic standpoint, the network had a wide variance in beliefs, political views and geographic representation. 
  3. Adaptable. If a network is to endure over time so it can have a measurable impact, it must adapt to new ideas, people, and ways of sharing information.
  4. Aspirational. A key trait of Milner’s network is that it was based on a narrow ideology that, in turn, only appealed to a select group of people. In contrast, the much more accessible network created by the Founding Fathers was based on aspirational principles that were both consequential and adaptable as the network transitioned from forming ideas and fighting for independence in the 1770s to building a country in the 1780s and beyond.
  5. Transparent. Impactful networks widely share their ideas and use that to shape the broader public discourse. Just think about all the publications produced by the Founding Fathers, starting with the Declaration of Independence and continuing through the Federalist Papers.

Application of Networks

Throughout history, networks have continuously arisen to challenge the established order and the “way of doing business.” And, in the era of social media, the ability of networks to quickly form, flourish, and achieve outcomes is unprecedented. As Oday Kamal wrote, “In the age of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, employees, consumers and citizens all expect basic functionalities and rights. Where the hierarchies fail most dramatically, new networks will emerge and increase the probability of successful disruption as we’ve seen with hotels (Airbnb), ride-hailing (Uber), video streaming (Netflix), and electric cars (Tesla).”

In other words, if an organization wants to be on the front end of innovation and able to exert its influence as a force for good, it must be actively engaged in multiple networks that are dynamic, open, and transparent. It is within these types of networks where new ideas are incubated, the established order is disrupted and solutions to challenging problems are brought to fruition.