Comment: Networks are nebulous, but they unite

Networking was once a dirty word, conjuring images of oleaginous old boys in Oxbridge ties clambering their way up the ladder over a glass of Bordeaux. How times have changed.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon
The title for the Acevo international conference a couple of weeks ago was Network Power: engaging transnational networks for innovative leadership. Delegates from all over the globe came together, Savile Row suits nudging Nigerian dress, a symphony of accents and dialects, all discussing how to bring about a more vibrant and dynamic civil society. The general sense, as John Donne put it a few centuries ago, was that no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.

The fact is, networks unite, and this was all about making the best of what Thomas Friedman has called the "flat world". Defining a network may not be easy and you may not know what it is technically but, as Kumi Naidoo, chief executive of South African Civicus joked, it's like pornography - you'll know it when you see it. Even the vocabulary of networks is nebulous, including as it does 'coalitions', 'alliances' and 'associations'. The last of these, of course, is what Acevo is.

Yes, business cards were exchanged like Pokemon cards, but the higher purpose was one of sharing expertise, resources and experience so that individuals and organisations can better face challenges together. The strength of networks is that they offer a way of bypassing official superstructures and national governments and achieving more equal partnerships, creating a platform on which citizens can stand on their own two feet.

No one was trying to veneer over the challenges. There are tensions between, say, integrating and coordinating ideology and practice, and fostering and sustaining independence and difference. As American academic David Renz explained, networks can obscure accountability. Their durability is that there's no single centre, no pivot without which the whole group would fall; but this also means there's no one place where the buck stops.

Acevo and I have our disagreements, but I was impressed: cross-fertilise cultures and ideas and you get real intellectual hybrid vigour.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: 


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