A Seventh Sense for the Power of Connection

For some time now I've tried to help associations and nonprofits grasp what a hyper-connected world means. I just found a compelling storyteller who is describing this change and proposing what our strategy decisions might be.

Joshua Cooper Ramo tells this story in a new book, The Seventh Sense: Power. Fortune and Survival in the Age of Networks. Granted at times he does veer toward overstatement and alarm to get our attention. But we need to see how the network age offers a “new landscape of power” in which power comes from the “number, type and speed of relationships” that organizations establish and use. The seventh sense he proposes is the ability to see the strategic difference that these connections make.

While he relies most on examples from geopolitics and the Internet, he is correct that these same forces are affecting all kinds of systems and institutions.  Power indeed is both more concentrated and more dispersed now, a paradox that creates a very disruptive world where old ideas and institutions are vulnerable.

He calls the people with the expertise to exploit networks the New Caste. He observes that their power and the nature of what they are doing is outstripping the velocity of the decisions that governments and the rest of us might make to regulate their power.

These connected systems are vulnerable to attack. Ramo posits that systems can be fast, open and secure, but only two of these qualities at one time. People and institutions want fast and secure, so openness will be sacrificed. We will need gates and the future will be filled with closed and gated worlds.

The goal of hard gatekeeping is to “protect those inside the gated order, to make security and innovation more efficient, to accelerate certain kinds of connection and dampen others, to manage links to the non-gated world, and to use that in-or-out leverage to affect the interests and plans of others.

“Today no position is more important, formidable, influential or profitable than that of the gatekeeper. Defining who is in or out of any network is among the most essential moves of design…..Gatekeepers choose what we see. They determine the rules we follow, what we can and can’t change. They reward us too—once we’re inside—with benefits of speed, knowledge and safety.”

These are the strategic questions that I see for associations and nonprofits:  

  • Do you have the power to be a gatekeeper? How do you use that power to deliver benefits without exploiting those within your gated system?
  • Where do you need to connect to other gated worlds and what are the responsibilities and consequences of yielding your power to these systems?
  • If networks eliminate the constraints of time and geography, where might you now have the ability to operate?
  • What does it mean for governance that the speed of networks now outstrips the velocity of decisions?

If associations are going to help create new ideas and institutions that can serve us well in a network age, we simply have to get our minds around how the power of connection is both thrilling and alarming. We have to face these challenges and opportunities or risk leaving the outcome to some New Caste that may not share our priorities and values.