Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Networking ...

Forced networking is something that I loathe with a passion. I've got lots of unhappy memories of feeling uncomfortable at corporate events, where I was supposed to be working the room and building a contact book to galvanise my career. Don't get me wrong: I'm no shrinking violet, but I guess you either take to that sort of forced bonhomie, or, like me, you recoil from the insincerity of it all. Suffice it to say that networking is not a theme that I would normally have chosen to dwell on in my leisure time. 

However, personal prejudices to one side, I've just read a really fun book: The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson, which is all about the role that networks have played throughout history, and where we stand with network behemoths such as Facebook and Google today. 

Contrary to what many of us think, we are far from being the first generation to be networked. Ferguson points out that networks have always been around, although under-represented in the pages of recorded history. He distinguishes networks, with sideways and up and down connections, from hierarchies where everything is built from the top down, and information-sharing follows a strict linear pathway.  Hierarchies, controlled strictly from the top, have a tendency to be more strategic, whereas networks, with their chaotic information flows are more creative, inspirational and ultimately more resilient. As the mantra of US intelligence post 9/11 would  have it: it takes a network to kill a network.

Hierarchies of Prelates and Kings, Presidents and Governments have tended to write most of history as we know it. They've centralised their information storage in central libraries and state archives, whereas networks with their free-flowing egalitarian structures tend not to have any single repository of all their knowledge and learning. This means that their contributions to the overall ebb and flow are much harder to evaluate.

There's a great chapter on the Rothschild Banking Network.  As the saying goes knowledge is power,  and in the case of the Rothschilds it gave them the power to stay ahead of the curve. Originally working in England as a cloth trader, Nathan Rothschild cultivated a network of observers, sailing boats, couriers and carrier pigeons with a view to keeping an eye on anything that could impact on business. Back then, when communication systems were virtually non-existent, this gave the Rothschild operation an edge. In fact their home-spun network grew to be so good that they got the news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo back to the Rothschild hub in London ahead of the official war dispatches. As a result Nathan Rothschild knew of Wellington's victory before George III and the British Government. As Ferguson points out, however, when he came to write his book, The House of Rothschild, he really had to scramble around for his source material. There was no central archive, or official record of events. He had to embark on some pretty extensive and intensive detective work, tapping a wide variety of personal correspondence and private archives. By dent of how they operate, the goings-on of a network are significantly more difficult to identify and summarise.

And it was exactly this that made it easy for posterity to overlook the impact of networks on the status quo ante.  But many of them were game-changers. The network of preachers and printers, for example, who joined forces in the Reformation, were able to change the old order of Popes and Princes, autocracies and theocracies, to create the modern world of democracies and capitalism. 

Another chapter looks at how networks of Free Masons and patriotic watchers, who scouted for English troops during the American War of Independence, defeated the hierarchy of English colonialism. As Ferguson points out only a limited number of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons, but those who were Freemasons were super-connected within their communities, which made their contributions many times more effective. Not all of the architects of a revolution are leaders, some of the greatest contributions are made by connectors, people who are effective at spreading the message, at connecting actors and acting as facilitators.  

One such connector was Paul Revere. He was not a military leader; in his normal day-to-day life he was a silversmith. But critically in the War of Independence he was a watcher with a network of responders who, between them, were able to disseminate information about English troop movements, without which the Patriotic Militias would have floundered. I must confess, simple Irish girl that I am, to never having heard of Paul Revere before, or of his legendary ride on the night of 18th April 1775 to alert the Patriotic Militias that the "British are coming". 

In fact I was inspired to dig out Longfellow's swashbuckling poem about the event. 

If you click on the link you'll get the full text. 

Paul Revere, courtesy of Wikicommons

It's all heady stuff. The book is packed full of snippets that will make you stop and wonder. It's a smorgasbord of historical information packaged around the theme of historical networks. Every network from the Illuminati to Alcoholics Anonymous to the World Economic Forum at Davos got a mention.  It's an engaging and unpretentious book that often made me smile. I heartily recommend it.

If you'd like to hear Professor Ferguson's lecture on the subject-matter of the Square and the Tower to Intelligence² just click on the link: Intelligence².

All the best for now,

Bonny x


  1. Well, thank you -so- much for my morning reading! This is fascinating (and makes a good deal of sense now that I think about it!)

    And yes, I hate forced networking events too. That said, I find that if you bring people together for something like a presentation or workshop, networking tends to feel far more organic (at least, in my humble opinion!)

    Thanks once again for the great insights!

  2. Thank you, Sarah. You make a really good point: any shared passion breaks the ice and gets people chatting - hence the success of knitting groups and book clubs.