03/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Succeed in the Networked Century

A large part of the reason Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in last year's Democratic primary can be reduced to the fact that he mobilized his bottom-up network better than she mobilized her top-down one. So it was notable that even before formally taking over the State Department, Clinton named Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, to lead the department's internal think tank, the Policy Planning Staff. Slaughter has been a vocal advocate of viewing the world through a network lens. Most recently, her article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, "America's Edge: Power in the Networked Century," argues that America's best future lies in positioning itself as the world's most networked nation, the hub of information, ideas, and resources flowing though the global economy.

I couldn't agree more, having argued here that the White House, rather than focusing on illusory conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation, should be encouraging the State Department to steal what they can from the Clinton Global Initiative and similar groups -- organizations that facilitate innovation by acting as the network broker between innovators, governments, and private enterprise. Slaughter's article extends this argument to important policy arenas, but in the process raises an important issue that will need to be addressed if networks are to play a substantial role in securing America's place in the world.

As Slaughter points out, the ability to innovate, seize opportunity, and marshal resources to advance an agenda boils down to managing and orchestrating networks. Slaughter cites a number of examples of what can be achieved through what is sometimes called "network entrepreneurship": multinational collaboration regarding the financial crisis; the success of a coalition of NGOs in working to ban the use of land mines; and an improved response to public health threats through a network established by the Centers for Disease Control.

Unfortunately, these success stories are more the exception than the rule. The fact is that even in the upper echelons of decision-making, we are notoriously poor at managing and orchestrating networks. Indeed, immeasurable opportunities are lost and efforts needlessly duplicated in areas ranging from global health to business development because our network skills are rooted in a less complex, more hierarchical, top-down past. For the United States to position itself as the most powerful player in "the networked century," those capabilities will have to evolve significantly. That will require two broad developments:

First, we need to take a more holistic, dynamic view of the people within our -- and everyone else's -- networks. We tend to think of people in terms of three attributes: their job title, where they have worked, and where they were educated. In an earlier time, this may have been sufficient to understand a person's place in a network and to fairly well guess their skills, who they might be connected to, and what their priorities might be. In today's more fluid world, however, people cross borders, change careers, and recast alliances much more readily, each stage in their trajectory potentially expanding and reshaping their network -- and certainly reshaping who they are and what they have to offer.

This is the basis of Slaughter's contention that we need to view immigrant communities and the emerging generation of "First Globals" (18- to 29-year-old Americans who are inclined to live and study abroad in greater numbers than their predecessors) as potential links to new markets and opportunities around the globe. But in order to do this, you need to know the various facets of a person's life -- where they've lived, what they're interested in personally and professionally, who their mentors have been and so on. In a networked world powered more on personal initiative, skill sets and relationships than hierarchical position, a person's job title and other résumé details no longer are as reliable indicators of a person's potential to effect change in the global network and the resources he or she commands.

Second, we need to become more methodical and data driven in our approach to networks. Professional sports like baseball and basketball have been in the midst of a data revolution that is reshaping how players are evaluated. Instead of relying merely on received wisdom and personal experience, coaches and scouts are using reams of data that are questioning old assumptions about what makes for a star player, and using that insight to build teams. (So it was that Nate Silver, whose political web site has set new standards for election forecasting, actually began as a baseball analyst.) There needs to be a similar data revolution in networks. Rather than manage them in an ad hoc fashion with instinct and imperfect memories as we do now, we need to develop and use analytical tools that will allow us to track more complex networks, see patterns over time, and identify key players who act as the gateway to different clusters of ideas, resources, and support. Many components of these analytical tools exist, but they need to be further developed and brought into the mainstream.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is correct to see network entrepreneurship as the critical capability for the twenty-first century, in the same way that trade (itself a specialized example of network entrepreneurship) was in the mercantile period. But maintaining oneself as a trading power required more than just ships and goods. It also required better navigation tools, most notably the discovery of a reliable means of measuring the longitude of ships at sea. The old method of dead reckoning -- and the risks it brought of inefficient routing if not catastrophic shipwreck -- was no longer acceptable. Solving the problem was considered so critical to the national interest that Britain established the Longitude Prize to spur on a solution.

We don't need a similar "Network Prize"; many of the tools we need to understand networks already exist. Instead, we need public and private-sector decision makers to see that competitive advantage in the networked century goes to those who develop the most sophistication in using those tools and the networks they illuminate.