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“Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun, but Mama that’s where the fun is.”

This line, from Bruce Springsteen – perhaps made famous by Manfred Mann – could well have been said by Toby Shannan, Shopify’s SVP of Support Operations.

You see, Shopify made its way from startup to a $5.2B valuation in 9 years by solving problems in the interstitial spaces between small business and e-commerce solutions, and between companies that don’t solve customer problems in “a hands on” way and those that do. The market has rewarded Shopify with hyper-growth for solving small business e-commerce headaches. That is the joy of integration – at least for Shopify.

The sorrow? All of Toby’s tech support issues are at the interface between different vendor solutions.  This is the burden of integration.

At Dialog’s recent network design symposium with Santa Fe Institute, Toby opened his seminar by quoting SFI’s Will Tracy as saying, “The edges are where the action is in a network.” By ‘edges’ he meant the links of a network. (That is one reason why networks are best thought of in terms of “flow” or the connections between. As It turns out that in all fields, connectivity is the main source of innovation. According to the recombinant DNA theory of innovation, the only way you can create something new is to bring together two previously uncombined elements.

In an open plug-and-play ecosystem, you can create virtually anything when compared to a closed ecosystem. However, this places a greater need on the role of integrator, whether that is the end user or a professional intermediary. In a closed ecosystem, the ecosystem sponsor takes on more of the task and decisions of integration. (Think Apple vs. Microsoft or Android).

All ecosystems, especially open ecosystems, require Integrators. Bridge builders. Translators. Renaissance men and women. That’s what we need more of as we race forward, ever-faster, pulled by our technology and self-reinforcing momentum, into deeper and more sprawling amounts of knowledge.

Specialization and exchange has created our world, but it will take renaissance men and women to keep it whole.

We need a unified worldview, right now. We can no longer afford brokenness. We can no longer afford to look at or manage problems in silos.

All silos are constructs. Organizational insiders can always tell you the informal network by which work really gets done. What is really there is a network, a series of nested ecosystems both formal and informal.

Toby manages his support and sales operations as one seamless function. In doing so, he avoids the usual escalated customer service issues that arise in the cracks between sales, customer service and tech support. People usually think of “product integration,” but “service integration” may be the secret of Shopify’s success.

In solving interstitial problems, Shopify’s team has found the same joy that Tim Cook found coming to Apple and working at the interstices of hardware, software and communications. In Tim Cook’s words, that’s where the magic is, at the boundaries.

There’s increasing business opportunity in connecting the network to itself.  With that in mind, the next time you see an integration problem, you just might see it as an opportunity.

And if you are lucky, like Shopify, it could offer you a 10 figure valuation.

Stay tuned for more insights, and join us in conversation online using the hashtag #NetworksInAction

Different diseases spread differently. A simple observation, but with a level of complexity behind it that is worth understanding. It is not solely the infectiousness of a disease that affects its spread; the type of network the infection is dropped into plays a crucial role.

For many years, epidemiologists assumed a “mass action model” where the rate of infectiousness of a disease was a fixed number (basic reproduction number or R0), representing the expected number of secondary cases produced by a typical infected individual, early in an epidemic. For the flu, for example, it is roughly 2. Meaning one infection leads to two secondary infections, on average. Comparatively, for measles, it is 18.

In practice, the actual rate of spread is significantly impacted (and R0 effectively modified) by the host network: by both the density and the structure of that network.

At our recent network design symposium with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), Lauren Ancel Meyers (Professor of Integrative Biology- University of Texas; Faculty- SFI) shared three simple network maps to illustrate how network structures influence the spread of epidemics. Although there are sophisticated mathematical descriptors of network structure, some simple explanations can easily demonstrate the range of impacts possible.

At the front of this article is a picture of three networks with the same number of nodes, but interconnected differently. The degree distribution (number of links each node has) varies across them, from only 2 on the left, to a range of 1 to 6 on the right. Two simple questions for you: 1) Which network will be the most susceptible to an epidemic? and 2) Which is likely to sustain the largest epidemic?

Are the answers obvious?

Networks with the greatest “degree distribution” (like the network to the right) are the most vulnerable to an epidemic. Variability implies vulnerability. But when an infection occurs, homogeneous networks (to the left) fare the worst.

Think of it this way: variability (or diversity) provides the greatest openness to the introduction of something new (whether virus or message), while homogeneity presents the greatest risk (or opportunity) for spread once established in the network. Beyond epidemiology, Meyers’ research has huge implications for the spread of ideas and information.

Take a Random Walk to Find “Super-Connectors”

Another network task in epidemiology is a desire to find so-called “super-connectors” because the likelihood of spread of a disease rises exponentially if “hubs” like these are infected in an outbreak (think of the highly connected nodes in the far right diagram above). It turns out super-connectors are not that hard to find. Randomly polling individuals in the network offers broad situational awareness and then asking to speak to one of their colleagues inexorably leads researchers towards super-connectors. Thus a random beginning can quickly lead to highly connected nodes. So, in any new network you enter, simple inquiries can uncover important understanding. And just as all rivers lead to the sea (or as Josh Baer joked, all tech in Austin leads to the Capital Factory), one can inevitably find “super-connectors.”

The infectious nature of an idea: Does it engage head and heart?

If you take Howard Gardner’s perspective, a cognitive leadership model recognizes that effective leaders “speak to narratives already present in their audiences’ minds.” For both organizational leaders and marketers alike, we not only need to understand the infectious nature of an idea and map the network, we also need to map the narratives already in existence in the network. In a future post, we’ll explore more on mapping narratives and the current state of a network’s mindset.

Thus, the capacity for an idea to spread depends on several factors: the content (infectiousness) of the idea itself (R0), the narratives already present in peoples’ minds, and the structure of the network in which the idea is released. This makes mapping networks and narratives key to orchestrating the spread of ideas, and yet, so few firms practice systematic network or narrative mapping. So, whether it’s epidemiology or the spreading of ideas, understanding the relevant network is crucial. Stopping the spread and accelerating the spread are simply two sides to the same network coin.

Stay tuned for more insights, and join us in conversation online using the hashtag #NetworksInAction

Last week was big, and we believe it’s just the start of something even bigger.

Dialog, in collaboration with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), hosted an all-day network design symposium titled “Influence and Complexity: New Views for Business, Politics, Innovation, and Growth,” at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas. SFI is the first and premier complex systems institute that includes five Nobel Laureates, and Rolling Stone has called them “a sort of Justice League of renegade geeks, where teams of scientists from disparate fields study the Big Questions.” The symposium married SFI’s scientific research of how complex systems work with Dialog’s approach and application to solving real-world, complex system business problems.

Speakers and attendees included world-renowned scientists, senior executives from companies, such as Boeing, VMware and Under Armour, as well as leaders from organizations such as Savory Global, the U.S. War College and the New York Stock Exchange.

From first session through closing happy hour, it was an insightful day of conversation and exploration that we will be exploring in greater detail in the future. For now, we want to send heartfelt gratitude to program participants and attendees.

We have received many requests for takeaways from the event. There were many and we will be sharing them over the coming weeks. To start, here are just a few of our favorite highlights from the panel discussion:

The panel on innovation and networks included Ross Buhrdorf (SFI, former CTO of HomeAway), Bryon Jacob (CTO of data.world), William Klehm (CEO of Fallbrook Technologies), Jeff DeCoux (CEO of Hangar Technology), and Josh Baer (CEO of Capital Factory). As these successful entrepreneurs chatted, representing emerging industries spanning drones and next gen NuVinci Sphere-based CVP transmissions, to big data and the semantic web, it was striking the alignment they had on the importance of networks to them and their business.

The conversation quickly centered not on technology but rather the people in their networks – internal and external.

  • It is so easy to forget in our age of technology and constant change that human emotions don’t change, neither does the desire for human connection, nor the desire to be part of something greater than ourselves. It’s in our DNA.
  • So Connect! “As a species our greatest adaptation is the ability of humans to work together. We built HomeAway with a weekly “kitchen table” meeting that persisted as we scaled from startup to global leader”, as Bryon and Ross recounted.
  • It’s almost trite, but entreprenuers have to be conscious of their network and put effort into building it.
  • What does change, says Josh Baer, is the scalability of it. Today’s tools let us be massive network builders on a scale previously only available to big organizations. He perpetually pays it forward thanks to a DIY app that lets him match needs, talents, and interest as he orchestrates the Austin Startup network.
  • Another common thread was how much diversity really matters, especially women in leadership and technology roles. Not just to perception, as Buhrdorf noted, but the real deal bottom line – studies prove 30% female leadership nets 6% profit improvement on average.

Luckily, a diverse audience brought much needed perspective to the discussion. NYSE Public Board Member and author of Women Make Great Leaders, Jill Griffin offered advice for women looking for opportunities to maximize their chances of success. Her insights included: 1) look for diversity at the top, 2) insist on objective measurement, and 3) find male champions.

A special thanks to Casey Cox and Will Tracy from the Santa Fe Institute for making this event possible. The event demonstrated the power of a network in action and we look forward to sharing more insights over the coming weeks about using network design to solve problems and unlock opportunity.

Stay tuned for more insights and also join us in conversation online using the hashtag #NetworksInAction