How Can the Threat of Networks Be Reduced?

SUMMING UP Are ever-expanding technology networks a threat to business leadership? Jim Heskett's readers are largely doubtful. What do YOU think?
by James Heskett

Are Computers and Tech-Driven Networks In Their Twilight Years?

Issues raised by the ascendancy of network technology are many and varied, judging from responses to this month’s column based on Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book, The Seventh Sense.

Interesting to me was that the matter seems not to have had as much resonance among readers as it did among CEOs who made it a summer reading favorite. Perhaps others agreed with Mary L, who commented that, “Today’s tech enabled networks pose no greater threat than any other networks in days gone by.” What’s new?

The matter of cybersecurity (Or is this term an oxymoron?) received attention. To some degree, readers adopted a “user beware” stance. This becomes even more relevant in view of the massive hacking of Yahoo’s email user base that was disclosed after the column was posted. As Fizzinnf put it, “What was the closing line in the pre-shift briefing room featured in (1970s TV hit) Hill Street Blues? “Be careful out there!” Perhaps that is the seventh sense we all need to adopt.”

The tone of Jobc’s comment was that the issue does not require more laws: “Only diligent enforcement of existing laws make any sense. Adding new laws without funding the enforcement of existing laws is pointless.”

Greg chose to explore the affect of networks on organization design and function. He challenged us with a comment that networks are a threat to hierarchies and by extension “managers whose only goal in organizational life is to show how great they are as individuals, reap the personal benefits of their position, and deftly blunt competition from potential inter-organizational rivals.” His point is that an age of knowledge sharing facilitated by networks negates the effectiveness of vertical communication paths and those who rely on their control for leadership effectiveness. He suggested that tribal leadership, described in a book by the same name, is “a perfect fit for the fast moving networks of the Seventh Sense.” It describes organizations formed around natural groups that confer leadership responsibilities on those able to lead without the aid of organizational conventions of the past.

Dolembo’s comment was perhaps the most provocative of all. He suggested that the author of The Seventh Sense may be addressing a topic that will be a relic of the past in a few years. In his words, “I would project that computers and networks as we know them, with their devices, will cease to exist within the next decade. These bit based clod machines will yield to a kind of biologic environment, where the systems are secondary to the need … constantly adapting and rebuilding… I am positive that the solution is … a quantum shaped universe, neither hand held nor plugged in, that mimics our own biologic, our own brain and isn’t something spilled out of a Cupertino garage.”

Are computers and tech-driven networks in their twilight years? What do you think?


Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization (New York: Harper Business, 2008)

Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2016)

Original Column

I’m a sucker for lists of what other people are reading. So it was with great interest that I looked over the results of a recent small, unscientific survey by McKinsey of what CEOs were reading this summer. The most frequently mentioned book somehow had escaped my attention: The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, by Joshua Cooper Ramo, co-CEO and vice chairman of Kissinger Associates.

Ramo’s core thesis is that today's world of networks and connectivity may be the biggest game-changer of the future, whether the game is business competition, public health, political success, or even life on this planet, to cite just a few examples.

Networks enable mind-bending progress--but offer the potential of indescribable chaos in everybody’s personal life and society at large. Just ask Democratic members of the US Congress whose email accounts were systematically hacked recently. According to Ramo, networks profoundly change anything or anyone connected to them. They may affect us when we least expect it.

This is not new. The world of networks is one in which links and nodes, hubs, connectivity, speed, and “reach” rule. During work on my doctoral thesis on business logistics, I was inspired by what location and graph theorists had to say about the impact of network design on transportation and inventory location at least 60 years ago. It was my meal ticket to a position on the Harvard Business School faculty.

What has changed, of course, is the impact of the internet on network design and performance. Those with the “seventh sense” that Ramo talks about understand how networks change and speed up everything they connect.

Seventh sensers don’t just see unused autos and drivers with some extra time on their hands. They envision what happens when those unused autos and drivers are connected to those in need of a ride. Seventh sensers create communities--“gatelands” with borders--for which they serve as powerful gatekeepers. And they know how to design software that serves as a platform on which other things can be provided to those in the gateland.

Networks give, but they also take. In dramatic fashion Ramo describes his association with pioneering network designers and malevolent hackers alike. He also concentrates on the vulnerability of networks, especially those fueled by the Internet. First, there is the possibility that an important node--a hub through which information is transmitted over the network--may be destroyed. There is an answer to this problem: distributed networks with maximum connectivity (all nodes connected to each other by alternate paths similar to a fish net) with the capability of self-repairing damage to particular nodes.

The scarier network vulnerability is that created by errors in the original coding or "windows" for hackers intentionally left in the network code by agents hoping to use them later to access and sell information.

Ramo describes the active global market for hacked information that makes all of this so potentially lucrative to the thousands of hackers who flock to the cracks found in existing network architecture daily. Results may include leaked emails, drained bank accounts, and the destruction of production facilities (as Iranian nuclear scientists found out).

It’s easy to conclude that you or your organization will be hacked in your lifetime. No wonder CEOs are interested in the message. The book must scare them to death.

What’s to be done about these threats? Ramo quotes one “security genius” as suggesting three rules for dealing with the threat: Do not own a computer, do not power it on, do not use it. He adds a fourth, “Do not connect it to anything.”

But surely the genius that created the internet that makes so much connectivity, speed, and information exchange possible today can outthink the hackers who would bring it all down.

Will it require, as Ramo suggests, education and training to develop leaders of all stripes with the Seventh Sense?(Just envision this training occurring in law schools that originate most of our politicians.) Could sanctions against malpractice that have been established in professions such as law and medicine work in this arena as well?

How about more explicit laws and stiffer penalties for those found to create economic chaos and worse? Perhaps we would be willing to sacrifice some network speed in order to increase security. How can we reduce the threat that networks represent? What do you think?


Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2016)

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