Anticipating Evolutions of a Networked Society – Reflections from an Early Stage Researcher

Centre for Technology Innovation and Engagement

Dave Larkin is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Research Fellow and member of the Complex and Open Innovation in the Networked Society (COINS) project at Leeds University Business School.

City skyline at night with lit up road and abstract arches showing connectivity

On September 16 2016, as part of the Strategic Management Society conference in Stockholm, Ericsson (a multi-national telecommunications company) hosted Anticipating Evolutions of a Networked Society - a workshop connecting industry practitioners with university researchers to broadly discuss one question: How do established organisations manage and respond to disruptive and transformative change?

A timely and provocative question, even for the most seasoned of academics and corporate strategists alike. As an early stage researcher, involved in the Complex and Open Innovation in the Networked Society (COINS) project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, this event was my first foray into the “blue ocean” (a strategy concerned with creating new markets rather than focusing on beating competitors in current markets) that potentially is the Networked Society.

Ericsson provide the following definition of a Networked Society: “In the Networked Society, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have taken us to a critical stage – an inflection point – enabling transformative and disruptive change across industries and society, catalyzing an entirely new economic model.” 

According to Sami Dob, Program Director, Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility, for the Ericsson Group worldwide, a Networked Society has the following characteristics:

  • “A high-performance mobile broadband network with LTE [Long-Term Evolution], heterogeneous network and Wi-Fi. Radio coverage everywhere.
  • A variety of connected devices with a variety of services and products serving a variety of industries.
  • A cloud ecosystem providing a multitude of services that are easy to use, manage and configure.”

Having the opportunity to listen to presentations from leading scholars and to participate in roundtable discussions with other academics, representatives from industry, as well as a range of Ericsson employees, provided insights into the strategic challenges presently facing businesses (eg convergent markets and industries, shorter lifespan of business models, decreased transaction costs and lower entry barriers).

In general, there appeared to be a degree of consensus and acceptance among both speakers and participants regarding the emergence and entrance into the Networked Society. The presentation of prevailing trends bolstered the sentiment that collectively we are in a period of significant flux, for example, in terms of how products and services are developed and consumed as well as how businesses capture and retain value.

As a result (and to an extent by design), much of the dialogue seemed to centre upon what to do or how to act. Unsurprisingly, responses to such questions elicited differing views based on level analysis (ecosystem, organisation or business unit), often reflecting the participants’ functional perspective (eg sales, product development, IT, legal, etc).

Upon further reflection, the workshop provided two interesting observations/anecdotes from my point of view as an early stage researcher.

First, despite the broad acceptance of the Networked Society and the associated trends, the table discussions I participated in revealed a less complete understanding of both its nature and the corresponding problems and opportunities associated with the Networked Society.  

There is a rush to be associated with the Networked Society and similar manifestations (eg  Internet of Things, autonomous transportation, artificial intelligence, augmented/virtual reality technology) without necessarily fully understanding what it is we are seeking to be part of.

While we continue to process and make sense of the Networked Society at different levels (eg individual business units, organisational and ecosystem), there is an opportunity as an early stage researcher to contribute to and expand the theoretical body of knowledge underlying the Networked Society as a sociological phenomenon.

In other words, working to shift the focus of conversation from technological artefacts to one seeking to understand and explain the prevailing dynamics and implications of the Networked Society.

The second anecdote pertains to a nascent set of concepts (perhaps the building blocks of future best practices) for navigating the Networked Society that emerged as the day progressed through a series of speakers and scenario exercises.

The following three ideas express actions or practices aimed at enhancing the ability of an organisation to be competitive over the long-term within a business context of rapid and transformative change:

  1. Companies need to disrupt themselves;
  2. Companies need to better manage and understand their role in an ecosystem; and
  3. Companies need to embrace the logics of openness, sharing and collaboration.

How organisations choose to explore or engage with these concepts, presents a series of interesting research questions relating to process (eg how does a firm disrupt itself, how often, what should be disrupted?) or efficacy (eg do firms who employ one or more of these practices gain a competitive advantage?).

The two anecdotes presented and the corresponding questions highlight how much we still have to learn about Network Society. This reality, as an early stage researcher is both a daunting and exciting challenge as potential contributions to theory and practice may contribute to enhancing to the ability of firms to adapt and compete in a period of transformative change.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.