The Social Dimension of Networks (Nohria & Eccles)

This was a fascinating article, which makes an argument similar to the one I have been working on.  The authors do note that there is little hard evidence to support their argument that, “[a]t the core, the network organization depends on a network of relationships forged on the basis of face-to-face interaction” (304). Nonetheless, I think the ideas are worth thinking over.

Nohria & Eccles recognize that “because of the efficiency and ease of use of electronically mediated exchange the temptation is that it will replace relationships based on face-to-face interaction” (p.  289) (the so-called substitution hypothesis). Using the same term that Graham took from Reigeluth’s “valued outputs”, they ask “whether these electronically mediated exchanges can be as effective. Our view is that they cannot” (p. 289, emphasis added).

When the interactions are “role based, certain, routine, and unchanging,” or “impersonal, unambiguous, standardized, and atomistic,” and follow “the more traditional market or hierarchical organization” (p. 300), electronically mediated exchange to replace face-to-face interaction may be quite effective, state the authors. However, we live in a world of great and rapid change: globalization, rapid entry and exit of competitors, unpredictable emergence and obsolescence of products and technologies, customization of demand, flexible manufacturing, and an increasingly mobile and heterogeneous work force.  These factors “combine to create conditions of unprecedented knowledge intensity, uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk (Piore and Sabel 1984; Miles and Snow 1986; Child 1987; Drucker 1990; Eccles and Nohria 1991)…. [T]o respond to these conditions…firms must be fast, flexible, responsive, and knowledge intensive. They must be action-oriented…” (p. 290).  These responses to such conditions “are difficult to address through electronically mediated exchange” (p. 289).

Three fundamental differences between electronically mediated and face-to-face exchange combine to create this difficulty.  First, face-to-face interaction is always copresent, whereas in electronically mediated exchange “all kinds of social context clues are filtered out” (p. 293) (an argument which concurs with Graham’s dimensions of space and fidelity).  Secondly, face-to-face exchange has high fidelity, for ir “captures the entire bandwidth of human interaction. It covers all the senses…, [and] it also captures the full range of psychoemotional reactions….” (p. 293). The authors cite Goffman (1963), who writes that beyond impressions “given,” there are also those “given-off” inadvertently.  These can be assessed in face-to-face settings but are difficult if not impossible to recognize with electronic mediation.  Thirdly, “relative to electronically mediated exchange, the structure of face-to-face interaction offers an unusual capacity for interruption, repair, feedback and learning (Schegloff 1987)” (p. 293).  Electronically mediated exchanges are sequential, whereas face-to-face interactions occur sometimes in almost simultaneous time.

The result of these factors are four issues that impact interaction.  First, identities are more uncertain without face-to-face communication: “Before face-to-face communication occurs, our mental image of aperson is incomplete; therefore so is our strategy for interacting with the person” (p. 294).  Secondly, electronically mediated exchange less effective than face-to-face interactions in conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty (p. 295).  Thirdly, mobilizing collective action is difficult at a distance.  While electronically mediated discussions tend to be more egalitarian, they are also more disorganized, with much proposal generation, but a lack in decisive action-taking (see p. 297). It is also harder to get people to commit, to “sign up” electronically than it is to motivate them in person.  Finally, electronically mediated exchanges are “highly susceptible to opportunistic behavior” (p. 297), making trust, the “‘cement’ of all social organization” (p. 298), harder to develop.

Though this is an argument for the business world, it seems that the same applied to education as well. Nohria & Eccles do not argue that electronically mediated exchange has no place in the world of business.  However, in situations of ambiguity, risk, and intensity, face-to-face interaction is the more efficient and effective form of exchange.  Similarly, machine-mediated learning can certainly occur.  However, we suggest that certain types of learning — some skill-based learning and the development of dispositions in particular — is more effective and efficient.  While machines are excellent at consistency and computation, as well as at providing vast quantities of information, humans can much better deal with the risk, intensity, and ambiguity that have been recognized as essentials in transformative learning or becoming.


Nohria, N. & Eccles, R.  (1992). Face-to-face: Making network organizations work. In N. Nohria & R. Eccles (Eds.), Networks and organizations: Structure, form, and action, (pp. 288-308). Harvard Business School Press.


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