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Turning lines into networks

August 25, 2010

When I was in school, I learned a lot about tech “stacks” and different “layers.”

In other classes, I was taught about “value chains” and the “chain of command.”

I hear all of these terms much less frequently these days.  In part, I think it’s because people no longer feel as though such linear representations describe what’s going on. This is especially true when you look at an issue from the customer’s point of view. Typically, it more closely resembles a network, like the one below from a little while ago that describes Apple’s digital music ecosystem.

At Jump we call such diagrams value maps. They help visualize the ecosystem in a way that value chains or business model descriptions don’t. Linear chains often miss how different parts of the ecosystem are interrelated: What’s in it for different stakeholders? How do partnerships really work? How does value reach different players? What do different players contribute? Can we disaggregate who provides what in some way? These are all things that would be difficult to capture in a linear representation. Consequently, linear representations might limit what strategies a company considers, bias what strategies it pursues, and obfuscate potential opportunities.

It’s interesting to consider what other domains might also benefit from moving away from a linear framework – stacks, layers, chains, hierarchies, pyramids, and so forth – to more of a map or network. After all, if Nicholas Carr and others are right, and the internet is fundamentally changing the way we think, shouldn’t it also change the way we structure our organizations and frame our view of the world?

Here are three quick examples:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Source: Wikipedia

This famous brainchild of psychologist Abraham Maslow partitions human needs in a progression from lower-level needs to higher-order needs. Though somewhat discredited in its field, it’s still widely used. One common criticism is that people don’t actually regard needs in this linear way. I’ve seen it replaced with more levels, or alternate lists… but I haven’t found well-known, wide-ranging theories that describe how needs are interrelated. Seems like understanding which needs show up together would be powerful in many respects.

Food Pyramid

Most of us are familiar with the above diagram. The Food Pyramid was a staple (ahem) of my youth. But in 2005, the USDA released MyPyramid.

In essence, MyPyramid acknowledges (somewhat clumsily, in my opinion) that the food groups aren’t a hierarchy, and that the old heuristic was oversimplified. Taking it one step further, researchers are still exploring how different foods build on and negate one another – that is, the relationships between foods.

Organizational reporting structures

Climbing the ladder. Direct reports. Companies are structured like pyramids. But bit by bit, that is being eroded. Matrixed organizations. Dotted line reports. Cross-functional working groups. Flat organizations. Mapping of implicit communication patterns. The increasing ability to grow and gain seniority without managing more people or bigger budgets. The org chart hasn’t been replaced by network diagrams, but the underlying sentiment that organizations aren’t just pyramids has certainly become more commonplace.

Approaching the world from a “network” point of view

One of the big challenges with this shift towards maps and networks is that they’re inherently more complicated than linear chains or pyramids. We need to balance accuracy with stickiness. But I believe it’s definitely worth questioning our long-standing “one-dimensional” theories and representations.

When people say we live in a networked world, they’re typically referring to ready internet access, or swift global communication. But living in a networked world also influences how we view the world, approach problems, and structure our thinking. Looking at “legacy” linear representations and reframing them as maps or networks has the potential to uncover massive opportunities.


I had a helluva time naming this article. Much harder than usual. And I’m still not sure the title’s any good. Any suggestions? Here are some others I considered:

  • From lines to maps
  • Looking at the “networked world” from a different angle
  • Oh, it’s a networked world alright
  • Applying networks to other domains
  • 2D is the next 3D
  • It’s time to translate other things into networks
  • Networks: it’s not just for tech anymore
  • Looking at lines like networks
  • From lines to networks
  • From chains to maps
  • Maps can liberate us from chains
  • Freedom from chains
  • Transforming lines into maps
  • Making maps out of lines
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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Price permalink
    August 26, 2010 1:39 am

    Apropos the headline: I have a colleague who is fond of quipping “Layers are for cakes!” (This is usually to express his displeasure at excessive layering in some software system, but I think it might serve your point as well.)

  2. conradwai permalink*
    August 26, 2010 2:41 pm

    That’s awesome. I may have to crib that one…
    Thanks for reading, btw!

  3. October 28, 2011 3:33 am

    Simple yet really informative. Now my creative juices are flowing for all those things I try to explain but can’t find an appropriate model to use. I’ll have to start looking into these diagrams to solve my explaining needs!

    • conradwai permalink*
      October 28, 2011 9:36 am

      Thanks! Creating models definitely involves a balance between simplicity and accuracy. Good luck!

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