National Security will require Smarter Networks

By Ali Fisher

The focus on collaboration in the new US National Security Strategy emphasises the need to foster the skills to convene, connect and mobilize networks. This will require a smart network of diplomats not just smart individuals.

While the Obama administration is "clear-eyed about the challenge of mobilizing collective action" those putting strategy into action will have to build smarter networks if diplomats are to collaborate effectively within complex networks of influence. Two aspects of these smart networks will be particularly important.


image First, reach clarity over the relationship between networks and hierarchies; a hierarchy is a form of network! Maintaining a division between networks and hierarchies merely clouds the range of options available in a decision making process. The image shows the same network arranged through three different algorithms – nothing else has been changed, yet often the way we draw them influences the way we think and act.

Instead of distinguishing between hierarchies or networks, attention should focus on the different types of network. Selecting from a range of networked approaches can lower the barriers that traditionally hierarchical organisations tend to confront when considering alternative means of engagement. Each form of network requires those working within it to adopt specific behaviours and approaches. Being able to visualise and use the full range or approaches to cooperation should allow smart networks to enact the national security strategy more effectively.

Identify networks

Second, the National Security Strategy emphasises, "diplo­mats are the first line of engagement, listening to our partners, learning from them, building respect". A key aspect of empowering smarter networks of diplomats, is finding ways of them to identify where that first ‘line’ actually is, particularly online.

image The form of a network is not an abstract concept, it is identifiable through network mapping if sufficient appropriate data. This image shows a section of a network on Twitter made from the links between individuals following each other in an areas approximating to Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication. For those who want to find themselves or investigate the map in more detail, a larger more interactive image can be seen at on HumansHuddle.

What the map shows

The map shows around 1000 users and nearly 14,000 connections between them. The more people in the network that follow a user, the larger that user is shown. The start point for the data gathering was MountainRunner (MR), which may have created a small bias toward MR, but other key nodes in the network are still clearly identifiable. To add to the quick analysis, the map also uses a heat-map method of colouring. Those most closely connected to MR are purple, through orange to green as those furthest away, this is by connection not physical distance on the image. Those with sharp eyes will spot Nick Cull, Zenpundit, Colleen Graffy, misspolitica, DrPersuasion and Jack Holt among a range of others.

Putting strategy into action

Network Mapping has the potential to identify key nodes, empower diplomats and evaluate activity. With this information smart networks can take informed decisions about who and where to engage. The importance of identifying key nodes in complex networks will only grow as this National Security Strategy is put into action – particularly as the myriad of groups which diplomats will need to engage grows from the traditional “other governments and international organizations” to also include “nonstate actors such as corporations, foundations, nongovern­mental organizations, universities, think tanks, and faith-based organizations”.

To make the strategy work will require smarter networks; to empower these smarter networks will require clarity on the networks through which they are intended to engage and useful information about the networks of influence with which diplomats are asked to interact.

Ali Fisher is Director of Mappa Mundi Consulting and a former Director of Counterpoint, the cultural relations think-tank of the British Council. Ali blogs on network mapping and Public Diplomacy at

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