Friday, December 16, 2011

A Response to Hayim Herring's "Network Judaism"

Rabbi Hayim Herring’s “Network Judaism: A Fresh Look at the Organization of the American Jewish Community” (Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, 2001) puts forward the idea that we think of the American Jewish community as a “network organization” – defining network organizations basically as organizations that work together while remaining autonomous (p. 20).

This is presented as opposed to sociologist Daniel Elazar’s model of viewing the community as a magnet “that attract Jews closer to the center based on the degree of their inner Jewish content” (p. 3) – resulting in “a series of uneven concentric circles, radiating outward from a hard core of committed Jews toward areas of vague Jewishness on the fringes” (Community and Polity,1995, p. 91).

I’d like to put forward that I do not believe these two models are incompatible. In fact, I actually believe that an application of the magnet model can shed some light on the network model. Within a network, chances are that all the nodes that are connected are not equal. Herring is very uncomfortable with being judgmental on this front in the form of categorizing Jews based on how “committed” they are (which he generally views as being defined more traditionally in terms of synagogue membership, etc.) However, the reality is that those that are connected will have different “inner content” – which I define more broadly and hopefully less judgmentally in terms of the information they have, the connections, and yes, their Jewish beliefs and the degree and direction of their efforts toward Jewish causes.

What happens is that those in the network are “attracted” to others whose ideas resonate with them, with whom they can, therefore, form potential collaborations. I believe this does create a kind of “magnet effect,” which is born out through social network analysis, which shows where nodes are clustering around other nodes (the latter I prefer to think about as the “network weavers.”)

Herring’s view is that “the magnet model is based on a traditional, linear, ‘command and control’ centralized model of organization….the assumption is that a small group of people at the top can set goals and objectives for those at the bottom” (p. 12). However, this is only true when it is actually applied to a hierarchical structure. When applied within a network, goals and objectives are not set by those at the top, but rather by those who have the most clout (social capital, trust, well-received ideas, etc.)

Within the network model itself, Herring speaks of organizations being networked with other organizations. This is quite different from, but confused in the paper with, the idea of an organization working in a networked way with its own constituency. For example, Herring’s illustration of the network model does not directly pertain to how organizations could collaborate, but rather focuses on a member of the constituency, Ben Bayit, and his journey through a fictitious Jewish community. I understand that this was intentionally done to illustrate that “the network organization model places the individual at the center of the community” (p. 25). However, how an organization views an individual is, to me, a separate issue from how an organization works with other organizations. While it is mentioned that the organizations that Ben interacts with are networked, there are other points being made, which Herring outlines after the story (p. 24), as to how each organization itself could change its structures to be more “user-friendly” and less committee-reliant.

If Herring is going to speak of a network itself adopting networked practices, it should be noted that there is a tension between the very idea of organizations as Herring describes them in his illustration and networks. Organizations have a certain structure and even hierarchy to them, whereas networks may choose to coalesce and structure themselves in completely different ways. As Herring himself quotes Dent (1998), network organizations consist of “self-managing teams in a chaotic, real-time process that is organized around the ever-changing needs of individual customers” (p. 20). Are the Jewish Community Education Services Office, Welcome Committee, JCC, etc. which Herring describes networked to such a degree?

I want to clarify that I do feel that it would be highly beneficial for Jewish organizations to adopt more of a networked approach – in order to actively engage more of a constituency that already thinks and behaves in these terms. However, this may entail an organization that focuses more along lines that Herring actually outlines in his original description of networked organizations (“the role of leadership is to diffuse decision-making,” “use technology in order to organize people,” “high degree of collaboration, and form teams around specific projects,” “clarity of purpose or vision” p. 21).

In the final policy recommendations of Jewish Networking: Linking People, Institutions, Community, Herring’s two suggestions having to do with the internal networked nature of an organization are that Jewish institutions focus on a new marketing strategy and internal communications capacity. While I do believe these elements are important (particularly the internal communications), along with a new external marketing strategy it is necessary to actually shift some of the ways of thinking of the organization as a whole, and organizations should be aware of and prepared for that.

In the beginning, Herring speaks about the entire Jewish community “as a network organization, that achieves its focused mission through dynamic relationships and not through hierarchical structures” (p. 4). This, to me, rings true – after all, I would argue that the Jewish people have been a network for as long as we’ve been a people, with relationships connecting, some might even say preserving, us across space and time. The paper raised provocative questions for me as to what that looks like on an organizational level and what role organizations play in this global network.

I'd like to thank Naava Frank for directing me to Hayim Herring's "Network Judaism" - and even providing me with my own autographed copy! Thanks, Naava, for all your advice and encouragement.

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