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Schematic representation of a network
Not every system with elements and connections is also a network: only when it is closely meshed (in this graphic example no. 2 and no. 4) is one speaks of a network.

As networks or networks are systems referred whose underlying structure mathematically as graph can be modeled and have mechanisms for their organization. The graph consists of a set of elements ( nodes ) that are connected to one another by means of connections ( edges ). A closed train of edges and knots is called a mesh .

The real characteristic of a network compared to other types of graphs in graph theory is that the majority of the nodes in networks belong to one or more meshes. The mechanisms for the organization of networks relate to the definition of the redundant connections in the network given by the meshes, which allow different connection paths.

Networks are examined on an abstract level in network research and in practice in the respective application areas from which the specific networks originate.

About the terms "network" and "network"

In the German language, both the terms "Netz" and "Netzwerk" are used to denote networked systems. These are not congruent. As a rule, the English word network is linguistically better translated as "network", for example telephone network with telephone network (and not with "telephone network"), computer network with computer network , radio network with radio network and sensor network with sensor network . While the term “network” is more general, the term “network” specifically refers to tightly meshed networks with many redundant connections.

Takeovers in individual sciences

In ethnology , sociology and psychology the term was adopted as a " social network ". In business administration and logistics one knows production, procurement and distribution networks , in organization theory and ergonomics also " network organization ". In systems theory , “network” refers to a set of autonomous objects that are connected to one another in a defined way and that form an entire system .

The term network is also used in political science . In control theory, policy networks are understood to mean the interaction between private (companies, interest groups) and public actors in certain policy areas. The result is non-hierarchical, decentralized political networks. Other authors use the network concept in general to denote various forms of public-private cooperation that does not necessarily have to be organized in a decentralized manner. Both approaches address the exchange of resources between the actors involved. Policy networks can arise with regard to policy formulation and implementation. One of the latest developments is the differential network theory (DFN theory).

Recently, attempts have been made in cultural studies to use the concept of network as a basis for understanding the individual sciences about certain subject areas and therefore to conceptualize it in a transdisciplinary way ( transdisciplinarity ).

Some theories of international relations , such as global governance and currents of constructivism , also state the emergence of networks at the international level. These too are mostly of a mixed nature; the actors involved are, for example, international organizations, states, individual ministries or state agencies, INGOs , NGOs and / or companies . Their activities include, for example, working for certain minorities and for the environment, putting new topics on the global agenda and negotiating global standards.

In jurisprudence there are first attempts to make the network paradigm fruitful for a new and deeper understanding of law. The law is understood as a complex network (Boehme-Neßler 2008, p. 535 ff.). It also has the properties that are typical of a network - such as reciprocity, interactivity and non-linearity (Boehme-Neßler 2008, p. 593 ff.). There is an increasing understanding that the law is therefore an “imprecise law”.

Networks between organization and market


There are network structures in all - including prehistoric and early historical - societies. These are overarching patterns of interaction and cooperation that are limited to certain situations or occasions, beyond fixed clan structures or sporadic exchange relationships (e.g. shaman networks ). In the Middle Ages, large national networks of people were formed on the basis of common interests, such as the Hanseatic League .

Networks of organizations are characteristic of the modern age. These emerged at an early stage wherever cross-regional or mobile economic actors work together with changing local partners whose local resources they want to use (e.g. in the construction industry, at commercial agencies) or where a group of local partners comes up to process a complex order Time comes together. Since the beginning of the 20th century, networks have also been formed where high demands on innovation prohibit permanent cooperation between actors in a fixed organization (e.g. in the film and creative industries).

Organizational structures have changed significantly since the 1990s in particular. Globalization , rapid technological change and the resulting rapid exchange of information lead to ever faster changing market constellations and internationally operating organizations. The boundaries within and between organizations change, as do the boundaries between the environment and organizations ( boundaryless organization ). These circumstances lead to changes in the organizational structure in the direction of the creation of flexible networks and increasing demands on network control .

Networks can be shaped to varying degrees by elements of the hierarchy as well as the market. Accordingly, they are more likely to be centralized or decentralized.

Quasi-internalization and quasi-externalization

According to Sydow (2010), networks arise from the trend towards disaggregated organization. The processes of " quasi-externalization " and " quasi-internalization " are at work here. First of all, about the quasi-externalization: Marketingization means that a traditionally vertically or horizontally integrated company is "disaggregated", i. H. outsourced. In this way, highly autonomous, market-managed internal units are created. An example of this can be company-owned management consultancies , which can accept orders from their own organization as well as external orders. The second process (quasi-internalization) relates to the traditional position of an individual company in the market. This position has been re-hierarchized through the merger and partly also through the marketing . Companies have changed from autonomous positions in the market to autonomous companies with hierarchical relationships with one another. The process of hierarchization can be demonstrated using the example of the supplier network of large automotive groups such as BMW . Although the individual suppliers are autonomous organizations (such as BASF , Siemens and Hella ), they are hierarchically dependent on, and therefore subordinate to, BMW's decisions due to the contracts and purchasing power of such a large business partner. A quasi-internalization takes place due to the intensification of the cooperation of already loose exchange relationships between individual organizations.

Network control

In general understanding, control means “the effort to reduce the difference” (Luhmann, 1988). According to Sydow, network control means the control of interorganizational networks with the endeavor to reduce a difference between a desired system status and the system status that is displayed. The aim here is to gradually influence events and interactions.

A total of four control levels can be distinguished.

Level of the inter-organizational network

The focus here is on controlling the network with organizations, their interactions and relationships. The basis for this is the assumption that networks are to be understood as a social system that can be described primarily through the quality of relationships. The result is that the system behavior is primarily dependent on the quality of the relationship. Correspondingly, at this level of control, the influence and shaping of the relationship (e.g. cooperative, competitive corporate relationships) is taken into account.

Control of individual organizations

The mutual influencing of organizations is considered here: on the one hand, to what extent the management of the company enables or limits the network control and, on the other hand, to what extent the network control influences the management of these companies.

Level of control of organizations and networks

At the center of this view is the individual; more precisely to what extent the activities of individuals in intra- and inter-organizational networks can be controlled. With this complex representation, it must be taken into account that individuals act in a double framework (intraorganisational: the individual with the employment contract; interorganisational: in the network as a whole).

Institutional context level

The focus here is on the consideration of influencing or influencing the networks via changes in actor constellations, technologies (tools, knowledge stocks ...), state regulation (laws) and practices (financing, production).

In the case of network control, it makes sense not only to consider the level of the network alone, but the 4 levels described in their complexity and mutual influence must be taken into account.

Nodes and edges

Networks are a configuration of nodes and edges. Nodes that are understood as actors can be both individuals and groups. The edges connect the individual actors with one another and thus represent a relationship. Embedding the actors in a large number of relationships reduces the complexity for the individual. The edges serve the actors as channels through which information and knowledge are transported and exchanged.

Relationship strength

The strength of the relationships between the actors is determined by the emotional intensity, the degree of trust, reciprocity and the time spent together. Strong and weak relationships can be distinguished according to the extent of these characteristics. Strong relationships are characterized by a close-knit structure within which the actors are highly motivated to exchange and pass on information and knowledge. Weak relationships are characterized by an open structure that enables information to travel greater distances.


The density of the network indicates how strongly the actors are networked with one another. The greater the number of relationships, the greater the possibility of exchanging information.


The range indicates the extent to which the relationships between the actors extend beyond one's own network.

Knowledge transfer in networks

Knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange are in complex relationships with the density, range and relationship strength of the network.

Strong relationships are suitable for the transfer of complex and tacit knowledge due to the stronger emotional ties between the actors . Here, the actors are more willing to spend time explaining complex relationships and passing on knowledge that is difficult to verbalize. However, because of their redundancy , strong relationships block communication channels on which new information can enter the network. Weak relationships are better suited for the diffusion of new knowledge content, since a larger number of actors is reached and a greater openness of the network is guaranteed. Weak ties are the cornerstone of creativity and innovative developments.

The density of the network represents the basis for knowledge exchange and knowledge combination, whereby it is important here for the actor to know the value of the individual relationships. If the relationships between the actors extend beyond the limits of the network, a shared knowledge base facilitates the transfer of knowledge and learning from one another. The more complex an actor is able to network, the easier it is for him to develop complex knowledge, to transport it and to combine it with the knowledge available in the network.

In addition to the great importance of network relationships and their design for the acquisition and exchange of knowledge, the knowledge management carried out by the organization / network at all levels of information processing plays a decisive role. The systematic promotion of creativity to generate ideas, as well as the design of strategies for knowledge transfer between actors and the making available of knowledge available in the network is an important prerequisite for innovation in networks.


Relationships within networks are not limited to the connection between two actors that must be viewed in isolation. Rather, these dyads form a complex pattern of connectivities and ramifications beyond the dyad (Kilduff & Brass, 2010). If you want to investigate which factors are fundamentally maintaining the network, the mathematical or computer science term of connectivity (graph theory) plays a central role. Connectivity specifies the minimum number of connections, i.e. nodes and / or edges, that must be removed in order to resolve the entire network. The focus here is on certain key players and pullers. These so-called weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) have a particularly important position within the network, as they are bridges between other actors who without them would have no or only difficult contact via long detours. It can be the case that a widely ramified network completely collapses when only one actor is removed. Knowledge of connectivity is of practical relevance, for example when fighting terror networks.

Network management

Sydow and Windeler (2000) differentiate between the following 4 functions of interorganizational management.

Management functions


The basic consideration here is who should be included in the network and who should remain in the network. The partners must have a fit of intention and suitability in order to meet the network goals. A distinction must be made between positive selection (selection of suitable network partners), negative selection (selection of unsuitable network partners) and re-selection (selection of proven partners).


Essentially, this is the distribution of resources, responsibilities and tasks. This distribution should take place according to the respective competencies or the competitive advantages.


At this point, the question arises of how and what the execution of the tasks should be coordinated with one another. The focus is on the development of informal and formal rules for cooperation.


The distribution and determination of costs and benefits in the network context are of importance in this context. The analysis can relate to the entire network, to a sub-network or to individual dyadic relationships.


These functions are to be understood as a permanent task of management. The decision is to balance the resulting tension: autonomy vs. Dependency; Trust vs. Control, cooperation vs. Competition. This must be taken into account in the network control and balanced in the network.

Network consulting

Network consulting means consulting networks as an organizational form, i.e. consulting legally independent actors who cooperate in a network. It includes all interventions that focus on the education, management, (further) development and also the termination of these inter-organizational arrangements. Individual actors can be the addressee (their individual interests, however, not the exclusive content) of the advice: The distinction to organizational advice consists in the intended consideration of the interests and needs of the entire network.

Consulting approaches

Sydow (2006) names three approaches that essentially originate from organizational consulting and can be specified or adapted for network consulting: content-oriented, process-oriented and reflexive consulting.

In content-oriented advice, the focus is on imparting specialist knowledge. The advice is linked to the content expertise of the consultant, as well as his ability to define problems and offer appropriate ready-made solutions. A classic example is the teaching of "best practices".

The process-oriented consulting approach, on the other hand, assumes that new knowledge does not have to be brought in from outside, but is already latent in the system. The task of counseling is to activate and accompany the process of knowledge mobilization in order to solve specific problems. In order to provide this support, the approach is structurally open and phase-specific-cyclical: The diagnosis is followed by an intervention and then an updated diagnosis and adapted intervention (see also the systemic loop). The approaches can be combined.

Furthermore, according to Sydow, a flexible degree of “reflexivity” (derived from Moldaschl) can be integrated into both of the above. This requires u. a. a stronger empathy in complex contexts, system rationalities and recognition of the unmanageable dynamics in the course of action. Reflexivity requires a great deal of awareness and activity on the part of the consultant and client. Various perspectives, including those of the advisor, should be taken into account. Evaluation and meta-advice are increasingly required.

The content-oriented approach has a very control-optimistic perspective with regard to the control of complex systems. According to Sydow, more reflexivity makes the perspective more realistic. The process-oriented approach, which is inherently control-pessimistic, is gaining optimism.

Due to the changed requirements of the increased complexity and dynamics in organizations that work together in networks, the increased use of process consulting and especially reflexivity seems to be particularly appropriate here.

Forms of network consulting

Network advice can be provided by a single consultant or a single consulting company . In this form of advice, a distinction is made between external (by an independent consulting company) and internal advice (by a consulting department within the organization). A second form of network consulting is the networking of consultants and consulting companies. The individual consultants and consulting companies are legally independent actors, but economically, due to a joint assignment, more or less dependent on one another. Consulting networks tend to be long-term partnerships that often work in a division of labor. The advantages of consulting networks are the bundling of competencies, the promotion of learning and innovation, the utilization of capacities and the acquisition of new customers.

Network consulting tasks

According to Sydow, the tasks of network consulting include:

  • the education,
  • the management,
  • the (further) development and
  • the termination

of inter-organizational arrangements between two or more organizations.

Network consulting instruments

In network consulting, the instruments used can be assigned to either specialist or process consulting (Sydow, J. & Manning, S., 2006). The instruments of specialist advice are more aimed at evaluating the actual and target states and a.

  • the evaluation and assessment of current and potential network partners (e.g. with the help of point assessment procedures or in- depth interviews ),
  • the qualification of the network partners (e.g. with the help of various supplier development programs) and / or
  • the allocation of tasks and resources (often only with the help of simple lists and plans).

The instruments of process consulting were taken from classic organizational development. Mediation, moderation and coaching are used to support the network partners in their joint development of goals and action steps.

Network moderation

Moderation is external and neutral support for group processes. In a network, the members are often not individuals, but organizations that are in turn represented by people. Their structure and relationships are correspondingly complex.

Networks as voluntary associations cannot be controlled with hierarchical power. Therefore, the dominant mode of cooperation is negotiation, which often requires moderation.

Subsystems of a network

According to M. Teller & J. Longmuß (2007), the task of network moderation is, in addition to supporting group processes, to take on additional control functions by initiating and structuring work in the network. It must remain independent of particular interests. It should keep an eye on the various subsystems of a network at the same time and pay attention to their development. A distinction is made between the following subsystems:

  • In the professional performance system , the network partners work together to achieve the network goals. It encompasses production and value creation processes in the broadest sense (including the generation of social benefits).
  • A stable framework for action is required for the professional performance system, the strategy and decision-making system . It mainly contains the strategy definition, the mission statement and the internal rules, the long-term network management and the network evaluation.
  • An operational management system is required to control the network in everyday work . Depending on the network, this includes e.g. B. the creation of service and product offers, controlling and finance, marketing, partner acquisition and corporate design.
  • For long-term, low-friction cooperation, the network needs a social and organizational development system . This includes organizational development, personnel and partner support and the development of a beneficial network culture.
  • For a high level of transparency and good communication in the network, an information system is ultimately required, which can include information procurement, internal communication, knowledge management and documentation.

The levels of network moderation

In order to do justice to the complex environment, the network moderation according to Teller & Longmuß (2007) has to work on three levels:

  • Strategically, d. i.e., it must u. a. Stimulate setting of priorities depending on the development stage of the network, identify conditions and factors for progress and implement these in the agreement of measures;
  • Organizationally, d. i.e., it must u. a. Systematize network work, observe the interaction of the network subsystems, uncover functional deficits and support the establishment of transparent organizational structures, role definitions and behavioral routines;
  • Social and cultural, d. This means, among other things, sensitizing the actors to the social complexity of the network, supporting the formulation of assumptions, expectations, attitudes and fears and helping to resolve conflicts.

Network evaluation

The general aim of evaluating networks is to strive for continuous improvement in network work. The questions of how to measure the success of networks - within an association of several different actors - and what success means in this context can no longer be adequately answered with the existing methods and instruments of business success measurement and evaluation.

In order to be able to act purposefully and effectively in a network, clarity is required about the internal state of the network (satisfaction and commitment of the members, status of work, development prospects, etc.) and about how it affects the outside world (image, perception of the results the stakeholders, connection with other initiatives etc.). Such a comprehensive analysis required triangulation of the perspectives; H. the connection and comparison of information and feedback from different sources and against different backgrounds.

If all available information is evaluated, it can quickly become too large to be manageable. Therefore, the information should be prepared with an analysis grid that allows it to be summarized, sorted, combined and simplified without losing any substantial substance. To this end, the GTZ, later GIZ ( German Society for International Cooperation ) built a. a. Based on Neugebauer & Bleywl (2006) and Sülzer (2008) a tool for the analysis and evaluation of networks was developed (GTZ 2010, GIZ 2011).

Main aspects

According to this, the interest in knowledge in a network evaluation is focused on three main aspects:

  1. Purpose of the network: Why is the network (cooperation system) promoted and implemented; what should be achieved with it?
  2. Structure of the network: who is involved and how; how are relationships, power and decision-making structures designed; who has which tasks, competencies and responsibilities in the network?
  3. Processes within the network: What do the interactions and coordination or decision-making processes and communication processes look like; how effective are they?
The six constituent dimensions of a network

For each of these three main aspects, two constituent dimensions can be defined, so that a comprehensive description of a network with a total of six dimensions is possible. These six dimensions are broken down into success-critical characteristics, which are described below.

Dimensions of network work and their characteristics

  1. The purpose of the network is divided into
    the target system dimension , d. H. the entire orientation of the network from a concept to the goals of the individual actors with the following characteristics:
    • Mission statement,
    • strategic goals,
    • Profile of the network,
    • sufficient overlaps between the interests of the individual actors;
    the sustainability of the network , d. H. its long-term stability and effectiveness. Features here are:
    • Network stability,
    • (foreseeable) constancy, also beyond a possible funding phase,
    • Scaling-up, d. H. the possibility of enlargement and reproducibility,
    • Diffusion of results, broad impact of network work.
  2. The structure of the network includes the dimensions
    Actor landscape , d. H. the entirety of all participants in the network, with the characteristics:
    • Complementarity of the actors,
    • Competencies of the actors,
    • sufficient resources (people, time, money),
    • consistent and matching tasks, competencies and responsibilities of those involved,
    • appropriate rules on competition;
    Network control that can be anchored in one or more network nodes. Criteria for success are
    • strategic and operational management,
    • an appropriate creative power of the primary network node,
    • a widely recognized network moderation,
    • Goal and effect-oriented work,
    • Documentation internally and externally.
  3. The following dimensions are distinguished in the process of network work:
    the interaction , on which the mood and culture in the network depend, with the characteristics
    • friendly and open interaction with one another,
    • Assumption of responsibility for the overall project by all actors
    • Reciprocity, d. H. a balanced relationship between give and take,
    • The further development of the cooperation;
    the effects achieved through the network and the cooperation. Criteria for success are:
    • the functionality of the network,
    • the efficiency of network work,
    • the effectiveness, i.e. the degree of target achievement,
    • the emergence gain , d. H. the additional effects that could not have been achieved through bilateral partnerships.

These features can be evaluated according to a point system and the results can be prepared numerically and graphically if necessary.


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Web links

Wiktionary: Network  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

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