Monday, December 15, 2008

Strategic multiplexity: another notion for our troubled times

Encounters a few months ago with colleagues who work on information-age strategies made me aware that a particular observation was starting to spread anew in strategy circles: The world is increasingly characterized by complex, ever-shifting mixes of cooperation, competition, and conflict -- often all with the same actor at the same time. Nation-states like Russia and China might be mentioned, but so might an array of sub-state and non-state actors. The point was that it might be advisable for this observation -- this theme -- to figure centrally in America’s next international security strategy.

This began to be an interesting theme for me when I spotted a sports analog years ago in the behavior of drivers in NASCAR races at Daytona that revolve around multi-car draft lines. In those unique lines, drivers get ahead only by organizing into opportunistic drafting partnerships -- the more cars in line, the faster they go, easily passing lone cars. In this game, out-competing depends on out-cooperating in episodic alliances.

And since writing this up in a paper about "Social Science at 190 mph" (2000), I've kept an eye out for expressions that relate broadly to strategy. In case a series of references can help others dig into the theme, here is most of what I have collected so far:
  • The earliest expression I’ve found is to "cooperative competition" (Golden, 1993).
  • Later came the similar notion of "co-opetition" as fielded by two business-oriented game theorists (Brandenburger & Nalebuff, 1996).
  • Network governance specialists have identified “competitor-partner networks” as a factor in “government by network” (Goldsmith and Eggers, 2004).
  • Economic sociologists using network analysis talk about finding “multiple forms of cooperation and competition” in new business sectors (Smith-Doerr & Powell, 2005).
  • Organizational theorists keep referring to commensalism, symbiosis, and mutualism as areas in the spectrum of relations that run from competition to cooperation (e.g., Aldrich, 2006; Monge et al., 2008).
I’m sure similar points are made in management literatures about teamwork in the new economy, but I’ve nothing else handy on that.

Meanwhile, lets notice a term that social network analysts use in discussing such matters: "multiplexity" -- meaning that relations between nodes involve multiple, not just "simplex" or "duplex,” ties or flows. Multiplex mostly means that a single line or channel can carry many messages simultaneously. Social network analysts suppose that multiplex relations are likely to foster reciprocity, trust, commitment, reputation, interdependence, and strength. But strategists may wonder otherwise as well, esp. if the multiplexity involves mixed messages and double-dealing.

What I get out of all this is that the theme -- getting a strategic handle on a world order (and disorder) increasingly defined by myriad mixes of cooperation, competition, and conflict -- is growing in significance, that it should be brought to the fore, and that it is attended by a lot of unattractive terminologies. Maybe English is not suited to finding the right kind of concept; maybe it’ll turn out that a foreign language is conceptually more suited (uh-oh). But we Americans better get cracking on it, in theory and practice.

For now, my proposed term for this phenomenon is “strategic multiplexity.” It kinda captures the above. And it could provide a parallel and complement to that usual observation: multipolarity. A plus may be that the former term could help with focusing on the nature of the ties, whereas the latter term is geared to focusing on the nature of the nodes. We need to be doing both, in agile, adaptable ways. We’re operating in a world that is both multiplex and multipolar, where out-competing increasingly depends on out-cooperating (and vice-versa).

While multiplexity isn’t a felicitous term, a check of the OED Online indicates it is an older term than multipolar. Both were used in the physical, biological, and engineering sciences before they spread into the social sciences, philosophy, or politics (and business). The term multipolar has been used to discuss strategy for four or five decades; I wonder how it sounded at first (probably better than multiplex).

Anyway, that’s my nascent offering on this theme. Here are two good back-up quotes:
“From this network perspective, national strategy will depend less on confrontation with opponents and more on the art of cooperation with competitors. . . . The new strategy of cooperative competition would be defined more in terms of networks of information flows among equals that provide for enhanced cooperation on technological developments and potential responses to international crises in a framework of shifting ad hoc coalitions and intense economic competition. . . . The strategy of the United States, then, would be to play the role of strategic broker, forming, sustaining, and adjusting international networks to meet a sophisticated array of challenges.” (Golden, 1993)

“In both circumstances, groups of collaborators become involved in multiple forms of cooperation and competition. We argue that these new patterns of affiliation, with shifting rival alliances competing and recombining on a project-by-project basis, lead to new interpretations of the nature of competition. First, recognize how profoundly a competitive relationship is altered when two parties compete on one project, but collaborate on another. The goal of competition cannot be to vanquish your opponent lest you harm your collaborator on a different project." (Smith-Doerr & Powell, 2005)
[UPDATE — May 12, 2009: Here’s a marvellous example of multiplexity in action: A new report by Hugh Griffiths and Mark Bromley, Air Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows, SIPRI, Policy Paper No. 24, May 2009, “reveals that 90 per cent of the air cargo companies identified in arms trafficking-related reports have also been used by major UN agencies, EU and NATO member states, defence contractors and some of the world’s leading NGOs to transport humanitarian aid, peacekeepers and peacekeeping equipment. In some cases, air cargo companies are delivering both aid and weapons to the same conflict zones.” The quote is from a SIPRI press release. Thanks to The Crime-Conflict Nexus and The Huguenot Corsair blogs for leading me to this.]

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