Saturday, September 15, 2012

Strategic multiplexity revisited: a conceptual update

Four years ago, I posted about “Strategic multiplexity: another notion for our troubled times.” I proposed the term as a way to help think about the fact that U.S. relations with many actors abroad increasingly combined a mix of cooperative, competitive, and conflictive ties, all at once.

The term extended from my interest in how, in complex systems fraught with shifting alliances, out-competing may depend on out-cooperating. I also meant for the term to reflect work by Jeffrey Cooper and others who were wondering how best to deal with complex network-like situations where cooperation, competition, and conflict were all interactively intertwined.

Cooper was focused on discerning “New Approaches to Cyber-Deterrence” (see appendix below). But the underlying challenge — how to deal with situations that produce wild gritty mixes of cooperation, competition, and conflict — extends far beyond the cyber domain. Indeed, it dominates the news this very day, as Arab and other Islamic streets explode with anti-American rage, mostly in societies where we’d like to have cooperative relations.

When I drafted the 2008 post, I searched to see whether anyone else had fielded the term “strategic multiplexity” — and nothing turned up, though of course “multiplexity” by itself is a key term in network analysis. Now, four years later, I’ve come across (h/t a pertinent essay titled “Strategic multiplexity” by Andrew Shipilov (INSEAD, France) in the journal Strategic Organization (August 2012, pp. 215-222). His orientation is quite different and more academic, but it tracks with my own and thus helps keep the term in motion — which is why I call attention to it here.

According to Shipilov, “we are missing a possibility to examine how multiple kinds of relationships could simultaneously affect network dynamics and network outcomes.
“In this essay I attempt to sketch a research agenda for a strategic multiplexity perspective that should address this shortcoming. The three key premises of this perspective are that (a) organizations are simultaneously embedded in different kinds of relationships, (b) these relationships are interdependent and (c) this interdependence influences organizations.” (p. 215)
For Shipilov, as for other network analysts (see appendix below), the term enables network theory to continue moving away from treating actors as though they are unitary nodes who have unitary interests and uniplex ties. The ensuing emphasis, then, is that “strategic multiplexity is inherently a multilevel perspective” (p. 715). Accordingly, various kinds of interpersonal and inter-firm ties may cut across different formal and informal levels within and between firms. And this may help to show how informal interpersonal relationships may lead to formalized strategic partnerships.

Along the way, he lays out an interesting distinction between pipes and prisms:
“We know that networks act as pipes and prisms for organizations. Pipes provide access to resources and information, while prisms shape the perceptions that others have about the organization’s quality and social standing. Strategic multiplexity allows the development of theoretical models capturing the role of multiple kinds of pipes and multiple kinds of prisms that enable organizations to achieve a network-based competitive advantage.” (p. 217)
In sum, he extols strategic multiplexity as a concept for comprehending how the world keeps changing:
“The strategic multiplexity perspective can have a broad impact on social science. As the world around us is becoming more interconnected, reciprocal cross-level effects become more pronounced in our economic and social lives. For example, established formal relationships of exchange and power in many societies have influenced informal communication for centuries, until they were ripped apart by the grassroots communication revolutions enabled by social media. New technologies increasingly play the role of aggregating mechanisms in collectivities, such as societies or organizations. The downward influence of macro- to the micro-structures is increasingly giving way to reciprocal influences in which both micro- and macro-structures co-evolve. By forcing ourselves to better understand strategic multiplexity, the associated aggregating mechanisms and reciprocal cross-level effects, we should be able to better understand the momentous changes happening in the social systems around us as well.” (p. 220)
Good points; I quite agree. Yet it’s not entirely clear (at least not to me) what his paper means by “strategic multiplexity” and how it differs from and improves upon the standard network-analysis notion of multiplexity. Shipilov’s focus, like that of most network analysts, is on multilevel ties that tend to interact so as to reinforce each other. His strategic optic, I gather, is about how multiplex ties may serve to create competitive advantages and strategic partnerships. Thus, his use of the concept is not only descriptive; it starts to have prescriptive implications for strategy.

Okay, fine. But his is still a limited firm-oriented optic. I’d like to see more about multiplex ties, whether at the same or different levels, that involve contradictions and inconsistencies vis à vis other kinds of actors — relations that may be competitive and conflictive as well as cooperative. Therein lie greater challenges for using the concept for prescriptive purposes that may help us understand better how actors delineate strategies for maneuvering in complex situations — be those actors governments, firms, civil-society organizations, or parts and pieces of them, not to mention tribes and clans (or even criminal organizations) who revel in multiplex dealings in parts of the world.

John Arquilla and I used to write quite a lot about the importance of building networks, and many other writers now do so as well. So I don’t want to burden this post with much reiteration about that. Again, my key purpose here is, simply and hopefully, to use Shipilov’s paper to add momentum to the strategic-multiplexity concept. But I would conclude with a remark or two about today’s headline news:

The Arab Spring is suddenly, exasperatingly, showing signs of moldering into an Arab blight. If/as this continues, American links with societies across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will be increasingly fraught with an evermore wicked complexity — indeed, with strategic multiplexity. As I’ve indicated before, in connection with TIMN, patrimonial corporatism exerts a much stronger pull than liberal democracy in those regions, largely because of the enduring sway of the tribal form and attendant tribalisms. In such contexts, figuring out how to deal with strategic multiplexity — discerning what kinds of cooperative and competitive relations to build across which levels and sectors in order to counter conflictive relations elsewhere — is a bigger deeper question than merely asking (if not posturing) whether the U.S. government is perceived to be a strong horse.

. . . . . . .

Appendix: Two pertinent writings

I referred above to Jeff Cooper’s paper about finding “New Approaches to Cyber-Deterrence: Initial Thoughts on a New Framework” (2009). It never uses a term like strategic multiplexity, but his points bear on what I’ve had in mind. Hence, I offer the following exemplary quotes from it:
Cooperation, Competition, and Conflict. Among the most important of the circumstances mandating a new logic is an international system that is no longer dominated by a bipolar structure, in which both non-state actors and networks of actors (among them ““virtual communities””) have emerged as important factors in international relations. As part of reformulating deterrence for this new environment, this research effort introduces two concepts as key components for cyber-deterrence. The first is a new framework that we term the “Three Cs”— Cooperation, Competition, and Conflict. This framework explicitly recognizes that both we and our potential adversaries (as well as friends, allies, and other actors) now conduct multiple but distinct, relationships with each other across numerous and diverse channels of interaction; and as we participate in networks with a wide range of other parties, we perform different functions, can assume different personas, and often exhibit substantially different behaviors at the same time. ...
Networked Deterrence. The second key concept in this approach — the “networked deterrence” concept — argues that networks themselves are increasingly the key underpinning of international power and influence and, therefore, represent the real source of value.” (2009, pp. 4-5)
“... It [the 3Cs framework] recognizes that actors can pursue different objectives in different networks and that these three types of relations can exist contemporaneously or simultaneously, resulting in complex “mixed-motive games.” Importantly, such “mixed-motive” games do not, unlike Nash equilibria, produce stable optimum solutions. In fact, for assessing decisions by these actors, the decision space may resemble the sets of multiple attractors produced by complex systems in which predicting the choice among them is impossible.” (pp. 121-22)
“[I]t is now a reality that all players — including states, as well as individuals and other non-state actors, regardless of whether or not they are terrorists or terrorist groups — are entangled in multiple types of relationships. The first key aspect of the “networked deterrence” concept rests on an understanding that these relationships powerfully affect every actor’s motivations and behaviors, and hence their decision calculus. This concept argues consequentially that affecting (or threatening to affect) those relationships can influence the behaviors of an actor; and it should be generally applicable to forestalling a wide range of potential threats.” (p. 129)
“Implicit in the results of this research is a conclusion that a policy of “engagement,” if it is to yield any benefits for the U.S., must create a set of conditions in which all parties to the relationship understand that reciprocity is important. Engagement may imply cooperation, that is, seeking a mutually beneficial outcome, but that does not mean the relationship has to be “friendly.” 160-161

Meanwhile, academic network theorists have been turning more and more to the analysis of multiplexity (but not strategic multiplexity per se). A good example is a paper by Seungyoon Lee and Peter Monge, “The Coevolution of Multiplex Communication Networks in Organizational Communities,” in the Journal of Communication (2011, pp. 758–779). It, much like Shipilov’s paper, emphasizes “multiconnectivity” and the expansion of partnerships across multiple sectors. Here are a few quotes (minus footnote and other citation references):
“Typically, studies of organizational communication networks have explored uniplex networks, those built on a single relation that creates a single network, rather than multiplex networks, those involving multiple relations that create multiple networks. Yet, tie multiplexity is a fundamental aspect of social relations because multiple types of network ties are frequently interdependent, and ties in one network have been shown to influence the formation or dissolution of ties in other networks.” (pp. 758-759)
“Ultimately, the dynamics of multiplex networks suggest that organizations can take advantage of their position in one network for building their positions in other networks. Second, efforts for selecting potential partners can be facilitated across multiple networks, as the presence of ties in one network is expected to increase potential tie formation in other networks. Third, for the purpose of mitigating the uneven structure of global networks, it is expected that intervention in one network will influence other networks.” (p. 773)


Double thanks to Charles Cameron for spotting that a link had an error, and that text was missing near the end of the main body of this post.  Now corrected.

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UPDATE / ADDENDUM — September 22. 2012:

I appreciate an email from Andrew Shipilov noting that my write-up seems “quite right” regarding his view of using the term “strategic” in combination with “multiplexity”.

In trying to learn more about multiplexity, his research, and INSEAD, I came across the results of the INSEAD Conference on Network Evolution 2.0, held October 22-23, 2010. Various presentations dealt with multiplexity (but not strategic multiplexity). Here are germane quotes from two (available via .zip download here):
According to David Obstfeld, Steve Borgatti, and Jason Davis, “Increases in the heterogeneity found in multiplex ties demand greater brokerage intensity. ... The intensity of brokerage behavior increases as network multiplexity increases. ... We predict that brokerage intensity is increasingly relevant in multiplex structures in non-routine environments...”
Moreover according to Goce Andrevski, Joe Labianca, and Walter Ferrier, “Differences in firms’ strategies explain why firms become embedded in different network structures:  – Advantage-enhancing tendency leads to dense network structure and more strong ties – Advantage-creating tendency leads to sparse network structure and more weak ties”.
I also appreciate an email from Peter Monge in which he points out an issue of the International Journal of Communication (2011) that contains a special section on “Network Multidimensionality in the Digital Age,” edited by him, Manuel Castells, and Noshir Contractor. I especially recommend a look at the prologue. The focus is on “multidimensionality” — a far broader concept than multiplexity — but its papers occasionally bear on multiplexity (though not strategic multiplexity).

Such readings offer further insight and inspiration for wondering about strategic multiplexity. In particular, they illuminate the significance of brokers — a point that Shipilov’s paper also makes in passages I did not note above. In any case, many questions remain about how strategy and multiplexity may affect each other, and more to the point, how multiplexity may be exploited (even deliberately constructed) for strategic purposes.

UPDATE / ADDENDUM — November 16, 2012:

I'm informed about an early (1996) paper on “economic multiplexity” that tends to be about “strategic multiplexity” as well. It concerns firms that are partners in some instances, rivals in others — “instances of multimarket competition, multiple cooperative alliances, multiple buyer-supplier relations, cooperative ties between product-market competitors, etc.” The paper — Javier Gimeno and Catherine Y. Woo, "Economic Multiplexity: The Stuctural Embeddedness of Cooperation in Multiple Relations of Interdependence" — was published in a professional book series on management strategy.  Today it still deserves to be included in current literature reviews, including for its early discussion of “the consequences of economic multiplexity for interfirm cooperation.”