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Relationships are the stuff of success

By Mark Randell - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

"The network is the computer". So went the slogan from Sun Computers. What they meant was "don't look at the objects on the end of the links, look at the links". The potential benefits of networked computing were in the linkages between computers, not in the computers themselves.

And so they were. Witness the Internet. The benefits of connected computers are obvious to all.

Looking at the relationships between things, not at the things themselves, is a sound principle for more things than computers. Take the current 'robust discussions' between Tony Abbott, Australian Workplace Relations Minister, and Mark Latham, Australian Labour frontbencher on so-called 'family values'. Both are actually arguing for the benefit of relationships, which might form the basis for a more productive discussion if only they would realise it, and politicking didn't intervene. What both are saying is what E. M. Forster said many years ago-in a much more succinct fashion: "Only connect".


Only connect. The relationship is much more important than the objects being 'related'. Now, there's a sound principle for foreign policy, mediation, marriage, 'community consultation', and more besides.

Psychologists tell us that women spend more time than men on maintaining relationships, and tend to view relationships as primary, and individual people as secondary. Men view individuals as primary and their relationships as secondary (apparently). The world is weaved into a web-its relationships maintained-by the women-folk. Maintaining relationships is all-important to Aboriginal negotiators, who would prefer to spend more time reaching an agreement while maintaining relationships, than going for the 'quick deal' which severs relations between the dealing parties. Have you noticed how Aboriginal speakers introduce themselves at a conference or speech : "I am X, and I am from Y, and my people are Z'. Placing themselves in a network of links. The network is the computer.

Memory and learning are like that. We remember and learn better when we can build a 'scaffold' of categories, a network of concepts that we can slot new facts into. As a child develops, its network of categorisation grows, and new knowledge can be incorporated more quickly. Ancient mnemonic systems emphasising the telling of a story to retain memory of presented items rely on this principle. The network is the computer. Stories maintain networks, preserve the relations between things, between people, between ages.

Everywhere we can hear people lamenting the passing of 'civil society': the breakdown in the 'bonds' that, in the past, held us together as communities, states, nations. The research of Professor Robert Putnam (collected in his seminal article, "Bowling Alone") showed that civic participation in America and worldwide is declining, has declined markedly over the past three or four decades.

Putnam's research showed that 'social capital'-the bonds of trust and reciprocity between community members that allows community will to be translated into community and individual action-underlies and underpins the economic success of a region or state. Social capital underpins economic capital; relationships, even ones that seem unrelated to economic success, matter. Putnam showed that one measure of the (social and economic) health of an Italian region was the number of choirs it contained. Only connect.

An extra 10 minutes of commuting time cuts all forms of civic participation by 10%. So says the report of The Saguaro Seminar ("Better Together",, an extraordinary seminar in America held in seven separate sessions, attended by civic leaders of all persuasions, hosted by Harvard University. The determination to connect can easily be disrupted by modern-day inconveniences, like traffic jams, commuting, and administrative queues. There are lessons here for many organisations who talk of 'relationship marketing': The banks, governments.


Only connect. The world and language of computers has other metaphors that can give us pointers to the world of social and civic relationships: "peer-to-peer networking", "handshaking", "secure connection", "trusted host". All these terms have analogues in the world of social capital.

Concerned, as we are, with connection in the human and social worlds, we find ourselves tripping over the notion of "trust"-after all, social capital consist of bonds of "reciprocity and trust". What leads us to trust one another? The computer world provides protocols for 'handshaking' that allow computers to decide when to trust each other-what is the human equivalent?

It turns out that "trust" in humans has some six or seven components, such as predictability, reliability, familiarity, understandability, explication of intention, and usefulness. That is, when we judge someone, or some agency, to be predictable, reliable, we understand their intentions, and we are familiar with them or it, we tend to "trust".

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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