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How can the threat of networks be reduced?

A new book says leaders need to develop a deep understanding of the opportunities and threats posed by networks--a "seventh sense."James Heskett invites readers to add their own insights. What do you think?

By James Heskett
Published: Sep 26, 2016
Image: Shutterstock

I’m a sucker for lists of what other people are reading. So it was with great interest that I looked over the results of a recent small, unscientific survey by McKinsey of what CEOs were reading this summer. The most frequently mentioned book somehow had escaped my attention: The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, by Joshua Cooper Ramo, co-CEO and vice chairman of Kissinger Associates.

Ramo’s core thesis is that today's world of networks and connectivity may be the biggest game-changer of the future, whether the game is business competition, public health, political success, or even life on this planet, to cite just a few examples.

Networks enable mind-bending progress--but offer the potential of indescribable chaos in everybody’s personal life and society at large. Just ask Democratic members of the US Congress whose email accounts were systematically hacked recently. According to Ramo, networks profoundly change anything or anyone connected to them. They may affect us when we least expect it.

This is not new. The world of networks is one in which links and nodes, hubs, connectivity, speed, and “reach” rule. During work on my doctoral thesis on business logistics, I was inspired by what location and graph theorists had to say about the impact of network design on transportation and inventory location at least 60 years ago. It was my meal ticket to a position on the Harvard Business School faculty.

What has changed, of course, is the impact of the internet on network design and performance. Those with the “seventh sense” that Ramo talks about understand how networks change and speed up everything they connect.

Seventh sensers don’t just see unused autos and drivers with some extra time on their hands. They envision what happens when those unused autos and drivers are connected to those in need of a ride. Seventh sensers create communities--“gatelands” with borders--for which they serve as powerful gatekeepers. And they know how to design software that serves as a platform on which other things can be provided to those in the gateland.

Networks give, but they also take. In dramatic fashion Ramo describes his association with pioneering network designers and malevolent hackers alike. He also concentrates on the vulnerability of networks, especially those fueled by the Internet. First, there is the possibility that an important node--a hub through which information is transmitted over the network--may be destroyed. There is an answer to this problem: distributed networks with maximum connectivity (all nodes connected to each other by alternate paths similar to a fish net) with the capability of self-repairing damage to particular nodes.

The scarier network vulnerability is that created by errors in the original coding or "windows" for hackers intentionally left in the network code by agents hoping to use them later to access and sell information.

Ramo describes the active global market for hacked information that makes all of this so potentially lucrative to the thousands of hackers who flock to the cracks found in existing network architecture daily. Results may include leaked emails, drained bank accounts, and the destruction of production facilities (as Iranian nuclear scientists found out).

It’s easy to conclude that you or your organization will be hacked in your lifetime. No wonder CEOs are interested in the message. The book must scare them to death.

What’s to be done about these threats? Ramo quotes one “security genius” as suggesting three rules for dealing with the threat: Do not own a computer, do not power it on, do not use it. He adds a fourth, “Do not connect it to anything.”

But surely the genius that created the internet that makes so much connectivity, speed, and information exchange possible today can outthink the hackers who would bring it all down.

Will it require, as Ramo suggests, education and training to develop leaders of all stripes with the Seventh Sense?(Just envision this training occurring in law schools that originate most of our politicians.) Could sanctions against malpractice that have been established in professions such as law and medicine work in this arena as well?

How about more explicit laws and stiffer penalties for those found to create economic chaos and worse? Perhaps we would be willing to sacrifice some network speed in order to increase security. How can we reduce the threat that networks represent? What do you think?

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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