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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Analyzing the Webs We Weave

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James Westaby

James Westaby (file photo)

James Westaby views individual and organizational performance as the product of the conflicting motivations within network structures

by JONATHAN SAPERS


WHEN HIGH SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS want to get a feel for how many of their students might be at risk for dropping out, they may soon turn to Dynamic Network Theory, a new approach developed by Teachers College Associate Professor James Westaby.

Traditional network theory focuses on linkages among people. Dynamic Network Theory provides a connection to goals as well. It also shows how interactions among people operating in eight social network roles—goal strivers, system supporters, goal preventers, supportive resisters, interactants, observers, system negators and system reactors—determine the ultimate success or failure of individuals, groups, organizations and even nations.

In a school, a goal striver and system supporters might be a student and her parents; a goal preventer might be a bully she fears so much that she sometimes stays home; an observer might be someone who influences her by watching her try to do her homework; and a system negator might be another student who disapproves of her doing homework and wants her to go to a party instead.

Westaby presents his theory in a book due out this winter called Dynamic Network Theory: How Social Networks Influence Goal Pursuit, to be published by the American Psychological Association. To make the theory easier for organizations to apply, he has also developed surveys for collecting data on the motivation levels of the various entities in a network and “dynamic network charts” with metrics for gauging where an organization’s overall motivation and performance levels net out. 

Westaby says his approach applies equally well to geopolitical conflict and even to the networks formed by people through social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn.  People who use those tools hope to increase their professional or social success by expanding their range of system support, Westaby says. Yet online social media can sometimes become obsessions that distract users from their daily responsibilities and deadlines.

“Research really needs to examine which users are managing this whole new battery of social network connections to achieve and do well over the long haul,” Westaby says. “Maybe more people will adapt to Facebook in highly functional ways. Or maybe there will be a percentage of people who simply don’t know when to turn it off.”    


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