The Network Dynamics that Shaped TED

Manel Heredero

December 18, 2023

Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim delivered a TED talk in 2006, expressing her desire to unite the world annually through the power of film, as a practical step towards global peace. She envisioned Pangea Cinema Day, where people across various locations would gather to watch independent films and hear diverse voices. Noujaim, a TED Prize winner in 2006, received $100,000 in seed funding for Pangea Cinema Day.

TED formed a team to develop Pangea Day, which occurred on May 10, 2008, broadcasted live from seven global cities. Lara Stein, joining the team for fundraising, aimed to leverage Pangea Day to transform TED into an open-source movement. This led to the birth of TEDx, enabling independent events globally, adhering to TED's principles.

In 2006, TED explored new ideas, such as creating a TV show of TED lectures, which was rejected by the TV networks. In 2007, TED started sharing talks online and, following the large viewership numbers, decided to revamp its entire website and make all their content free to access. By 2012, TED talks surpassed 1 billion views.

Exponential growth if I know one

In 2019, TEDx hosted 4,000 events, while only three TED conferences occurred. This exponential growth transformed TED's business model and expanded its global impact.

TEDx events in 2019

Alongside TEDx, the TED Prize evolved into The Audacious Project in 2018, focusing on launching impactful ideas. The Audacious Project invested $583 million in seven ideas in 2018, increasing to $919 million in 2021. Housed at TED, the Audacious Project brings together a powerful coalition of nonprofit organisations and individual donors with members of the public, allowing them to pool resources and work together in service of change-making ideas.”

Looking at TED and thinking of networks

It is undeniable that TED is a remarkable example of an innovative organisation that is having a huge impact. They are very much accomplishing their mission of spreading ideas worth spreading, and they are building a phenomenal business at the same time. We can extract a few lessons from their journey, and I would like to discuss them here with a network lens.

By network, I literally mean a large number of dots and connections that evolve over time and which show interesting dynamics in response to different impulses. I trust this will all make sense.

Giving away their content for free

All TED content is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Non-Derivative (BY-NC-ND) licence, meaning that anyone can watch any of the TED content at any time and as many times as they wish. This, which may sound obvious today, was not as straightforward back in 2007.

From a business perspective, the lesson here is to look at our intellectual property with new eyes. It is not just an asset to yield monetary returns, but a way to hyper-charge our network, by contributing to the wider ecosystem, by gaining reputation, boosting our reach, and attracting other organisations and individuals.

It’s worth noting also how TED went about opening up their content. They first started with an easy experiment, by sharing a handful of talks and measuring what happens. Once they observed that people were actually interested in their content, that’s when they engaged in the titanic task of re-creating their website entirely, based on the idea of giving free access to all of their content.

Forming autnomous teams around initiatives

As we saw in the example of Pangea Day, TED formed ad-hoc teams specific to the TED Prize winners and their initiatives. Zoe Donaldson recently referred to this type of teams as following the Hollywood model, where a new team forms which is mission-oriented, flexible and dynamic in its composition, and disbands once the project is completed. This is how teams work when making a film, or for instance when designing a building (a process I experienced many times first hand in my previous profession in sustainable building design).

Using network language, TED was able to attract a series of relevant nodes (people) to form a close-knit cluster (team) with intense interactions (work). TED gave high levels of autonomy to that cluster, which was in turn able to bring in other nodes (in this case, donors and specialists). And finally, a very competent cluster with high levels of autonomy and alignment results in the emergence of new ideas and new energy (innovation). This was particularly evident in the birth of TEDx, showcasing how the strategic formation of purpose-driven diverse teams contributed to the network's transformative initiatives.

Giving away their brand and their knowledge

A core element of the TEDx idea is the fact that TED is giving away two of their most important assets: their brand and their know-how. First, anyone can apply for a TEDx licence, which allows them to use the TEDx brand, and they also provide the organisers with the knowledge on how to organise a conference: build an organising team, how to plan and produce the event, selecting a venue, attracting sponsors, selecting and preparing speakers, etc.

Typically, most organisations are very protective of both their brand and their know-how. The TEDx explosion is a great example of how organisations can achieve exponential growth by sharing those openly and easily.

Nurturing communities around a shared purpose

At the heart of the TEDx concept is the establishment of numerous local communities, they called themselves “Tedsters”, united by their dedication to organising and hosting TEDx events. The involvement of tens of thousands of volunteers is pivotal to TED's expansion and influence.

A key characteristic of this network of local communities is their self-organising nature, operating without the need for central coordination. This autonomy is a driving force behind their boundless growth, providing insight into the staggering number of 4,000 events held in 2019.

However successful, self-organising requires this high autonomy to be balanced with sufficient alignment and consistency across the TEDx community, which is enabled thanks to  a set of basic rules and guidelines created by TED, as well as shared tooling. This takes the shape of a platform equipped with various tools and resources for event organisers, such as training, aiming to streamline the process and minimise obstacles. As we have seen in countless industries, platforms have the potential to deeply transform an entire system, by allowing autonomous behaviour with the rules and governance established on the platform. This autonomy in turn allows for incredible rates of growth and impact, with limited work needed by the platform owners, as it’s the case for TEDx.

This does not mean that there haven’t been instances where specific TEDx events generated controversy and negatively impacted the brand. An article by Nilofer Merchant, titled "When TED Lost Control of Its Crowd," published in Harvard Business Review in 2013, highlights some of these challenges. However, the crucial aspect in addressing these challenges does not lie in intensifying control and policing.

Instead, the key lies in collective sense-making after the fact and the ongoing evolution of network governance in response to these experiences.

Spawning new networks

Another interesting development in the evolution of TED was the transition of the TED Prize into the Audacious Project initiative. While TED seems all too keen to add the TED term to almost all of their projects, they decided to allow the TED Prize to spin off as a project of its own. From my experience with supporting the launch of new networks and communities, this was a smart move. I have seen many community building initiatives where the organisation that is starting it decides to give the community their own brand name or very similar. This makes it harder to attract other stakeholders to get involved, since they may feel they are being invited to contribute to an existing brand, rather than a project they are an equal member of.

TED enabling the Audacious Project initiative to become independent and develop its distinct identity is in turn what allowed a new network to emerge, which now has its own dedicated team and the ability to attract a different set of individuals, donors, and contributors.

Let me share another example: Sky Team is an airline alliance, or a community of 29 businesses who enjoy a number of shared resources, which we could call “commons” in community-speak. One typical shared resource are airport lounges, which makes sense that they are shared, rather than creating 29 different lounges in each airport, but there are a number of shared services and joint projects that make a lot of sense and would be worth exploring further. As it’s obvious, the name identity of this community (Sky Team) is such that any member, old or new, feels one amongst equals and is thus more likely to contribute to the common purpose.

In Short

In their 40 years of existence, TED has seen exponential growth and extensive transformation. This evolution has been shaped by the following five distinctive network dynamics:

  1. Providing free access to the entirety of the media production
  2. Forming ad-hoc, mission-specific, flexible teams with high autonomy
  3. Giving away their brand and their know-how (TEDx)
  4. Nurturing hundreds of local communities with minimal orchestration
  5. Spawning new networks with distinct identities.

There is plenty to learn from the TED experience and much we can apply to other businesses and initiatives. Networks, communities and platforms have the power to transform the way we work and generate impact.

Organisations must recognise that we no longer inhabit an era of competition between companies but, rather, a period characterised by competition between systems. Organisations have the opportunity to work with their ecosystem (systems convening) to successfully pursue their purpose, attract others, create impact, mobilise and grow. On the other hand, the ability to convene the systems they operate in is heavily reliant on their capacity to be open, flexible, quick learners, and collaborative - as an organisation. Many grapple with adapting to this new paradigm, primarily due to persistent cultural norms, established processes, and organisational structures designed for efficiency and productivity. Consequently, numerous organisations contend with the ongoing complexities of organisational transformation as they endeavour to align with this evolving paradigm.

Further Reading

The Community Growth Engine: How Duolingo Scaled to 90 Courses and 300M Users, Laura Nestler, 2019

The five levers of accelerated growth, Javi Creus, 2014 and his Pentragrowth report (in Spanish)

Platform Design Toolkit - A great methodology to understand and design platforms

The Community Canvas - A great tool to understand and design communities

During the research for this article I have been drawn to many TED Talks, and I thought I would share this one, What’s wrong with TED Talks. I have been singing the praises of TED as an organisation and how they are well-suited to embrace network dynamics and their transformative capabilities, so I thought I could provide a bit of balance by sharing the interesting reflections of Benjamin Bratton, who calls TED “middle-brow megachurch infotainment”.

See Original Article

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