There is no doubt that interpersonal connections are critical to growth and innovation.
Part of the origin story for Silicon Valley is a belief that many of the groundbreaking innovations born there were made possible by the close proximity of all those tech companies, which enabled employees in separate companies to interact with one another. In restaurants and bars, neighborhood picnics and sports games, and other informal gathering places, conversations sparked insights. They talked a bit about their problems and challenges and about what they were learning along the way to inventing a thriving industry.
In my own experience, I see some echoes of that. On Twitter and LinkedIn, at conferences and workshops, in podcasts and webinars, people share their work and discuss the emerging practices in the field. A number of industry luminaries have their own academies or workshops which provide entre to a community of people interested in stretching the limits of our current tools and techniques to ensure that their work has impact.
Benefits of the hive mind
Humans have always understood the power of exchanging knowledge with peers outside their immediate circle. You can see that in exemplified early human trading practices, medieval guilds, academic societies, salons, conferences, and more.
At the dawn of twenty-first century, when the power of accessible information on the internet was getting all the press, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid asserted “in those areas where knowledge really counts, people count more than ever.” Anticipating a move toward work being done from home (two decades before the pandemic forced the issue), they cautioned:
“The home worker resembles not the frontier pioneer, striking out alone and renouncing society, but more a deep-sea diver. The deeper a diver works beneath the ocean, the more sturdy the connections to the surface have to be.”
~ From The Social Life of Information (HBS Press, 2000), p 89
In other words, deepening knowledge and skill can only be accomplished with connections to others. And while it’s obvious that employees should be engaged with internal peers, it’s often more critical that they be gathering knowledge and practices from outside their organizational bubble.
Among experts in communities of practice and knowledge management, there’s a concept known as boundary spanning – actions that deliberately cross lines between teams, organizations, industries, and countries in order to cross-pollinate the ideas and behaviors that enrich the work. People who engage in boundary-spanning provide valuable intelligence for innovation and creative problem-solving. Encouraging people to interact with a wider community is important both as a business practice and as a developmental move.
Developmental moves that connect to the hive-mind
When we talk about employee development, connecting people to one another – and especially to the experts and thought leaders of their field – is a highly valued developmental move. This is especially true for more experienced employees.
If you have responsibility for developing other people, you will do them a huge service by helping them to build their broader network.
Point out experts inside and outside your organization. Let employees know who you consider to be go-to people, thought leaders, prominent practitioners, and insightful authors and creators. Facilitate initial introductions if you can. If possible, get employees involved in projects where they will work alongside these experts. Coach employees to arrange informational interviews where that can bolster an employee’s perspective and skill set.
Encourage social media use. Social media has a Jekyll and Hyde reputation these days, but it can be a real help in getting connected to an industry if you follow and engage with the right people. If you don’t already know where people in your industry or specialty hang out online, find out. Identify the thought leaders, pundits, and practitioners who are actively engaged in sharing and conversing online, and recommend that your team follow specific folks if they don’t already. Add social media stream widgets to your intranet or enterprise social spaces where possible and curate people and organizations to follow. In the right online social stream, your team will learn about emerging ideas, upcoming events and publications, and exemplary work. And they’ll be able to engage with peers to help them think through projects and challenges.
Recommend relevant podcasts. There are podcasts on practically every topic of interest these days, and you can help your team to find the best and most on-point series and episodes. Many podcasters are sharing their expertise and interviewing others who have rich experience to share. Search on your favorite podcast app or use a tool like ListenNotes to uncover possibilities. (A helpful social media network can help you to find podcasts as well.)
Send people to conferences. As people start to return to in-person events, supporting conference attendance can be a great perk and a developmental accelerator. Encourage employees to attend with specific learning goals in mind (attend multiple sessions on a topic). And help them to make connections with other attendees (with before-conference introductions, or with advice on strategies for in-person networking since many may be a little rusty at it). Also invite your employees to present their insights to the rest of the team when they return. (Better still, encourage your team to apply to speak at conferences – that’s a learning opportunity in itself, and it may be rewarded with free or discounted attendance fees.) Note: online conferences can be useful for learning about emerging ideas and practices as well, but they are not often structured to help attendees to network with one another.
Nurture local connections. Develop cross-company networks in your local area by engaging in local professional events or deliberately reaching out to peers in nearby locations. Organize informal gatherings or facilitate one-on-one meetups where employees can talk about mutual interests and challenges. While you obviously don’t want anyone to share proprietary intellectual property or other state secrets, there are likely a number of less sensitive topics that would be beneficial to explore across companies.
Encouraging employees to tap into the hive mind outside your own organization provides many benefits. People feel less isolated, for one. And they have a better chance of hearing about new developments and emerging practices. While its useful to simply hear about what others are doing, it’s much more beneficial developmentally if employees become engaged in conversations. That’s where the real magic happens, where insights are born and new ideas are triggered.
There is a pleasure a bee takes in collecting nectar and piling it into a hive. It knows well that the chores involved in such a task will yield sweet results.
~ Gloria D. Gonsalves
This post is part of a series exploring the moves leaders can make to promote development of their teams and employees. Check out the entire developing people series. And please get in touch if I can help you to aquaint your leadership team with these moves and the details of practices that ensure they are effective. I can offer a workshop and other learning materials on the subject.