Plug in to the art of connections

On Excellence
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The Independent Online
DRIVE around Vermont in the summer and you will see an extraordinary accumulation of heavy construction equipment sitting idle. I'll bet I see 10 pieces at rest for every one at work.

Transporting these monsters is no piece of cake. But still there must be an enormous opportunity lurking somewhere. If only we could find a way to connect vegetating machinery with active jobs - everyone would win.

American Airlines figured that out years ago when it began to lease unused time on its computers. Before long, providing computer services for others had become a core business. But the airline first had to find prospective users and make them aware of its new service - that is, connect the pieces of the puzzle.

Connect. Connection. These are at the heart of economics. There's no sale, no matter how exciting (or inexpensive) a product, until there is a "connection" with a seller. The problem is, the connecting process has always seemed smarmy. Those in "the connection business" don't do anything, or so the lament goes.

Thus we decry the prominent role, and attendant profits, of bankers, advertisers, wholesalers, warehousers, retailers and so on. These people don't plant trees, fertilize trees, cut down trees or build houses with trees.

Oddly enough, however, it is the connectors, not the so-called "doers", who usually transform society. Canal men, railroaders and now highway builders and telephone companies have done more to foster economic growth and innovation than the Procter & Gambles, the General Motors and US Steels of this world.

Connections are hard to "see", which is one reason we don't like them. We are still children of the Newtonian view of the world - a lumpy-object view that dominated for hundreds of years. But now quantum mechanics has upset the Newtonian applecart. Ethereal connections and probabilities of connections are everything. You can't talk sensibly about anything by itself, we are told by a new breed of physicists; you can only talk about the likely relationship of transient things to other transient things.

Management Maximizers, a San Francisco company, got the message. It provides substitute executives and temporary project managers for an impressive list of corporate clients. Suppose Ms X, head of human resources at LMN Widgets, takes a four-month leave of absence. M2 (or "M-squared" as it labels itself) pokes around in its enormously talented, 2,000-person "network"and finds several candidates to fill the post. Or perhaps a mid-size company is to launch a service that calls for telemarketing capability. There is little doubt M2 can provide an experienced telemarketing star.

M2 was successful from the start, but its repeat rate has not met expectations - despite rave reviews from clients. It seems the clients don't "get" network and connection power. "Our biggest competitors," an M2 principal told me, "are the half-dozen `friends' who come to the mind of an executive who wants a replacement." In short, M2's customers can't tell the difference between a handful of cronies and M2's immense network (and its ability to fit prospects to a customer's "culture"). This is just one example of failing to understand connection power, and failures are increasingly expensive. As the commercial world turns ever faster, more of its work gets done by temporary alliances and networks. Connection power - the ability to tap, then work with a shifting array of participants for a finite period - is perhaps the prime skill called for in the emerging economy.

If you believe in "connection power", give these a try:

q Hire "connectors". There are networkers who instinctively invest in connections and relationships. And there are others who reject networking as "sissy work". Hire those sissies.

q Train in connecting. Networking may be an instinctive skill (women appear to be better at it than men), but at least we can train an appreciation for the art form.

q Mind your calendar. Is there enough time in your daily routine for "connecting"? The number of folks who "hang out for success" (ie, play their network like a master) may appal you - better that it should send you a clear and urgent message.

q Invest in connecting. Electronic networking, within and beyond the firm, is all the rage. It's easy to do it wrong, but the networked company (done right) is on track to succeed.

q Open the doors. "Them and us" is not the way of networks, though, sadly, still the way of many companies. Until borders inside and outside your organisation vanish, connection-for-profit will not become the name of your game. And for survival's sake, suspicions about connectors (once called middlemen) had best vanish. Fast.

TPG Communications