In their new book, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, Erica Dhawan and Saj-nicole Joni discuss “how to navigate the noise of social media in our over-connected world [to] find purpose and meaning.” Knowledge at Wharton recently had an opportunity to discuss the book with Dhawan.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: My first question for you is about the concept of connectional intelligence. You have been researching it since you graduated from Wharton as an undergrad. Why did you come to connectional intelligence, and how has your understanding of it evolved over time?
Erica Dhawan: I grew up in a family of immigrants, and I am the daughter of two Indian immigrants. Like many immigrant children, I wanted to check off all the boxes of success. I went to Wharton for undergrad, and I went into a great job on Wall Street afterward. During that time, I worked through the 2008 recession. Through that experience, I really began to witness a sense of disillusionment, confusion and burn-out among the millennial generation, which was the generation that I was a part of. Like many other millennials, I worked incredibly hard. But at the same time, I saw that there was an underlying desire for greater meaning in our work and finding new ways to find passion and purpose.
That led me to entirely switch gears. I spent a series of years studying the next wave, the next generation’s desires and how they wanted to work in today’s world — both in the midst of the financial crisis, but also at a time where we saw a rise in social technologies like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. What I began to see is that, from someone who worked in private equity to an NGO leader, many of the struggles were quite similar. They were really struggles related to how to navigate the noise of social media in our over-connected world and cut through and really find purpose and meaning.
At that point, I really began to dig into this idea of how we could connect intelligently in today’s world. That led me to meet my coauthor, renowned business strategist Saj-Nicole Joni, who is also a CEO advisor. Together what we realized is that there is this underlying capacity — what we call “connectional intelligence” — that anyone really can harness in today’s world. The key question today is not, “How do we obtain more networks and more connections?” The key question today is, “How do we connect intelligently and harness the connectedness available to all of us to get big things done?” That’s what led to the journey of writing the book with Saj-Nicole Joni.
“How do we connect intelligently and harness the connectedness available to all of us to get big things done?”
Knowledge at Wharton: You mention in the book that connectional intelligence has been with us for generations. Historically, great thinkers like Ben Franklin and folks like Florence Nightingale had connectional intelligence. Why is it more relevant than ever?
Dhawan: Connectional intelligence, as we describe it in the book, isn’t new…. But what we discovered is that the skill, depth and breadth of our connection is radically different in today’s world. That has not only allowed great inventors, artists, social activists to create change using connectional intelligence, but it has also allowed young people, farmers, plumbers and surfers to use their connectional intelligence to bring together communities, ideas and disciplines in ways that never were imaginable just even 10 to 15 years ago.
It’s that rise of connectional intelligence that led us to write this book and really show how anyone, anywhere can leverage the connectedness available to us to get big things done.
Knowledge at Wharton: How is the concept different from what business people think of as their networks or as networking?
Dhawan: About 10 years ago, Malcolm Gladwell described the concept that there are three types of people who help create great networks and create vibrant social epidemics. They’re the salesperson, the mavens and the connectors. If we think about the word “connector,” it has often been labeled as a term that’s targeted toward building large networks or using networks to build relationships.
But in today’s world, what we realized is that the concept of the connector is in need of an update. The concept is not just about how you become a connector, but really how do you use connection to get big things done in a radically different way. The concept of connectional intelligence is broadening the idea of a connector to move beyond building networks just as building a web of social assets or capital. It’s really allowing anyone to think about how one can build that web to actually lead to measurable change, to actually translate into outcomes.
What we’re guiding people to is not the question of quantity of networks — how many Twitter followers do you have, how many Facebook likes do you have? — but we’re moving to the question of the quality of networks and how can you build the quality of networks to get big things done.
In our book, we [identify] three types of connectors in today’s world. There are connectors who are thinkers — thinkers are those who have high curiosity and bring ideas together in groundbreaking new ways. The second type of connector is an enabler. Those are people who forge communities and create the structures and forces to get big things done. The third type of connector is a connection executor. These are the people who mobilize all their resources to get big things done.
What began 10 years ago as a concept around networking and building networks has now emerged to a much more broadened view of how connections can be leveraged from many different levels.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why would you say millennials are best positioned to take advantage of this?
Dhawan: [T]he millennial generation has been raised in an age of only hyper-connected activity. This has really allowed the millennial generation to not only be able to be native to new ways of working, to connective capacities, but also to use it in really unique ways to scan and source ideas, to solve problems through disparate networks, to leverage ideas like social media.
Connectional intelligence is not specific to the millennial generation. What we found in our book is that this capacity and this force is available to all of us. In my work with my co-author, Saj-Nicole Joni, we found stories of a pumpkin farmer who in his 60s grew the world’s largest pumpkin using connectional intelligence by connecting with small groups, leveraging a website called BigPumpkins.com and connecting with a community of scientists.
“The key question today is not ‘How do we obtain more networks and more connections?'”
We also talk about the “Granny Cloud,” which is a community of grandmothers in the U.K. and Australia who Skype weekly with Indian children. What’s really interesting about that is they’re working with these children across the globe [to foster] fluency in English, but something that came out of that is that these grandmothers feel connected to each other as part of this community in ways that they never were before. We’ve also looked into studies that show that video interaction can make a huge difference for elder populations as cognitive abilities decline.
While millennials may be native in connection, we can all use connectional intelligence. But what also is key is that we have to leverage milllennials’ connectional intelligence oftentimes in our workplaces to generate new ideas, to solve problems. [We have to] make sure that we don’t squash their connectional intelligence to adapt to more traditional ways of working.
Knowledge at Wharton: Erica, you shared a lot of great stories in the book about individuals who have accessed connectional intelligence, and you mentioned a couple of the stories in your previous response. Can you share one or two of your other favorite individual stories?
Dhawan: Absolutely. One of my favorites is the story of a woman named Jeannie Peeper. Jeannie, for many years, struggled with a very rare disease called Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP)…. About 10 years ago, Jeannie decided to do something very different. She created the first ever Facebook group and email newsletter for anyone around the world that had FOP. This brought hundreds of people together who had this illness. For the first time ever, Jeannie was able to create a knowledge network around this very rare disease because patients were globally connected in a way that they had never been before.
Soon enough, Jeannie and this small interconnected group were able to fund medical research for their rare disease. They have also created a community now that is teaching doctors ways to better diagnose the illness. What I find so powerful about the story of Jeannie Peeper is that connectional intelligence is not a tool just for the rich or for business people or for the most successful. It’s really a tool for anyone who has an idea or a passion or wants to make meaning around something and is willing to open themselves up to new people and ideas. By doing that, amazing possibilities emerge….
Knowledge at Wharton: You mention in the book how companies can also benefit from connectional intelligence. For instance, Green Exchange was one example. Can you tell us how big organizations can benefit?
Dhawan: There is a huge opportunity and frontier for organizations to harness the connectional intelligence of their employees. One of the great examples that we featured in the book is the story of InnoCentive and Colgate. A few years ago, Colgate had a big science problem. They had a new fluoride that they were trying to mesh in their toothpaste. The best chemists were working on mixing the fluoride and the toothpaste together, but it wasn’t mixing well and it was getting clogged up in the equipment. For some reason, it was not getting fixed.
Colgate decided to post this question, this problem onto a crowdsourcing site called InnoCentive, which is a community of inventors who scour the website to help solve problems that companies are facing. They posted this question onto the site, and within days, a physicist named Ed Melcarek posted an answer. His answer was that this problem wasn’t a chemistry problem, it was a physics problem. It was about charged particles. You charge the fluoride, charge the toothpaste, and instantly the problem was solved.
“We have to leverage milllennials’ connectional intelligence oftentimes in our workplaces to generate new ideas.”
What began as a months’ long problem for Colgate was solved in such a short span by leveraging a new community in a very different way. But the flip side to that story is that Ed Melcarek, the physicist, was someone who may not have typically ever been hired by Colgate. So, a big piece of understanding connectional intelligence is understanding, first, how to use it to acquire and find great talent, but second, how to access networks outside your company’s existing eco-system to reach customers in new ways, to solve scientific problems, to mobilize and sell a product in new categories and beyond.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is the story of Green Exchange?
Dhawan: Nike had decided to release 400 patents to companies that would be willing to use those patents for environmentally sustainable use and non-competitive use…. When Nike launched Green Exchange, a mountain biking company decided to use one of Nike’s rubber patents in their tires. It led to immense savings for the company. But what it also really led to is an entire community that was coming together in a very different way and really shifting the notion of what intellectual property has meant for so many years.
The other great thing that happened out of Green Exchange is many other companies like Best Buy and Creative Commons began to follow on and began to also share some of their patents for sustainable use with other companies.
Knowledge at Wharton: Interesting. You hear the word “disruption” a lot in the business media these days. What traditional power structures and industries will connectional intelligence disrupt?
Dhawan: Connectional intelligence is a capacity that when used well by employees, by customers, by manufacturers can disrupt any industry, truly. [O]ne of my favorite stories from the book is the story of Ben Kaufman. He was the founder of Quirky. Quirky originated when Ben Kaufman asked the question, “Why does it take two and a half years to design and manufacture a potato peeler by a kitchenware company in today’s world? Why is the length from the beginning design phase to the distribution so long?”
Quirky [is] a large community of inventors who vote every month on two inventions that they are going to design and manufacture that month. They have inventors from all over the world who vote for these ideas who come together. They have an entire community in New York that designs and manufactures these inventions. Today they have partnerships with companies like Home Depot and General Electric to accelerate the supply chain in a way that wasn’t possible ever before.
What I think is the real powerful connectional intelligence aspect to that is how Ben Kaufman really asked the question, “How can we open up this process to a community of inventors that typically aren’t asked by a large company to help solve a problem, to help bring in an idea, to help manufacture the idea and bring it to scale?”
Just that story is one small example, but there are many others that we’re seeing in how business is disrupted when people are using their connectional intelligence in new ways.