"There's no sound when a tree falls unheard in the forest, and there's no space-time without consciousness nearby to watch." [Richard Bach, Running from Safety]
Last night I hosted one of our monthly conversations with Fast Company magazine readers' network from the series on CEO perspectives. Our guest was Bill Loftus, CEO, Gestalt, a 230-people, $34-million software company founded in 2001 and already winning simulation technology contracts for theatre-level training exercises over Raytheon Co., an 80,000-employee and $21.9 billion organization.
Gestalt's sweet spot is the technical expertise that serves commercial, defense and utility industries. They help enterprises solve challenges -- such as enabling managers of complex operations to quickly recognize critical conditions, optimize resource utilization, and manage complex asset portfolios. In a few short years, they became known as the experts in interoperability and intelligent decision-making.
Bill talked about how the world of business is fundamentally different, especially thanks to technology. Gestalt utilizes applications that harness the network effect and the collective intelligence. Innovation in this new environment means that we now have the pieces to solve problems we did not know we had. We are, in fact, designing solutions for the long tail -- the trend of issues along the spectrum vs. just the one problem at hand.
Some of the tools we're using to spread and collect intelligence are Wikipedia, MySpace (which he pointed out is not innovative on the tech side), LinkedIn, Craig's List, Podcasts, specialist sites like Winelog.net. Innovative ideas are born from the mashup of these tools: for example, mixing two compatible protocols like Google maps and Craig's list creates a visual overlay of available property rentals in a geographic location.
What this means is that people now solve problems differently. What is critical to understand in this new business environment is that communication allows us to work at a problem simultaneously as compared to hierarchical structures were certain paths to permission to proceed were more de rigueur.
Bill's philosophy of collaborative work evolved from his software R&D past. Companies used to spend time and resources trying to figure out what people where thinking while making online decisions so they could harness those relationships. When the world changed, people realized that they should just trust those users as they make decisions on their own. The magic of the collective intelligence resides in people putting information on Wikipedia and del.icio.us, for example.
While the business part is still ruthless and hard to execute on, the impact of communication and trust in relationships yielded fast results. Employees who can develop and execute strategy and teams who are self organized and trusted -- speed, it turns out, is a quality on its own; in this new network, the relationship with a customer is based upon a positive interaction vs. a contract. That's how Gestalt with its inductive approach to project management, won business over larger and more hierarchical organizations.
How can we think about this in a different context? After all, if we don't work on defense contracts with Gestalt, it becomes pretty esoteric to think just about the theoretical angle. In the spirit of connective intelligence, I would like to explore two conversations that can give us ideas on solutions we did not think about.
"Networking is a “one at time, get to know someone relationship” activity in my world. Relationship − that’s the operative word for me. At every Social Networking Site, I’ve ended up with a “network” that came to be despite — not because — of me, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with or for or about each of them." Then in the comments section after our conversation, concludes: "I think we’re all at the same place on one point. Relationships are more important than contacts."
If we examine how this conversation took place, we can distinctly observe that our need to communicate around a topic, which happened to be about relationships, provided a platform for the discussion. The topic and medium allowed us to evolve our individual thinking collectively, thus establishing a certain modicum of trust -- and developing our relationships one step further.
"If the statement “we associate with like minded individuals” is true, then aren’t we asking the same “risky” question to ourselves even though we’re asking someone else?
Ask. The worst thing you get is understanding," writes Tully.
Blogs, wikis, LinkedIn, etc. these are all applications that harness the collective intelligence -- they don't make it. You need to have the people communicating, developing relationships, and trusting each other to design conversations that create a fundamentally different business. While we do a lot of thinking behind the interface of our consciousness, the action happens when our thinking is displayed through interaction. Interaction allows us to think together, fail faster, grow and learn better.
[photo credit, Joe Zlomek]