In an increasingly complex world, understanding the connections between people and ideas is crucial. AIQ looks at how organisations can put connected thinking into practice.
The next time you pick up your smartphone - or switch on your television, take a digital photograph, or send an email - spare a thought for Bell Labs.
Based in a campus of glass-fronted buildings in New Jersey, surrounded by lawns kept neat by grazing deer, Bell Labs was the brains trust that lay behind the success of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), the US conglomerate that dominated the telecommunications industry for much of the 20th century.
A series of revolutionary innovations, from radar to lasers, solar cells to communications satellites, started here. Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said that if he had access to a time machine, his first stop would be "Bell Labs in December 1947", so he could witness the invention of the transistor, building block of every electrical gadget in the modern world.1
What was the company's secret? The answer can be summed up in two words: connected thinking. Bell Labs was in the business of connections - its first task was to develop a transcontinental phone line - but it also grasped the importance of the more intangible links between people and concepts. With its interdisciplinary approach and free-form organisational structures, Bell Labs was able to mint new ideas at the rate other companies churn out widgets.
"What grew out of the research department was a sort of internal energy, with people combining their ideas," says Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory, a bestselling history of Bell Labs. "The silicon solar cell was created by a few people who came together serendipitously. It was a case of the right people, in the right place, in the right environment, working on the right problem."
Bell Labs' influence waned in the 1980s when AT&T's monopoly ended and its research teams were broken up. But its half-century period of collaborative innovation contains valuable lessons for companies today. In an increasingly complex and specialised economy, connected thinking has never been more important.
One indication of this is that individual experts are no longer able to dominate their chosen field as they once did. Consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the 1960s, it was common for a STEM paper authored by a single academic to rack up citations. Nowadays, single-author papers are more-or-less unheard of; the most influential research tends to come from research teams that work across disciplines to survey problems from different angles.2
The same is true for other technical fields, including finance, where spotting the relationships between assets, markets and economic data is a critical skill. How will ageing demographics affect European property valuations? What will be the impact of the US-China trade war on Vietnam's GDP? How will Amazon's move into prescription medication affect share prices among health insurance companies? Answering these questions requires teams of experts that are able to work together to understand how each moving piece interacts with the others.
- Jon Gertner, 'The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation', Penguin, 2012
- ‘The science behind the growing importance of collaboration,' Kellogg School of Management, 6 September 2017
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