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Coolhunting the secrets of success

Peter Gloor studies communications networks to find the patterns that characterize successful organizations and spot emerging trends.
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Peter Gloor
Peter Gloor
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“I’ve been working on social networking since before the Web was invented,” says Peter Gloor, a research scientist at the Center for Collective Intelligence at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Indeed, before the Web, and long before Twitter and Facebook, Gloor was one of a handful of researchers who studied hypertext collaboration networks in order to perceive or corroborate social patterns and trends.

His research gelled into something of a theory when he began studying email archives surrounding the development of the World Wide Web. It helped that he had actually been there: World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners Lee joined MIT in the early 1990s, at the same time Gloor left the University of Zurich to be a postdoc in MIT’s Advanced Networking Architecture group.

“I was able to compare the patterns from those mailing list networks with the real world networks I recalled,” Gloor says. “It dawned on me that collaborative innovation networks play a crucial role.”

Gloor extended his research to study Web and intranet communications in a variety of organizations, and came to sense consistent patterns. The vast majority of successful projects were born from what he calls Collaborative Innovation Networks (or COINs). In 2006, Gloor published his ideas in “Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage through Collaborative Innovation Networks” (Oxford University Press). That was two months before Twitter was founded, and before Facebook had turned into a household name.

The concept of the social innovation network predates email or even the telephone, Gloor says. “COINs have been around since the invention of the wheel,” he says. “Innovation does not happen in isolation.”

Gloor cites Benjamin Franklin’s use of COIN techniques to develop the first post office, town library, and fire-fighting brigade. “In his autobiography, Franklin describes very nicely the rules of the COIN and how you need to get the members to really buy into an idea,” he says. “They need to believe that they have come up with the idea themselves.”

That’s not so easy, Gloor says. Good leaders must not only be able motivate others, but also overcome pride and egotism. Yet, if they can sacrifice total control to let others help design parts of the vision, it creates an amplification effect, he adds.

The process of developing a successful COIN tends to follow the same pattern, Gloor says. “You have a very creative person who is intrinsically motivated and on a mission to change the world. They succeed in recruiting three to 12 like-minded souls who together turn an initially crazy vision into a prototype. Then they recruit a larger group I call the collaborative learning network, which acts as the incubator for the COIN. In the case of the web, it was the WWW Consortium."

Shared, serial, and rotating leadership

COINs tend to be “grassroots skunkworks” that “exist in spite of the typical structure of an organization,” Gloor says. Open source projects like the World Wide Web tend to provide fertile ground for COIN startups, and they’re not always fully financed by an organization. In addition to the World Wide Web, Gloor cites Linux and Wikipedia as mostly grassroots COINs that changed the world.

All three projects also share a structure of distributed leadership. “They all have had leaders, but they don't have any real power,” he says. “Leaders must have the trust of their community, or they can be removed in an instant.”

“Sometimes you have people like Gates, Zuckerberg, or Jobs who have the personality to combine all these roles, but usually it doesn’t work that way,” Gloor says. “The first few followers who build the prototype also tend to be leaders. Some of my Sloan colleagues have shown that having more than one leader is a good predictor of success.”

Many COINs instead distribute leadership over time. Rotating or serial leadership has worked well for projects such as the open source Apache project, Gloor says, because a given leader “didn’t have the right personalities for later phases of the projects.” After the initial innovator “with the crazy ideas,” you often need a salesperson at the helm, and then a manager, he says. “At any one time, you always have identifiable strong leaders, but they take turns."

Larger organizations are an overlooked source for COINs, Gloor says, citing the e-business skunkworks operation at IBM that essentially defined the concept. Another more personal example was when Gloor worked at the bank UBS to develop one of the first corporate intranets. “I was in data warehousing, but I found a way to explore the coolness of the web,” Gloor says. “I wasn't really allowed to do it officially, but I hired two interns from MIT, and they built the intranet for me.”

Coolhunting the next big disruption

Gloor consults with companies on how to identify and nurture COINs within their own organizations. “COINs are a great way for companies to create disruptive innovation,” he says. “If a company embraces those risks, the rewards can be huge.”

Gloor founded, and is now chief creative officer, of a software company called Galaxyadvisors that builds upon his research. The company’s Coolhunt app can be used to analyze social networking patterns and find new trends and hidden treasures of innovation. Coolfarm, meanwhile, is designed for spreading trends and ideas on social networking sites and within companies.

“Coolhunting lets you search for new COINs using sophisticated social network analysis and natural language processing,” Gloor says. “You can track emerging ideas by influence, emotionality and by word usage, or by looking for new made-up words and identifying who is using them.” For example, you could go on Twitter and compare discussions about the Tea Party with discussions about Occupy Wall Street. “They use different word patterns, but you might see some patterns,” Gloor says.

The company also sells a Condor app that examines people’s past notes in a social network. The interactions are indicated graphically as lines between those notes. “We look for those who are fully connected, because that's where you find the COINs,” Gloor says.

All these tools depend on visual analysis. “With a spider web view of a social network, you can see the corporate topology with a single glance,” Gloor says. He is continually searching for new, more intuitive ways to tell the story, such as animation or music. “Having multiple channels for analysis is very valuable.”

Gloor has identified and baked into his software five variables that can predict “group health based on communications.” The first two are strong leadership and “contribution,” which measures how much sending is done over receiving. “In a creative community you want a well-balanced system where everyone contributes,” Gloor says. “In a high performance environment such as hospitals, manufacturing, call centers, or service providers, you want more contribution from a few central people.”

Another factor is speed of response. “The faster someone responds to your email, the better they like you,” Gloor says. “We also measure how many times someone has to ping someone until they respond.” The last variable is emotionality. “We found it's nice to be positive, but it's better to be honest. Passion is a predictor of success.”

Gloor’s software uses these variables to identify key individuals or teams and compare them. “We can predict things like the probability that a team is up to something new, or how well performing a call center team is,” he says. One service provider client is using the tool to evaluate customer satisfaction. “They look at their emails with customers and calculate the variables to identify the level of satisfaction. It's simpler than doing surveys.”

Gloor has applied his COIN concepts to groups as varied as jazz combos and surgical teams. He is also analyzing trends in Crohn’s Disease. “We have created COINs made up of researchers, doctors, caregivers, and patients of Crohn’s,” Gloor says. “We are building a system that predicts outbreaks and monitors energy levels, speech patterns, and other factors that might predict another flare.”

COINs may have a long history, but they still face obstacles in traditional, hierarchical organizations in which not responding to an email enhances one’s status. Gloor is optimistic, however, that new tools like Coolhunting will provide a “virtual mirroring” effect that will help change the way companies are structured.

“Executives who respond slowly to email are going the way of the dinosaur,” he says. “There’s this new style of engaged leadership where you’re always plugged in.”

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