Networks to New Opportunities - at Stanford

Date: Wed, 02 Jun 2010
From: Jack Truher 
To: Stanford Staffers
Stanford Staffers: Networking since 1951 reads the opening line of the Staffers' web page.  There's a history to that line.  President Wallace Sterling's wife, Ann Shaver Sterling,  joined employees she knew who felt that something was missing, and Staffers was born.  Ann's obituary in 1991 featured Staffers as one of her proud collaborations:
"When she became aware that secretaries often did not know their counterparts in other university departments, she launched the Distaff Club (now known as Stanford Staffers) and hosted the group's annual Christmas party."
I was an undergraduate at Stanford under President Sterling, and joined their Christmas dinners for Staff at Hoover House later as a long-time employee.

Staffers at Stanford gently offer a preferred social modality, "networking", recognizing that competition and individual achievement has its limits.  Stanford can be a highly interactive process.  Persisting tension in the competition-collaboration dynamic is something to nurture, the beauty and the spark of a University environment, the magic so easy to lose.   Philosophers think of Hagel's dialectic.

A highly relevant article appeared in this morning Chronicle, "Networks touted as Key to Success."  The article explains the work of author who gives networking the panache or heft it deserves: "The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion."  This comes from the perspective of the business enterprise.

Consultant urges bee model for business success

Creating networks that can respond to new opportunities or challenges.

Tom Abate, Chronicle Staff Writer        Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Businesses and individuals should behave like bees, constantly in search of new ideas and opportunities, rather than squirrels that find and hide goodies, says a consultant with a new take on how to compete in a global economy.

John Hagel III, with Deloitte Consulting's Center for the Edge in San Jose, lays out this strategy for success in a book, "The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion."

Hagel and his co-authors, Silicon Valley thinker John Seely Brown and editor Lang Davison, wrote "Pull" to encapsulate a problem they've observed with Western businesses - a long-term decline in return on assets. In 1965, they said, businesses earned an average of $4.72 for every $100 in assets. This return has fallen to 52 cents per $100 of assets in 2008.

Their prescription for reversing this decline is to work smarter, by creating networks that can respond to new opportunities or challenges.

"We call it shaping serendipity," Hagel said. Companies - and individuals - must partner with others who can help them, using conferences, personal meetings and social networks to find potential collaborators.

Hagel said this runs contrary to Western business thinking, which holds that competitive advantage comes from exploiting some knowledge or process that should be guarded, like the formula for Coke.

But in a rapidly changing world, Hagel said, advantage comes from a network of partnerships to pull together skills, materials and processes that no single company may own.

He cited the success of the Chinese company Li & Fung, which has created a worldwide network of 10,000 suppliers in pursuit of its basic business - filling apparel manufacturing orders for global brands.

"If you go into any shopping mall roughly 40 percent of the apparel is connected to the Li & Fung network," he said, because the Chinese firm can find the right materials, manufacturers and turnaround times for an unimaginable variety of projects.

Hagel offered the iPod as a case of how this is already taking effect behind the scenes.

He traced the iPod's genesis to the former Silicon Valley firm PortalPlayer, which employed a networking model to create a series of music players for Japanese manufacturers.

Hagel said Apple CEO Steve Jobs fused PortalPlayer's underlying technology with an idea being circulated by entrepreneur Tony Fadell, who argued for the creation of a music-distribution service. Apple wrapped all of that up in a device with its vaunted aesthetic appeal.

"The mythology is that the iPod resulted from the genius of one guy, but the actual story is more complex," he said.

E-mail Tom Abate at

This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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