I just came across this old post of mine (circa 2005) and wanted to republish as I've been thinking quite a bit recently about interbeing: the state of connectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. I'm finding that I now have a deeper understanding of what I wrote three years ago... funny how that works.
I've been thinking about "brand as connection" and doing a bit of research on the subject. Most of us view the business world through a component lens (customers, technology, products, departments, etc.), but it's interesting to take a moment and look at the world through a connection lens: what are the connections between these components, and how can they be strengthened?
Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, focuses on a similar concept called social capital. A few definitions:
Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. (Putnam 2000: 19)
Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society's social interactions... Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together. (The World Bank 1999)
Social capital consists of the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviors that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible. (Cohen and Prusak 2001: 4)
There is considerable evidence that communities with a good 'stock' of social capital are more likely to benefit from lower crime figures, better health, higher educational achievement, and better economic growth. (infed.org)
Too often, we view creation of social capital as the domain of non-profits and government. Corporations can wield significant influence in this arena, but physical and financial capital (ie components) hold the attention of business leaders. Social capital (connections) can't be quantified and listed on financial statements, so it's usually not acknowledged or effectively managed.
This thought reminds me of another interest of mine, quantum physics. There's an interesting new theory called the zero point field... this might seem to be a random tangent on the subject of social capital, but bear with me. Here's an overview of the ZPF written by Bernhard Haisch, staff physicist at the Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory:
...electric and magnetic fields flowing through space oscillate like a pendulum. At every possible frequency there will always be a tiny bit of electromagnetic jiggling going on. And if you add up all these ceaseless fluctuations, what you get is a background sea of light whose total energy is enormous: the zero-point field. The "zero-point" refers to the fact that even though this energy is huge, it is the lowest possible energy state. All other energy is over and above the zero-point state. The fact that the zero-point field is the lowest energy state makes it unobservable... Since it is everywhere, inside and outside of us, permeating every atom in our bodies, we are effectively blind to it.
Matter resists acceleration not because it possesses some innate thing called mass, but because the zero-point field exerts a force whenever acceleration takes place. To put it in somewhat metaphysical terms, there exists a background sea of quantum light filling the universe, and that light generates a force that opposes acceleration when you push on any material object. That is why matter seems to be the solid, stable stuff that we and our world are made of.
So everything's not only interconnected but made of the same stuff. The visible is influenced by the invisible. And no matter how hard we try to control each element of business, there's always some "socio-magnetic" jiggling going on. One could view social capital as the ceaselessly fluctuating energy that either resists or facilitates the movement of physical and financial capital. Business is simply a vast network of human connections and transactions; everyone is exchanging energy (materialized as money, products, communication) to the benefit of all parties. But since, like the ZPF, social capital is everywhere, it somehow becomes unobservable to us. We are blind to it, like fish unable to see the medium in which we are swimming.
Just as physicists are now starting to factor ZPF into their equations to arrive at a more accurate model of how the world works, so too can business leaders factor in social capital into how their business works. If we see the world not as isolated components but as a vast unified and interconnected system, we also see that the more pathways formed (ie. connections between departments, customers, partners, etc), then the more energy flows and the more the system is unified and strengthened.
The advent of new connection tools like blogs, wikis and podcasting is helping to facilitate the shift from component to connection view. Artificial barriers are beginning to drop. For example, we can no longer treat internal and external branding as if they are different things... the brand is the entire system, of which employees and customers are a part. Brands are people and the connections between them. Even if we're talking about a product like an iPod, we're still talking about people having a sense of belonging to the iPod community, sharing playlists, evangelizing to non-participants, etc. As Hugh says, "branding is a spiritual exercise, and the market for something to believe in is infinite." We want to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Think about your business ecosystem, including all employees, departments, outsourced labor, partners, stockholders, etc. This is your social capital. This is the singular energy that powers your business. Is it strong or weak? How connected is everyone? Do they feel like they're part of a big community of shared interests? Or are they isolated in stagnant clusters of matter that experience friction and resistance? It's time to open up. Be transparent. Reach out. Drop the walls. Stop trying to control every conversation. Permit creative chaos. Allow customers to talk to anyone in the company, not just to the guy sitting in a call center on the other side of the world. Form more connections, stronger connections, between every element in the system. When we acknowledge and maximize the power of social capital, our world becomes a powerful place.