Cultivating Genius: Social Networks and Talent Clusters

October 3, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

Talent grows in clusters. It always has.

There is a reason why ideas, innovations and advancements seem to focus in particular groups at particular times in history. Talented people flourish in networks—and whether those networks are based around books and bars (the social media of old) or workplaces or online networks—when they are encouraged they become a hotbed of creativity. Where people and ideas congregate and link up to form relationships, opportunities are created.

This is why, when groups of people become well known or celebrated, it often turns out they were networking long before their fame. These clusters have been grouped throughout history since people started to build networks and relationships. Think of Florence, Italy in the early Renaissance, where Michelangelo rubbed shoulders and shared influences with Donatello, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Botticelli, Raphael, Leon Battista Alberti, and Leonardo da Vinci.

The following are examples of groups of people who rose to prominence together just in the twentieth century:

  • The Lost Generation:  This cohort of expatriates in 1920s Paris was immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast, and more recently in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris. Yes, Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Ezra Pound, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein, really did hang out together at the Shakespeare & Co bookstore.
  • The Algonquin Round Table: This group of writers, newspapermen and wits in 1920s New York transformed the face of American humour. Among others, it included Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker), Robert Benchley, critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood.
  • The Bloomsbury Group: Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell formed the core of this group of British intellectuals in the 1910s and 20s which included Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey and the influential economist Maynard Keynes
  • The Beat Generation: This group of poets and writers used a name coined by member Jack Keroac. It came to prominence in 1950s New York, and included Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Hal Chase, William S. Burroughs and others.
  • The Brill Building: Did you know that Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart,  Neil Diamond, Andy Kim, Bobby Darin, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield,  Paul Simon, Phil Spector, Johnny Mercer and a few dozen music publishers from the 1950s and 60s all had their offices in the same building in NYC?
  • <Motown: Another tale of musical convergence is the Detroit music scene in the early 1960s and included Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes , The Miracles, The Temptations, The Contours, Martha and the Vandellas and Gladys Knight & the Pips, among many.
  • The Silver Factory: In the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s Factory was a meeting place for artists and musicians such as Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Brian Jones, Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote and Mick Jagger.
  • Cambridge Footlights Club: Several generations of the Cambridge University comedy troupe have crystallized into fame: One created Monty Python. Another spawned Satire Boom wits such as Peter Cook, John Bird, John Fortune, David Frost, Bernard Levin and Richard Ingrams.  The 1982 Review featured current British stars Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Tony Slattery and Hugh Laurie.


Photo of David Packard and William Hewlett with Frederick Terman

The arts are the easiest to track, but it happens in business just as often. For example, the circle of scientists and graduate students connected to Stanford University Professor Frederick Terman included William Hewlett and David Packard, O. G. Villard Jr., Robert Helliwell, Edward Ginzton, and William B. Shockley—who along with Terman is widely credited with the invention of Silicon Valley.

What got me thinking about talent clusters? I was perusing Fast Company recently, and I came across this infographic.

The graph of ideas

It is a pretty neat project described by creator Brendan Griffen as “All of the thinkers and authors in history – in ONE graph!” He built it by charting the influences of people based on mentions in Wikipedia.  I’m not sure it is COMPLETELY comprehensive, but it certainly does show how interconnected ideas are.

And it immediately reminded me of another infographic, from Simon Raper at Drunks & Lampposts, which is only slightly less ambitious, and which inspired Griffen’s project. Here's a detail:

chart of the interconnectedness and influence of philosophers

This infographic charts the interconnectedness and influence of philosophers since the dawn of literacy. And let’s face it, philosophers are a group not exactly known for their conviviality—no matter what Monty Python might say.)

Of course the grand-daddy of these sorts of charts comes from a 2000 book by sociologist Randall Collins, who was struck by patterns of influence among the great thinkers of any era. Collins used philosophers as his test case and found that while there were isolated cases of genius here and there, for the most part true advances and innovation came when thinkers were put into networks and into conversation (or even competition) with one another. Here’s an example from Collins’ book, which charts the connections among the Greek philosophers.

The skeleton of theory image

Why does all of this matter? Because it proves beyond a doubt the importance of social connection and professional relationships to achievement. No one works in a vacuum, and when promising people are brought together and given the right conditions, they thrive.

One of my college professors, Thomas Glick, has called these “circles of affinity”—and he has found that when people have been drawn together in time and place, focused on the same goals, and given a nurturing environment by their leaders, they can actually inspire one another to achievement—no matter how diverse their backgrounds— as in the Convivencia in Spain among medieval Muslims, Jews and Christians.

It also matters because I’ve seen the next logical step in these sorts of network.  It is in your company.

You don’t need fancy graphing software to map it. You can do it from within tools you already have, like the talent maps and performance networks visualization in our Globoforce solution. They show you at one glance where YOUR talent clusters are. Who is interacting with whom and who are the biggest influencers in your organization. It looks an awful lot like the maps above, and it gives you invaluable insight into your culture and talent.

By providing opportunities for employees to form social ties and networks of support, and basing those relationships on articulated values and shared goals, you are creating the context to help build affinity circles within your organization.

The next great cluster of innovative talent could be the one you nurture—that is created within the convergence of your business goals, your company values and your culture of social recognition.

In other words, there are talent clusters lurking somewhere within your company. Learn how to find them, and help them thrive.

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