Social Capital & Innovation

Robert Putnam's book, "Bowling Alone" outlines the value and nature of Social Capital, including examples of IEEE as an organization that builds social capital among technical professionals. "Social Capital" reflects the trust developed between people as they collaborate together. The stronger the relationship, the easier it is for one of the parties to ask things of the other party. This could be as simple as "what computer should I buy next" or as demanding as "let's start up a company to do abc...". When you have a problem you are trying to solve, it is invaluable to touch base with someone you know that is likely to have related experience -- that is an example of drawing on social capital.

Notice that some of the queries can be very focused in the area of common interaction. I worked with the POSIX standards activities in IEEE and ISO for 15 years - we met 4 to 6 times a year, often for a week --- we got to know each other fairly well. It is hard to say how many operating system bugs got fixed as a result of the side conversations in the halls, or useful extensions embraced. Some outcomes include inspiring the LINUX operating system, which clearly leverages a network of trust very effectively, a number of startup companies were formed, I found folks who changed employers (including myself) to contribute effectively to developing this standard, and many spin out activities followed the effort. For instance, I found many of my POSIX colleagues active in the Web Consortium advisory committee and related technical committees.

The reality is that all effective organizations operate this way, and the organic evolution of organizations is a result of these relationship interactions with a combination of external realities such as markets, economies, policies, fiscal capital sources, etc. Recent input from colleagues I have in the HR world indicates that 90% of jobs may be filled by networking (who you know, aka social capital) without ever being available via formal job postings and applications in the 2010 economy. If you watch the ebb and flow of corporate interactions you see 'relationships' regularly dominating these. Senior executives know that a golf partner may be an invaluable asset. Or bridge if you look at the history of Microsoft --- Bill Gates playing bridge with fellow students like Steve Balmer and Paul Allen at Harvard -- and more recently with Warren Buffet that has altered the landscape of philanthropic organizations.

The message here is that engineering and technical professionals need to get connected. This could provide a simple path to solving the next 'bug' or design quandary you encounter. It could trigger your next patent application. It may be the foundation for the next person you hire, or who hires you, or whom you join in a start-up operation. And it may even help you decide how to effectively give away your billions of dollars once you have your nest egg covered.

For a 2020 COVID example. Dean Kamen, inventor but also founder of the FIRST robotics competitions which are global, with great corporate support realized New Hampshire did not have access to the protective equipment needed to address the pandemic. He called his friends in China and asked if they had access to the type of equipment needed (note FIRST is global). They did, but no way to get it to the USA, so he called the President of Federal Express (note FIRST has significant corporate support) and asked if they could provide a 747 to get the stuff to New Hampshire. As I understand it at least two 747s filled with the types of materials required arrived by mid summer. Social capital can by-pass the political and contractual hurdles, and make things happen. Dean is a classic engineer who sees a problem and asks "how can I fix that?"

How to get going in this? .... I encourage you to do it locally via your IEEE Section and Chapters where you will find some similar folks in your local area. If there is no chapter, consider helping to make one happen, it will build your reputation and relationships in the community as well as access to insight and expertise. Also, get involved with IEEE standards, conferences, publications, and other activities. Clearly there are other forums where you can build relationships ... religious groups, Lions Clubs (which of course is why clubs like this exist), and even bowling leagues (one of Putnam's examples). But having a common thread of interest is an invaluable starting point, and your professional focus provides an immediate point of connection.