Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap tell the story of how Jack Hanley, the CEO of Monsanto, hired Howard Schneiderman, the Dean of Biological Sciences at the University of California, to head up Monsanto’s new life sciences business. As part of the job interview Hanley asked a question which was deliberately outside Schneiderman’s area of expertise:
“We’re about to make a big investment in a silicon plant in the United States. Is silicon the material of choice for the semiconductors of the future?”
“Well, if I had one day [to answer the question], I would call up the top biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whom I know, and would ask to be introduced in a telephone conference call to the top materials scientist at MIT. Then I’d pose the question to that person and ask him to think about. I’d tell him: ‘I’d be happy to give you $2,000 for an answer, and I’ll call you back tomorrow.’ I figured that guy would get on the telephone, and he would ask colleagues and in twenty-four hours, I could give Hanley a reasonable answer, although it wouldn’t be perfect.
He got the job.
This story illustrates a number of interesting expertise location features:
- Effective expertise locators often make the first connection geographically close to where the expertise might reside. In this case Schneiderman guessed that great material scientists worked at MIT so he chose to contact his biologist friend there. Dodds et. al. proved this tactic while re-running the 6 degrees of separation experiment.
- He then asked for a personal introduction and intuitively knew that the motivation to assist someone you’ve met for the first time might be low so he offers an incentive. Diminishing motivation as the seeker moves away from their personal network is another characteristic borne out by Dodds et. al. study.
- Within 24 hours he would hopefully have a trustworthy answer.
Dodds, P. S., Muhamad, R., & Watts, D. J. 2003. An experimental study of search in global social networks. Science, 301: 827-829.
Leonard, D. & Swap, W. 2005. Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: