Social media and instant communication buzz with human interaction at rates higher than ever in history. But making meaningful connections in ways that improve the life of a region is a more complex matter.
Effective human connections, however, can be boiled down to a mathematical process, according to corporate anthropologist and management guru Dr. Karen Stephenson. She has developed a process to identify those she refers to as “community connectors” and unsung heroes who bring about lasting change and prosperity.
“Connectors are the hubs of human social networks and are often responsible for the bringing about of rapid and widespread change,” author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book “The Tipping Point.”
Gladwell’s book helped popularize the connector philosophy that Stephenson calls quantum social chemistry. She has used her same mathematic and social principles to help many companies and government agencies identify their connectors. Now Stephenson is helping communities “connect,” too.
The flagship connectors project was launched in 2009 in Philadelphia. She helped Leadership Louisville launch a connector campaign in 2010 for Louisville and Southern Indiana, and spoke to a group of Bluegrass leaders earlier this year about launching The Bluegrass Connectors Project.
“When you put smart people together, when you put people who are doers and active leaders together, great things happen,” said Lyle Hanna, president of Hanna Resource Group in Lexington and leader of The Bluegrass Connectors Project. “When you put one and one together, often you get three.”
More than 500,000 Bluegrass region residents live in distinct communities throughout Anderson, Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Jessamine, Madison, Montgomery, Scott and Woodford counties. Hanna is convinced there is enormous potential to find and tap into the influential yet invisible “connectors.”
Stephenson aims to “connect communities in central Kentucky and build a network of trust by identifying the unsung heroes – those who keep things going and get things done.”
Gladwell described connectors as people who get things done through others by serving as pockets of trust. They lead to a tipping point in collective community attitudes. Their role often is unrecognized.
Holly Prather, vice president of marketing at Leadership Louisville, said the 2010 project in the River City identified 128 connectors through a rigorous nomination and mathematical vetting process with the help of Stephenson. There was a healthy mix of natives and transplants, with 39 percent from the corporate and small business sector, 37 percent from nonprofits, and the rest from academic, faith-based and government sectors.
Like the soon to launch Bluegrass Connectors Project, Louisville sought to identify people quietly wielding community influence, then link them up.
“It’s been somewhat organic,” Prather said about the process.
In August 2010, Leadership Louisville recognized those the process found at a luncheon at Churchill Downs. They now they hold monthly connector cafes.
In the Bluegrass region, Hanna said nominations (through peer identification) are to start this fall after the program is adequately publicized. Louisville had almost 6,000 nominations. Hanna hopes to see nearly 2,500 people nominated in Central Kentucky.
The Bluegrass Connectors should be identified by early 2012, he said. Then it will be up to the connectors to work their magic.
Prather suggested having connectors projects active in both of Kentucky’s largest cities could create a “super region” in the state. Newly elected Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer was one of the connectors identified in his community, and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has been involved in the Bluegrass process.
“We do expect to see an agenda of Louisville and Lexington being more collaborative as we move forward,” Prather said, adding that the project has created a new buzz and a lot of community pride in Louisville. “Connectors are the people that have the power to move people to a tipping point. This is a call to action to go forth and continue connecting.”
Mike Mays, co-owner of Heine Brothers Coffee in Louisville, was selected as a connector and said he really has not done anything differently than he did before being identified.
His successful coffee shop, which he runs with fellow connector Gary Heine, employs more than 130 in nine stores.
He said the coffee shop model is great since people from all walks of life, belief systems and races are all together in one place without fear of being judged or excluded. Connections happen easily there.
“I know a lot of people from just growing up here and going to high school here, but through the business I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet a whole breadth of people,” Mays said. “Through our coffee shops, I connected to so many different people.”
He helps run the connector cafes.
“A lot of people got all jazzed up about being named connectors, and then it was like, ‘What do we do now?’ So this (connector cafe) was giving it some legs.”
The nature of the project is entirely open to interpretation, almost too much so, he said.
“In some ways I’m relieved that it’s not more formal … most of us aren’t looking for another meeting to attend,” Mays said. “Maybe that’s part of the beauty of the project. There was nothing too formally planned once this group was identified.”
It is too early to tell where the project will lead, Mays said, but he senses it will add to the “soul of the community.” And some new businesses could form.
To those in the Bluegrass region, he offered some advice.
“Keep your mind wide open and embrace whatever possibilities come up,” he said. “We’re all busy; the last thing I’m looking for is other boards to join or other committees to be part of. It’s difficult to define what’s going to happen because of these groups, but my gut tells me there are some really great possibilities in this. Keep your mind wide open and don’t think of it as another commitment.”
Results will be hard to map, but Hanna is eager to see what kind of connectors will be chosen for the Bluegrass.
Connectors, he said, are generally split into three groups – the hubs, gatekeepers and pulse takers. The aim of the Bluegrass Connectors Project initially will be to help educate the public about what connectors do and who they are and then go about identifying them. He said it’s about getting beyond traditional hierarchies and finding out who the true movers and shakers are in the region.
“We have distinct communities and we recognize the value of those communities and we know many of them want to embrace that uniqueness,” Hanna said. “We also know that to be successful we all need to be working together on things. We think there will be magic; it’s like quantum chemistry – we need the different ingredients from each community.”
Central Kentucky’s diverse communities may not be as connected as they can be, he said. “We have rapid growth. We have a lot of new people in the area, so I think it will be even more valuable to take the effort to bring those people closer together.”
“Our primary goal is to recognize unsung heroes, to recognize people who are doing great things who are not necessarily in the spotlight,” he said. “And the reason for doing that is to encourage them and by way of setting them as role models, encourage others to continue to do great things for our community … The whole process here is so healthy for the community.”