It doesn't take an affinity group to awaken most managers to the value of personal contacts. Who hasn't closed a deal -- from one end or the other -- that began with a call saying something like, "You don't know me, but I'm a friend of a friend"? That is networking at its most basic level; and it is on that most basic of levels that Allan A. Kennedy, for one, wants to marry human history to microprocessing.
"Networking is our primary distribution system," says Kennedy, a former McKinsey & Co. management consultant and co-author of the book Corporate Cultures, "yet it is depressingly inefficient. There's no good mechanism for retrieving [one's] history of personal relationships. Fortunately, that's just the sort of thing the computer's good at."
Kennedy, who now heads Selkirk Associates Inc., a Boston software company, has just sunk several hundred thousand dollars into the database architecture for a new product known as the Selkirk Networker. Designed as a kind of extended electronic Rolodex, the Networker program would receive and organize individual name files under an elaborate cross-referencing system. Its utility, however, is not as a stand-alone office system.
"The whole key is to get a critical mass of other Networkers," says Kennedy. "Once five or six plug into the same program, you begin to solve the 'small world' problem."
"Academic studies have shown that with a statistical average of something like 2.7 movements, any transaction can make an enclosed loop around the country. In other words, by multiplying contacts by a relatively small factor, you can reach almost anyone in the United States on some sort of 'personal' basis. Dump half a dozen Rolodexes together and the potential is there to send networking's efficiency right through the roof."
Given its chain-letter premise, Kennedy admits he's "scared" to tackle the marketing of the Networker concept, an effort he figures could cost another $2 million. "Loading up [the data] can be extremely labor-intensive," he notes, "and it won't be worth it unless the customer sees the value of what he's getting in return. But it's a hell of an idea. With an initial threshold of 1,000 to 2,000 [customers], we'd have a critical mass. After that, you're talking about a mainstream product that a few hundred thousand people would have to have."