WHAT KIND OF CULTURE will motivate a team to excel? There may be no more important question for businesses. IBM produces a world-leading stream of new patents from a culture that has remained buttoned-up even in this age of Facebook. Facebook, meanwhile, has tapped into a world of hoodies and hackers to redefine global relations at a personal level. And Intel, whose chips drive both the social web and the corporate systems favored by Big Blue, relies on SLRPs and BUMs to reinforce a distinctive — and famously pugnacious — culture that challenges convention and encourages relentless reinvention.
SLRP and BUM are Intel acronyms for specific group-planning sessions. On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, I met with Intel EVP Deborah Conrad (she appeared on our cover in November 2009), who spelled out for me the ways in which each kind of session works for Intel. It was like peering into a strange world where the natives speak a language that sounds quite a bit like yours but means something radically different. And yet this language is just right for the Intel team.
The week before my trip to California, I went to visit George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN, at the network's corporate headquarters. That, too, gave me insight into a unique world. ESPN is based in the center of Connecticut, hours from New York and Boston and stranded between the less-than-dynamic hubs of Waterbury and Hartford. From this unprepossessing locale, ESPN has grown into a global juggernaut. As Bodenheimer — who literally started in the mail room — explained it, his company's out-of-the-way location is an advantage. Disney owns the network, yet nothing there feels anything like Hollywood. Bodenheimer contends that ESPN's underdog mentality has helped create a culture that binds its employees together into a successful team.
Whatever your business, creating a culture of teamwork is critical. And tough. Senior writer Chuck Salter delves into a particularly instructive case study in "The World's Greatest Chemistry Experiment," about the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh edition of the Miami Heat. Sports is a compelling prism through which to examine business because there are such clear parameters of success: wins and losses. As Salter shows, there are lessons for all of us in the ambition — and challenges — of the Heat's network of 14 players, several coaches, and one very demanding president, Pat Riley.
Which brings me to this special issue on networks. Beginning on page Now May 2011, we've devoted 37 pages to the implications of our increasingly interconnected world — from business-conference addicts (Hello, My Name Is: Conference Addict) to the frontiers of telemedicine (The (Virtual) Doctor Will See You Now), from unique travel (A Starry Night On Sark Island) to what we call "techplomacy" (Fast Talk). Running through our package is a ticker at the bottom of the pages, illustrating the links between creative individuals. Like team building, life on the network isn't a one-decision-and-done endeavor, but an ongoing effort that evolves — and encourages change. Our goal here at Fast Company is to help all our readers embrace and excel in this ever-shifting reality.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.