Serendipity, Social Networking and Finding a Needle in a Haystack

The USS Grunion was a Gato-class submarine named for a small fish of the silversides family, indigenous to the western American coast. Under the command of Lieutenant Commander Mannert L. Abele, she launched on December 22nd, 1941 with 70 crew members aboard. On July 30, 1942, the submarine reported intensive antisubmarine activity and was ordered back to Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base in the Aleutian Islands off of mainland Alaska. The Grunion was never heard from nor seen again.

When the Grunion disappeared, Lt. Commander Abele was survived by his wife and three sons, Bruce, Brad, and John. Under the guidance and care of a "tough lady" who supported her family as a violin teacher, the "classically macho" boys grew up to become successful men. Questions relating to the disappearance of the Grunion remained unanswered.

Fragmented childhood memories of John Abele's father were reignited when his middle brother Brad began a curious quest for details surrounding the sinking of the Grunion. He began talking to a number of people who had known his father as well as a number of veterans who had served in the Aleutians during WW II. In the end, he was unable to find any useful clues on its fate. It was the early 1990s. John Abele was a successful entrepreneur and businessman who co-founded Boston Scientific Corporation, a pioneer in the field of "less invasive medicine." (Today, Boston Scientific is a 23,000 employee, $8 billion global medical device company.)

At the turn of the 21st century, technology finally caught up with Abele when he and his brothers began steadily communicating online with other people who also shared an interest in World War II submarines. In 2002 he connected with a Japanese man, Yutaka Iwasaki, who had found an obscure Japanese merchant marine journal article related to the Grunion. Serendipity met social networking that day.

Armed with new information, heavy-duty side scan sonar (and a good deal of money), Abele and his brothers launched a hunt for the Grunion. In August, 2006, about a mile down in the Aleutian chain, the team located an object that appeared to be the right size and shape for the vessel. Then the following year, equipped with a remote-operated vehicle, the team returned to the site and on August 17th, found the wreck of the Grunion at a depth of a little over 1000 meters. So many generations later, the violence of World War II relinquished itself to global kinship of a shared experience.

"We couldn't have made this discovery without the collaboration of a number of Japanese individuals as well as numerous other technical collaborators," says Abele. "It took some extraordinary personalities to accomplish our mission."

The power of the Grunion story is more than just following dreams, finding resolution or discovering a needle in a haystack. "This story is just getting started," explains Abele. "We've got this collection of people from all over the world forming communities around the Grunion. There's a group trying to learn technically what happened to the vessel. There's a group of World War II history buffs.

Then there are the 'sub-ladies'–a group of women who have spent the past few years tracking down families of all 70 members of the Grunion crew. One of the group's goals is to have a story written in the hometown newspaper of every crewman or their next of kin. Over 80 newspaper stories have been printed so far.

The Grunion communities have taken on lives of their own and Abele admits that today, he's just along for the ride, helping to provide the conditions where people can work together on the project. And while it's fair to say that the social networking phenomenon sweeping the globe remains one giant social experiment, Abele believes its collective capability will also help solve many of our major societal problems.

As the owner of The Kingbridge Centre and Institute, a 120-room conference center in Ontario, Abele is researching how collective intelligence can give way to collective capability. He calls it the 'collaboration paradox.' "Someone asked me recently what the most important tool is to get people to collaborate better. It's not technology, it's leadership," he says. "To create an environment where people like to collaborate, you literally have to understand every single member of the group. It's a fascinating flock of birds phenomena that makes this whole experience rewarding."