How’d you do that?

I’ve been thinking about professional networking. Used to be, networking was about individual personal relationships. Established in-person and cultivated carefully. In fact, just yesterday, I heard a conversation about one of these people who are talented at schmoozing: “Anyone’d be envious of his Rolodex.”

(Seriously? Rolodex?)

Anyhow, the point was that over the course of a decades-long career, this fellow has cultivated many good business relationships. Probably hundreds.

Contrast that with my weekend experience with Twitter. I have no idea how to “apply” microblogging in a professional context (yet), which is what Twitter is, but I wanted to check it out. Mostly it is reminiscent of a very busy chat, with all kinds of random haiku-like thoughts winging over the wire. There are ways to filter for people in your own network, etc. But the most interesting thing, at least so far, has been looking at other people’s networks. The numbers of people that individuals are linked to are quite impressive: hundreds, thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands.

I signed up on Sunday. Filled out my profile, including my blog URL. Did other things all day. Went to bed. Woke up and looked, as is not unusual, at my blog stats. Huh? 300 more hits than usual overnight? Wow.

Okay, I’m sure lots of traditionalists would listen to that and say, “Yeah, but what does that have to do with the Rolodex full of business colleagues I’ve cultivated for decades?”

Meaning, they don’t see the value of these fast networking options.

The main reason people network is to hear about how other people are solving the same problems they face. The number one question a professional (compensation manager, software developer, technical instructor, manufacturer, etc., etc., etc.) wants to ask another professional is: “How’d you do that?”

People can get trained in fundamentals (definitions, concepts, design), but once that basic education is squared away, the next level of learning involves acquiring some situational expertise — learning about different situations, adding in variables that have implications on the system, and just basically looking at as many possible permutations as possible. The rationale being that if you have knowledge of all the things that can happen, you’ll be able to solve for them. You’ll have a clue.

To be professionally adept, you need an encyclopedic understanding of all the things that can happen in your work environment. Back in the day, you got that on your own, one experience at a time. Maybe you found some case studies, if you were of an academic bent. Or you made a point to meet up and chat pretty routinely with someone, or a few someone’s, from your Rolodex. You scratched their backs, they scratched yours, etc. Martinis and cigars all around.

Are those in-person, individual relationships good to have? No doubt. Are they “better” than the ability to access thousands of stories/cases/people via technology? I don’t know. If your point is discovery of effective practices in specific contexts, how does it not measure up? In fact, how does it not exceed your wildest dreams?

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3 Responses

  1. I think there’s value both in “deep” relationships and “shallow” contacts. The growth of LinkedIn in my field has been unbelievable – and it’s great for keeping in touch with former co-workers.

    Technology is giving us new ways to keep in touch with people, but the challenge is in ensuring that we’re having true dialogues instead of just simultaneous one-way conversations.

    I’ve gone full-bore with testing the social networking as of late…blog, podcast, twitter and now facebook and myspace. at work I’m blogging and IM-ing and trying to figure out which ones are valuable and which ones are time-wasters.

    I’m beginning to suspect that crackberries (I don’t have one) are time-wasters!

  2. I think it’s fascinating how willing the technology-aided insta-network people are to share information. Brings up all kinds of questions about motivation: is it altruism? Seems like there’s more open sharing, certainly, than in the old school kinds of networks, which tended to prize exclusivity.

    I like the anonymity of the technology-mediated networks: people seem to trust that eventually it all evens out, and that reciprocation doesn’t have to be immediate or personal. Kind of interesting…

  3. This fascinates me on many levels, Karen. Thanks.

    Nobody has been able to make me want to do either this or Facebook, despite all the sociological interestingness of both. But you might be winning me over here.

    I have a few questions, might email you both about them later.

    Meantime, you would both be interested in Ron Burt at the U of C biz school. Lots of recent stuff, and a book a few years back that was very nicely written (and includes, I think, an explanation of the ideas in M Granovetter’s classic article “The Strength of Weak Ties”… which speaks to what you two are discussing.)

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