February 4, 2009

Conversations about networking; scale, structure, and skills

February 4, 2009 - Categories: connecting

I had tea/hot chocolate with Ida Shessel at Linuxcaffe last Monday. She had come across me through a Google alert when I first blogged about Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon’s book, “Make Your Contacts Count”. When Lynne featured my recent story about using online social networks to turbocharge offline events in her newsletter, Ida reached out with some questions around networking.

One of the key ideas that came up in our conversation is how many authors and coaches who focus on social networking haven’t quite made the jump to making full use of online social networking. I’ve come across this multiple times. Each time I meet someone who has mastered traditional forms of social networking but is curious about the things I take for granted, I love sharing what I’ve learned. I learn so much in the process.

Last night, at a small get-together I quickly organized for a colleague from the US, I briefly chatted with Will Pate about social networking. He’s another Gen Yer who’s given networking a lot of thought and who makes full use of social media. He’s starting to do a lot of work related to venture capital, and he told me of a study that showed that in that area, the size of your social network correlates with success. I told him of my interest in scaling up networking, creating structures to facilitate connection, and experimenting with things like LifeCampTO. Plenty of follow-up conversations to come, I’m sure!

This weekend, I’ll be talking to Jeff Widman about similar things. He’s also Gen Y and well-connected. (Come to think of it, I need to introduce Will to Jeff. I think they’ll get along really well.)

So, what’s different?

I’m starting to pick up a pattern. I often find myself talking about scale and structure. I also bring a different collection of skills than those I see in primarily business-oriented networking books.

Let’s talk about scale. I enjoy finding opportunities to help or create value for as many people as I can. I rely heavily on associative memory, my notes, the Internet, and group get-togethers in order to do so. Whenever I meet a new person, hear about an idea or a need, read a book, or experience something new, I can get economies of scale because I can connect that person, idea, need, book, or experience to people I’ve met, resources I’ve come across, and things I’ve learned. The more input comes in, the more combinations I can make – so I get network effects as well. It’s a huge game of connect the dots, and I love it whenever I can bring people, ideas, and resources together.

The Internet lets me scale that initial value-creation much better than I can in face-to-face events. I might create less value and I may not be able to make as deep a connection, but I can reach more people and open up the possibility for some people to come forward and continue that conversation with me.

So then networking isn’t a way to gain power or get favors, but almost a game of finding out what could help a person rock, and how to help make that happen. This is related to Granovetter‘s theory about weak ties. If I can build a large network of weak ties, then I can help span boundaries, spread good ideas, bridge gaps. I don’t need to be best-friends-forever with everyone, but I can create a lot of value if people feel comfortable telling me what could help them make things happen and if I’m good at finding people for whom that’ll be a win-win proposition. As for ideas and resources – I can share those practically for free!

That’s why I’m interested in scale. The more people I know, the more ideas I come across, the more resources I find, the more connections I can make between them. As I learn more about this, I’ll be able to reach out to more people, and I’ll be able to connect more dots.

Scale requires structure. While I’ve read about networkers with prodigious memories who could remember every little thing about people even after decades of not seeing them, I’m not one of those yet. I suspect most of them had some kind of cheatsheet anyway. ;)

What I am, however, is someone who enjoys exploring or building the tools needed to try scaling up. I know the ins and outs of my contact management system, and have heavily customized it. I tinker with mail merges that cross-reference all sorts of data. And I’m really curious about the next level: building structures to help other people connect (hence my interest in events). That’ll help me scale even further. I don’t have to know everyone directly. If I can help people effectively connect to a connector–one of those people who just loves playing this game of connect-the-dots–and I can help the connectors connect to each other so that they can refer requests, that would be awesome.

In order to build that kind of structure, I’ll need to develop my skills. The quirky thing I bring to networking is my computer science geek background. I happily build tools, analyze networks, take measurements, draw graphs. As we figure more things out, I may be able to build more of that into systems for more people to use. I’m a big fan of relentless improvement, and I’m always looking for little ways to make things better, little ways I can experiment. I enjoy sharing as much as I can, which is why I think out loud on this blog. I’m not the only one with this combination of quirks, but it’s certainly not something you’ll find in a typical business networking book. ;)

I’ll still need to develop all the other skills. I’m still unpolished when it comes to conversation. I squeak when I’m excited. ;) My communication style isn’t very flexible yet. I can learn how to adapt better. I could probably use a gradual wardrobe update, and over time, I’ll develop my personal style. I can get better at nurturing strong ties, too. And it’ll be fun building on my quirks and seeing where they take us!

There are interesting opportunities opened up by my quirks and interests that traditional networking may not have explored yet. I’d love to help figure things out and make lots of things happen for lots of people along the way.

Thanks for letting me think out loud! =) What do you think about networking, and how would you like to grow?