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a primer on ‘networking’

I have spent the last couple of years using social networks as the basis of both my research and my teaching.  I can geek out about academic terms like network centrality and cliques.  I can tell you about multiplexity and eigenvectors (well, that last one, maybe only sorta).  But then I come across comments like this one from Sam Biddle, re-posted by Andrew Sullivan this morning:

I am not entirely sure what networking is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either. I am somewhat sure that I am not doing it. I’ve been given the gist of it before. I know that it’s all about meeting the right people, and making new contacts, and following up and other italicized things.

Actually, meeting the right people and making new contacts is a fairly ineffective approach to “networking”.  First, you can get much of the information you need through people you already know (or, at least through the people who you know, know).  Second, just meeting the right people isn’t enough.  You have to close the deal.   I study and teach this, and I tell the students in my MBA classes this is the wrong idea.  But, how would a hapless philosophy major know that?  He simply wants to know what the heck is “networking” and how do I do it better? And, we—as a field—have not done a great job of distilling the key ideas and getting them out there.

So here, in very stylized form, is the state of the academic art on “networking”.  (A note to orgheads: there are no “citations” to these ideas, but I’ve provided embedded links to some of the most important ideas.  I hope folks will use the comments section to fill in the (probably copious) holes I’ve left out or errors of interpretation I’ve committed.)

First, I’m going to assume that by networking you mean using social contacts to get something you want, whether that thing is a job, an idea, an investment, etc.  If so, then there are two pieces to the problem of effectively “networking”: search and trust.

Search:  we all know that there are people out there with the things we want and if we had the time and knowledge we could sift through each and every one of those people to find, not only a match for what we want, but the perfect match.   But we don’t have the time or the knowledge to do this efficiently.  So you need to find strategies for using your network effectively.

Weak Ties. One of the oldest and best known ideas is that there is a difference between close friends and acquaintances.  Paradoxically, it’s your acquaintances that matter more when it comes to the problem of search.  The intuition is simple: your goal is to find out stuff you don’t already know.  But the problem is that your close friends, for the most part, already know what you know.  If they haven’t already told you about that job lead they know about, then they aren’t a very good friend, are they.  So the trick is to find strategies for tapping in to that second or third tier of friends; the ones you know, but not too well.  They are the ones who could pop up with a lead when prompted.

Brokers. It used to take a lot of work to tap in to your extended network of acquaintances.  Facebook and Linked-In and similar sites make that much easier, but they are also scatter shots so they aren’t particularly efficient.  It’s often better to employ a broker of some kind.

Some brokers want money for mediating in this way.  Real estate agents, for instance, take a fee for making an introduction.  But simply paying a broker for information is not particularly good “networking” and, it happens that its not particularly effective either.

Here’s the most fundamental lesson: while brokers exact a price for what they do, money is not necessarily what they are after.  The real skill involved in “networking” is to figure out what social capital you have that is of value to the broker.  What will make the broker want to pass the best information along to you (and vice versa… passing your information on to someone else)?  Some ideas:

  • Access: you may want something from a broker, but what the broker wants is access to more pools of knowledge or resources.  You are more valuable to the broker when you can offer the access to new ideas, new social circles, or new supply of resources.
  • Insight: many brokers are scanners and skimmers.  They have their hands in a lot of pots meaning that they are often only vaguely aware of subtleties within the social circles or pools of knowledge they are tapped in to.  You are more valuable to them when you can provide them insight into your own social world in a way that makes it more efficient for them to get a handle on things and use that information efficiently.  Curating or editing that information makes you even more valuable.
  • Status:  a broker is more valuable to you when they are not simply giving you access to information, but when they can also vouch for you once a deal gets under way.  This works in reverse too, so, a broker’s value goes up if they are associated with someone who is known to be trustworthy or a good source or high quality (or simply known).  The stronger your reputation or higher your status, the more valuable you are to the broker.  Second best is if you can give them access to people or organizations with a strong reputation or status.

Trust: Finding people is one thing.  Closing the deal is another.  Once you’ve found people with the resources you want, you need to get their attention and then convince them to take a chance on you.  That, in the end, comes down to trust.  If they give you something (a job, a lead, money, ideas) will you make an acceptable return on their investment?  Some tools:

Reputation:  The most straightforward approach is to have a track record of success in the past will go a long way toward convincing someone that you are likely to succeed in the future.  So, clearly communicating your reputation (or finding people who the target of your attention knows and trusts to pass that information along for you) will go along way toward closing the deal.

Reputation works really well when you are trying to get something for which its possible to establish a track record.  For instance, it is much easier to get a loan when you have a long and unblemished credit history.  But if it was always that easy, there would be no need for this blog post.  There are lots of situations where you don’t have a track record, where a track-record is not possible or where you have a bad track record that needs rehabilitation.  Some ideas:

Status:  often, what you want to do is new or so undefined that there’s no way you could have developed a track record.  But, it’s precisely these kinds of situations where an investor (employer, etc) might be able to make a real killing by getting in on the ground floor.  The basic answer boils for what to do when there’s very little concrete information to go on in evaluating your quality as an investment boils down to status: are you associated with people who the investor might know or have heard of and respect?  What clues to your quality can someone derive from the quality of the people or organizations you hang out with?

Enforcement:  one thing investors want to know is whether you will run off the reservation and mismanage their resources.   To the degree that you have mutual friends or contacts in common — and even more so, to the degree that you are dependent on those contacts or friends — the investor will have some assurance that they can use those third parties to help them keep a handle on you.  It can be as simple as knowing that if you screw up, you will look bad to these people.  So the more people you know in common, the more likely the investor will be to trust you.

Recognition:  The idea of enforcement is very rational.  But not everyone is that explicitly rational when they make decisions.  Very often, people make decisions for sentimental reasons.  They recognize some aspect of themselves or their own story in the story you are telling them.  The more of themselves they see in you, the more they are likely to identify with what you are doing and how you would do it.  So taking the time to play up those similarities can pay dividends.

Endorsement:  Many first time home owners don’t have enough money for a down payment, so they borrow the money from mom and dad and they lean on mom and dad’s credit history as a way of convincing a bank to give them a loan.  It’s not that different when it comes to credibility in lots of social situations: when someone else endorses you, they are lending you their own credibility, status and reputation.  And, just like a broker demands some kind of compensation for making an introduction, your value to a potential endorser goes up when you have something to offer them in return (many of the things I listed above in terms of status, reputation, access, etc apply here as well).

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Written by seansafford

July 6, 2010 at 4:53 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Phil Agre produced the best practical guide to networking that I’ve come across. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available through his UCLA website ( http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/ ), but it is still accessible through the Internet Archive: ( http://web.archive.org/web/20060902082252/polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/network.html )

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    Forest Gregg

    July 6, 2010 at 6:45 pm

  2. My PhD is basically on search and weak ties, so happy to see this blog-post! And it certainly is a great introduction to networking.
    A few tricky issues though.

    Is the blog about networks or networking? Is it about network structure or the process of networking? The “following up” part is clearly about the process and not about network structure. And thus clearly about networking. Most of the other points on weak ties, how status and reputation (etc.) can be transferred is again directly related to network structure.
    My PhD is also at the intersection between networks and networking, hence my thoughts/confusion on this.

    Is the post only about inter-personal networking? Many inter-organizational studies rely on precisely the same terms, while dealing with databases, alliances and patents – thereby, in some way, anthropomorphizing the organization (cf. some of Zaheer and Usaiø’s reflections on this).

    My PhD is, furthermore, about the usefulness of meeting the right people and making new contacts, but that’s another story.

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    Carsten Bergenholtz

    July 7, 2010 at 8:13 am

  3. Nicely summarized and written.

    I’d add that some friends and acquaintances are willing to help, and some are not. This appears to be an obvious statement, especially in the context of acquaintances, but one expects friends to be willing to extend a hand when asked.

    In my experience, some are, and some aren’t. And there are no predictors of helpfulness. Friends you thought you could rely on, you often can’t; others, who barely qualify as acquaintances, will dig quite deep. Interesting.

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    Roberto

    July 7, 2010 at 10:10 pm

  4. Oh, and all the unhelpful ones? They go onto the list. The “if I ever get a chance to not do YOU a favor”, I’ll be sure to. :-)

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    Roberto

    July 7, 2010 at 10:13 pm

  5. This adds a strange twist to the Phil Agre networking guide:
    http://sites.google.com/site/philipagre/

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    tim

    July 19, 2010 at 5:41 pm


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