I read several articles about networking recently, several of them equate networking with collaboration. However, networking itself does not create value or collaboration, you can have a lot of connections but unless you engage them to achieve something, it may do no more than help your LinkedIn profile look good.
The essence of the network is individual connections. No matter how connected you are, each connection is a one to one linear connection. Add all of these together and you may be able to create tremendous reach, but only if the next individual passes your message along.
The much vaunted “network effect” derives from telecoms where the addition of a connection adds potential value to all other users by extending the usefulness of the total network. A network of millions is then more valuable than a network of dozens. In human networks however this does not add much value in practice.
Partly this is because of the time and effort needed to maintain and energize your network. I am not talking about how many people like or comment on your blogs, articles or tweets, but about how many people have an active enough relationship with you to help you achieve something real.
By having a broad and varied network we create no more than the potential to collaborate. At the point at which we need to create collaboration to get something done, we select individuals or groups from our network and bring them together into more focused entities.
The real delivery of collaboration happens through four main entities – communities, teams, groups and individual one to one relationships.
Of these, the individual relationships are easiest to engage in your network, we can just pick up the phone or send an email. The others are collective and rely on us being to engage other individuals around a common goal or sense of identity.
None of this is to undermine the value of having a great network, but it might make you consider different parts of your network differently. Some weak and broad ties may act as no more than a glimpse into other worlds, or a potential connection that may be useful in times of change in the future. Others, your core network, will need more nurturing and attention as they regularly evolve into actors in more intense collaboration.
In our workshops we help participants understand and engage their networks to get things done in complex organizations. Most of the time their challenges lie in engaging and influencing specific individuals. They have a network in place, they know what they want to achieve but they rarely know the individual well enough to create deeper connections and influence them to collaborate more actively. It’s only when we really understand an individual that we can truly influence them.
It’s an exciting time for research into networking. Social network analysis and other analytics are giving us a glimpse into how networks really work and add value. Network maps allow us to understand and engineer better organisational networks. However, the ability to create real collaboration in these ever more complex networks lies in the human ability to build, relationships, influence and create collaboration with others.