Social networking is becoming more important, both at the individual and institutional level. For many, this provokes a negative reaction. It conjures up images of classical networking and schmoozing, driven by individuals intent upon prying business cards out of others and relentlessly expanding their contact lists, manipulatively using their contacts to advance their own interests.
Our focus on social networks has a very different emphasis. In fact we would argue that classical networking approaches tend to undermine rather than support the value of social networks. In this world, it is not who you know, but what you learn from, and with, who you know. Contacts are of very limited value in this changing world — the name of the game is how to participate in knowledge flows.
In a rapidly changing world, the knowledge that matters the most is tacit knowledge — the knowledge that we have all accumulated from our experiences that we have a hard time expressing to ourselves, much less to each other. The challenge is that this type of knowledge — in contrast to the explicit knowledge that can be written down and broadcast to the world — does not flow very easily. Accessing this kind of knowledge requires long-term trust based relationships and a deep understanding of context. Large contact databases don’t particularly help in this quest and, in fact, can subvert our efforts to build the kinds of relationships that matter the most.
Accessing tacit knowledge requires a learning disposition and an ability to attract, rather than simply reaching out. Let’s contrast the classical networking approach with a learning disposition.
In the classical networking approach, the game is about presenting yourself in the most favorable light possible while flattering the other person into giving you their contact information. This approach quickly degenerates into a manipulative exchange where the real identities of both parties rapidly recede into the background, replaced by carefully staged presentations of an artificial self. These staged interactions rarely build trust. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect, putting both parties on guard and reinforcing wariness and very selective disclosure.
A learning disposition leads to a very different approach. Now the effort focuses on understanding the needs of the other, with a particular focus on understanding the biggest issues others are wrestling with. This requires intense curiosity, deep listening and empathy that seeks to understand the context that other person is operating in. It also requires willingness to disclose vulnerabilities, since it is often hard to get the other person to share their most challenging issues without a sense that you are willing to do the same.
Much can be learned simply by exploring the experiences of the other person, but even more can be learned by finding common ground — identifying common issues that you both face. This provides a context to work collaboratively in addressing particular challenges or opportunities that draw out the experiences and knowledge that you both have and end up creating new knowledge. Now we are beginning to tap into not just flows of existing tacit knowledge, but generating flows of new knowledge.
As you both begin to see common issues and gain experience in coming together to address them, trust and the foundations for a longer-term relationship are built. This trust can be reinforced by making an effort to identify other people in your own network of relationships that might be helpful in contributing their experiences and perspectives to the issues confronted by both of you.
In all of these interactions, the goal is to find a context for two-way learning. Unless both sides are learning from the interaction, it is unlikely that the basis for a long-term relationship will be established. Reciprocity becomes a powerful foundation for trust.
This leads to a second difference relative to traditional networking practices. Traditional networking is all about push — identifying people who could be helpful to you and finding ways to introduce yourself to those people. In contrast, the most powerful way to identify promising people is to find ways to attract others to you who have relevant knowledge and a common ground in the sense of similar issues they are addressing. Often we do not know who these people might be so traditional push-based networking techniques offer limited value — we cannot push if we do not yet know who we are pushing towards.
This often requires discussing publicly the issues you are wrestling with so others can become aware of them and seek you out if they are confronting similar issues. This can be very uncomfortable for most of us, because we are reluctant to expose provisional ideas and acknowledge that we are struggling with developing those ideas.
Of course, traditional networking practices encourage building visibility and attracting others to you as well. But these approaches emphasize the need to broadcast your accomplishments rather than the issues that have you stumped. These approaches again foster at best a one-way learning mindset — others are seeking you out to learn from you — rather than creating the foundation for collaborative learning.
So, social networking is becoming increasingly central to our success, but it is a very different form of networking than most business people have practiced in the past. Our ability to effectively participate in the knowledge flows that matter the most hinges upon our ability to master a new set of practices at a personal level. At the institutional level, we need to be innovative in defining the institutional arrangements that will help to foster and amplify these individual practices.
Do you engage in these types of practices? What lessons have you learned in terms of being more effective at accessing tacit knowledge? What could your company do to encourage and support these kinds of practices?
This article outlines a different approach to networking that is required in today’s environment of participation and a welcome change from the old form of exchange more akin to posturing.