Many people cringe when they hear the word networking. Net-work-ing. Let it sink in. Do you get that picture of business cards in your pocket, drink in your sweaty hand, and a feeling on anguish or disgust on your face while looking at other people happily talking with each other, apparently engaged in meaningful conversations.
This description might be you or not. Honestly, it doesn’t matter that much right now. We all approach networking differently and experience it differently. What I am trying to achieve with this article is to get you thinking more about why individuals engage in conversation with others. What’s the value of reaching out to someone, a friend, colleague or strangers.
When I hear the word networking, I don’t think about the business event I alluded above or social media. I think about social (organizational) network analysis, relationships, and social capital.
Social capital is the assets, resources you have access to thanks to the connections you possess. I am not thinking about the financial resources your colleagues and friends have, but the knowledge they possess, the skills they have, and other tangible and intangible resources they own. Everyone has social capital, but not everyone capitalizes on it. Often people do not realize that they can mobilize their networks. They may lack the necessary awareness of their network, or live according to cultural norms which prohibit asking for information.
Social capital might sound like a capitalist, money-grabbing concept. However, the beauty of social capital is that we all possess some resources and that opportunities in life arise thanks to the relationships between people. It has nothing to do with ‘making money and getting rich,’ and it is all about ‘getting things done.’
When thinking about social capital and networking, networking turns into a beautiful opportunity to gain new resources for potential future use.
Five different benefits you gain from your connections
Let’s assume you dread networking or reaching out to others. You might be doing it, but not enjoying this interaction or not getting much out of it. When reaching out to others, it is helpful knowing what you want to get from this interaction. Rob Cross, together with colleagues, investigated the reasons why individuals seek information from others: What value do individuals gain when asking others for information? They boiled it down to 5 reasons people seek out others for information.
I will explain the five reasons by using a small example. We are going to assume that a leader of a small company is faced with a problem with her team. She thinks communication between team members is terrible. She has many different people in her network who could provide her with different types of advice. Depending on what information this leader is seeking, she’s seeking information from a different person and hence mobilizes a different part (‘asset’) of her social capital.
Advice type 1: Solutions
Maybe the most logical reason why people reach out to others is to get solutions. The offered solution can be factual knowledge (declarative knowledge) or information about how to do something (procedural knowledge). Factual knowledge can only be provided if you, the person seeking information, has a clear idea about what the problem is.
When issues are ambiguous, information seekers need to define first relevant problem dimensions. Problem dimensions are borders which delimit what solutions are appropriate and which are irrelevant. In our example, the broad problem is ‘team collaboration. However, many reasons could lead to low levels of team collaboration: Bad workflow, the distance between team members, cultural issues, lack of team culture. If the leader in our example is sure that physical distance causes the low levels of collaboration, she can ask for information about how to reduce physical (or perceived) physical distance.
Social capital mobilized: Concrete solutions.
Advice type 2: Referrals
Referrals are references to other people or knowledge repositories. Sometimes when seeking information from another person, we know beforehand that this person might not be able to provide a solution (factual or procedural) but connect us to someone who can provide this information, or introduce us to a database, knowledge management system or website where we can find the solution. When your information source provides a referral, the success of getting information from the connection of your connection depends on the quality of the relationship between your connection and his/her connection. It helps tremendously if your connection can introduce you to his/her connection. In our example, the leader might talk about her issue with members of a business leader group. These group members can provide her with resources (people and articles) that showcase how her problem could be solved.
Social capital mobilized: Tips and pointers about how to approach your problem.
Advice type 3: Problem reformulation
Seeking solutions and referrals require that, to some degree, you know what you want to receive. You don’t have the answer, but you know what you are searching for. If you ask for a team collaboration app, you want to hear about online tools, and not about how to reorganize your company. Information sources who provide problem reformulation, are those connections in your network who help you define what your problem is.
In the example case, our leader will seek out someone for problem reformulation when she has an idea about why team collaboration is an issue. Several potential business issues are socialization, onboarding, time zone conflict, inadequate processes, physical distance. These issues all describe observable problems with how team members are interacting. However, the reason for low levels of team collaboration could be more profound. An information source could prompt the leader to think about cultural issues or her management style leading to communication issues.
Additionally, an advisor could help the leader elaborate on the consequences of adopting a specific problem definition by pointing out what could happen when choosing a particular plan of actions. An advisor stimulate you to think through the problem from the start (what’s the business issue) to the end (how does the selected solution impact my team members and my business)
Social capital mobilized: Rethinking problems, brainstorming, out-of-the-box thinking.
Advice type 4: Validation
There are cases when you know the problem, you have pretty much thought it through, and you decided that your plan is the right one. However, there is a lingering doubt; you know that your expertise is limited. In that case, you might be seeking out someone to validate your plan. Of course, pay attention that you don’t just seek to validate your project because you are in love with it, but because you thought it and talked it through.
Often validation is provided at a critical junction in your project, or for part of a solution for which you possess fewer levels of expertise. In our example, the leader might have determined that collaboration between team members work well between the core team, the ones who have been longest in her team, but less well for newcomers and remote workers. She wants to test if her idea is correct by doing a social network analysis. She makes a plan about how to collect data and analyses it. Realizing that this requires expertise she does not have, she seeks advice from a friend, who works in people analytics, about the quality of her plan and the potential success of it.
Social capital mobilized: Effectiveness of a plan for addressing a business issue, appropriateness of action plan, ‘expertise stamp of approval.’
Advice type 5: Legitimization
Similar to validation, information sources are also thought out for legitimization. This happens at critical points in the project, for example, before asking clients or management board to accept a project proposal and allocate a budget to it. Talking with someone higher up in the hierarchy or well known in a specific field can provide legitimization to your project.
In our example, the leader observed that team communication isn’t ideal. She delineated the problem dimensions and thought out validation of her idea with a friend. While this is the right way forward, this friend is unknown to her team, and hence advice coming from this source is not much use to get her team to agree to her project. It helps her to present her plan confidently. To help her get buy-in, she needs to talk with someone who is trusted by her team members. For example, this could be a senior team member or another person with leadership responsibility.
Social capital mobilized: social cloud, ‘expertise stamp of approval.’
Individuals value advise others can provide for various reasons. Each reason, solution, referrals, problem reformulation, validation, and legitimization, requires you to mobilize your social network. To whom you reach out depends on what you are seeking, and on how well you know your network. In some cases, it is easier to find advise, like for solutions and referrals. Other sources of information, such as validation and legitimization, require more effort to find the right person in your network. In that case, knowing your network is crucial.