Context is Key

A recruiting expert and long-time proponent of online social networking writes on the value -- and limitations -- of networking.

This entry, "Online Social Networking: The Value is in the Context," is from Crispin's blog, The CareerXroads Annex, which is part of the ERE Blog Network:

Tuesday, October 2, 2007
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I'm becoming convinced that online social network applications can only be successful if valued in a deeply personal context -- habits that are embedded in day-to-day activities over long period of time because they are part of who you are.

As stand-alone activities promoted and sold for their own sake, online networking applications tend to attract enthusiasts a mile wide and an inch deep who encourage superficial behaviors like "bigger is best networking". This and other irritating behaviors only serve to dilute the return and demean the real value proposition networking holds for many ... gaining insights from people in the know at just the right time to further a specific goal- business development, career exploration, job performance, relationships, etc.  

Eventually, some of these enthusiasts "get it" or they go away ready to adopt whatever is next. Meanwhile, they engage with ever larger numbers of late adopters, sharing little or no value and contributing to their missing the whole point about developing and valuing relationships.  

Participation in these online activities is, for many people older than, say, 22 (an arbitrary age in which most everyone who has recently graduated from college has had four years experience with online networking apps) tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.

Under that age, networking is totally embedded in the culture of learning about themselves and others. It's a homework tool, a social calendar etc., etc. Technology has moved to their background. They don't consciously engage it.

But older than 22 and I hear more and more colleagues and friends needing to "take a break" from the perceived pressure to expand and manage their networks with technology and I keep thinking, "take a break from what?" Then I realize their frustration is often a simple lack of useful feedback for the investment of time and energy they've expended with these tools. Their struggle reminds me what a chore learning can be when you don't know why you are doing something or, you do it all for the wrong reasons.  

The crux of the problem as I see it is that specific goals are most easily achieved through networking as a consequence of having a network - not as a part of building a network.

Here are some examples to illustrate my point from that deeply personal side:

As a graduate student once upon a time (pre-Internet, pre-fax, pre-mobile phone and actually pre-personal computer) I discovered that I appreciated well-written, logical arguments in journals, books and papers so much that I felt compelled to thank them for what I had learned.

Tracking them down in that pre-dawn age was not a chore, but it was a lot of work and I would typically send along additional questions with my thank you note ... and often receive warm letters in return from authors who were flattered and shocked at being approached. Over time some became friends, mentors and door openers.

I still do thank people for what they write ... often ... in seconds (with some of the social network apps at my disposal, databases and search capabilities). I sense when I stop doing it, I'll have stopped learning and probably should hang it up.

As a young Turk (hmmm, this phrase is probably no longer PC) at my first real job, Johnson and Johnson, I negotiated access to a computer (dumb terminal) which in those days was a big deal. To practice, I wrote a natural language program my first day on the job to obtain a report of all J&J employees by the college they graduated from and then took the list of 66 graduates from my alma mater, Stevens Institute of Technology, and called them over the next three weeks.

They were in a dozen different divisions, locations and levels. I asked each one what advice they would give to someone from Stevens who had just started. A week later my boss called me in and asked me what the h... was I up to.

I told him. He was shocked (this was long time ago ... and data was not as transparent as it is today). He had just come from a directors meeting in which I had been discussed ... in a very positive light (luckily ... but if not, so what?).

Over succeeding months and years it was evident that some of the folks I had called had started to watch my progress without my knowing it. Many times during a 10-year career with the company, I tapped this network as part of my reconnaissance in solving problems or simply as an open focus group to get a reaction.

For 10 years, I produced that same report each year and, called everyone ... especially the newest graduates who might like some advice themselves ... and gave them a list of the folks in the company who had a shared connection.

Imagine what an employee can do with access to an internal social network application? Starbucks is just one of many companies with this capability in place.

I volunteer to help "Alumni-in-transition" from my college get back on track. I've been doing it for more than 25 years. I get maybe three calls a week and I run a meeting once a month back on campus. Boomers to Gen Y attend. Even some undergrads have started showing up.

I don't do career or life coaching. I've no patience or the time for it. Instead I refer folks "exploring" to several I've gotten to know and focus more on the strategies and tactics for getting a job once you know what you want.

Some may think its easier with engineers and such who are in high demand but every profession has its price and a typical engineer's view of networking is, let's just say, not really well developed. The participants in the Stevens Career Network are all linked now on Linkedin and we have a Yahoo group to share leads.

A 10-year old online directory at the college's server allows alumni to search all 16,000 living alumni by title or company or industry or level, etc., with complete contact information that includes home phone.

By the end of this year we will have a social network in place to eventually replace (initially upload) the entire directory. The cost will be borne by several alumni and the college -- whose analysis of these services shows dramatic increases in giving behavior (dollars and percentages).

If I wanted to get the inside scoop on nearly any firm in the US, how hard do you think it would be?

One last example before summarizing with some key points about my Networking Rules

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My extended family of 19 first cousins (on my mother's side), their spouses, their children, etc., now number more than 120 and we get together, in part, nearly every week and, as a group, every year. Folks who know me have heard many stories about our annual campouts, but this slice of a large and tightly connected American (albeit unusual) family also provides instant focus group fodder for my passions about networking and employment.

Two of my cousins' kids, Melissa and Kevin, recently graduated from college, took a couple months off to travel around the United States and returned home (Long Island) to start looking for work. A third, Douglas, graduated two years ago, left to play professional volleyball in Europe and recently returned -- also ready to go to work.

Doug's brother, Jake, is also a college graduate (just not recent) in the Navy for four years and, for a while this year he was on duty off the coast of Africa interdicting suspicious vessels. He returned, decided to stay in the service and just completed OCS.

Another cousin's spouse, Ronnie, is in her 40s and graduated in May with her degree after 10 years of part-time classes while raising three kids (Doug and Jake among them). Finally, my daughter, Jaime, completed her Master's in something that sounds like "multi-modal art therapy" after spending most of her 20s exploring the world and her relation to it.

I could go on for all 120, but the point is that this is one of my very special "affinity" groups and a true community of interest. A first-order set of real relationships -- also one without age restrictions.

All those looking have multiple interviews, in part, because networking within this and other affinity groups starts with a level of trust and openness -- transparency about who we are right now.

The "cousins" share a great deal via Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and much more, such as our own Web site where we upload camping pictures, etc. We look at helping each other explore jobs, find places to live, hang out and get involved. The younger ones are my teachers when it comes to new tools. It is one of the reasons why I had access to and instruction on Facebook within months of its inception.

My Networking Rules (after first thinking about your "personal" context):

1. Have goals. Share them.

2. Think obliquely. Your goals are secondary, on an angle. Others are out in front.

3. Networking isn't short-term. (You don't fold your tent when you've reached your objective). It is for life.

4. Online is only a tool. Networking takes place in many formats. Use them. I refuse to "link" publicly to anyone without first having met or talked with the person.

5. Stay positive. Avoid personal and public criticism -- what you write online is especially long-lasting and most often inappropriate as a medium for personal critique.

6. Link to others as having one separation from you if you are willing to support them unconditionally OR you absolutely are willing to tell them "why" when you are not going to support their specific request (for referrals, recommendations, introductions etc.). I also require that anyone who I forward a request from must (repeat "must") respond to the originator with a "why" as well.

7. Expect, even demand the same in return, or break the link.

8. Find pleasure in paying forward and you'll never wonder about the ROI. It is immense.

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