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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Networks and Communities

Mercenary Rationale for Network Work & Learning

As I discussed in Evaluating Performance of Concept Workers, evaluating the performance of a concept worker is difficult because there's no right answer and most often the evaluator knows less about the subject than the worker.

Thus, the bottom line in evaluating a concept workers performance is by looking at:
  • Was a reasonable process used?
  • Are the conclusions reasonable?
  • How would this compare to results from other concept workers?
To make sure you pass this test - I suggest cheating. And there is no better cheat for the concept worker than reaching out to other people to test your process and conclusions. Basically make sure you can say,
"Look, I talked to a couple of people who have done this before. They said I've gone through the right steps. I've looked at the right stuff. My answer seems pretty reasonable. If they would have done it, they would have come up with the same thing."
Limits of Search

In Value from Social Media, I looked at a scenario where I'm evaluating a particular solution for my company / organization. Through Google, I find a lot of information. But in many cases, I will still be left feeling uncomfortable ...
  • What’s really going to happen?
  • Did I miss something important?
  • How important are the various issues?
  • Is my answer reasonable?
These are common questions when only search is used. Often it's difficult to use search to address:
  • Experience - What have been the experiences of other organizations (not the canned case studies) when they’ve used this solution.
  • Boundaries / Existence - I’ve got a particular issue and I’m not sure if answers to that issue exist out there, I’ve not found it in my searching.
  • Confirmation - I’m beginning to have an answer, but I’d like to get confirmation of the answer based on my particular situation based on experience.
  • Importance - Some of the issues I see, I’m not sure how important they are in practice, should I be concerned.
However, each of these can be directly addressed through conversation. This is why I say that Leveraging Networks is Key Skill.

I'm coming to believe this is the most important Knowledge Worker Skill Gap.

Network Readiness

Before you can reach into a network or community to seek conversation, you generally need to have spent time on
  • Building some level of connection (network building).
  • Being ready to engage to seek conversation (network access).
Patti Anklam, in Seven Leaders Lessons tells us:
High-performing people tend to have stronger, more intentional networks.
The word "intentional" is intentional. You have to look systematically at your networks and communities to be in position to be able to use them as part of your work and learning. As part of your top-down evaluation, one of the points you have to evaluate is whether you have appropriate networks and communities. Even if you are a member of LinkedIn, you may not have links to people in the right fields. Thus, you may have to spend time building some initial links so that you can reach out effectively. Similarly, you should spend a bit of time finding the right communities.

I personally do a lot of my network building slowly. I try to get people into my networks when I meet them (for example connect on LinkedIn). I keep my ears open for new communities and often lurk for a while to see what's going to happen there.

When I'm relatively new to an area, then I spend much more time building my network. Recently I started up with a new client in a new area. I spent a good chunk of time my first month reaching out (mostly through LinkedIn) to make connections with people who had lots of related experience to get thoughts and ideas around particular issues that we might face - and found a lot more issues that I hadn't considered. I also signed up to a couple Ning communities where I'm lurking. Now I have a great starting point when I want further conversation.

Conversation Seeking

So bottom line is that it's really important for us to be able to seek out different forms of conversation inside and especially outside our organizations. There are a myriad of different places and ways to seek conversations.

A few months ago, we asked how people went about deciding where and how to seek conversations. The answer was, as always, it depends.

Karyn Romeis uses a series that goeses from people she already knows who might be experts then to less known connections. She looks at distance vs. likelihood vs. experience vs. cost.

Karl Kapp makes the point that you should ask in multiple places because you never know who might have the answer and the overall cost is negligible.

I think there's some risk of being spammy if you ask too broad, but Karl has somewhat convinced me that what I really need:
  • Find networks and communities related to my future needs
  • Know mechanisms used to seek conversations in these networks and communities
  • Build enough connection into networks and communities to be ready to leverage
  • Be able to quickly and with minimal effort seek conversation in appropriate networks and communities.
So, it's being aware of what's available, getting integrated enough to have it open for use, and be able to navigate it when you need it.

The top two slam dunk answers here are:
  • LinkedIn
  • Various learning communities
I personally also use my blog and twitter
  • Blog
  • Twitter
If you look at my top two, they would both be called social networks.

Introduction to Social Networking

Before You Seek Conversation

There's an acronym that everyone should know - RTFM. It stands for Read the Friggin Manual. It's a common response to stupid questions posted in certain communities. To me its a reminder that before you ever seek a conversation you should have done your homework.

Your homework is:
  1. Search the web - save related content
  2. Search the community / network for prior discussion - save related
  3. Maybe ask someone you know already for a reality check
This arms you with the basics before you ask your question or seek conversation. It also allows you to ask the best kind of question -
I've searched on the web and in this community for information on X and I found A, B, C.

But I am not finding Y, I'd like to find people who can help.


I'm concluding Z, but I'd like to talk to people who have done this.
You are showing that you've done your homework. Your question will be much more interesting. You are providing value via the question with the appropriate links. And this form of inquiry gets much better response.

You will notice that in this template question, I am asking for a conversation. In some cases, I will change it to ask for written responses.


There's quite a bit about the use of LinkedIn for this purpose, so rather than reciting it here, please go check out:
For me, the bottom line usage of LinkedIn really comes down to three primary activities:
  1. Seeking conversation directly - LinkedIn for Finding Expertise
  2. Asking questions to get written answers and to seek conversation - Searching for Expertise - LinkedIn Answers. Note: I often try to connect with people who provide answers directly (via Skype or phone) to discuss in more detail.
  3. Having discussions via groups - which acts much like questions and I do the same thing.
It's very interesting to see how LinkedIn Answers and Groups has given us new opportunities to surface interested experts and having that connected to known mechanisms for sparking conversation.

If you've never approached a few people for a conversation on a topic via LinkedIn, then you should make that happen within the next month.

Learning Communities

The key here is to have ready access to a variety of communities. Take a look at the Learning Communities List.

Additional Reading

Patti Anklam has a series on living in a network age:
From her series:
High-performing people tend to have stronger, more intentional networks.
Other Related Tools and Methods
Other Posts in the Series


Paul said...

Hi Tony, thanks for the links. You have codified, I think, much of the core of how people handle their online communications with respect to their most coveted interests. As I was reading I was evaluating how I interact with others on various automobile forums and blogs, and checking off the boxes mentally for the things I do/don't do that work/don't work. I think many people do not conceptualize their communications in these networks as being possible wells of work networking or accomplishment beyond seeing them as deep stores of information for their interest.

I know my weak point is still the networking aspect itself. It's one of those skills one can never be too good at. But I feel I have many of the basics down, such as the RTFM rebuke you referenced. I have seen that one many times, fortunately never having been directed at me. ;) But that's because I questioned my own level of knowledge and capability to find and absorb more before asking something that makes it seem as if I am asking others to do fundamental work for me.

SunCatIv said...

Nice Topic... thank you for sharing