When I was a little girl I remember sitting in a car stuck in stop-and-go traffic with my mom, and like most kids around the age of 4 or 5, I was growing impatient so I started asking questions:
Me: Why do we keep stopping?
Mom: Because the cars in front of us are stopped.
Mom: Because the cars in front of them are stopped.
Me: Well, who’s in front?
Mom: What do you mean, ‘who’s in front?’
Me: Who’s at the front of the line of cars?
Somehow she was able to explain that no one was in front because there was no front – this wasn’t a line, but rather a network of roads populated with cars all destined for different places.
This blew my mind. I realize I was pretty young, but this rather mundane exchange between mother and daughter completely changed the way I viewed the world.
Of course I couldn’t really articulate this at the time, but after that I understood that cars on the road weren’t simply playing follow the leader, or racing to a finish line, but they were only happening to move in the same direction as us for a short time. Life for me became much less linear. Now it was about navigating my way through a crowded, complex system.
I share this story because I think many of us are experiencing a similar type of expansion in world view right now, especially as it relates to business and business interactions, due to the impact of the social web.
Like navigating your way through crowded city streets, networking is no longer about jockeying for position with push-type messaging in a race to a finish line, but about navigating a complex network full of questions and answers no single person, company or institution can possibly possess.
It’s Not Just About Who You Know
Not only is the pathway to success in business at an individual level different than it was just a few years ago, this is true at the macro level as well.
Ensuring success doesn’t rest solely on an eye for the bottom line. Cheaper isn’t always better in the long run when we sacrifice relationships in the process.
In the new economy trust and attention are just as important as profit. Collaboration, not domination leads to innovation and success.
The way to “network” is changing, not because of a new set of 10-commandment-style rules, but because whether we realize it or not, the impact of social technology has changed the definitions and necessary ingredients for success.
The emphasis is moving away from solo performers and contact acquisition to collaboration and contextual knowledge as it relates to other individuals.
A recent article by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown in the Harvard Business Review explains how the nuances of social networking have changed:
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.
The old way was a linear path of collecting contacts – the more the better. Marketing was simply a numbers game. The new path is simply about building real relationships based on collaboration and shared knowledge.
Old Word New Meaning
I think a lot of the disconnect between humans in online social networks has to do with the context wrapped around the word network used as a verb.
According to Hagel and JSB, networking is no longer about schmoozing. It’s about showing up ready to learn, acquiring contextual knowledge of others and building trust along the way:
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.
How Do I Teach Someone To Be Human?
The above may seem like a rather ridiculous question, but I’ve heard this uttered several times from many different people I know who advise others on how to engage social networks. By the way, the question holds true for offline networking as well.
The answer to this question in my mind rests on the person’s capacity to share vulnerability.
Ironically, I learned about the importance of vulnerability in connecting with others as a student in an acting class I took several years ago.
The instructor convinced us that audiences do not connect with characters they can’t empathize with. We may justify our attraction to others based on their strengths, but we feel connected to others out of shared vulnerability.
How do we understand shared vulnerability as it relates to social networking?
Again, Hagel and JSB explain this rather well:
[The new way to network] 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.
While we may think of our vulnerabilities as a sign of weakness, discussing what we find to be challenging is actually a sign of strength and requires a healthy dose of emotional maturity.
You as a Startup
Since the linear pathways no longer hold — especially on the web, maybe we can all approach our personal professional growth with the spirit of a startup.
Doesn’t this sound a lot more fun than pretending to be perfect and having all the answers?
By the way in a great service to the startup community, SEOmoz recently published a very detailed blog post explaining their path along the venture capital funding process.
While openness and collaboration are good precursors to earning trust and building relationships, I still struggle with the fact that I cannot guarantee others will always be benevolent and worthy of trust. Nor can I help others decide where appropriate boundaries should be, and boundaries are still important.
I also think there’s a potential for us to develop a sense of false intimacy with our connections.
Do we need thicker skin and fail-safes to protect us from sharing too much, or like a startup, do we accept a certain amount of calculated risk?
I don’t have all the answers so I really hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.
Photo Credit: Ken OHYAMA