Knowledge Flows and the New Way to Network

by Shannon Paul on January 16, 2010

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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.

Me: Why?

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.

Galen Ward left a comment on my last post describing the process of starting a new venture, “… test out some theories quickly and inexpensively, collect feedback, learn, and test out new theories.”

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.

Speak Human

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

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

January 17, 2010 mgeorgieva 1

I have had a similar encounter on the highway! It was so odd to imagine that no one was “the leader” or “the first” car. Great metaphor!


January 17, 2010 Shannon Paul 2

What a coincidence, Maggie! I’m glad to know I’m in good company :)


January 17, 2010 lauriebartolo 3

Loved this post – I am a big fan of road metaphors and write frequently about networking from a career management perspective. This is a brilliantly insightful post about how networking is changing (and how it needs to change!) – and frankly these should be welcome changes for folks who avoid networking because they still believe it’s about collecting business cards from and trading favors with strangers. Great post and I will recommend it to my readers! Thanks!


January 17, 2010 Shannon Paul 4

Thanks, Laurie,
I certainly welcome the change. In fact, I’ve never been a very good *collector* of other people. It’s an interesting shift for sure and one that not everyone really gets yet.


January 17, 2010 Mary Ann Halford 5

Shannon, this is a very thoughtful piece which posits that there is a whole new flow of communication within companies. As many large organizations have operated and still operate from a top down approach, how long do you think it will take for many businesses to change the way they operate?

Also, you suggest that leadership going forward will require different types of people – what type of training will companies need to adopt to ensure that they have the right leaders?


January 17, 2010 Shannon Paul 6

Mary Ann,

Thanks – Great questions. I know the time it will take to adapt will vary greatly depending on the company and the industry. There is more pressure on some industries to change than others.

My thinking on leadership is that we will move away from what Cisco’s CEO John Chambers describes as “command and control” leadership to a more collaborative model. Here is a link to Cisco’s 2009 CSR Report that explains their vision a little more in depth:

Instead of dictating the top-down vision of the organization, good leaders should focus on removing obstacles for employees so that good ideas can come to fruition faster. To do this it will be necessary that a feedback loop is established and that a safe environment for discourse and creativity is ensured. I also think leaders should become very good connectors within their organization. Through meaningful contact with employees in different areas of specialization, they will recognize opportunities to create cross functional connections and teams.

I think leadership training that focuses on deeper issues like living with purpose will help people be better leaders. The adolescent, stereotypical types of ego-driven leadership of the past won’t work in many industries. In order for many to achieve the emotional maturity and listening skills required to lead in a collaborative environment, businesses have to accept that success isn’t just about business — it helps define who we are and give us a sense of purpose.

I’m still chewing on this one…


January 17, 2010 Peter Chee 7

I think networking has changed because the channels have changed. In the last few years the Internet feels like its gone through another paradigm shift with everything becoming social. From all that I’ve seen over the last few years it seems like you have earn social capital before you can really earn market capital. I have to agree with you on “the new path is simply about building real relationships based on collaboration and shared knowledge”.

Direct marketing seems like a thing of the past. At least it is for me because I don’t find any joy out of 1% response rates. I do support my local chamber of commerce, but, I don’t attend the monthly “business happy hour”. I seems weird to attend those kinds of events and expect to make a connection with someone in a meaningful way.

What I do like is being hyper-connected through various online social channels and being able learn from others and to share information when I can. It’s the accelerated serendipity that allows crazy-fast connections where you can quickly earn trust — enough trust to want to do business with someone and perhaps even create a friendship along the way. I doubt I’d learn as much about someone and their business after one year of attending “business happy hours” than I would in a few weeks of following someone on Twitter.

When it comes down to it, I would have to say I would always pick someone to business that I trust over the person that I don’t know and has a cheaper price point. In fact, I would rather pay more for a service if I knew I could trust them than to hire someone that just offered me the lowest price. Shannon, what’s your method of purchasing a service like?

I also think generational differences are coming into play now — Gen Y’s built the technology social platform and views of what is important to this generation are greatly impacting the meaning of networking and how business will be conducted going forward. That’s probably a discussion for another day…


January 20, 2010 Ari Herzog 8

If you don’t participate in Chamber of Commerce-sponsored events, why do you pay membership dues?


January 21, 2010 Peter Chee 9

I don’t go to the Business Happy Hours, but, I participate on a few of their committees and help out in other ways. I find more value in serving on the committees with others than hanging out in a networking setting.


January 22, 2010 Domingo 10

Peter, be careful many contacts you make online may be not exactly how they appear. Nothing compares to the opportunity of meeting people face to face, it´s true that may be you could not make a lot of meaningful relations but maybe you can reach one or two that will make it worth.
I`m really in favor of online networks, but what makes humans different from other animals is the capacity to communicate with others, share things and get to discuss things you don`t share with them, and there´s not most genuine way than connecting face to face.
*Sorry for my english, I`m from Chile my english is not the best.


January 17, 2010 jamiefavreau 11

Great post. I would rather collaborate with someone than have an “Elevator Pitch” and even though I would love to have their contact information if they matter to me and are interested we will connect in some way.

Networking is about helping people in a genuine matter. If we work towards that goal and less of ME in this equation maybe the transition will go smoothly?


January 17, 2010 IsisB 12

Thank you! This has been one of the most insightful and thoughtful blog posts I’ve read in months. You’ve consolidated some realizations about the changing nature of networking I’d been working through for sometime. As well as articulated perfectly my impressions of the role of vulnerability and being human in reaching people.


January 18, 2010 Tim Bursch 13

Nodding my head here. My paradigm shifted 5 or 6 years ago after reading Love is the Killer App (Tim Sanders). All about being generous and sharing.

I started thinking about THE network vs. MY network. I don’t own my contacts and honestly that territorial game is tiring and old-school. The connections we have will evolve based on our work, the problems we need help with, and the knowledge we can share.

It seems like we are moving from a mindset of owners (I thought) of OUR networks to active participants in THE network. Fun traffic jams ahead!


January 18, 2010 Justin McCullough 14

Great comments.

The mindset of the prospect / consumer / buyer has changed recently due to what has now become a technological advancement (smart phones, wireless, social media platforms on and on). This changed the hearts and minds of many. Just like “TV killed the radio star”, social media killed interruptive marketing.

We have always wanted to connect one-on-one, we simply were not enabled (in a mass way). Now we are. As a result, the market (people, individuals) accept no excuses for the “old” tactics.

My Dad taught me as a teenager “You can always change your job, but you can never change your name”. This was years before you could be Google’d. Now, Google, among so many other things have changed our understanding of how we are found and how we are perceived online.

The point in all this is that we have always wanted to connect/network. It just took now to be able to do it in a “longtail”, “always on”, “arms wide-open” sort of way.



January 18, 2010 Donna Tuttle 15


Yes. Yes. and Yes. You have managed to crystallize my rambling thoughts about this issue — thank you.

So, in San Antonio we have the Business, Media and PR Tweetup – — this is an open social media community that grew out of a lunch to share knowledge. What started with three people has grown to 125. It’s free, it’s once a month at lunch, and it features 4 speakers (5 min. each) who share very specific ways that they’ve succeeded AND failed at social media. The multi-layered, complex, cross-industry relationships I personally have been lucky enough to form here from the members to the speakers are very rich.

What’s more, the group is interestingly — very savvy about automatically vetting itself. The bullhorn marketers, self-promoters usually are coached by acquaintances to: drop the schtick. The genuine, helpful people — who are intelligent AND self-deprecating — seem to shine. The group’s mojo shifts month-to-month.

This group is flourishing while two other traditional organizations (which cost money and involve more of the card-sharing, top-down, traditional schmoozing model) for which I sit on the boards are struggling. Really. Charging money to join a group these days? You better deliver something really magical.

Networking is the old phrase. Engaging is the new. Or as you say, Be Human.


January 18, 2010 Jeremy Epstein 16

As a victim of “false intimacy” with you, I know of what you speak ;-)

Anyway, I just wanted to chime in here and tell you what an excellent thought piece this way. I am going to re-blog this (once I fully absorb it!)

Thank you for sharing and inspiring.


January 19, 2010 John Lynn 17

I love the concept of “sharing vulnerability.” I’d never thought of it that way and it’s an amazing way to look at relationships and trust in general. Thanks for sharing it. There’s no doubt that sharing vulnerabilities with people does amazing things to a relationship.


{ 6 trackbacks }

  • Links for Sunday January 17 2009 January 17, 2010
  • A New Normal for Networking « Careerendipity January 21, 2010
  • A New Normal for Networking | Career Management Alliance Blog January 21, 2010
  • Knowledge Flows and the New Way to Network « Shannon Paul’s Very Official Blog « wesley83's Blog January 24, 2010
  • The Myth of MY Network | Tim Bursch January 25, 2010
  • A New Normal for Networking « An Honest Day’s Work February 4, 2010

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