Check Your Connections: Is Your Social Network Strong?

connectionsIf you want to float an idea or advocate a cause, it’s never bad to aim for a broad, diverse audience. But when you’re ready to implement that idea or organize a specific campaign — say, a fund raiser — shrink the audience to a small group of like-minded people with strong connections who can work together and get the job done.

Why? The smaller the group, the more likely any interactions will be imbued with trust and reciprocity — key elements in successful networks.

That, says Wharton management professor Lori Rosenkopf, is the essence of social networking, a behavior that has changed little in theory from Paul Revere’s ride in 1775 to the Internet age, which replaced phone books with contact lists.

According to the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, Paul Revere spread the word that the British were preparing to cross the Charles River into Lexington and Concord. During his midnight ride, the well-known silversmith and political activist awoke town leaders, militia members and acquaintances along the way. Another lesser known patriot, William Dawes, made the same trip by boat — and therefore told no one until he reached his destination.

Revere’s networking must have been superior because “he got the poem and Dawes got obscurity,” Rosenkopf quipped to a group of Wharton alumnae during a conference earlier this month.

During her presentation, Rosenkopf urged her audience to analyze their existing connections — from social clubs to professional contacts — and plug the gaps, citing geography and shared interests as the two main catalysts for coming together.

As managers, Rosenkopf also encouraged them to study how the flow of information works within in their companies in order to identify key players and to determine where and how those individuals perform in their own networks. More than one CEO has been replaced for being out of the loop, she noted. People who are linked to many different clusters or cliques are likely to be promoted faster, she added, while those in tightly-knit groups of like-minded people are likely to enjoy more long-term cooperation.

Some companies successfully improve communication by moving employees around various departments, allowing them to broaden their workplace relationships and diffuse information and innovative ideas, Rosenkopf pointed out.

If LinkedIn is your only network, it’s time for a tune-up, she said in response to several questions from the audience about digital networking. “[LinkedIn] is more of a broadcast network — one of many, but weak, ties. I continue to get invited by people I don’t know…. You can’t gauge body language on these sites, and it can be difficult to deepen a relationship to the point of trust and a sense of reciprocity. I think [networking sites like LinkedIn] are more useful to recruiters than to individuals serious about building strong connections.”

According to Rosenkopf, at its most basic, research on social networks reinforces the notion that the world is, indeed, small, and “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” Research in the field began in the 1950s, followed by a seminal study in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram, in which carefully tracked packages were delivered from the Midwest to Boston using an average-sized network of 5.8 people. The findings of the so-called “Small World Experiment” led to the popular play and movie Six Degrees of Separation.

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