The New Networking

From an article on networking by John Seely Brown and John Hagel III at HBR.

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.

A learning disposition leads to a very different approach. Now the effort focuses on understanding the needs of the other, with a particular focus on understanding the biggest issues others are wrestling with. This requires intense curiosity, deep listening and empathy that seeks to understand the context that other person is operating in. It also requires willingness to disclose vulnerabilities, since it is often hard to get the other person to share their most challenging issues without a sense that you are willing to do the same.

Whenever I go to a networking event there is a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that something is wrong. I’m there for the wrong reason or telling other people the wrong things, especially if my goal is to get work out of the encounter.

It’s the same when I tell friends that I’m looking for a job. I just don’t know what to say that translates into a business referral or a forwarded resume. I can talk about the things that interest me but none of them seem to connect quickly enough to actually generate money.

In some sense I feel that Hagel and Brown are correct but they are talking about the issue from the level of the successful. For the people, like myself, who are still trying to find success the approach to networking promoted by Hagel and Brown just gets strange looks and bafflement.

Stephen Downes adds an interesting gloss.

But what they get wrong, I think, is the nature of this interaction. It’s not about finding common ground, working collaboratively, or ‘acquiring’ tacit knowledge. Rather, it’s about putting yourself into a position where you can have (even if vicariously) similar experiences, leading oneself to become similar to the other person (which is why it is so important to choose one’s associates with care). Tacit knowledge, remember, isn’t declarative or even procedural. Rather, it is more like ‘having a feel for’, and each person develops this sort of knowledge individually.