Occasionally, when I broach the subject of networks with my entrepreneurial coaching clients, it elicits a slight flicker of hesitation. It may be fleeting, but I notice it, as I’m attuned to this reaction. I explain that I’m not really talking about the term ‘networking’ per se, although the two are of course intrinsically linked. I’m not trying to launch them out there into the midst of strangers in the blind hope that it ‘will be good for them!’
What I’m really talking about is the importance of understanding the dynamics of interconnecting with the near and wider community around us—particularly in the case of the entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, many of us often feel alone, a little isolated, and would like the opportunity to meet other creative minds. The attraction of attending a business networking event is totally understandable and a wise move.
When I open this discussion with my clients, it is really to raise the topic of how to effectively manage their connections. I do this by raising their awareness of the unique benefits attached to different types of links or ties that we make as business people.
It has been said that innovation lies at the juncture or meeting point of networks. This makes total sense if you analyze it. New connections or groups coming together to collaborate almost always find fresh ground to cover and are a melting pot of new ideas and new ways of doing things. The potential to innovate is at its highest at this crossroads.
This is why I regard networks as the potential life-blood of the entrepreneurial spirit—I like to call networks the entrepreneur’s oxygen!
Social networks are all around us—friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, clients, acquaintances, bosses, etc. We can interact so easily nowadays largely due to social media, which allows us to connect literally from the sofa. Massive volumes of information flow between connected individuals daily. When you think about the immensity and power in that activity the concept of network-building really hits home.
Face-to-face and virtual contact and collaboration within networks has gained more understanding, gravity, and direction thanks to the dawn of Social Network Analysis (SNA). Arising as an offshoot of social network theory as far back as the 1970s, SNA and its cousin, Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), have developed into hugely informative and reliable research methods. They have the capacity to unveil flows of information and resources between network connections and visually map their findings.
The crucial aspect to this theoretical and practice-led type of analysis is that it can convey how patterns and types of connections affect so many aspects of daily business life. At its most basic level, SNA provides insight into how and why our relationships with others have a knock-on effect. Often likened to an x-ray, network analysis reveals the movers and shakers within groups, teams, or whole organizations due to their location within a network and the quality and direction of their connections.
The crux of this discussion with my clients hinges on raising their awareness of network dynamics. What’s really at play within that business network you may frequently attend? What is to be gained by meeting the same individuals over and over and so forth. Entrepreneurs, how can we optimize our social and human capital by developing our contacts?
Points to Consider When Engaging with Networks
- Building close connections or ties with others builds trust and reciprocation over time.
- Acquaintances or weak ties are more likely to point you towards job openings or new clients. Research confirms this.
- Associating with close network ties only on a continual basis leads to obtaining the same old information over and over—redundant information.
- Close connections are more likely to recommend or sponsor you.
- Acquaintances or lesser known networks or contacts have a far higher chance of exposing you to new ideas or information otherwise unheard of within your close circles.
- Quality vs. Quantity: It’s not the amount of contacts you possess that matters but the quality of them. A rich and diverse amount of connections of varying strength is recommended, especially if you’re an entrepreneur.
- Quantity vs. Quality: Dunbar’s number (150), named after researcher Robin Dunbar, strongly demonstrates that approximately 150 contacts are probably the absolute most we can competently imbed and recall in our thinking process. It all goes haywire after this!
- Dormant close ties may be incredibly useful if re-connection is made. Recent research shows that our previous close ties from years ago have the double advantage of the mutual trust bond and the potential of bringing new information, knowledge, and ideas to our attention.
So the next time someone mentions how great they are at networking and how they have literally hundreds of great connections, you can smile quietly to yourself, now that you understand network dynamics a little more. Remember as the poet John Donne said, “No man is an island.” We all need human contact to survive as much as we need to breathe. In the case of the entrepreneur, to survive in the business world, we need to breathe in pure oxygen. Get networking!