taking your network up a notch

So the other day I was thinking about CAT 6 vs 6E plenum vs non-plenum networking cable and…

Just kidding. This post isn’t about that. And honestly I almost never think about networking cable (not because it’s not important, but rather because there are many out there that know it better than I do and I rely on them for their expertise).

A while ago, there was a product called inmaps. I think it started as an independent tool, then was acquired and then shutdown by LinkedIn. Inmaps was just great because it visualized your entire network. It literally drew a visual representation of all your connections, how they clumped, how certain long distance connections could be used to “shrink” the world, etc. It even color coded things in a logical way. I could have red be my old Stanford classmates, blue my co-workers from Santa Clara, and green various vendors with whom I’ve connected over time.

When LinkedIn shut this service down, it was sad news. With as many connections as just about any of us have, getting a different view of things can be very powerful. Being able to see that many linkages all at once can really say a lot about not only what connections we’ve made but the choices we’ve made in creating those relationships. I realized, for instance, that I had been too willing with vendors. Yes, they are useful connections, especially if they move to another company. But it’s a double-edge sword – as I’m able to leverage existing relationships with them at new companies, they are also able to connect them me from new businesses that I’m not even interested in. My mistake. And I could really see it when visualized.

There are some replacements coming out – the best so far is from sociallab.com though I’m not a huge fan of it’s actual visualization clumping method, and it is limited to 499 contacts. For those of us that went a bit contact-crazy for a while, that’s not enough. It generally clumps connections in a logical way, but not nearly as cleanly as inmaps did. I’ve heard linkurios is pretty good, too, but you have to install python and whatnot to get it working. More of a DIY deal.

While visualization is a great way to get further insight into your network, there are lots of other ways to leverage your connections. The easiest is to just take your closest connections and go to the next level, where you are interacting outside of purely professional settings. Usually we see each other at conferences, or send the occasional email when we have a question on something someone else is working on. “How are you doing video conferencing?” or “what help desk software are you using?” Stuff like that. But, while we all want to maintain a professional demeanor as often as possible, the fact is that we do grow close to some of our contacts, and we can in fact be informal and even – gasp – friends in the long run.

And when you can become friends, with a foundation of professional context, things get really powerful.

There are some of us that know each other from the SIGUCCS annual conference that have, over time, grown closer and closer in a personal and social way. When we talk, we still sometimes talk about professional matters. I recently grabbed a white paper from one about ITSM-based ticketing systems from a member of this group. But largely we interact in purely social ways. Joking about things at work or, on the other end of the spectrum, griping and venting about frustrations. The bulk of our conversations are in the middle, though – seeking advice from each other about how to handle things. There are many times when I’ve taken suggestions from this group and directly applied them to my work. It’s truly a group of peers, and we’ve fallen into a culture of sharing as such quite quickly.

Similar connections can be built from something as simple as a regular lunch group (though taking that up a notch, too, can be even more powerful than the straightforward decision to eat together) or getting together outside of work occasionally. It builds, at the least, a set of confidantes that can be valuable sounding boards or even peer mentors.

Of course, you can throw in formal mentors-mentee relationships that have grown out of professional connections (I am very thankful for the ones I’ve built over of time, as those people have made such a difference for me) as one of the undeniably most powerful “enhancements” to one’s standard network.

My point is that we can all take our networks above and beyond a set of connections with others. Whether through visualizing something as potentially-superficial as LinkedIn connection to building friendships to formal mentoring relationships, we can enrich our experiences so strongly through just a bit more commitment to such efforts. Just asking – “hey, can we get lunch together, I really value your opinion on a topic?” or something a bit more brave such as “will you be a mentor to me as I move forward in my career and face new challenges?” can lead to a exponential benefit to your overall existence.

I encourage you to take the next step, build your own tribe of friends from professional contacts, and transform your network into something else.