22 April 2013

Social media and the new way of networking

Online profiles on social networking platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook have powerfully altered the way we network and build relationships with colleagues and work partners.  Paradoxically, the intensification of competitive pressures in business resulting from the information age is accompanied by an opposite phenomenon, of distributing help more willingly to connect people to a wider group than ever before.

It is not new that people from the same circles help each other out, be it to find a job or share access to new opportunities.  Now, as social circles expand to their widest through social networks, the definition of “friends” is also influencing who we are willing to help, in the expectation of a returned favour later on in life.  Every new encounter is perceived as a potential resource for a future time, and comes with positive expectations.  

People who belong to the same network are most likely to be competing for the same job or the same promotion at some stage in life or another.  Yet the members of a common online social network are inclined to think of themselves as “friends” or connections that they want to help out.  In the academic jargon of social networks, online contacts serve as “brokers”, people who may introduce or refer one another to a contact or for a position.  Sometimes, this happens between people who may never have met each other in person.  A few connections in common or a few keywords may be enough.

Online profiles expose our social networks to everyone.  The effect is partly to show how well-connected we are, a well-recognised measure of “strength” or social capital in the business world (Kilduff et al., 2011, Inkpen & Tsang, 2005).  But the collateral is that sharing our network to friends and colleagues, opens up the same resource to them.  Is the power of social media to have instituted a silent etiquette, of never to refuse an introduction?

Meantime, in the physical world, shrinking developed economies mean increasing competition for every single job position.  In investment banks, 2000 applications get narrowed down to 30 new hires.  In less structured professional environments such as entrepreneurship and business, fewer and fewer new technologies or new ideas ever turn into profit.  Competition wipes out small and large companies every day, products become obsolete ever faster, and entire industries disappear overnight.  So, is online social “brokerage” leading to a more efficient matching of human resources and work, or is it enabling the identification and selection of the very best and very few for the over-subscribed opportunities?

Claire Weiller
Cambridge Service Alliance

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