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How Big Is Too Big? December 15, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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I’ve been using LinkedIn for a long time, at least six or seven years.  In that time, I’ve accumulated 270 links in my network.  In all but a few cases, I know each person, why I linked to them, and what relationship I currently have with them.  Certainly, some links are stronger and more robust than others, but they all were created from an initial meeting of some sort that justified the connection.

Some people are compelled to collect links and compete to see who has the most.  Some of these people even include their link counts in their LinkedIn account names, as a sort of badge of honor.  I’ll confess: I do not understand this behavior, beyond some natural desire to compete and win at something.  Certainly, the network that results from this kind of link-hunting is effectively useless.

Network connections have value because you leverage the trust relationship for a mutual benefit.  That might be some advice, or a job reference, or a quick answer to a question.  You know to whom to turn in your network because you actually know these people and know what they can offer.  My recent post on “knowing who knows” expands on this.

When requests are sent to me through my network, I know that I can trust them and deal with them with some level of confidence.  The original goal of LinkedIn was to replicate the traditional face-to-face business network with its semi-formal model of introductions and references.  That whole practice only works when knowledge and trust is part of the network.  If you don’t know the person at the other end of the connection, the interaction is worthless.

I routinely ignore requests to connect with people I don’t know.  No offense intended, but my network is valuable to me.  That value is diluted when anonymous connections begin to accumulate.  Honestly, my rejection improves the quality of the requestor’s network for the same reason: if they don’t know me, why would they want to trust me?

I feel sorry for those link hunters that you see on LinkedIn.  Their network is worthless, and everyone else (except for the other link hunters) knows it.

There is far more value in a small, carefully maintained network than in a large, unkempt one.  Guard your network closely and grow it carefully.  You’ll reap the benefits for years to come, and its value will grow immensely over time.

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Know Who Knows November 24, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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Early in my career, I worked with two mathematicians who had been in computing since the very beginning.  They had all these great stories about using Fortran for the first time, and drum memory, and mercury delay lines.  They were brilliant and eccentric and were both named George.  George Haynam was called “George” and George Petznick was called “GP” just to avoid confusion.

The neat thing about either George was that they did not immediately know the answer to most mathematical questions.  Instead, they knew how to derive the answer from first principles.  Once, I asked GP for the formula for standard deviation.  He stood up at his blackboard (a real blackboard with chalk and dust) and, recalling that the standard deviation is just the square root of the variance integrated about the center of mass of the sample space, quickly derived the discrete formula.  Simple!  The running joke in the department was that the Georges could figure out anything, starting with f=ma.

This all came back to me recently as I was discussing aspects of successful leaders.  I pointed out that, in most cases, I don’t need to know the answer to something.  I just need to know who knows, so I can get the answer from them.  If my network is robust and current, and I surround myself with people smarter than me (very easy to do), the “know who knows” model always works.

This is true for everyone, of course, but I don’t think we coach our teams to value and use this trick.  Instead, we have lots of people on our teams who try to be cowboys, singlehandedly trying to know everything and solve everything.  As they move up the management chain and realize they can’t know everything, they begin to adopt the “know who knows” approach.  Unfortunately, it takes a while to learn this lesson.  Some people never do.

People at every level can dramatically increase their value by developing their network of “people who know things” along with their collection of “things they know themselves.”  The sum of both parts is substantially larger than everything they can hope to know, but that lesson isn’t learned right away.

As effective leaders, we need to explicitly teach this lesson to our people and offer opportunities for them to build their networks of “people who know.”  Social tools help, of course, but so do real social interactions with experts: training, conferences, seminars, etc.  Force your people to engage others as they solve problems, and show them how to fall back on their networks early in the problem-solving process, not as a last resort.  That lesson, learned early, can make a huge difference in the course of a career.

A High-Contact, Low-Touch World November 10, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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All these social networking tools are supposed to increase our interaction and communication with other people. For long-distance relationships, this is certainly true: I am sharing thoughts and ideas with people that I otherwise would never interact with on a regular basis.  From that perspective, social tools are improving those relationships and bringing depth and detail that would otherwise escape me.

For those folks that I see every day, tools like Twitter and Yammer can paradoxically create distance where it didn’t previously exist.  A coworker recently complained about this, pointing out that Yammer offers yet another way for people to hide in their office and text to each other, avoiding real, live conversations.  She’s absolutely right, and I don’t quite know how to solve the problem.

On the one hand, the message stream that is captured and shared by Yammer and Twitter is really useful, and allows many people to experience a single train of thought as it occurs.  On the other hand, people really need to look at each other and engage in actual interaction, as messy as it might be.

Sadly, the introverted world of IT makes this worse.  I am in the distinct, tiny minority of IT professionals that are extroverted.  Sometimes, I think the “I” in IT stands for “introverted.”  The synthetic, predictable world of computers provides a safe haven for those who are shy and allows those folks to succeed without ever developing some really important communication skills. Don’t misunderstand: many talented introverts achieve great success in IT, and that’s a good thing.  Were they to be thrust into sales or marketing, it would be painful and counter-productive.  The wardrobe errors alone would be overwhelming.

Nonetheless,  providing tools to these introverts that allow them to further withdraw and still be successful may be a mistake.  Teams succeed by communicating.  Good communication involves more than 140 characters of text and should include body language, voice tone, and facial expressions.  The elimination of direct engagement first began when people began hiding behind email and later learned how to use voice mail and call screening to their advantage.  The latest tools make it even easier to avoid other people and still get work done.

As leaders, and extroverted ones at that, we need to recognize that this is happening and force people to engage.  I will sometimes intervene when I see an email chain go on for too long and insist that the communicants actually gather and meet.  I also have a stock question when someone comes to me to complain about someone else: “Have you discussed this with this person?”  The first step to solving problems is to talk about them, and we need to gently encourage people to do this, in spite of the cool tools that tempt us otherwise.

Show Your Face! October 10, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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This week, LinkedIn took a huge step forward when they finally started including profile photos in the popups that appear when you hover over a person’s name. Previously, the popup displayed a textual summary of a person’s profile data. The addition of the photo makes the popup profile much more useful.

I am a big fan of including pictures in your online profiles for these kinds of sites. The primary reason is selfish: it makes it easier for me to remember names and faces when I can see a person’s picture. I make it a practice to copy these photos into my Outlook address book; they’ll appear in the header of emails when possible and get synced to my phone as well. On more than one occasion I have been at some sort of gathering and used the pictures in my phone to confirm someone’s identity before walking up to say hello. They also show up in the caller ID display when I receive calls.

Photos are a huge part of social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace, but are notably missing in most professional sites like Plaxo and LinkedIn. Why? I suspect that most people are too self-conscious to include a photo with their professional profile, or only have casual photos that don’t convey an appropriate professional demeanor.

Too self-conscious? Get over it. The value of your photo in cementing connections with people far exceeds your concern over having a “good” picture of yourself online. Moreover, most people are far too picky in choosing a picture of themselves. People who know you accepted what you look like long ago. Few of us are supermodels; the rest are just average-looking people.

Inappropriate photo? Not a problem. For online photos to be effective, you must crop them tightly, showing only your face. The latest fad is to crop even tighter, clipping off the edges of your face. Either way, those embarrassing background details won’t show up. Just find any photo that shows your face clearly, crop out everything else, and get it posted online.

So get going! Find a photo, crop it, and post it. Your profile will be much improved as a result, and I’ll certainly be happier, along with everyone else in your online network.

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Imperfect Integration April 15, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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Social networking sites are getting too clever by half, providing more and more features to lure users into their web of connected people.  What they are missing are the features that connect their “walled gardens” to other equally useful networks.

As I’ve posted before, I like different systems for different features.  LinkedIn is the gold standard for professional networking, delivering controlled access to professional colleagues in a manner that most closely mimics (and respects) real-world relationships.  Plaxo is the best contact management tool I’ve seen, with unparalleled cross-platform synchronization.  The Plaxo Pulse, which provides a Twitter-like stream of activity for your connected contacts, is interesting and becoming more useful.  My blogging platform is WordPress, which seems to meet my (limited) needs at this point. To be honest, I don’t know that I have the energy for Twitter, although I’m willing to tinker with it.

The problem with these systems is that they don’t play well together.  They want to attract users, confine them to their system, and keep them there for all levels of service.  I understand the rationale: eyeballs = dollars.  But I dislike the constraints, which makes it harder to use all the services.  I want them to interoperate seamlessly, but they aren’t there yet.

Plaxo makes an attempt at this, allowing you to hook feeds from other sites (like this blog) into your Plaxo pulse.  The problem is that Plaxo pulls the content into Plaxo, instead of connecting to the actual source.  As a result, updates lag and the Plaxo version gets out of date when I update the content.  More importantly, readers in Plaxo don’t see the full blog unless they click through to it.  Reading this in Plaxo?  Click here to read these posts in their full glory, see what I am reading, explore the archives, peruse the tag cloud, and subscribe directly (if you are so inclined).

LinkedIn has fairly pathetic contact management.  Why can’t it get my contacts from Plaxo, so that everything is in sync everywhere?  Why can’t LinkedIn connections be mirrored in Plaxo automatically (and vice versa)?  LinkedIn also has a simplistic Twitter-like feature, as does Plaxo.  Why can’t LinkedIn and Plaxo integrate my Twitter stream so I can update things in one place and see them everywhere?

I suspect this will all happen in due time as this space coalesces and matures.  Like other web technologies (and the web itself), we need this period of experimentation and overlap to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  At some point, it will settle out, great sums of money will change hands, and one integrated system will remain.  Until then, we’ll all be updating lots of similar sites, over and over again.