Sunday, September 04, 2011

Quality or Quantity - The Strength of Weak Links

Review by Julia Hobsbawm

Familiar networks cause group think, say the authors; random encounters work best. It’s music to Julia Hobsbawm’s ears.
Superconnect: The power of networks and the strength of weak links Richard Koch and Greg Lockwood
Superconnect Koch & Lockwood
This is the book equivalent of ‘music to my ears’. Why? Because it lays bare the art and science of my business – the business of networking – and declares it indispensable to successful careers, personal growth and enterprise alike. Written in the earnest but easy style of Malcolm Gladwell-meets-Clay Shirky, Superconnect argues that ‘by co-operating with the network forces around us and harnessing them to our ends, we can swap the delusion that we can control the world as individuals for the reality of creating in collaboration with other people’.
Its central observation, which I agree with, is that what makes networking succeed is not the ’strong links’ of a pre-existing contact base but the ‘weak links’ of random encounters that, if acted upon, can yield jobs, career changes or entrepreneurial stepping stones that would otherwise not exist. Using an array of historical case studies, the book illustrates the point about weak links by quoting John Stuart Mill saying there was value in meeting ‘persons dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar’.
Given that I completed this review on the day that the Cameron coalition entered Downing Street, I think the authors have a point: cultivate your weak links and you may get power: neither could get it on strong, ie party, links alone. If you’re a wine lover, then you’ll appreciate the relish with which the authors identify the different varieties of grape and yield. They are very down on certain ‘hubs’, the familiar networks, such as the workplace, that can create the kind of ‘group think’ that they say led to Watergate; while being very up on what they call ‘network stars’. These are business models that connect people, such as Auto Trader. They describe the ‘network tailwind that drives the firm forward’ in such businesses, which they call ’superconnectors’. Various ‘isms’ and social types crop up. Naturally, this is de rigueur in any kind of sociological management-meets-can-do book these days. My favourite is ‘Rolodex roulette’, an embellishment of the term ‘weak links’ – meeting as many varied people as possible and seeing what you end up with.
Which brings me to my only rub with the book … A fascinating and enriching read, it is predicated on the idea that most people are comfortable with networking. The truth is that many are not. My own experience is that the main barrier to networking is shyness and an inability to enjoy what the authors and people like me take for granted – that it is fun and productive. I would have liked less arguing of the main points and more analysis of how you can encourage this elusive elixir, rather than inspire people to want it and think they can achieve it through osmosis. Perhaps reticence explains why so many connect virtually – Facebook has a quarter of a billion users, Twitter has 50 million tweets a day – rather than in person.
In an interesting chapter, ‘Cyberspace – brave new world?’, the authors explore the phenomenon of customers clustering around a few websites with which they are familiar, mirroring what Koch and Lockwood call ‘hub-link’ structures in the real world. They say that the internet brings about a ‘terrific intensification of the communication and network trends seen before its invention’. In other words, we humans behave in broadly similar ways, and always have done. This is one of the chief appeals of Superconnect. It points out that networking has been practised throughout history and it has just got better with modern technology. I particularly like the example of Diderot’s Encyclopedie, which failed to take off fully in the 18th century, whereas Wikipedia has succeeded at the start of the 21st century because of the vastly greater numbers of people who were able to take part as contributors, thanks to new technology.
The authors, through a series of weak links, met while on the board of Betfair. They have taken a gamble that readers will be as turned on by networking as they are. I sincerely hope that they win their bet.
- Julia Hobsbawm is the founder and CEO of the networking business Editorial Intelligence.

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