June 5, 2011

Networking with Theory

Networking Theory


So you’ve signed up for LinkedIn and Facebook and feel good about being in a network with recruiting potential. All you have to do now is to sit back and wait for the web jiggles or to create some of your own.  Ah, were it so simple. To imagine that is all you have to do is like imagining that there’s not much to succeeding in the U.S. Army besides signing up and knowing when to volunteer, salute and when not to.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Joining a recruiting or social network, like joining the Army, is only the first and easiest step. Even and especially if your own sub-network within the larger parent network is small, you are going to have to learn, like every good soldier, tactics and strategies for professional reconnaissance, survival and advancement.

Painful as the prospect may be, one of the best ways to do this is to learn a little formal systems and “network theory”—some abstract ideas about networks and systems that can translate into concrete results.  There are dozens of such concepts and principles to be gleaned from these formal disciplines, but a small sample should be enough to make the point and point you in the right direction. For starters, here’s a good and very readable primer of social network theory, Introduction to Social Network Methods, by Robert A.  Hanneman, Department of Sociology, University of California, Riverside (available as a free PDF download at http://faculty.ucr.edu/~hanneman/nettext/), and General Systems Theory, a classic in systems theory by Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, who was a pioneer in early systems theory research.

Despite any unfamiliar ring, these concepts and principles should ring a wake-up bell for you, and get you to working on making the most of your network connections.

Equifinality, Sources, Sinks and Cycles

“Equifinality”: This is a concept from systems theory with correlates in network theory, and one that is easily grasped. If you fill your sink and let it drain, it doesn’t matter where any particular molecule of water started out in the sink—they will all go down the drain.  Water at the top, in the middle, on the left side, the right side, etc.—all bits of water will go down the drain.

Think of a black hole in deep space: no matter where matter is located in the vicinity of the black hole, every bit of it gets sucked in.  That’s “equifinality”, Bertalanffy’s concept:  irrespective of where things start out, all end up in the same state or place, drawn like iron filings to a magnet, or moths to a flame, regardless of where or how they are situated at the outset. Think “super-sink”.

It can be the same with networks, but, unlike a black hole,  just being yourself won’t be enough; you will have to make a special effort to be the drain of the sink—and not just any drain; rather, the drain you want to be. What, in concrete terms does this mean? It means that all communication in the small sub-network  eventually comes to you, the magnet, irrespective of where or when it started, just as long as the network member is not too “distant” from you (distance being measured in network theory by the number of contacts between you and a specific network member).  It also means that you are a sink without becoming a target.

You contact A, who then contacts B and C; C then contacts D, whom you do not know. B responds to you, and D initiates contact with you right away; C contacts you later.  In a technical sense, you are a “sink”, because you serve as the drain or terminal for information flow about something specific, at least in the short run. An example would be a job portal like Monster.com, in which millions of applicants, irrespective of location or occupation, are drawn like filings to a monster magnet.

In the examples just given, you and Monster.com are also a “source”, since you and Monster initiated the communications, without initiating any specific individual contacts. Otherwise, you could easily be a pure sink without being a source, e.g., wait for someone to head-hunt you, without your ever posting your availability.  The key advantage of being a pure sink in this instance is the energy conserved and the risks avoided, e.g., detection by your current employer. The obvious disadvantage is the meager number of pings in the form of contacts.

When you are both source and sink for a network path, you may be part of a loop, naturally enough called a “cycle”.  You may contact A, who contacts B, who contacts C, who then contacts you. However, you won’t necessarily be in a loop, since it is possible for you, as a source, to contact A, who does not reply, but then be contacted, as a sink, by an unknown B. One decision for you to make is whether you will be content being a source and a sink, but without being part of a network cycle.

The advantage of not having a pure “incestuous” cycle network of a few contacts who limit themselves to each other is that there is a greater likelihood of expansion and fresh perspectives. The downside is that the wait for the chance to become a sink may be longer, i.e., being contacted becomes less predictable as does the content of the contact. Also, the contact that eventually comes may not only be long in coming, it may also be simply wrong (for you and your goals).

Of course, you can blend both models: You can have a core sub-network of cycling contacts, some of whom are expanding their contacts through non-cyclical contacts, e.g., by being contacted by someone previously unknown.

Recruiter websites work as network repeat-cycle sources and sinks, disseminating information as  authoritative sources, receiving it as responses and strengthening the network through repeat cycles. A job applicant who asks whether anyone knows of a software engineering job in Laguna Beach is a one-cycle source and sink, unlikely to build network relationships, if job hunting is the only network goal, the obligatory “thank you” reply to the source notwithstanding.

What makes this distinction between cyclical and non-cyclical source-and-sink networking important is that it provides some guidelines for you to decide what kinds of networking you want to cultivate.

Loops, or Trees?

One of the key considerations in establishing your sub-networks is whether you want to create cycles or branching trees: Do you want to keep the group small, “dense” (with lots of linkages among all the members) and with lots of cycles and redundancy (multiple contacts between one source and sink), or do you want it to grow like an Amway tree,  a network model in which, as part of the overall operation, A contacts B and C, who contact D, E and F,G, respectively, etc.?

If you adopt a tree model, do you want the day-to-day communication to be “uni-directional”, e.g., “top-down”, or do you want it to be “bi-directional”, i.e., two-way, round-trip?  Either way, there are ways to achieve either of these mutually exclusive goals. You may want to make your tree grow uni-directionally because of limitations of available time for replying to or assessing incoming messages and information. On the other hand, you may want your network tree of contacts to grow bi-directionally, i.e., allow for “bottom-up” replies and other such communication, even with lots of horizontal as well as vertical “cross-chatter” at lower levels, to enhance the following”

  • Personal ties
  • Reinforcement of the message
  • Confirmation and feedback

What can you do to facilitate network equifinality for yourself and what are the benefits?  Obviously, it can easily be achieved if you have something that everybody wants from you, but something that is offered to them piecemeal, so that they must contact you to get the missing pieces, especially when it is  “a piece of you” they want.

For example, suppose you know of a great job posting and you email everyone in your sub-network to tell them a lot about it—but not everything. Or, even better, you tell them everything about that one, but mention there are others. This second approach is better, because it is less annoyingly teasing and time-wasting for them.

What makes equifinality relevant and achievable in this way is that irrespective of what your sub-group members want right now, e.g., want that job, know somebody who wants that job, want to know more about that kind of job, they are likely to contact you about other good jobs—if not now, later, like a slow moving pulse through a neural net returning to the “brain”.

The benefits of being an equifinality source and sink include

  • Strengthened ties with sub-group members
  • Knowledge as power, as you learn more about sub-group members and details they may provide in their contacts with you
  • Growing esteem in the sub-group as they communicate with each other about their communication with you

It must be noted that being only a sink is not sufficient to enhance your status and esteem in your networks.  You also have to be seen as an authoritative source for the full benefit of equifinality to kick in. For example, if your name is on spammer lists, you will indeed be a sink for all of them, but only as a target.  You will neither be a unique sink nor an esteemed one. To enhance your prospects for becoming an equifinal sink, ideally a unique one, rather than one of many targets, you will have to trigger a valuable information flow of your own design or initiation, instead of an unwelcome flow from some other source triggered by, for example, your email address having been sold to spammers or from wannabe recruiters trying to pick your brain.

This has been merely a foretaste of what awaits you should you delve more deeply into network and systems theory as tools for improving your recruiting networks.  As an example of the wealth of hints to be mined from network and systems theory, here’s  another concept for you to consider: Should you determine whom to contact  or respond to in a “binary” way—yes/no,  (continue) contact or do not; or should you adopt a “weighted” strategy of tailoring the frequency, depth, length, value of the information you are providing to the “weight” and value of the contacted party?  The advantages of the former include time and energy to be saved—like the efforts spared impatient singles trolling dating sites. The advantage of the weighted approach is the opportunity it affords to keep a contact in your network stable, even if today is not right for a ride or a bet on that horse.

Familiarizing yourself with concepts and principles like these is a good step toward gauging the net worth of your network.

However, applying them is the way to boost it.

Read more in Social Network

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).