Malcolm Gladwell on Social Networking

Social networking isn't real business networking, says Malcolm Gladwell. It's just the beginning. It appears that pop sociology guru Malcolm Gladwell has poked a pin into the balloon that is social networking as a business tool.

Social networking isn’t real business networking, says Malcolm Gladwell. It’s just the beginning.

It appears that pop sociology guru Malcolm Gladwell has poked a pin into the balloon that is social networking as a business tool.

Gladwell – author of several books on modern life including The Tipping Point, which takes apart the methodology of networking – told the F5 Expo conference yesterday that weak social networking cannot replace the old tried-and-true methods of business network-building that have been in existence for centuries.

Of course, Gladwell was trying to be provocative. After all he was speaking to a conference that was supposed to be about evolving business strategies with the help of new technologies, which was probably loaded with social networking enthusiasts.

But in his provocation, the Ottawa native who now lives and writes in New York was on to something.

To me, social networking is really only one method of forming the personal networks that are so important in business. And it’s a shallow one at that.

To understand what I mean, we have to understand the nature of networks, which are really about circles of influence.

Throughout their lives, people connect with people who have influence on their thinking, and in turn are influenced by them. This starts with family, continues in schools, and eventually grows wider in their working lives. Each of these adds layers to how one thinks, and often has a strong hand in how one views one’s own opinions and styles. That’s why, for example, people have for decades tried to get into the right schools so they can form connections that will work for them throughout their lives.

The Chinese have a word for this: Guanxi, which at its most basic is a personalized network of influence.

Social Capital

In the West we sometimes refer to this as social capital, in that we have invested time and effort in cultivating close personal and mutually beneficial relationships with various people of influence.

Obviously, as Gladwell indicated, this social capital cannot produce ROI instantly. As with most investment, it can take years to gather strength.

Here’s another example. In journalism, reporters spend years collecting “contacts” – connections with people who can feed them information, provide perspective, or simply tell them the truth when they need to know it. These contacts are usually built over time on layers that involve much trust….the journalist receives important information that may lead to a story, while the contact can place a story in the public press when it’s convenient to do so (for whatever purpose).

Obviously, the closer the connection – or the better the Guanxi – the more trusting is the relationship. So reporters guard their contact lists very closely, even resisting turning them over to employers, although they are often encouraged to. As a journalist, your contact list is your most prized business asset.

A contact, or influential relationship, list is not social networking, which is more like going to an event and walking around the room and saying to near-strangers, Hi, How are you? What’s happening? How’s business?

Those connections are tenuous at best.

I’m not saying social networking is useless and a waste of time. It is a tool that helps you keep in touch in a small way with many people. So, in a sense, it is extremely democratizing.

But it’s not influence. Sure, in some cases social networking connections can actually become real friends or closer connections. But those relationships are invariably cemented offline through many meetings and much time spent together.

So, here’s the bottom line.

Just like you wouldn’t invest all your financial capital into a scheme floated by a stranger at a party, you don’t invest all your social capital into a social networking relationship.