In a recent blog, Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, talked about the differences between professional allies and acquaintances. One of his more intriguing points was that while strong alliances are greatly valued, in many cases it is our acquaintances that help up more from a business perspective. As he stated, “Weak ties can uniquely serve as bridges to other worlds and thus can pass on information or opportunities you have not heard about”
As someone who is a boundary spanner, this rings quite true. In my experience, people tend to stay within their lanes and seek advice from only those they know best or feel the most comfortable with. If you have been to a professional conference you will observe this first hand. While there is a great deal of networking and card exchanging at the cocktail party or meet and greet event, it is typically the folks who know each other well, or have similar backgrounds and interests, that go out to dinner together and spend time exchanging thoughts. This enables them to get positive reinforcement and reduces exposure to those who might challenge them.
This tendency was well demonstrated in the recent presidential election when several high level Republicans continued to predict a landside for Romney despite the wealth of data showing a different outcome. These individuals were absolutely convinced that they were right, as they surrounded themselves only with others who confirmed what they thought to be true. Needless to say, this did not bode well in a political context, nor is it an effective way to operate in a business one.
I recently attended a technology conference on cloud computing. It was well run, the talks were interesting and there were a lot of discussion on how mobile, big data, cloud and collaborative technologies were going to transform the business world. Leading edge companies shared cases on how they were solving big issues through technological innovation and out of the box thinking. It was fascinating. But, I was amazed how few speakers specifically talked about the human element and how despite all this great technology, the biggest impediment to implementation and change was the people in these organizations. The one speaker that addressed this issue told me privately that one of the IT clients he worked with almost lost her job as she had implemented a very costly cloud initiative without recognizing, or dealing with, any of the change management issues. Needless to say the project was a complete failure.
So what is the solution to this? The best way to avoid being insular and narrow minded is to actively seek out the advice and company of those from other functions, industries, professions or walks of life. But, how many IT professionals invite the HR folks in to discuss cloud computing and its implications before they begin an undertaking? How many HR folks take the time to understand the transformative nature of the new social technologies? And, do most Marketing folks share with HR what they are planning before they launch a large scale social media initiative that is bound to be seen by employees as well as clients? Despite collaborative technology, we tend to operate as siloed as ever.
The virtual world offers many possibilities to break this mold but, unfortunately, many of us repeat the patterns we adhere to in the physical world. While we are able to connect with more folks than we could have ever imagined, we tend to migrate towards those who are similar to us. With the exception of celebrities and news or information sources, I suspect most of us follow folks on Twitter with similar interests or join groups on LinkedIn that contain folks just like us. While this serves a purpose and enables us to grow in our areas of expertise or interest, this tendency may prevent us from fully utilizing the potential of these social technologies. The tools that have the potential of liberating us may actually serve as just another way to reinforce our silos. There is comfort in operating this way, but at the end of the day, it is not going to propel us to growth!