Network Literacy in the Networked Age

Reid recently published an essay on LinkedIn about network literacy, which develops and expands upon the idea which we first articulated in The Start-Up of You. Essay included below. – BC

It’s said that when architects walk through an office, they see ceiling ornamentation, light sources, building acoustics. When psychologists walk through an office, they see unresolved father issues and avoidant personality disorders. When I walk through an office, I see networks. I know that makes me sound like the kid from The Sixth Sense. But I don’t see dead people. I see networks.

When you truly see networks, it changes the way you plan and strategize. You move differently.

Take job hunting. The Networked Age has radically changed this activity, and yet when you ask people how they look for a job, a surprising number continue to say they “search the job listings.” That’s the Information Age approach! In the Networked Age, you should look for people with connections to companies you’re interested in, trace the best path from those connections to people who can share useful intelligence, and then ask for introductions to those people.

Or consider investing. In my work at Greylock Partners, I don’t form an investment theory and then go search for a startup that fits this theory. Nor do I purchase ad space in the Yellow Pages and hope that talented entrepreneurs let their fingers do the walking until they find me. Again, those are Information Age approaches.

The Networked Age approach? I focus on being a great ally to my network, and developing strong relationships where the information flow is highly reciprocal. I put myself at as many key intersections in my networks as I can. As a result, my network inevitably ends up connecting me with great entrepreneurs and great investments.

A decade ago, John Battelle stressed the importance of “search literacy.” What he meant was that people who were skilled at using Google to find information had an edge over those who had yet to acquire this aptitude. In the Information Age, if you couldn’t make sense of an increasingly information-rich world through effective search capabilities, you’d be culturally marginalized, just like a person who couldn’t read street signs.

Now, those who can conceptualize and understand networks – both online and off – have an edge in today’s fast-paced and hyper-competitive landscape, where the speed with which we can make informed decisions is critical. To wit, the subtitle of my forthcoming book is “Managing Talent in the Networked Age” — I think the networked age changes everything.

I like to use the word “literacy” in this context because it suggests a fundamental skill, a capability you must possess in order to effectively navigate the world. An illiterate person, a person who can’t read street signs or complete job applications, has limited opportunities compared to others who possess these skills. A literate person moves freely and capably through the world.

So how do you know when you’re network-literate? I think in terms of three levels that signify ascending competency:

Apprentice: Using network technology

Journeyman: Establishing a network identity

Master: Utilizing network intelligence

Apprentice: Using network technology

At this most basic level of network literacy, you’re part of some networks. You have a Facebook profile, a LinkedIn profile, etc. You’re using these networks to keep in touch with people you know, and on occasion, you may even use them to facilitate new connections.

While you may not be completely fluent yet, you understand that Facebook is more than just a place to announce what you had for lunch – it’s a place to strengthen personal relationships. Similarly, you know that LinkedIn is more than just a repository for your digital resume. You use phrases and keywords with deliberate intention, to maximize your discoverability by the kinds of people you want to be found by.

In the case of my own LinkedIn profile, for example, my headline isn’t “Executive Chairman of LinkedIn.” It’s “Entrepreneur. Product Strategist. Investor.” That’s because my LinkedIn profile is targeted primarily to entrepreneurs who might want financing from me.

(You’d be surprised at how many people simply use their current job title as the headline of their LinkedIn profile. This isn’t wrong per se. But ultimately the headline on your LinkedIn headline is the first thing many people will see about you in a professional context – so it’s an excellent place to choicefully craft your network identity. And your network identity is larger – or at least it should be larger — than your current position and company affiliation.)

Another way to make yourself more findable by the kinds of people you want to be found by are to join the same LinkedIn groups that they’re participating in, or to follow relevant companies and individuals within the domain of your industry. Once you start thinking in terms of how the people you want to be found by might in fact find you – and tailoring your profile to maximize such potential discoveries – you have begun to think in a network-literate way.

 

Journeyman: Establishing a network identity

Once upon a time, we exercised unchecked authority over our identities, verbally air-brushing our resumes into highly idealized portraits of ourselves, carefully vetting the references we chose to vouch for us. In the Networked Age, however, we’re all visibly and enduringly enmeshed in networks – even the so-called “self-made man” is a highly annotated specimen, with readily apparent links to the colleagues, mentors, institutions, and other entities that have helped shape the contours of his identity.

Indeed, we’re all the sum of an ongoing conversation that we initiate and propel, but which colleagues, customers, and even competitors contribute to as well. And while we once relied upon the broad strokes of resumes to define us, now we’re often judged by far more granular, network-derived metrics of influence and authority: Who retweets our tweets? Who comments on our Medium posts? Who shows up on LinkedIn as a 1 degree connection?

In the Networked Age, your professional identity expands well beyond your job title and the company you work for. You’re not just “you” anymore. You’re also who you know, how they know you, what they know about you, who they know, and so on. At the Journeyman level, this way of thinking is becoming second nature to you. You understand that your identity is multivariate, distributed, and partially out of your control – your network helps shape your identity too.

Increasing your network literacy also means understanding other people’s network identities. Tell me the name of a person, and I’ll think of the network around them. I always see a person as part of a larger web of relationships. When I met Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s current CEO, I’d already had conversations with many of my own trusted colleagues about him. I had relationships with people that he had relationships with, and these strong points of network connectivity gave me a clear signal about Jeff and the kinds of people he trusted and valued most. I had a network portrait of him. And based on that portrait, I knew I wanted to build a strong relationship with him.

 

Master: Utilizing network intelligence

Spend five minutes watching your LinkedIn feed or Twitter timeline, and it’s clear that information proliferates even faster in the Networked Age than it did in the Information Age. Consequently, the ability to extract the right information at the right time is more crucial than ever. Search literacy is an important starting point, but in today’s high-velocity world, network literacy is increasingly crucial too.

In the Information Age, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and eventually Google were typically people’s “first reads,” i.e., their default sources of new information and intelligence. Now, if you’re fully network-literate, your networks are your first reads – because you’ve consciously built up pipelines of people who reliably deliver information that is highly significant and relevant to you.

There is a whole “dark net” of critical-edge information that hasn’t made it into newspapers and blogs, information that exists only in people’s heads. In the past, such information was difficult to access for all but the best-connected and most persistent individuals. Now, it’s often just a few keystrokes away.

And if you’re fully network literate, you’ve taken the time to understand the information flows within any given network. You know who the news breakers are. You know the thought leaders, the critics, and skeptics within a particular domain. You’re familiar with their preferred sources and biases.

While platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter certainly qualify as information Costcos, one-stop shopping for data en masse, the quality of your connections – and the strength of the relationships you have with them — generally matters more than the quantity. Ten extremely informed individuals who are happy to share what they know with you when you engage them can tell you a lot more than a thousand people you only know in the most superficial way.

But remember, using networks well is always a two-way street. People who exhibit the highest levels of network literacy know that the more relevant, high-quality information you share with others, the more such information you’re likely to receive. To be truly network literate is to always be thinking of how you can add value to the networks you’re a part of, and to make it a priority to turn connections into relationships, and relationships into alliances.

What Do You See When You Enter a Room?

These days, it’s not just Internet entrepreneurs who should see networks everywhere they look. When architects walk into a room, they should see networks. When psychologists walk into a room, they should see networks. In the Networked Age, we’re all like the little kid from The Sixth Sense. If you’re not seeing networks when you enter a room, you might want to check your pulse.

One Response to Network Literacy in the Networked Age

  1. Because of posts like this I surf the internet and when I found you, the time I felt I was wasting, just turned my thoughts around and now I am thinking I invested my time in something really interesting. …

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