STRATEGY

Harness the Power of Weak Ties to Weather the Downturn

Sometimes it's who you know, not who you know well, that can help you land a new job. Using the Internet can help you stay in touch with a lot of contacts at once.
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In the current economic scenario, you might one of the lucky few at a business that is expanding its operations or looking to recruit new talent. Or you might be among the many that are looking for a new job. In either case, you should harness the power of the weak tie, particularly while using the Web.

One of the most amazing findings in sociology is the power of so-called weak ties. In 1973, Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter classified human relationships (ties) into three categories: strong, weak, and absent. An example of a strong tie is to a close friend or a co-worker on the same team. These are people with whom you interact and exchange information with on a regular basis. At the other end of the spectrum are so-called absent ties defined by those relationships (or ties) without substantial significance, such as "nodding" relationships between people living on the same street, or the "tie," for example, to a vendor one would purchase from frequently. Between these two extremes lie a variety of weak ties encompassing former co-workers, people you knew at school or college, people in the same non-profit group, and so on.

Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book Tipping Point postulates on weak ties and the relationships between Connectors, people who have a vast network and link people together; Mavens, the influential voices of knowledge that we rely on for information; and Salespeople, the persuaders who convince us to adopt. These three groups are key in recruiting as well as in getting new ideas and products adopted.

Using strong and weak ties

Let's say you are looking for a new job. You put out the word among your social network, which includes strong and weak ties. Who do you think will most likely tell you about the company that is looking for someone with just your exact skill set? That's right. It's less likely to be a close friend or co-worker, and more likely to be an acquaintance -- a weak tie. Granovetter's startling finding was that more novel information flows through weak ties than through strong ties. In particular, more people find new jobs through weak ties, which are better at connecting people with jobs that might suit them. And people who find their jobs through weak ties earn on average more than people who found their job through a strong tie. Conversely, companies are more likely to find their next employees through weak ties as well.

When you stop to think about it a bit, this makes a lot of sense. Our close friends tend to move in the same circles that we do and the information they receive overlaps considerably with what we already know. Acquaintances, by contrast, know people that we do not and thus receive more novel information.

It would behoove us to cultivate as many weak ties as possible. It's not sufficient, though, to hand out your business card to everyone you meet at the next conference you attend. Such a casual acquaintance merely results in an absent tie; a person you meet once casually at a conference is unlikely to recommend you for a job. Effective weak ties require some level of shared experience or interaction.

Social networks can help

Social networks such as LinkedIn or Facebook are big assets. You can use the FriendFinder tool on Facebook or similar tools at LinkedIn to discover past co-workers or college buddies. These are people you knew well once and are great weak ties to keep alive. Do use such tools actively to enlarge your circle at online social networking sites. Accept invitations from old friend and neighbors, and from past co-workers. Post periodic updates to your status and upload your pictures to Facebook so that you show up on your friends' newsfeeds. And remember to post comments on their walls.

Blogs are another great way to cultivate weak ties, while at the same time, establishing yourself as someone knowledgeable about an industry segment. Post insightful comments on the blogs of industry thought leaders, and join in the conversation. Better yet, start your own blog. The toughest part about blogging is the great discipline it takes to maintain a frequency of posting -- say once a week -- and keeping all posts on topic. But, doing so carries great rewards. You get to form weak ties with all the readers of your blog, which can be very valuable when the need arises. For example, after I started my blog Datawocky earlier this year, I've received invitations to write guest posts like this one, as well as speak at industry events and it has tremendously expanded my network of weak ties.

To summarize, cultivate weak ties. It's never too late to start. And it could make a big difference in your career.

Anand Rajaraman is co-founder of Kosmix with consumer properties www.RightHealth.com, www.RightAutos.com and www.RightTrips.com.  He also sits on the board of several technology companies and is a consulting faculty member at the Computer Science Department of Stanford University. His latest thoughts and discussions can be found at http://anand.typepad.com/datawocky.

Last updated: Nov 1, 2008




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