How to Make and Cultivate Connections on a Professional Social Network

By David F. Carr

You may want to start building a professional social network with your allies — the people you turn to regularly for advice and guidance. This may include old college friends and respected former co-workers. But where social collaboration becomes more important is with the maintenance of weaker, more casual connections.

Why? Because digital collaboration may be the least significant aspect of your relationship with the people you know well (because you probably already contact them — or even see them in person — whenever possible). It’s the lesser connections that you want to strengthen.

Here’s how that may work: You meet someone interesting, in person or online, start “following” them (essentially, subscribing to their social collaboration updates), and wind up connecting with other people from their network. You find a document that’s highly relevant to your work and follow the link back to the author so you can keep tabs on anything new he posts on the subject. Over time, you may converse with these people online, connect with them in person as the opportunity arises, and turn them into closer connections.

The extended connections you establish beyond your circle of close friends, co-workers, and allies are known in social networking theory as weak ties. Weak ties are important because you can have a lot more of them, and digital social networks allow you to keep track of many more of these people than you can in your head. Even if we don’t remember each other at first glance, our respective social profiles are packed with reminders, including the mutual contacts who can vouch for us. These aren’t people who would lay down their lives for you or stake their reputations on your reliability. Still, they have enough nodding familiarity with you to do you a casual favor or make an introduction to someone who can help you with your project or cut through layers of bureaucracy. You, of course, would do the same for them.

Building your professional network

Professional social networking is about knowing people who know people as much as it is about knowing people with specific technical knowledge. Even when they don’t know the answer to a question or the solution to a problem, people with extensive networks know where to turn. They understand the organization and its politics. They know how to get things done.

You may or may not be able to turn yourself into one of those people, but if not, you want to be connected to people like that. Here are some guidelines for getting connected:

  • Start with your existing connections. The best way to build your network is a little at a time but steadily. In the beginning, you’ll probably start with a handful of network connections. Some systems will automatically assign you a starter set of digital relationships based on a company org chart. If that’s not automatic, start by making sure you have the appropriate connections to your supervisor, subordinates, and the co-workers you collaborate with more frequently.

  • Watch the activity stream. Watch for patterns of interaction between others on the social collaboration network, looking for those who are well connected or well informed about the business in general or specific facets you’re interested in.

  • Search for people with specific knowledge or skill sets. If your collaboration network includes a good search tool, use it to find content on the topics you care about and trace it back to the author or authors. To the extent that people have fleshed out their profiles and tagged them properly (which they don’t always), you may find experts and other good connections that way.

    Try to think ahead to the connections you may need someday, based on the sorts of work you’re doing or planning to do, as well as your career path and ambitions.

  • Seek introductions. Most social collaboration network profiles allow you to see who your connections are connected to, and some of those people should probably be your connections, also. Browsing contacts lists on profiles is one way of finding potential connections. Following the stream of social interactions from your contacts will also let you see who their best contacts are.

Be polite, but don’t be shy. The point of a social collaboration network is to build connections throughout the workforce. Colleagues are unlikely to object to you following them or reaching out to make a connection, particularly if you show yourself to be a productive member of the community who helps others as you would like to be helped.

Cultivating connections

Good connections deserve to be cultivated. You cultivate your network of connections by keeping it growing and healthy.

  • Eliminate gaps. Pay attention to the mix of connections you have as well as whether there are gaps, such as new co-workers whom you’ve not yet connected with online. Perhaps they need you to show them what the collaboration network is good for.

  • Reinforce casual connections. If you build an extensive social network at work, you won’t be tightly connected to all those people. Remember that part of the point of an online social network was to allow you to establish more weak ties, or casual connections.

    Even casual connections need to be reinforced, however, or they wither away to nothing. In everyday use, the social software environment gives you the tools to keep in touch with those more casual contacts. When they post something, you can Like it or share it (when appropriate) just to stay on their radar.

  • Build stronger connections with your best allies. There may be other contacts you want to cultivate more actively: say, people you work with or would like to work with but don’t see every day. Even if they haven’t posted lately, find an excuse to mention them in your posts or send them a message. Ask their advice, showing that you respect their opinion. If you don’t work in the same location but have an excuse to visit, consider asking them to lunch.

One of the ways how a social network can be most valuable is in helping you connect with expertise you lack and answers to questions you didn’t even anticipate you’d need. This is where having a sizable and robust network becomes very valuable. You can ask your own network of contacts the big question, and maybe you’ll get lucky and have someone who knows the answer already connected to you.

Maybe a search of the social network will turn up someone with the right expertise. Often, though, the human social network is more powerful. Post your question to the social network stream, and you may get (if not an answer) an introduction to someone who probably knows the answer. What works even better is reaching out to the people you know — the people whose relationships you’ve cultivated — until you know a little bit about what and whom they know.

With a strong network, even if you don’t know who to ask, you will know who would know.