Early personal computers were groundbreaking, but limited. They could run many applications like word processors, spreadsheets, accounting software, databases, but only one at a time. So, the arrival of operating systems that enabled a form of multitasking was a huge step forward. Two other developments that affected PCs were even more significant. The first was networking. PCs that could be linked together in local area networks (LAN) dramatically increased efficiency, particularly in businesses, by enabling users to easily share data, work together, and do both without ever having to leave their desks. The second significant development was the Internet. It’s true that the Internet is also a network, but “network” is too narrow a word to describe the Internet’s ubiquitous reach and its seismic impact on the way the world works.
In a way, Internet-enabled computers are like a crude version of the neurons and synapses of the human brain; as individual components they have limited capabilities, but interlinked, they form a single entity of astounding processing capacity. The human brain and computer networks are classic examples of systems where the whole is vastly more powerful than the sum of the parts. Yet, by far the most potent system in which the whole is vastly more powerful than the sum of the component parts is a network of human beings working together for a common purpose. That kind of network is truly formidable because it has the power to transform the world.
We humans are the most amazing, self-sufficient “machines” in existence, yet, like the early PCs, our potential is only fully realized when we intellectually interact with others. Our greatest achievements throughout history – though not all of them commendable – would have been impossible without the establishment of complex human networks. Today, with the help of computers – PCs, tablets, smartphones, etc. – and the Internet, inter-human cooperation – networking – even with people on the other side of the world, has become much easier. Nothing illustrates our eagerness to cooperate with others better than the wildfire spread of Internet social networking. The special value to businesses of such instant collaboration tools has only recently been fully appreciated. Facilitating the pooling of an organization’s brainpower is increasingly recognized as an enormous productivity booster. That recognition accounts for the fast-growing popularity of a new type of Internet service called enterprise social networking – a sort of blend of Twitter and Facebook that’s secure and configurable so that it can be restricted to a predefined set of users or groups. One such enterprise social network operation is Yammer – a San Francisco based company recently acquired by Microsoft for 1.2 Billion – whose revenue is reported in The Economist to have grown by 132% last year alone.
We couldn’t socialize or run organizations without our human networks, whether they’re Internet based or not. Yet, in both areas one factor is vital: that those networks be nourishing. That means constantly seeking out and fostering contacts that are positive and that help us to grow, while avoiding, as much as possible, those that don’t. It may be self-evident that we should concentrate on fostering useful contacts, many of us waste our time on the other kind: those relationships that nourish neither our social nor our business lives. The sole benefit, if it can be called a benefit, of such relationships is that our stock of contacts increases. Sadly, Internet social networking has greatly facilitated this time-wasting activity. The almost daily publication of new statistics about the spread of social networking tells us that people love networking; yet those statistics usually don’t reveal the full story. “Friending” someone we don’t know just because they may be the “friend” of someone we do know, tricks many of us into believing that we’re building a network of valuable contacts. Sometimes we are, but mostly, we’re not.
That’s a great pity, because, when used wisely, Internet social networking is an unparalleled means of building a broad network of valuable contacts who all contribute to each other’s mutual growth. But the process can only be truly beneficial if “friending,” which so often is done flippantly, is approached in a more measured and professional manner. That means friending new contacts only if the relationship is likely to be mutually beneficial. If we’re not meticulous in choosing whom we friend, we’re likely to become overwhelmed by contacts that are of no benefit to either party.
Blogging is another method of generating valuable contacts via the Internet. A company or personal blog is an effective way of getting our message across to many people at once. It has the advantage of being interactive and so, elicits useful feedback from readers. Even negative feedback serves as a compass that helps us reassess our approach. A good blog helps build a valuable network of followers with common interests or goals. In addition, and especially for businesses, it conveys an intimate personal mood, which generates a kind of credibility that advertising can’t match.
In business – all other things being equal – efficient human networking is the difference between success and failure. Even those who appear not to need much contact with others – reclusive computer programmers, artists or writers, for example – are essentially small businesses, which wouldn’t survive without a network of contacts to help promote, exhibit and sell their work. Indeed, networking is especially important for small businesses, since even a little boost they may get through their network of contacts – an order, a referral, an endorsement – is likely to have a disproportionately positive impact.
“People networking” tends to be a fad subject, especially for businesses – it goes in and out of fashion every few years. But successful businesspeople don’t regard it as a trend; they treat it as a vital necessity – little short of the oxygen for the business. That’s why they network constantly. They know that, unlike other business trends, networking must never go out of fashion simply because, without it, like a person without friends, their business would fade into obscurity.