Personal Networks: 6 Important Dimensions

There are many ways to assess the composition of your network and its impact on performance, learning and innovation. For example, sociologists commonly look at the effect of certain similarities between people-such as age, race, education, and gender-on clustering in networks. But these demographics do not always illustrate the subtle means by which one’s contacts affect learning. In many coaching sessions with managers at all levels in organizations, we have found at least six dimensions of personal networks to be consistently important.

  1. Relative Hierarchical Position. Networks can be biased by an over-reliance on people who occupy certain hierarchical positions. Managing relationships with those higher than, at the same level, and lower than you is a hallmark of a well-rounded organizational network. In general, balance is important, and people’s networks seem to fall out of balance when they don’t maintain enough relationships overall, when they focus too heavily on those higher in the organization, or when they miss the technical expertise that can often be gained from those at lower levels.
  2. Relative Organizational Position. People tend to pay attention to, interact with, and learn from those in their home department. However, as one moves up in the hierarchy, bridging relationships (to other departments and organizations) become increasingly important to ensure effective learning and decision-making. Unfortunately, when people need bridging relationships the most, they often have the least time to spend building them.
  3. Physical Proximity. The likelihood of collaborating with someone decreases the farther you are from that person. Distances of only a few feet, let alone floors in a building or even buildings themselves, often prove to be critical fragmentation points in networks. With executives, this problem often results in their not understanding the needs of those in different locations, such as field sites.
  4. Structured Interactions. Look at almost any manager’s Day-Timer: It is common to see back-to-back meetings from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M., day after day. The critical question from a learning perspective is whether the people you are seeking as your primary information conduits are the best sources for the task-relevant information you need, or whether they are simply built into your schedule.
  5. Time Invested in Maintaining Relationships. Do you invest enough time in maintaining relationships that are important to you? People often spend the most time and effort maintaining relationships that need little investment or that are antagonistic and offer little benefit. People have finite time and energy to put into relationships. Managing these investments wisely can yield substantial performance and learning benefits.
  6. Length of Time Known. Is there diversity in your network in terms of the length of time that you have known people? If you have known too many people for too long, you are probably hearing things you already know or, more insidious, knowingly or unknowingly using other people to get your own opinions confirmed. It is good to see new people cycling into (and out of) a person’s network as his or her job changes. At the same time, if you have too many new people in your network, it may indicate a lack of sounding boards or confidants with whom you can discuss personal or inflammatory issues.

Combining these dimensions to assess your personal network can give you insight about where to focus your relationship building.

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