The Science of Networking: 3 Seminal Theories

Feb 1, 2024

Today's professional networks give you access to people, information and opportunities. Unfortunately, that comes at the cost of overwhelming noise. A constant hum of irrelevant content and self-promotion, generic messages and random connection requests. Real networking is not about like hunting, GPT-generated listicles and posting the link in the first comment to game the algorithm.

Building a robust network requires prioritizing real connections and meaningful conversations. A conscious and intentional approach to networking should draw on decades of network science research, a field that understands the dynamic nature of human networks and the complexity of real-world relationships. In this series, we will introduce seminal theories from renowned researchers, such as Stanley Milgram and Mark Granovetter, setting the stage for a new take on networking, geared towards helping you succeed professionally.

Read on for a quick peek into some of the most prominent concepts in the field of network science.

Nobody Is a Stranger

The world is smaller and more interconnected than it may seem at first glance: within a large and seemingly disjointed network, individuals are often connected by relatively short chains of intermediaries. In 1967, Stanley Milgram asked people in Omaha to forward letters to someone they did not know in Massachusetts. His research showed that even with little information about the target individual, people could successively pass on a message along a chain. He concluded that everyone on the planet is connected by a chain of acquaintances, about six links long. You may have heard the term "six degrees of separation" that is sometimes used as a synonym for this small world phenomenon. A more recent study conducted by Meta in 2016, which looked at their friend graph, found that the average number of links between users was 3.57, indicating an even smaller world. Knowing that there are ways to connect with people within your networks, even if they seem unfamiliar or distant at first, shows that there is always a warm introduction waiting - you just have to ask.

Get Out of Your Bubble

So called “weak ties” play a crucial role in social networks by providing access to diverse information and opportunities. Sociologist Mark Granovetter asked a random sample of professionals in 1973 how they had found their new jobs: 82% of them had found them through a contact they saw only occasionally or rarely. This suggests that the strength of weak ties lies in their ability to connect individuals to diverse and novel resources, information and opportunities that may not be readily available within one's own close-knit network. Further evidence for the strength of weak ties theory was provided by experiments conducted on LinkedIn's 'People You May Know' algorithm in 2022 which showed that the weakest ties had the greatest impact on job mobility, while the strongest ties had the least. While your strong ties are essential for emotional support and stability, your weak ties are vital for broadening your horizons, accessing new information and fostering innovation. By broadening your interactions to include weak ties, you can break out of your bubble and cultivate a more rounded, diverse and enriched professional life.

Become the Broker

Ronald Burt's research on structural holes found that people tend to form groups and communicate more often within groups than between them. As a result, people within the same group develop similar views. Burt has found that the value of your social capital depends on the 'structural holes' you can bridge, i.e. if you act as a broker between different groups, you'll have a unique and valuable position in your network to access non-redundant information and facilitate between groups. The so-called 'brokers' between groups are more creative, better paid and better promoted. Find out what groups you are uniquely positioned to connect, differentiate yourself by becoming a broker in your network and see how bridging structural holes will drive your success.

A strategic approach to networking will reap massive rewards. Embrace the potential of seemingly distant contacts - the world is smaller than you may think! Leverage your weak ties to access diverse information, and become a broker between groups within your network. Understanding your network in those ways is the first step towards developing it and putting yourself in the best position to harness its potential and achieve your goals.

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