My quest: Redefine and reshape my LinkedIn network. 

As a beginning, I decided that I would send messages to 3 of my LinkedIn contacts every day in order to start building personal connections out of what are, in many cases, very tenuous virtual connections.

I immediately ran into difficulties. Or maybe it would be better to say that in some cases it goes very smoothly but in other cases it seems almost impossible. The easy cases involve people who I already have a personal connection with. Old school friends, people I work(ed) with, people with whom I share a common interest. It is time-consuming but relatively easy to send a note which references that existing relationship.

Difficulties arise, however, when I am trying to develop a relationship from scratch. After just a brief perusal of my contact list, I can state that there are a large number of people who I don't know, can't remember connecting with, and, in some cases, can't even begin to guess what common ground brought us together in the virtual world. It seems a bit callow to send a note saying, "Hello, who are you?" 

That's easy though, compared to people who I'm certain I should remember - but don't. For example, after almost two decades of teaching I have over 3000 former students. I have extreme difficulty remembering names, linking them to faces, and then linking them to the particular circumstances from our time spent in the classroom together.

Which leads me to the title of this post. I would be much better off today if I had been serious about developing my network from the very beginning. If, in my LinkedIn youth, I had kept track of the circumstances which brought me to connect with each of my contacts. Even though I've largely kept to my self-promise not to make connections indiscriminately (well, not completely indiscriminately), I still have a bevy of contacts who I am not personally connected to.

If I had to do it all over again, this is what I would do with each connection made:
  • If I request the connection, put the reason for connecting in my message.
  • If they request the connection, follow up immediately with a LinkedIn email.
  • Use the LinkedIn 'Relationship' feature on their profile to keep notes about our relationship.

I have to always keep in mind that I am building my network for the mutual benefit of all concerned. If I can't keep track of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of my relationships, this network will be of no use to anyone.

Note: Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth is an album by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts - who I am not connected to but who I did see in concert at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in 1982.

What is a professional network? I joined LinkedIn several years ago after a seminar by Rick Itzkowich in Dubai, and have, in theory, been growing my professional network ever since. I have well over 400 connections, but I can't say I've 'connected' with them. How can I or should I use this network? Is use even the correct term?

In reflecting on these questions, I remembered something that Mr. Itzkowich said. In a loose paraphrase - you can't get anything from your network until after you start giving to your network. This seems to me to be a cogent philosophical and psychological point. Philosophically, a connection can't exist until the relationship exists. Psychologically, humans are more likely to contribute their resources to people who are in their social group than to people who are not.

The social aspect of a network requires some sort of social connection. This presents a complication which I can best demonstrate with a 'picture' of my network. [Thanks to LinkedIn Labs]

I have a lot of connections to a lot of different groups. The issue this raises is that my network doesn't represent a single social group that I want to gain access to. In fact, it's safe to say that for any two randomly chosen individuals in my network, the only common element they are likely to have is me. Which isn't to say that the people in my network don't have some sort of common element (more than a third of my network has either worked at or studied at the Higher Colleges of Technology, for example), it's just that that common element isn't necessarily a social connection.

Which explains the initial dilemma: How can a network function when the defining social connection is a person?

I don't know the answer to this question - Yet.

But I think the journey to answer this question will be well worth the effort. Not only for me but for others as well.

So where to start? Coming back to the beginning, I think the place to start is with our philosophical/psychological point. You have to give to your network before it will give back to you.

A good guiding principle, but a bit too vague for execution. Let's translate it into two direct courses of action:
  1. Identify each person in my network in terms of our initial connection (i.e. determine why we came to be connected in the first place).
  2. Reach out to every person in my network in order to start defining what our future (functional) connection will become.
I'll provide regular updates of my progress here. Check back again soon to see how it's going!