Editor's note: Networking need not be a mystery, and understanding how it works usually makes finding a job much easier. Networking expert Dick van Vlooten, founder and owner of di Cuore, an institute that does research on the art of doing "business from the heart," has been training businesspeople, students, and entrepreneurs in the art of networking for 4 years, as well as publishing sociological articles and giving lectures to project managers, sales representatives, and young researchers. In this series of articles, he shares his insights on the art of networking, using simple concepts he has developed from sociological theories of networks, field research, and his own experiences.

Imagine the following scene: You're at a party, and from the corner of your eye you glimpse the most gorgeous person you've ever seen. You shiver, you blush, and eventually you resolve to gather all your courage to do the unthinkable: approach the gorgeous one.

In networking terms, succeeding in starting a conversation with this person is what I will call "connecting." This is one strategy of approaching people, but what others are available? And, maybe most important, how can you have fun doing so?

Connecting With People

Quite often you need to get in touch with a person you do not yet know--: that professor you would like to collaborate with, or the funding body that you hope will be interested in supporting your research. In my job as a networking consultant for service companies and organisations, I've come across this problem a lot. I've seen organisations--and people within organisations--having trouble establishing the connections with potential customers, suppliers, and partners necessary to succeed in achieving what they want. This motivated me to find out more about the dynamics of this situation in order to answer the question: How does the process of connecting work, and how can you make it work for you? I've done some research and found several sociological, peer-reviewed studies that describe this process. In this installment, I summarise the most important principles of some of these studies and show you how they can work in practice.

In general, there are two ways to connect with people. The scene above gives an example of what scientists Holger et al.¹ called " solitary linking," that is, getting acquainted with a person by yourself. The other and often much easier option is " transitive linking": getting a mutual acquaintance to introduce the two of you or getting "referenced."

A Network Is Made of People Who Are Connected

The basis of a network is people who have somehow bonded. They may be friends, colleagues, or mere acquaintances. In a previous Next Wave article, I offered a simplified modelisation of human interactions to allow us to understand relationships better. I defined five modes (see their key elements in the box below) based on how reciprocal the exchange is between you and the other persons, which will determine the level of trust the other person will give you and the kind of reputation you will gain from this relationship.

Mode of interaction

How much the other person will trust you

Exchange balance

The reputation you will gain

If you "steal"

Severe distrust

Completely unequal exchange

Pretty bad

If you "beg"

Trust out of necessity

Unbalanced exchange

Not so good

If you "deal"

Severe distrust

Reciprocal exchange

Neutral to favourable

If you "like"

Genuine trust

Balanced exchange

Favourable

If you "love"

Complete trust

Complete exchange

Very favourable

Your Network

Let me up set up the scene for you. Let's say you're a student, most likely surrounded by other students, who lives in a neighbourhood, has a family, and may do sports with other people. Finally, you're probably a member of a club or society. All these interactions make up five different social circles, or cliques. These will probably be connected through a few weak links that will leave gaps between the clusters, the so-called structural holes .

The hub--Filling the Holes

Look at figure 1, which illustrates the network between you ("Ego") and your five clusters of friends ("Alters").


Figure 1. Example of a network: You ("Ego") and your five clusters of friends ("Alters").

Here you can easily visualise structural holes in your network in that none of the Alters know each other. In fact, you're the one linking all the clusters, and that makes you what I'll refer to as a hub--you could easily introduce the blue alter to the red or the green one. But the question is, would you? That depends on whether you trust the two alters to get on, which is based on the impression they've made on you during previous interactions.

To Be Trustworthy or Not, That Is the Question

The prisoner's dilemma game (see box 1) is frequently used in social studies to get participants to experience the most effective strategy when attempting to collaborate with an unknown person.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

In the "Prisoner's Dilemma" (Axelrod, 1984), the two players in the game can choose between two strategies, these being to either "cooperate" or "not cooperate." The idea is that each player benefits from the interaction when both cooperate. But if only one of them cooperates, the one who doesn't will benefit more. If both refuse to cooperate, both will lose out (or gain very little) but not as much as the "cheated" player whose cooperation is not returned.

Ronald Burt² later elaborated on the principle presented in the prisoner's dilemma game. He found that in closed cliques (that is, groups of people in which everybody knows each other)--the "this-for-that" strategy is the most effective way to play the game. That is, you should start by being cooperative and react to the other players in a cooperative or noncooperative manner to mirror the way they treat you. Be trustworthy if the other player shows he deserves to be trusted. On the other hand, if they "steal" from you, you either steal back or stop the game (i.e., stop interacting).

The opposite of a completely interconnected clique is a fully sparse network, where no one knows anybody else but one person. Figure 1 consists of sparse networks. Burt shows that in this situation, not cooperating at all is without a doubt the best strategy. In general, a competitive advantage thus shifts toward nontrustworthy players when going from closed to open clusters.

Now I'm going to ask you to turn the situation in figure 1 around and imagine being one of the alters. Your reputation will then determine whether you'll be introduced by an alter to one of the other alters. As an example, earlier this year I received a phone call from Claudia, a business manager of a training institute in Switzerland, who, even though we had never met before, asked me to do some work for her. She told me that she called me because Mart (a friend who knows me and my work well) and David (who examined me a few years ago) had recommended me! It is my reputation that made it possible for Claudia to trust me and start working with me.

So What's the Lesson in Real Life?

When you are introduced to a new person, the risk exists that this person will behave in a noncooperative manner toward you, as illustrated in the prisoner's dilemma game. To minimise risk you can try to get people you know well and trust, and who also happen to know well and trust the other person, to introduce you, as illustrated in figure 2.


Figure 2. Introduction to a new person.

A Step-by-Step Scenario

Now let's go to an Almighty Professor, a kind of a Scientifically Gorgeous One you want to meet. Let's suppose you're both taking part in the same seminar. Look at your situation in Figure 3. What do you do? Your initial idea might be to choose solitary linking, that is, to just walk up to her. Right? Think again.

As I've explained, there is a better strategy. First, there is a structural hole to bridge: You don't know the professor and she doesn't know you. Then there's a trust problem: The professor has no reason to trust you, as she has never interacted with you before.


Figure 3. The professor and you.

Therefore, I suggest the following strategy:

1. Make sure that you build up your reputation as soon as possible.

2. Bridge the structural hole to a clique that the professor is in.

3. Get connected to the professor by means of transitive linking: Get referenced.

You could start by suggesting to help organise a seminar that would interest you both in order to set up a "dealing" interaction. This will give you a chance to build up a reputation with him by doing a good job. With this approach, you'll soon have the meeting you wished for.

And the Fun in It?

The fun is in not having to do unspeakable or unethical things and in choosing stuff you like and are good at. The recipe for meeting people is simple: Just do a good job around the person you want to meet and you'll get there.

¹ Holger Ebel, Jörn Davidsen, Stefan Bornholdt (2002). Dynamics of social networks, Complex Adaptive Systems, Part I (8) 2, 24-27.

² Ronald S. Burt (2000), Trust and Reputation, a presentation.