"We organize information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way. As a result, maps suggest explanations; and while explanations reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions, consider other possibilities. To ask for a map is to say, 'Tell me a story.'"
This line, written by Peter Turchi, comes from the beginning of his book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. The very beginning--the first page, in fact, which I just read minutes ago. Normally, I'd never quote from a book I've just started. Something about that seems a little strange--as if I haven't yet earned the right (to support this, I searched a bit on Google to see if others had written about the etiquette of quoting from the first page of a book but came up with nothing). But Turchi's line spoke directly to a topic I've been thinking about for a while now: If you were to visually map your professional network, you might be able to better understand which people are really important to you.
I often encourage our team members to put energy into developing their professional network. Meeting and developing semi-professional relationships with people that you don't work directly with will enable networking and learning opportunities that strengthen your career. It's always healthy to get exposure to how other people see and do differently the things you do all day. Gaining that kind of perspective can only improve your own work, and of course may make it easier for you to find other opportunities if you need them. No, I don't necessarily want anyone on our team to "network" themselves away from Newfangled, but I trust that encouraging professional networking will always be a good thing. If it's good for our people, it's good for our company.
So with this in mind, I thought about what my professional network might look like if I mapped it visually. I tried a few different configurations, but was interested in what happened to the way I thought about my network when I mapped it in terms of how often I speak with the people in it. Besides the 16 people with whom I speak on a daily basis--my co-workers at Newfangled--I listed those with whom I speak at least several times a month in one group and those with whom I speak least once every few months in the other. What surprised me is that I found that there were more people in my extended professional network (not Newfangled employees) listed among the group with whom I speak less regularly than the the more frequent group. Now that I see it plotted out and think it through, it makes a lot of sense. It probably isn't that normal to expect to be in very regular contact with people you know professionally but don't work directly with. But what's even more interesting is that the two or three people that have significantly impacted my career in the last year (remember, not coworkers) are among those in the infrequent group, not those that I am in contact with even on a weekly basis. Perhaps my relationship with them is just fine as it is now, but when I consider how infrequently I'm in touch with these people I value so much, it makes me motivated to be in touch with them more often.
Here's the basic point, and it's a short one: Visualizing the make-up of your professional network, whether in terms of frequency of contact or some other metric, will tell you a story about the people you know and probably reveal to you their importance in a new way. Once you do this, you'll probably be in a much better position to extract value from your network than you were before.
Have you done anything like this? If so, what have you learned about your network that you didn't know before?
By the way, this week's Spark podcast included an interview with Andrew McAfee on Enterprise 2.0, during which he discusses strong and weak-tie professional networks. Check it out...