The obvious truth about networks of people

I used to think that networks - between people - are relatively straightforward. There are people that you know, and there are people that you don't know. Web sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook are good at catching some of those connections, but not all. Even in our MORS430 Leadership in Organizations class we learn about weak ties and strong ties in our networks of how we are connected to others.

Yet, there has always been something difficult about this model. How well do you really know all those connections on Facebook or LinkedIn? How often do you keep in touch with people from previous jobs and elsewhere. Do you trust all of your strongest connections?

In recent weeks, I've hit a revelation: this model is wrong. There is not a network of people we are connected to in different ways. There are networks of people we are connected to in different ways. LinkedIn and Facebook are not capturing some partial element of my network. They are two different networks that I belong to. It is a simple truth that has escaped me for a long time, but thinking about networks has changed the way I view the world. Because there are many unspoken types of networks.

For example, there are information networks. In these networks, the brokers help me access knowledge and information that I don't have access to. Often, this information is private. For example, they'll know which startup have been shortlisted by a incubator or angel investor. You could almost describe them as 'gossips'. Then there are reciprocity networks for introductions. The brokers in these networks will introduce you to people with resources. They'll say, 'you should speak to X'. They'll actually help you get in front of the right investor.

What is interesting is that the broker in the information network is not necessarily the broker in the network of introductions. They can be different types of personalities, and so play different roles in each type of network. Beyond information and introductions, there are other networks, from those for getting different types of work done, to even those that spread diseases. The brokers in each type of network will be different because each type of network requires different characteristics of that broker.

It's an obvious truth: we live in many networks. Which ones are important to us? What does it mean to be a broker in each?