Mills: Social networking has a long history in the work place

Building an effective social network in a work setting takes a combination of political savvy and exceptional people skills.

The idea of building a network of social contacts has definitely evolved to something unique and current.

I’d like to bring us back to the basics because social networking in a work context has a much longer history.

The social component here is obviously the personal connections between people, the relationships between those who have some sort of stake in the work that is getting done.

They may be internal or external contacts but there is a relationship of some kind that is mutually productive and rewarding.

The purpose of building such a social network is to leverage those resources when they are needed to get things done.

It’s more than getting the right department involved to resolve a particular problem; it’s about knowing which person in that department is able and most willing to help out.

Building an effective social network in a work setting takes a combination of political savvy and exceptional people skills.

I’m not convinced this is something that can be taught, though it is definitely a talent that can be learned.

To demonstrate my point, I’d like to share the story of Gerry. He was a colleague of mine years ago when I worked part-time while in graduate school.

Our jobs consisted of tracking international rail shipments for Canadian customers. We used complex computerized systems to follow a shipment’s progress.

When the customers called we needed to be able to tell them right away where their cargo was and when they could expect it to arrive. Inevitably there were delays.

This was a customer service role first and foremost. Everything was time sensitive and that put a lot of pressure on our team to resolve issues quickly and effectively.

Each of us needed to know who to contact when we ran into a complication with the shipment. The biggest challenge was learning how to navigate all the interconnected systems and people that made the railway run.

The job was overwhelming for a newcomer like me, clearly not a good fit but I was a student and needed the income. In hindsight, I grew to appreciate it for the real educational experience that it was.

I learned from a master about how a social network could make a difficult job not only easier, but actually fun.

One of the main lessons from this experience was the difference between formal training and in the trenches learning.

My training involved spending time with two key people on the team—John, a smart, articulate young man who knew the formal work systems very well and Gerry who also knew the systems but also used his contacts to get things done in a uniquely efficient way.

It quickly became obvious that Gerry was brilliant at what he did. It took me a while though, to understand why.

At first, Gerry seemed like an unassuming guy who was extremely committed to his job.

He really came alive though when there was a difficult customer problem to solve. He was smart and resourceful and always knew just the right person who could help.

I learned that over the years Gerry had built up a social network that was unrivalled on the team.

His work area was covered in notes and lists of contact numbers that no one else had. Gerry was always respectful and never abused the inside access he was given by those individuals. He was also quick to help out someone else whenever he could.

Gerry’s style was a great example of how to create a live human network—a community of reciprocal helpmates—to achieve a shared goal.

Social networking the old school way still works.  Fostering workplace relationships is a great way to build the kind of cooperative effort everyone needs to perform well.

We can all take a lesson from Gerry.  May he rest in peace.