June 20 1994 column for

Networking On and Offline

By Christopher Locke

The real advantage of networks is that they support networking. This will seem ridiculously obvious to two groups: those who already understand the power of the Internet, and those who haven't a clue as to what the fuss is all about.

TCP/IP, network capacities, data security and other burning technical issues too often shape corporate decisions about the Internet. While these are important, they shouldn't be the primary factors driving decisions fundamental to your organization's future identity and aptitudes.

Networking is primarily social. If it doesn't enable people to work together more effectively, it isn't worth the investment -- no matter how fast, secure or efficient the physical infrastructure. The following are seven principles of effective networking, all of which radically challenge conventional wisdom.

1. Talk to anyone about anything.
Participate in other people's thinking whenever possible. Being too important or too busy will seem thin excuses when your more attentive competitor snags a chunk of your market share. Aloof executive-style one-liners -- "Ms. Webster will be addressing your concerns on our behalf" -- are a curt invitation to take a flying leap. Valuable colleagues and customers are all too likely to take you up on it.
2. Develop a high tolerance for ambiguity.
Being too attached to "the right answer" can be a serious character flaw these days. In an environment of continual and dynamic change, yesterday's right answer can easily precipitate tomorrow's fatal misstep. Listen to everybody's point of view without deciding too quickly which is correct. This is difficult for managers schooled in the value of crisp precision and unwavering certainty. Like beauty, chaos is in the eye of the beholder -- learn to surf it. Consider, ponder, delay judgment. When you do decide, notice how much smarter you've suddenly become.
3. Be willing to look stupid.
People in management positions seldom ask questions that might belie their ignorance. Where knowledge is power and nothing more, the desire to understand can become a dangerous indicator of weakness. Expose this attitude for what it is: counterproductive to your organization's mental and financial health. The more senior you are, the more people you should be asking for help. Nobody believes you know it all anyway -- starting with yourself. But a lot of smart folks together probably know more than you do alone. Appearing stupid always beats true ignorance.
4. Give more than you take.
Reserving knowledge for personal advantage runs counter to the real demands on businesses today. Offering useful information builds robust relationships and powerful teams -- which need not be physically co-located anymore. They don't even need to be limited to your own company or focused on it's direct objectives. "What can I do for you?" can be a truly unfriendly question. Don't ask; just do it. Then watch how your professional life changes overnight.
5. Cultivate fearlessness.
Get comfortable with risk. The Not Invented Here syndrome has buried a lot of companies. If you're afraid of losing your job for taking action, be prepared to move on. If you're in a company geared for survival and success, you probably won't have to. A company that would fire you for taking intelligent initiative doesn't have much of a half-life anyway. W. Edwards Deming said "Drive Out Fear!" Take this challenge personally.
6. Go on gut feel.
Hone your intuition and learn to trust it. Quantitative analysis should always be suspect. It works wonders when all the assumptions are accurate and the variables selected are the right ones. This happens approximately once every million years. You need to move faster than that. Genuine insight is seldom reflected in spreadsheets. Rather, it grows organically out of experience and imagination, neither of which can be applied as context-free rule sets.
7. Expand your sense of humor.
Delusions of self-importance are usually harbingers of early senility. Ditto nagging doubts. A prominent cardiologist once proposed a simple formula guaranteed to prevent heart failure: 1) Don't sweat the small stuff, and 2) It's all small stuff. Work less; play more; dream always. You'll be far more effective: no joke.
None of these principles work in isolation from the rest. Taken together, they constitute the social bedrock on which high-performance organizations are built. Networking is not some isolated phenomenon that arrived with the advent of high technology. But networking technology may very well encourage and promote these invaluable human qualities at a critical moment in your company's evolution.

And that's what all this Internet fuss is really all about.