Engaging with your Professional Network

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

I didn’t really see myself as someone who was good at networking.  I have to take a deep breath and steel myself before entering a room full of people unless I already know them all.  But I do it because there is always the possibility that I might meet someone interesting.  It surprised me then that during an appraisal one year my line manager pointed to networking as one of my strengths.  Really?!  Yes, because I was always bringing people to our department who had interesting ideas, projects and attributes that would enhance what we were trying to do.

What was it I was doing?  Just following interests, enjoying talking to people, keeping my mind open and being creative about how I could work with the people I met.  Admittedly some of those people I never saw again but others became good colleagues and some also friends.  Over time we built up relationships that became stronger and stronger following the 5As that I described in an earlier post on this site from February 16th.

What I discovered later was also a theory that has implications about getting new ideas from others.  As the theory goes, we generally work in groups of 5.  This is the number of people you see frequently and with whom you share and discuss ideas most frequently.  If you and your friends move only in this group you’re likely to lapse into group-think, only knowing and understanding a small fraction of what the world is doing.  In practice it doesn’t work completely like this.  Your core of 5 is not the same as that of your 4 core members.  There are probably some overlaps, but they are more likely to have others in their core and this will enable new ideas to be brought in to yours.

Then of course the net continues to spread with you having a wider group of about 50 people you see on a less frequent basis but whom you would be happy to invite to your party. Beyond that is a group of around 150.  It is difficult to keep up with more than that because you have reached the limit of your mental capacity.

What if you could keep people who are within that 150 a bit closer to you? The trick might be in the connections you have and the people with whom your connections are linked.  Are they the kind of people who could provide you with the ideas that you might need in the future, ideas for new avenues to explore, new knowledge and new collaborators, for instance?  If you could build the ideal network, what would it look like?

At the Research Staff Event on June 20th we will be doing just that.  One of the workshops will explore who we would like in our networks and how we can set them up to be the most useful.

My thanks to Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford, for developing his theories around Dunbar’s Number.