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  • Copywriter - James Porter

I know a guy who knows a guy

When we need information, how many times have we heard 'go and speak to such and such' or 'try Lisa - she'll know who to ask'. So is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, formal and informal business relationships are a good thing, they're part of our working lives - it's how people build networks in their working and personal lives. But in a large enterprise with tens of thousands of people spread across the world this approach simply doesn’t scale. In our studies, we’ve discovered that even today people working in big companies still look for expertise by asking people they know who’ve been around a long time. Many admit to using email as a primary way of ‘networking’ and in free text feedback, many people just don’t try to find new expertise because it’s too hard. Here are a couple of examples from two very different organisations one with 2,000 employees and another with over 50,000 employees conducted two years apart. Both organisations have modern collaboration platforms that provide simple LinkedIn style profiles. If employees used these platforms for nothing else other than finding people the productivity benefit would be immense - easily paying for the investment in the technologies in a single year. Creating and maintaining a rich profile with tags, pictures, and bio finding is a ten-minute exercise and it doesn’t it happen for a number of cultural and operational reasons. We've all had conversations with strangers only to find they know someone we know, or they grew up in the same place as us, followed by the common reprise - "wow it's a small world." This phrase originated in the 1950's, from research by American psychologist Stanley Milgram around the concept of Six Degrees of Separation. This concept cites that all people in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other. Recent research by academics analysing massive Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter data sets conclude that there are now only five degrees of separation. Milgram conducted his experiment using volunteers, letters and the US Post to track relationships and connectors – it took him years to finalise his results! His work has been built on by many others including Duncan Watts in his book 'Six Degrees: The science of a connected age', and more recently by Yochai Benkler in his book 'The Wealth of Networks'. A new branch of science has emerged called 'Network Science' - which has helped governments, regulators, and researchers to understand blackouts in the North American electricity distribution network, the relationships between members of corporate boards of directors, the distribution of wealth in societies, peer-to-peer file-sharing systems, computer viruses, and economic bubbles. But in most cases, it’s still easier to navigate around an organisation using LinkedIn than an internal platform. Given the incredible value of simple profiles and follow relationships within enterprise social networks, it’s surely time to consign the idea of ‘I know a guy, who knows a guy’ to the twentieth century, where it belongs. The technology is here and the cost of adoption is trivial.

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