Systems Archetypes and Online Networking

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tc.gifI’ve long been a fan of Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which first introduced me to the idea of systems thinking. A lot of the concepts I have practiced and written about for the past four years are based on the application of certain system archetypes to the area of online business networking, particularly the Shifting the Burden and Tragedy of the Commons patterns. These are the basis for many of the decisions I make about how I moderate groups and mailing lists and why I recommend the practices I do on LinkedIn.

I occasionally drop mentions of these concepts in some of the discussion groups in which I participate, but I haven’t gotten around to writing any of it out in more detail. So I was really glad when Liz Ryan e-mailed and asked if she could interview me about the topic for her column at New West. The result is Scott Allen on ‘Shifting the Burden’.

One area in which these models apply particularly to LinkedIn is in the matter of sending a connection request. A systemic look at the issue makes it obvious why it’s important to make invitations and contact requests that have some substance to them:

SA: Sure… in any exchange, each person has certain responsibilities. Most of these aren’t usually spoken out loud or formalized, but we have certain implicit expectations as to whose responsibility some of those things are.

LR: Such as?

SA: For example, if I’m trying to reach you for a phone call—if I’m the one requesting the call, the burden is primarily on me to accommodate your schedule and talk when it’s convenient for you.

LR:: Yes!—and the same is true for lunch and coffee-type networking appointments?

SA: Absolutely. Generally speaking, anyone request anything of someone else should do as much as they can to shoulder as much of they burden as they can themselves.

LR: And Scott, something I have wondered about—when you reach out to someone for networking who doesn’t know you, don’t you bear a little extra burden – to explain your purpose, and perhaps also to know a little something about the person you’re contacting? It cracks me up and sort of irritates me at the same time when someone writes me begging to have coffee, because they heard I know a bunch of people, and then when we get together they ask “So, what do you do?”

SA: It’s not only a matter of simple courtesy, but also increases your odds of them agreeing to do what you’ve asked of them. So one of the things that these technology tools do for us is make it easier to reach out and manage our connections with other people.? In some cases, I think it may make it TOO easy. Because what happens is they make it easy for people to make some kind of request of someone with minimal—even trivial—effort.? What this does is “shift the burden” of evaluating the request entirely to the other person.

LR: And that other person, the recipient, can feel overwhelmed by that—if the request is vague, or comes without any context, etc.?

SA: Exactly. Now they have to spend time evaluating the request and deciding whether to act on it or not and how to act on it if they decide to.? The person making the request has already spent some time getting to that point—it will only take a few more seconds of the requester’s time to provide some context, and it will save the recipient several minutes.

Shifting the burden is especially annoying when the person who’s doing the shifting can accomplish the same task with far less effort!? So for example, if you want to connect with me on LinkedIn—or even just start a communication dialog with me—there is an implicit responsibility on you to at least tell me what you want to talk about—what you see as the common interest. But if you can send me just a generic LinkedIn connection invitation, or like in Ryze, just click the “Network With Me” button, now it “shifts the burden” to me. I’m expected to go look at your profile, read the whole thing, and figure out what we might talk about. And I’m starting at square one.

You’ve already read my profile and decided that there was some reason you wanted to talk to me—at least TELL ME WHAT IT IS!

That’s just a short excerpt of the interview — there’s lots more on group interaction, face-to-face networking and more. Take a read and drop me a comment with your thoughts or questions.

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