Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chair of LinkedIn and investor in Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon, sees networks. “It’s not like The Sixth Sense,” he told the crowd at TED on Wednesday. “I don’t see dead people. But I do see networks.” This lens has given Hoffman a framework for how he views investment opportunities, various projects, and the world.
Hoffman believes the ability to see and understand networks and use them to your advantage is a critical skill for the 21st century workforce. “It’s more than networking. It’s more than exchanging business cards and following up after a conference — although that is still important,” he says.
Unlike the information age that rose over a decade ago, where content was primary, in today’s network age, Hoffman argues that relationships are primary. This interconnected world has replaced the traditional career ladder, requiring new skills and tactics. Hoffman likens it to a new literacy — a term he chooses with intention — believing it to be a baseline skill that requires training and understanding for people in today’s workplace. He sees four key attributes for network literacy:
1. Obtain a basic understanding of network technology. Networks are facilitated by technology and so a certain fluency with the technology involved is key. Here it’s less a call for coding than for understanding the capabilities of services like social networks and the differences and similarities between them.
2. Craft your network identity. You are who you know, says Hoffman — but also what they know about you. In a networked age, your identity is multivariate and slightly out of your control. Who you know shapes who you are.
3. Understand network intelligence. This is more than simply understanding how to access information. Access is no longer the issue. It’s how to find the right information through your network. If someone is trying to connect to someone at Sony, for example, you need to think about the nature of the information needed and find the right connection, as opposed to simply looking for someone with Sony on their CV.
4. Understand network capabilities. People are still focused today on information instead of what Hoffman sees as more important today — communities and networks. Aligning your focus more on the network and surrounding yourself with the right people in your networks will change the way you approach problems and advance through life.
So are there limits to the network approach? The famous “Dunbar’s number” suggests that people have the cognitive capacity to keep about 150 relationships in their heads. Hoffman thinks that concept is outdated. “One hundred and fifty relationships might be the limit for our short-term memory — our RAM, if you will — but under that lies a hard drive that has much more capacity.” To illustrate this concept, Hoffman explains that he has 15 million people in his third-degree network (friends of friends of friends) on LinkedIn. “That’s more than the population of Greece or Portugal.”