By Steve Kelman

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Want to be a good IT professional? Build good networks (social ones)

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, the professional association for academics who study organizations. Most of the people there teach at business schools, but a good deal of the research they work on is applicable to the public as well as the private sectors.
I listened to an interesting paper, by Linda Pittenger of the Wesley Howe School of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology, which I suspect falls into that category even though the data was gathered in the private sector. Pittenger interviewed 40 IT professionals at three large companies, 23 of them middle managers and 17 in non-supervisory roles. About half of them had been rated as having "superior" performance and the other half "average."

She asked each of them to discuss a recent experience where they had felt effective at whatever they were trying to accomplish, and another where they felt less effective.
The findings were interesting, and relevant I think to government IT professionals.
Both superior and average non-supervisory employees, Pittenger found, see their main skills as technological. The differences appeared when they discussed recent situations.

The average performers, when they were having problems for which they needed to get advice or information, looked only to their immediate workgroup. In contrast, superior performers reported interacting with more people, including peers in other workgroups. They also were much more likely to make an effort to build relationships with people in other parts of their organizations.
For managers, the findings were analogous. "Although interaction with [customers] and with direct reports was required of both sets of managers, those rated as superior focused more on developing relationships and purposefully orchestrating communication with both clients and subordinates. The regularity and frequency of their interactions with both groups exceed that of average rated managers,” Pittenger wrote. The superior managers spend more time listening to partners and to subordinates.

Nine of the 12 superior-rated managers indicated that they make a deliberate effort to listen to others and to acquire information that will help them understand the needs and concerns of their stakeholders.

Only one in 10 of the average-rated managers reported listening to stakeholders or planning ways to do so.
Want to succeed at your job?  It's not just about being a good technologist – not about building physical networks, so to speak -- but about getting advice and listening. It's about building a social network.
I can predict that some people reading this post will react that the successful IT people are good at networking in the sense of "it's not what you know, it's who you know."  I would urge people against such a sour grapes interpretation. Don't just get to know people in some vague, generic sense -- learn how to cast a wide net to get advice and to listen to others.

Posted on Aug 23, 2011 at 7:27 PM

Reader Comments

Thu, Aug 25, 2011 Steve Kelman

Ken, thanks for your comment. I guess what the author of the paper I cited would say is that you should take the initiative, if you are a manager, to consult with your subordiantes, and if you are a non-supervisor, you should seek out people from other workgroups who are experts to whom you can ask questions -- a lot of people are flattered to be asked, especially if they're in a different group and not in informal competition.

Wed, Aug 24, 2011 Ken Washington, DC

This is a very good article, with a very insightful observation. The author expressed the need to build good social networks, and this is good; however I wish that the author would have also told us how to build good social networks!

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