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The Three Degrees

I have, it appears, access to a network of 535,500 “Trusted Professionals” of which 157 are “trusted friends and colleagues” and 129,600 can be reached through friends-of-friends, equal to three degrees of separation.

I’m writing of course about “LinkedIn”, an idea I criticised on the BBC almost exactly a year ago and which today I’ve come to value as a rather clever way of extending and maintaining my personal network of contacts.

Does the Webcam work?

LinkedIn does of course depend on sociologist Stanley Milgram’s Law, the so-called six degrees of separation which, as proved in one television documentary last year, can connect a secretary from London with a nomadic Yak herder in Mongolia through a series of introductions through a network of friends and contacts. Presented another way, let’s say you wanted to deliver a letter to Osama Bin Laden. The odds are that it would only have to pass through the hands of six people before it found him somewhere on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This, in principle, is how the LinkedIn network operates. You invite friends and trusted colleagues to join your network and in return, you can see who sits on their networks and can request an introduction. As an example, I had a meeting with a client at Unisys last week but don’t have his business card with his email address on hand this morning to send him a follow-up message. However, I notice that Bill Goodwin of Computer Weekly and the CIO of Interpol, who are both on my own LinkedIn “Trusted” network, share the same person in their own LinkedIn address books and I can ask either to forward a request to my client for his email address.

Having used LinkedIn as a tool for almost a year now, I’ve noticed two things. Firstly, three degrees of separation is about as far as most of us want to reach, and that gives me the opportunity of finding most of the people that exist in my own professional world. Secondly, a person’s network tells you a great deal about their position and influence, more so perhaps than the CV which can be attached to one’s personal profile.

Over a period of years and career moves, we build-up a list of contacts that define who we are and how successful our progress has been as we climb the seniority ladder. As a result, if a person’s address book is LinkedIn at Times 100 company director level then the reach that person has among industry peers can be remarkable, within those three degrees of separation.

I first started using LinkedIn to capture the details of close friends and colleagues and the participants in last year’s eCrime Congress which I organised as Programme Director. Almost a year on and I find that my own address book embraces names from the Cabinet Office, the US Department of Justice, the FBI, The Australian Police, MPs, the leading international banks and many more Through those same contacts there exists a collective “Who’s Who” of security and law-enforcement in a series of trusted networks which isn’t available anywhere else.

This is where the LinkedIn concept works as a powerful tool that leverages contact management in a way that was previously impossible. Where it can go astray however is with those who try and set world records by having as many people as possible, often thousands in their immediate personal network in an example of software driven ego mania. Invariably, I find that the more influential and senior a person has become, the tighter their personal network is and being invited to join it is a privilege which expresses one’s own position in a professional hierarchy.

“Friends Reunited for business” someone suggested to me recently but LinkedIn is rather more than this. It opens the door on a series of new ideas about the nature of personal connections in the business world and may become more influential than we can yet imagine.

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