Optimize Your Professional Network With LinkedIn

To develop and expand a powerful professional network online, choose your connections and job-hunting tools wisely

By Sriram Gollapalli

In the widely cited 1983 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited (PDF), Mark Granovetter, American sociologist at Stanford University, asserts that "social systems lacking in weak ties will be fragmented and incoherent." Through painstaking, manual labor, Granovetter and others defined human social networks within biracial communities, ethnically diverse classrooms, hospitals and more.  They concluded that those with weak social links had stronger networks with exposure to diverse groups of people, while those without them had homogeneous and stagnant networks.

Several years later, in 1998, Cornell researchers Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, published Collective Dynamics of Small-World Networks. They defined a category of "small-world-networks" that mathematically proved the real-world occurrence where several strangers might be linked through a mutual acquaintance.

A real-world, simple application might go something like this: You casually meet someone who just graduated business school and was president of a large campus club. You decide that they were fun to talk to, and could be helpful in the future. If you connect to them on LinkedIn, you will immediately gain access to their diverse-from-you business school campus club.

As I mentioned earlier, it is important to prune your networks to maintain a high-quality pool for your perusal. In addition, have a balance of strong and weaker (but trusted or at least, familiar) links, and diversity across industries, when possible. Lastly, as you expand and enrich your professional contacts, don't shy away from individuals that could serve as gateways into other small-world-networks. This approach should help you leverage and grow your network while optimizing its value.

There are also many tools within LinkedIn that can help you analyze your network -- which could lead to your next job or sale.  Read on for more!

Professionally leverage your network

  • Job search: LinkedIn Jobs lets you search for jobs by location, job function, industry and experience level (and salary as a premium offering).  I have found this search to be extremely helpful especially as you discover you might be connected to (via 2nd or 3rd degrees) to assist with introductions or to learn more about the position/company.
  • Background checks: When interviewing potential candidates or just learning about that new contact you just made, LinkedIn provides a great source of (usually) verified information.  While some choose to falsify their credentials, having your profile in the public forum will generally discourage this.  A quick scan can validate work experience and education.
  • Lead generation: Our product targets the biomedical academic research and cancer center industries.  We have used LinkedIn to search for relevant keywords to identify prospective collaborative partners. (The lack of industry diversity currently on LinkedIn is an interesting topic for another day).
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    Subject matter experts/seek advice: Adding yourself and browsing groups is a great way to access smaller clusters without necessarily making first-degree connections.  I have contacted alumni and members from mutually-connected groups (labeled on your search results) to seek advice and learn more about different business process and industries.

Other tools

  • Thumbnail image for linkedin_map.pngVisualize your network: Recently launched in LinkedIn Labs, the InMaps product clusters your professional contacts into colored groups.  Currently, it's a fun exercise to translate the colors into meaningful real-world groupings for yourself.  I could very easily identify groupings from distinct undergrad organizations I was involved in, graduate school, major consulting offices I worked with, and bridges to different disciplines.
  • Manage your skills: LinkedIn lets you search your network by different skill areas, which it tries to mine from your experiences.  In addition, you can now self-identify and add (login required) your own skills to assist in others discovering you.
  • Current events: Launched on Thursday, LinkedIn Today aims to provide a one-stop portal of news articles that should be of interest to you based on their prevalence in your LinkedIn network.

Sriram Gollapalli is a founder and the Chief Operating Officer of iLab Solutions, based in Cambridge, MA.