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The Power of Peer-to-Peer Networks

We live and work in a time of rapid and unprecedented change. Up and down the corporate ladder, the challenge to cultivate strong networks confronts nearly everyone in business today, whether it’s the public or private sector and regardless of industry. Beyond merely widening the circle of people you know, strong networks foster deeper learning and broaden your exposure across a range of issues. Simply put, our networks make us smarter, more knowledgeable, and even more grounded. Said another way, leaders ignore networking at their own peril.

We live and work in a time of rapid and unprecedented change. Up and down the corporate ladder, the challenge to cultivate strong networks confronts nearly everyone in business today, whether it’s the public or private sector and regardless of industry.

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Beyond merely widening the circle of people you know, strong networks foster deeper learning and broaden your exposure across a range of issues. Simply
put, our networks make us smarter, more knowledgeable, and even more grounded. Said another way, leaders ignore networking at their own peril.

In my last column, I explored an important measure of an individual’s
proficiency at networking, the Networking Quotient (NQ). Just as the IQ is a measure of a person’s intelligence, the NQ gauges the degree to which you’re
developing highly effective personal networks. Take a look at that column again to calculate your NQ in order to know where you stand and what needs improvement.

Once you’ve done that your focus should be on developing a networking plan. And any strategy you decide on needs to include a highly effective and
vital component: peer-to-peer networking.

Yes, peer-to-peer networking can work for people at any level of an organization. Two examples illustrate what I mean. It’s said that ex-presidents of the United States are members of the most exclusive group in the world: Those who have occupied the Oval Office and dealt with the daily challenges that confront the leader of the free world. Few people have had that job; far fewer are alive at any one time, which is why every former president develops a unique bond with his peers. Regardless of political party and persuasion, ex-presidents are members of a very unique peer-to-peer network.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the lowly apprentice. It turns out that some of the keenest observers of peer-to-peer networks cite studies of
apprenticeship when pointing to the unequaled value of peer networking. And here’s why: Apprentices learn better, faster, and deeper from other apprentices — especially when they’re at different levels of experience. Hearing it from the mouths of someone who’s been there — and recently — is a often a more
powerful learning experience than hearing it from the boss. Sorry, Donald and Martha!

The central idea behind the effectiveness of peer-to-peer networks is this: We all learn better, trust more, and gravitate to the shared experiences of
people at our level and in circumstances similar to ours. And, there is incredible value in being able to tap into the collective experience of a group of trusted peers.

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In peer-to-peer networks, you are among people with similar challenges, issues, and problems. In that setting, the likelihood is huge that you’ll benefit faster from exposure to their thinking, the problems they’ve solved, the mistakes they’ve made, their best practices and innovative ideas — and also the people they know. Tapping into the collective intelligence and wisdom of such a group can be extremely powerful, especially in a forum that provides a safe harbor — a place to test your thinking and ideas, to ask questions with supportive colleagues who are there to help and not to judge. Participating in a great network is the antidote to professional isolation. We all need to be stimulated by the best and brightest in our special area of interest.

Peer-to-peer networks take many forms, including those designed to provide members with a rich forum for exploring issues, weighing options, and probing
potential solutions. Such forums are fast becoming a critical component for busy leaders who need to connect with their peers more regularly and more deeply in order to help improve performance. It is more important than ever to keep abreast of the latest thinking, best practices, innovations and breakthroughs in your field of expertise. It would be criminal to waste your organization’s precious resources by reinventing the wheel when you can easily find out how other leading organizations have already solved the same problem, or created an innovative process or system similar to what you need.

I admit I’m biased because I’ve been facilitating networks for more than 20 years, but here are some quotes from professionals that will give you a sense
of the types of benefits they’ve received:

  • “One of the key impacts of the network is in accelerating the speed with which you can get things done. My participation in the network helps me to
    significantly improve several decisions and programs a year. I conservatively estimate the network saves my company $100,000 annually.”
  • “Recently I was asked to gauge where other companies were on an issue of importance to our board of directors and they needed this information in a
    matter of days. I was able to tap into the network electronically. Within 48 hours I had six responses when normally it might take up to six weeks to gather
    this type of information. These are career defining moments and the network really helped make me look like a star.”
  • “I was recently asked to develop a new coaching process for my company. At a network meeting, I raised this issue and immediately two members offered to
    e-mail me their processes that they had just spent six months developing.”
  • “I was requested to help find a credible consultant to facilitate a national sales-strategy session. I was able to send a request to the network
    using the online system for recommendations and was able to do in a few hours what would have taken a week of my time to research.”

OK, let’s say I’ve convinced you of the need to connect in a more systematic way with your peers. So now what? Well, to start, search the Web for professional networks in your industry or occupation (e.g., networks for engineers). Contact industry or professional associations for networks. Be sure to look for face-to-face networks as well as Web-based networks. Identify experts in your area of interest and see if they have a blog or a personal Website that may include a peer networking component. Finally, ask
your colleagues about the peer-to-peer networks they belong to and determine if they might be a good fit for you too.

As I’ve coached countless executives, “A strong network of true peers is a prerequisite for success and has a clear impact on performance.”

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