Find Answers through Your Social Network

In an earlier post, I discussed thought leadership as a reason you might consider using the people-to-people connecting social media applications like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, etc. This topic is one of the items Deb Franke and I will be sharing in our Thriving in Chaos presentation at the Emerson Exchange.

Another topic will be ways to more effectively find the information you need to solve the issues in front of you. As we all know, there is absolutely no shortage of information. Our email inboxes overflow. The World Wide Web contains at least 25.45 billion pages of information as of June 23, 2009. If your desk looks anything like mine, well, it’s not a pretty picture.

So how do you deal with this ever-growing flood of information to find what you need to solve the issues at hand? Of course, we all know about Google and the other search engines and have become well trained on the proper selection and amount of keywords and phrases to use. Sometimes this works great, sometimes not.

One big issue is that there’s a lot of wisdom trapped in email inboxes and sent items folders. Desktop indexing and search software like Windows Search, Google Desktop, and many others can help to some extent. But what about the information others have that doesn’t reach your email inbox?

Different approaches from content management systems to blogs, wikis, and forum software have been and are being tried with varying degrees of success. The key element to success seems to be the number of people willing to participate and the community that naturally forms from this participation. Metcalf’s Law states, “the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2).” He also offers:

…a more insightful and, I think, important contribution to the conversation — that to understand the value of a social network we need to consider not just the number of users but also the affinity between the members of the network.

My take away? Your fastest path to the information you need to solve the issue at hand, if a Google search does not get a quick answer, is to try your social network–if you’ve built this network to sufficient size to realize the exponential effects described by Metcalf’s Law.

Why is that? Beyond the social bonds you establish, with each connection you make, you are adding another human brain:

…containing about 10 billion nerve cells, or neurons. On average, each neuron is connected to other neurons through about 10 000 synapses. (The actual figures vary greatly, depending on the local neuroanatomy.) The brain’s network of neurons forms a massively parallel information processing system. This contrasts with conventional computers, in which a single processor executes a single series of instructions.

If you use LinkedIn, use the Answers area to ask questions. You might also try answering some and building expertise credibility if your answer is selected as the best answer or a good answer. LinkedIn also has groups such as Automation Engineers Technical Group and Automation Engineers. Several automation suppliers have LinkedIn groups, such as Emerson’s DeltaV group.

If you use Twitter, try posing your questions to those who choose to follow you. You’ll grow your list of followers as you share interesting things about yourself and/or your expertise. Or if Twitter is not for you, try using some of the well-established email lists from ISA and Control.com.

As good as it is having more than 25 billion things at your fingertips, having trillions of massively parallel neural connections working with you is something you want to foster, strengthen, and grow.

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