Traditional networking techniques focus primarily on face-to-face interactions. Good networkers have to be good socializers and communicators in order to find out enough about a situation and the people involved to start developing links between participants. The links are forged primarily by encouraging the creation of a commonly shared vision, with sufficient, concrete, collaborative activities laid out in order to realize that vision. Having the resources on hand by which to implement such activities is important. If such resources are not immediately available there must be a commitment by participants to obtain such resources.
There are many barriers to creating new networks besides the absence of shared visions or the resources to create them. One of them is time. Busy people often do not have the time to spend in attending meetings frequently enough to ensure active on-going collaboration. This is especially so if their areas of work are disparate, therefore requiring substantial effort to develop cooperative ventures. Another barrier is distance. Modern transportation has made gatherings of people who do not live near each other more common, but it is still so very expensive and time-consuming to have large group meetings that they are generally held only frequently enough to be effective at creating or reaffirming visions, and not often enough for the interpersonal feedback needed for large-scale, active, on-going collaboration.
Promoting System Usage
Computer communications offers the potential to greatly reduce the time and distance barriers to networking. At present, because the technology is still in its infancy and relatively unknown, it requires a great deal of time, resources and perseverance to create an online network of people. Some of the ways to minimize resources and promote system usage include the following:
1. Put high-quality information online that can't be easily obtained elsewhere; or make the network the only channel for other important communications.
2. Develop the network around a relatively small group of people who need to use the capabilities of the medium to work together. They may not have the resources or time to accomplish their shared tasks using other media alone.
3. The online space can be set up to facilitate social interaction between those who have a great need for it, or are more familiar with the technology. Once the people get to know each other, it is easier to develop common purpose.
4. Use the network to link those who have information to disseminate with those who need to obtain that information.
5. Recruit good networkers within an interest group to act as organizers and facilitators of the online network.
6. Require that the participants pay for their use of the online network. Operating it as a business does not preclude obtaining funds elsewhere, but it does save the network from being at the mercy of budget cutbacks by funding agencies.
The online environment itself is where three general types of interactions occur - working, collegial, and social. The working relationship involves communication in order to carry out a cooperative effort. It makes use of factual reports and purposeful discussions. The collegial relationship is often characterized by the sharing of information in order to keep everyone abreast of developments in the field. Social interactions involve the expressing of opinions and relating of personal anecdotes to a great extent.
Any process of expanding online networks must take the optimal type of interaction, or blend of types, into account. One of the ways of ascertaining the best mix of style for the group, is to have the facilitator ensure that any new member of the online network gets many opportunities to exchange messages. This can be done through 'hand-holding' in the same way that a good cocktail party host greets guests as they arrive, introduces them to other people, and stimulates conversation. Another way is to operate a 'buddy-system' whereby someone currently online assumes responsibility for showing the newcomer around.
It is very important that before the initial novelty of using computer communications that sustains many new participants wears off, bonds must be created to ensure continuing usage. These bonds are generally of two types: the appreciation of the communication capabilities, and the satisfaction of information needs. The communication capabilities imply that the user have the need to be in regular correspondence with another user via
e-mail, or that a group of users be in contact via a computer conference. If the user does not have reason to use the system for interpersonal communication links, they may still have the desire to access the information contained in the conferences. This information could be a matter of keeping up with the latest developments within their field of interest, for example. It seems that the great majority of those who are followers of an online conference never add any items to it, being satisfied with silent observation.
The amount of resources needed to create online networks for purposeful interaction is bound to decrease. There are many present trends that will make it highly likely that more and more people will be using computer networks for communicating. Computer and telecommunication technology is becoming more powerful and less costly, global standards for interconnections are being implemented, the common digitalization of present media is hastening their merging into a single medium, machine-human interfaces are becoming friendlier making the technology easier to use, and the schools are turning out more computer-literate students every day.
The trends point toward such growth that eventually a 'bandwagon' effect will be the outcome. As in the case of fax, at some point people will realize that to be without access to a computer network will put them at a disadvantage in business. Much later, they will see the same at the social level. Until then, people will continue to be too busy to use computer communications unless they can be shown, with patience and perseverance, how it can help them achieve their aims and ambitions more efficiently and more effectively.
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