The Power of Career Specialization in Social Networks

The Power of Career Specialization in Social NetworksThe power of specialization in social networks explains how most executives and knowledge workers are not yet in synch with the emerging Knowledge Economy and its disruption of career assumptions. One of the most powerful career beliefs of the 20th century is especially out of place in the 21st century: generalists are more flexible and employable. Read on for a brief explanation of key Knowledge Economy career trends and specific action steps you can take to expand opportunity for yourself, your colleagues and your family.

The Knowledge Economy Is Networked

Pervasive networks like the Internet (for data and transactions) and social networks (for relationships) have transformed the social and economic spaces in which we live. For most of humans’ existence, we have lived in small groups (hunter gatherer bands until the neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago, and small towns after that). Conditions on the ground changed slowly and, since the groups were small and markets slow-moving, people had limited opportunities. They had to “make do with what was available.” In such an environment, specialists were at a disadvantage because demand was too limited and markets too small. Marketing costs were prohibitive. For most of our existence, geography mattered tremendously, especially for service providers. Who you knew was often more important than what you knew.

The Internet and social networks have turned this on its head, and specializing is far more lucrative now.

Why Specialists Are More Employable

Today, we all live and work in a massive, relatively impersonal network that’s increasingly dominated by digital social networks. Of course we still maintain our “offline” social networks, but our capacity to create and maintain offline networks has not increased. However, digital social networks cut the cost of all phases of the relationship development life cycle—but only for the people who learn how to use social networks to develop and manage relationships.

Let’s define a specialist as someone with an unusual, hard-to-get combination of expertise and skills. This combination can be acquired in numerous ways, but it is difficult to replicate practically or quickly. Specialists fix unusual, (usually) high cost problems.

Specialists are increasingly more employable than generalists in networked environments.

  • Every person has his/her network of contacts, which was historically capped in the pre-web world at Dunbar’s number (150). Now, people often have many multiples of that. Dunbar’s number is based on our brain capacity, which has not changed.
  • The people in your network have increased the total size of their networks with digital social networks. In other words, digital social networks have increased their portion of the total. Their portion increases every year.
  • Specialists are easier to find and select in data-oriented digital social networks.
    • A generalist search in LinkedIn for “MBA finance consumer goods” in Chicago returns 1,447 results. Although LinkedIn helps somewhat by organizing them by proximity to you, most people have loose networks, so they don’t know the most of the people in the results.
    • Now, consider the same search but add “post merger” to it. Hmm, 16 results.
    • It is far easier to search for specialists. It is easier to contact specialists who have included detailed information about their specialized expertise.
  • In general, the employment economy is moving toward a transactional model; firms hire the skills they need at the moment and fire when they perceive the need diminishing. Fewer will hire finance people and train them in post merger integration. They increasingly hire specialist skills on a consulting or interim basis.
  • In a service-based economy (the Knowledge Economy creates value through services and experience), savvy people can digitize part of their “personality” through video. CSRA has won large consulting contracts with firms that found our videos on YouTube.
  • Generalists are invisible online because there’s little compelling reason to select them. Here’s a B2B sales example showing how blogging affects employability.
  • Generalists are harder to remember after offline networking. If you’re a power networker offiline, you have have twenty quality conversations in two hours. If you’re lucky, you’ll remember three by the next day. The generalist won’t be among them unless you had something unusual in common.

Action Steps to Getting Hired as a Specialist

Few people buy products or services; rather, they buy the effect that products or services produce for them. The impact. Firms don’t hire people, they hire impact (or try to ;^).

  1. You need to publish context-specific information on the Web that shows the impact you have. For most specialists, the easiest and fastest route is to blog about the challenges employers or clients face. And observations about how to meet the challenges. Here’s how to do this easily.
  2. Rebuild your LinkedIn network with purpose. Most people have “grab bag” LinkedIn networks, but this is totally reversible. Connect with people who complement your interests such as potential clients and employers. CPG post-merger integration, for example.
  3. Use social networks to interact; don’t just post “content”; since social networks broadcast your interactions to your and your networks’ networks, you reach far more people when you have meaningful interactions. Learn more in this short video.
  4. Comment on blog posts that talk about issues of interest to you and the people you want to work with.

You make yourself vastly more employable when you “talk shop” meaningfully online. By the way, when you interact online you immortalize your expertise online; when you speak specifically and meaningfully, people can find that conversation and contact you at any point in the future.

Final Thoughts

  • It will be increasingly difficult to qualify for opportunities by offering “resume information” like university and brands where you’ve worked as a <job title>. Those markers were never very relevant to getting an interview, and they are less so now. Explain how your unique blend of expertise can produce results. Put yourself in context. If you don’t, you will lose opportunities to those who do.
  • As I explained in Using Social Media to Drive Job and Consulting Opportunities, don’t feel like you have to choose between a “job” or “consulting.” When you focus on addressing organizational need, what kind of “opportunity structure” is secondary. Conditions of work (job, interim or consulting) are just packaging. Here’s the Kellogg video or its deck.
  • Also see Upgrading the Expert Role for the Knowledge Economy.
  • Penelope Trunk gives a valuable and entertaining rationale for specializing, which I highly recommend.
  • If you really want to amp up your opportunity, check out our free B2B Social Business Bootcamp.

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