How social networks affect careers and succession planning

Research into social networking suggests that people can on average manage a maximum of 150 strong connections and a much larger number of weak connections (Dunbar, 2010). Strong connections tend to be characterised by a higher quality and frequency of communication, greater trust, greater sense of shared purpose in one or more areas, and more likelihood of putting oneself out for the benefit of the other party. This applies both to individuals and to organizations – studies of company networks show that geographical separation is not a major impediment to the creation and nurturing of informal networks. (Casper & Murray 2002). Weak connections turn out to be more important than might be obvious, especially when it comes to finding new jobs (Granovetter, 1973)

In the context of career development and succession planning, there is potential in being more proactive at both individual and organizational levels. Employees may use their strong connections in other firms either to identify career opportunities directly, or to gain access to these people’s own strong or weak connections. When they maintain strong connections within organizations they have left, they may be re-recruited, having gained valuable additional experience and expertise. In industries, where employees tend to move between firms relatively quickly (for example, merchant banking or management consultancy) companies save millions of dollars annually because ex-employees turn to their former bosses or mentors for advice when they are ready for their next move. Although there is little empirical evidence to support the proposition, anecdotal evidence suggests that people, who devote time and energy to building career-oriented social networks experience faster career progress.

Social networking provides opportunities to engage with a much larger number of weak connections than ever before. And if each of your strong connections is prepared to contact their strong and weak connections on your behalf, the size of your secondary network can potentially be tens of thousands.

There seem to be five main reasons why people build social networks around their job and career needs:

  • Task information – what you need to know to be effective in your current roles
  • Task achievement – support in doing your current roles
  • Career – Linking with people, who can play an active role in furthering your career objectives
  • Development – meeting people, who can help with your personal growth
  • Mutual support/ kinship – the comfort and confidence that comes from knowing that there are other people who share the same issues and concerns as you do, and who can offer mutual help and learning

Research suggests that social networking builds self-esteem (Ellison, date) probably because it generates a sense of being supported, even though most of the connections may be weak links.

In general, most social networking is unfocused, both in terms of what people give to their networks and the rewards they look to from them. If proactive network management has wider job and career benefits, however, there is a case for employers to support employees by providing skills training in network management, access to wider people resources, and technology platforms that support networking. So, for example, they might:

  • Promote communities of interest around specific job roles, technical specialisms or other areas of perceived commonality, such as gender, nationality, or disability. These communities need not be limited to the organization – the key question is: “Who do we collectively and individually know, who could add value to this network?”
  • Assign members of the talent wave the task of developing networks that will provide access to potential recruits, to market or technological information, or some other valuable resource
  • Help employees add value to existing social networks by, for example, facilitating the wider dissemination of responses to individual requests for information, or by creating topic bulletins that network members will want to circulate to other networks, of which they are a part.

Employers can develop closer cooperation with non-competitive strong connections, to enlarge and enhance the collective talent pool. Large Japanese companies facing difficult times have sometimes loaned employees to companies in their supply chain. The benefits of this include retaining talent, maintaining relationships with key business partners, and two way importing of know-how, particularly in the context of quality management and cost saving.

Making this informal process more transparent could have major advantages for all the collaborating organizations. Yes, there is some danger of losing key people, but this is at least balanced by having a wider pool of talent to draw on. Moreover, the arguments about holding on to talent have in many cases already been had, in great depth, in the context of moving talent between divisions and departments within the same organization.

The critical questions here include:

  • Where is the best developmental opportunity for a member of the talent wave, regardless of which organization they currently work in?
  • What leadership qualities and characteristics, skills and experienced will be needs common to the organizational partners?
  • What kind of collaborative developmental programmes (such as action learning sets) can we create that will develop talent waves that stretch across organizational boundaries?
  • How can we use employees’ personal social networks to reinforce this corporate collaboration and vice versa?
  • How can we ensure that talented employees look first for new career roles within the consortium?
  • How can we support and sustain social networks across all the organizations, so opportunities become known to those employees, who might benefit most from them?

This “free trade area” in talent may seem radical, but we already see practical examples of similar collaboration in people development. Companies, such as Lloyds TSB and An Post, the Irish post office, have gone outside corporate boundaries and into their network of strong connections to find mentors for talented employees. Public sector organizations in some local areas of the UK, such as Suffolk, have combined resources to create mutually accessible pools of coaches and/or mentors. The National Health Service, police, local government and higher education have been particularly active in this regard.

Integrating the organizational and employee social networks

For many organizations, the main engagement with employee social networks is to mine Facebook pages for potential employees, or for evidence of employee misbehaviour. It’s not surprising, therefore, that people tend to feel that their employer should “keep their noses out of” their social networks. A more practical and socially acceptable strategy is to create platforms, on which work-related forums can evolve naturally and organically, with the minimum of observation and control by the organisation. The role of the leadership and HR in such forums is to cast the seed – for example, by sharing issues and concerns and asking people for comment – then to step back and let it grow. It’s important to allow evolution to take its own course: if a topic doesn’t take off of its own accord, it can’t be forced. The ultimate accolade is when these networks welcome and ask for participation by leaders!


Casper, S & Murray, F (2002) Careers and clusters: analyzing the career network dynamic of biotechnology clusters Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, Vol 22, Issues 1-2, March-June 2005, Pages 51-74 ???

Dunbar, R (2010) How many friends does one person need? Faber & Faber, London

Ellison, NB, Steinfeld, C & Lampe, C (2007) The Benefits of Facebook “Friends”: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol 12, Issue 4, p 1143–1168, July

Granovetter , M (1983) The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited, Sociological Theory, Vol. 1, pp. 201-233

© David Clutterbuck, 2016

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