Social media has finally broken through the “party-girl ceiling” and entered a new, higher level of utility. While some proponents are still mired in work-a-day water-cooler banter, the leading edge has moved on to the creation of content that directly influences how professionals think.
In our just-released Second Annual New Symbiosis Of Professional Networks research study, Don Bulmer and I discovered online communities are emerging as hubs for essential professional knowledge exchange. In some ways, they hearken back to the thought leadership salons of yesteryear – think of the Lyceum or the Bloomsbury Group. Today, however, one could argue the sheer numbers and global scope of online communities may result in concepts that are both better tested and more thoroughly developed than before.
One of the key findings of our research is that thought leadership is the new currency for online professional collaboration. By this we mean that one’s position and significance among professional peers — clout, if you will — depends in part on how well you express and share ideas online. You could be an excellent content creator (thought leader) or a knowledgeable curator — a gatherer of superior content relevant to one’s peers. Both activities are the currencies of credibility in today’s new thought leadership economy.
As professionals, we are learning to value a peer’s ability to identify, create and/or share thought-provoking content, along with the skills to use social tools to support and present it. Peter Auditore recently blogged about the Crescendo Effect, which further illustrates this point.
The data from our research study clearly supports this continuing evolution in the impact of professional networks. For starters, consider the pattern of professional networks in which a decision-maker participates. Our survey respondents typically belong to three to five professional networks, including an interesting portfolio of must-have networks such as LinkedIn (97% belong), plus a select group of smaller, niche networks that reflect their professional expertise and affiliations.
Of course, almost everyone with a job nowadays will be on LinkedIn — akin to having a business card — but where these professionals are truly engaging with their peers is within the smaller communities and networks. Here they can experience greater intimacy and confidentiality among like-minded individuals. About 74% of all respondents report belonging to a smaller or specialized online community. About 48% belong to communities with a specialized membership specific to an industry role or interest group; 26% belong to smaller peer-group communities with private and confidential exchanges.
Which of the following types of networks do you participate in online? (Check all that apply)
But it is not their joining patterns which are most interesting; it is what they do and what they value while engaging online that really matters. The overwhelming majority of respondents (95%) told us that the primary reason they participate in online communities is to gain access to thought leadership they could not find otherwise. This is especially interesting — and worth celebrating!! — as this reason leapfrogged to the number one spot, moving past “to keep track of peers”, the top item reported in last year’s survey.
This change is not surprising. As professionals gain confidence in the online experience, their use of online communities to seek out the most important, interesting and engaging affiliations and topics will continue to increase. They need not be limited by proximity or random encounters — such as who sits in the next office — to define professional affiliations.
Professionals understand and are acting on the core value propositions of an online community: a 24X7 platform to exchange ideas, learn from thought leaders and connect with peers, rather than simply watching and comparing notes. Professional networks and online communities support the age-old traditions of thought leadership, intellectual debate and the pursuit of both practical and theoretical knowledge to help make us more skilled in our work, illuminate our thinking and shape us into better men and women.
I think I just heard Emerson, Thoreau and, of course, Margaret Fuller logging in … I’d better log on and greet them.