Find the Job May 02 2011

Old Friends: 'the Holy Grail' of Networking

By kyle stock

When it comes to one's career, old friends may be better than new ones.

At least that's the claim of new research that says dormant contacts could be "the holy grail of networking strategy." Former colleagues and long-lost peers are even more helpful than those one speaks to regularly, according to the report: "Dormant Ties: The Value of Reconnecting," which will be published in an upcoming issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Organization Science.

The report's authors -- Daniel Levin (Rutgers University), Jorge Walter (George Washington University) and Keith Murnighan (Northwestern University) -- rounded up 224 executive MBA students and asked them to solicit work advice from two people they had not communicated with for at least three years. One of the contacts had to have been a close friend, while the other was required to have been a "weak tie."

At the same time, participants completed a survey about advice they had already harvested from 15 people with whom they spoke regularly.

Turns out, the dormant colleagues provided more novel insight more efficiently than the contemporaries. Even the long-lost contacts that participants were never close with proved more valuable than many people the subjects talked to often.

"I thought the dormant relationships would be helpful, but I didn't think they would be this helpful," said Daniel Levin, the researcher from Rutgers. "Basically, you get a lot of bang for the buck by reconnecting."

The dormant ties were trusted sources and they were less likely to provide redundant information and insight, Levin noted.

According to one line of research, most of us can only maintain between 100 and 250 active relationships. Levin said the research doesn't suggest that people should try to expand that number: "After all, there's still only 24 hours in a day," he noted. Rather, when people need help with a career challenge, they might be better off turning to long-lost contacts, rather than current coworkers.

The authors also found that most of us would do well to call on a wide range of old friends and colleagues. They asked a select group of participants to rank 10 dormant ties in order how helpful they would expect them to be. Those low on the list proved about as useful as the top prospects.

"It showed that the pool of useful dormant ties is surprisingly deep," Levin said.

Of course, getting a long-lost friend on the phone or isolated in an old watering hole takes some time and effort, but social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn are lowering those "search costs" all the time.

Write to Kyle Stock

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