Wanted: Strategic Networking Tool

I’d like to make an addition to my internet wish list for 2011: a Strategic Networking Tool.  Here’s what I mean:

Online networks of all kinds are very good at telling you who you’re already connected with.  Who your friends are, who your professional contacts are, etc.  This is great, but it’s all looking in the rear-view mirror.  What they are not yet that good for is looking forward — helping me figure out who I should be connected with.

Now, I can hear you saying “what about Twitter and Facebook’s ‘recommended friend’ features?”  Fair enough.  Recently, both networks have started approaching this problem.  Facebook suggests people you might be friends with; Twitter shows you related potential follows and people you are similar to.

This is a start, but so far at least, these approaches deliver new connections to me through serendipity — “them: you might also like to meet ____; me: neat!”.  What I want is a tool that allows me to be more strategic with my network planning — to see a gap and proactively work to fill it.

This is particularly true when thinking from a professional / organizational perspective, rather than a personal one (though it clearly also applies to personal connections, but feels icker to me in that context).  When building and growing an organization, I want to be able to look at our current network, and overlay that on our potential network. The ideal result being that I can quickly identify areas where I should invest in developing our network further.

Here’s a use case that exemplifies the problem: say (this is a real stretch) that I am starting up an exciting new nonprofit organization.  I am going about my business, raising money, developing partnerships, hiring, etc.  I am feeling pretty smart about it all — I know my stuff and I’ve got a handle on things.  Then, at a cocktail party, someone says “Oh, cool idea!  Do you know about ______?  I think they do pretty much the same thing you do.”  Shit. All of a sudden I feel like I haven’t done my homework.  Or, at the same cocktail party, someone says “Neat idea!  I think ______ Foundation just gave a grant to ______ for something similar.”  Double shit. Exposed again as an uninformed shlub.

Now, you might say: it’s just part of your job to do the research and build your understanding of the space you’re operating in.  That is absolutely correct.  What I’m asking for are some tools to help with the job.

My ideal tool would:

  • Use available network data to build a view of our “potential network”.  Data sources could include: our twitter follows / followers and their networks, LinkedIn data showing connections around us (explicit linkages and also implicit ones such as common past employers, etc.), data from any existing CRM tool we use, or our email contacts, etc. etc.
  • Understand the different kind of relationships we might have with other people or organizations (partner, competitor, funder, etc.)
  • Let us tweak the network parameters to fit our preferences — e.g., “more cowbell”.

The resulting visualization would help us understand our “blind spots”, and then give us suggestions for how to close the gaps.  It might look something like this:

Does something like this already exist?  Maybe fundraising tools like Raiser’s Edge so something similar?  I am sure the folks at LinkedIn have something like this cooking (in fact, when I mentioned the idea to someone from LinkedIn this summer they confirmed that they did).  If it’s out there, I haven’t seen it yet.  But boy, would I like to have it.  And I’d definitely pay for it.

[update 11/23/10: changed title from “Networks of Potential” to “Strategic Networking Tool”]

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