Unplugged to Get Connected

My thesis research looked at the impact of social capital on the effectiveness of non-profit organizations. I argued that the more social capital held within the board, the more effective the organization. I found support for this argument. A board that has built social capital makes better decisions, faster decisions, has better discussion, and has more fun. This benefit is not restricted to non-profits. Research shows social capital is found to build better businesses, stronger and safer communities, and great countries.

Without getting too deep into the research, social capital is the connection between two people (social) that holds assets that can be used (capital); the capital may be work, knowledge, money, time, or other resources. Social capital is often described in two ways internal (bonds) and external (bridging). It might be best to describe the two through examples. Internal social capital is the connections built within a group of people – board of directors, a committee, or a work team. External social capital is built through connections outside the group or in a broader context – board member and elected official, fundraiser and donor, or shop owner and supplier representative. Put another way, social capital is a network that you can call on to get things done (raise money, meet, get work done, learn something) and that is a valuable asset.

Like obtaining any sort of capital, it takes work. It is built through connecting, building trust, and collaborating. This is where we get to the unplug part. Social capital is built through face-to-face interactions. Spending time together and interactions are key factors to building social capital. Perhaps you have had the experience where your board often meets together outside a formal meeting and great conversation ensues about a variety of topics. This provides opportunity to build trust. You get to see how your network connections react in different situations. Then, when the board is called together for a board meeting, the group is ready to converse with one another, they are willing to call on opinions of others and build on each other’s ideas. Another great example of building social capital is the Friday afternoon team refreshments. Providing this time for the team to gather face-to-face without the demands of the work allows them to build internal social capital with each other.

External social capital is harder to build because the opportunity for face-to-face interactions is not as frequent or as structured. This shows the importance of networking events and attending public meetings, workshops, training seminars, or other public gatherings. Short interactions at networking events or meetings give you that chance to talk with a larger sphere of people. The work is then on you to follow-up with the connections made.

In a business world where much emphasis is being put on the virtual office, we can lose the value of being in the office with others and connecting on a personal level. Part of the lure of co-working spaces is that freelance and soloprenuers can work in a space with others and have an opportunity to build social capital. Time must be invested, whether connections are internal or external, in building the connection, developing trust, and fostering collaboration. As noted in Harvard Business Review, “social capital grows when team members meet face-to-face and work side-by-side” (2001). Are you providing time and taking time to meet with those on your team and those in your network?

One word of caution – social capital and networks are not the same thing. Networking to collect 100 business cards without any effort in building a relationship does not make social capital. I encourage all of you to unplug, get out of the virtual office, and meet with others.