ALTOM: When is it OK to connect with someone on LinkedIn?

November 6, 2010

I’m a customer of an online business networking site called LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com). It’s somewhat similar to Facebook and its ilk. There’s a profile page, groups and so forth. The difference is that it’s for business only. You get linked to others by either asking them outright to link to you as a “connection,” or you get somebody else you both know to introduce you. You can’t just “friend” somebody on a whim. It’s like a business meet-and-greet online, sort of.

I never thought of LinkedIn as having an ethical dilemma attached to it, until one day when I received an invitation from a client to connect to him. Understand that I work for a company that provides software and services to hundreds of clients, and I personally do work for a large percentage of them. When I dealt with him, the client wanted to dive deeply into a statistical question, and since I’m the resident stats geek, I was tapped to talk with him. We had a great conversation, debating the value of several approaches to examining his data, and when I hung up, I felt pretty good about the call.

A day later, I didn’t know what to think when I got an invitation from him to connect to him on LinkedIn. Ordinarily I wouldn’t think at all; I’d just connect to him. A smart guy, interested in my peculiar brand of fun, and working in my industry. What’s not to like? But then I paused. It wasn’t my company he was linking to, but me. He wanted to establish a one-to-one relationship between us, not between our companies. When I’d worn my battered old consultant’s hat on that call, I was speaking not between two friends, but between two companies. Now he wanted to make it personal. And somehow that changed everything.

Connecting to others on LinkedIn or a similar site has lots of advantages. One big plus is that you get instant access to their networks of contacts. Effectively, it installs a bit of crossover piping between your network and his network. Not only that, but by extension you each now can get anyone in your respective networks to introduce you to people in their networks—and on and on.

There’s a rule of thumb in network theory called “Metcalfe’s law,” which says the value of a network increases, not linearly, but by the square of the total connected individuals. That means if you add 10 others to your 10-person network, theoretically the value of the whole network goes up, not from 10 to 20, but from 100 to 400. So as you add contacts in LinkedIn, the value of your whole network of contacts goes up rapidly, much faster than the count of connections. Others can link to you and get the benefit of your network, too, increasing the value of theirs instantly by a huge amount.

Think of it this way: When I’m teaching about knowledge management, I invite the class members to look around the room. I tell them, “Think of a problem you’re having. Somebody in this room probably knows the answer to it. Tell me who it is.” Nobody ever can. That knowledge is locked away, but with a tool like LinkedIn to help you find people with particular expertise, you can find that guy in the room with the answer you need. Searches through LinkedIn can be fascinatingly informative. Search by industry keywords and see who pops up. Look for experience in certain companies or types of work. Seek out users of the products you sell. The potential is limitless.

So when I got the client’s invitation, I was torn. Ordinarily, my company doesn’t discourage us from having arm’s-length friendly relationships with client personnel. We can have lunch with them, drinks after work, or even play golf. It’s tricky, because you don’t want to seem as if you’re formulating an exit strategy or playing favorites with them. If you’re careful, though, the brass has no objection.

But this was different somehow. More personal, with greater potential for misunderstanding. LinkedIn isn’t really for company-to-company networking, but person-to-person, the equivalent of calling the client at home instead of at work. Or at least that’s how it feels. I would have no problem friending his company on Facebook, if they chose to put up a site. But person-to-person on LinkedIn seemed like too close a relationship, so I declined to link to him.

I may have been wrong. I may have been too sensitive about the issue. It might never have compromised his company, or mine. But it’s well to be too sensitive in today’s online world rather than too bold. I don’t regret my decision.•

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Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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