Prior studies have talked about the importance of networking for freelancers as well. Ronald Burt’s seminal work on structural holes – when an acquaintance knows relevant people or groups not known to you or others in your immediate network – is an empirical phenomenon that, according to one study, IT freelancers have instinctively “associated with greater career advancements and access to more entrepreneurial opportunities” for some time. The study also found that a good reach (size), reputation and reciprocity were integral features of the networks maintained by successful freelancers. Another survey of a broader range of freelance entrepreneurs found that building social capital had a positive and significant effect on their revenue from projects.
Building on these findings, I interpreted three important network attributes (that the IT freelance consultants talked about) as network composition, network benefits and key relationships.
3 Attributes of Successful Freelancers’ Networks
1) Network Composition – their networks are made up of a wide variety of connections that are relevant to their occupation.
2) Network Benefits – they are aware of the benefits of networking and know how to leverage them to be more efficient and socially adept.
3) Key Relationships – Strong ties (close interpersonal relationships characterized by reciprocity) are important but so are weak ties (acquaintances who can connect you with scarce/unclear/relevant information from others that you don’t know).
Network Composition. The IT freelance consultants’ networks were composed of a variety of different actors, who were relevant to their occupation or career in different ways. Ties were mainly with other freelancers in their occupational community, who stayed in touch with each other to maintain a healthy network reach, that essentially created valuable information flows. Having a diverse network gave participants access to information about (e.g.) relevant contacts, contract opportunities, and expertise (outside of their own area), that often proved crucial to their business or the amount of time they could stay contracted.
Former colleagues (from full-time jobs, projects, etc.) and clients (or hiring managers) were frequently referred to as playing a key role in maintaining a diverse and robust network. Some consultants also suggested that networking with brokers (recruitment agencies) was a key activity in becoming proficient at the information game; to exploit alternatives for example.
Network Benefits. There were a range of benefits from networking that were both specific and general. Two recurring themes included both efficiency and social benefits.
The consultants suggested that network efficiencies enabled them to extract more value by (for example) exploiting alternative projects, avoiding multiple middlemen or leveraging information sources. The most prominent efficiency was of course using their network as a source of new leads. For example, networking with brokers helped to maintain an active pipeline of project leads, or networking on LinkedIn created greater access to useful occupation-related information.
Another efficiency was having occupational experts to spar with, exchange information with, and who were well-versed in the tricks of their trade. SAP is an enterprise software with an expansive suite of software solutions, mostly for large companies, where consultants will generally specialise in one or more specific areas. Networking with experts in other areas might be important to solve a project-related problem or enter a new area of expertise. For example, one consultant spoke of having a connection that advised him on acquiring skills in a new SAP area (e.g., what courses to take). A related efficiency from networking was the ability to screen agencies or clients before accepting projects.
Social benefits from networking were described by some of the freelancers too. Opportunities to attend social or occupational events and having a support base, to fill the void left by not having full-time colleagues, were two key benefits. Others talked about having a network of friends they could talk openly about work with, rather than doing so at home or at the client. Having both a robust network and proficient networking abilities were proposed as the key to avoiding, or dealing with, outsider treatment and loneliness.
Key Relationships. The consultants emphasized the importance of having a connectivity-generating network with weak ties and structural holes. In his seminal work on weak ties, Mark Granovetter noted that persons with many weak ties (acquaintances) might be better able to avoid the disadvantages of being insulated from information. Burt built on his work by showing that weak ties are especially useful when they connect to people or groups that are new to your personal network (as the green cluster in the picture below shows).
Many of the freelance consultants indicated the importance of maintaining weak ties, and actively seeking out new acquaintances, to ensure a sufficient volume of potential requests in the pipeline and build their reputation in the market. For example, one consultant mentioned how their approach to networking with recruitment agencies changed to a much more open one when they began freelancing. Accessing weak ties was especially important to gaining a foothold in the market for newer freelancers.
On the other hand, the consultants were fully aware that strong ties were just as key, even if not always for the same reasons. Building strong ties had numerous benefits, though most importantly, gaining access to new roles. Strong ties appeared to be more willing to share information with other strong ties (for example, about new roles or market developments), perhaps because this reduced the reputational risk of referring, or sharing information with, someone they did not know. Strong ties were a common feature in many of the consultants’ stories, and participants noted that there were contacts they approached before others in the hopes of finding a preferable project. Reciprocity was a key feature of strong ties in the form of leads, sparring, support, information sharing, problem-solving, etc. Building strong ties was also an important part of being a broker. As evidenced by the expressed importance of personal relations in the market (see the clips below), some freelancers preferred working with brokers that they had formed strong ties with.
What did they say?
Having a diverse network, integrated with weak and strong ties, seems to be crucial to managing uncertainty, balancing the paradoxes of a freelance career and being successful at the information game. Freelancers who were adept networkers talked about efficiencies and social benefits that made a freelance career more manageable and even lucrative. While strong ties were reliable sources of information, a way to fill the social void from leaving colleagues and much more willing to engage in reciprocity, weak ties had the advantages of providing access to different or obscure information, and opening doors to new circles of strong ties where reciprocity could be expanded.
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