People tend to view LinkedIn mainly as a tool for finding jobs – whether “job” means actual employment or your next sale. Given the importance of continually building your personal knowledge base, I’d argue it can also play a very important role in your lifelong learning mix. Give the following LinkedIn tips a try as ways to support your ongoing efforts at personal growth and professional development:
1. Make use of Introductions
Not too long ago, a company I worked for was entering a market where I had little knowledge or experience. To help me build my knowledge, I did a LinkedIn search on some of the major companies in the space and looked for connections between potential contacts in that market and my LinkedIn connections. I also checked under their Contact Settings to see whether the potential contacts had selected “Expertise requests” as one of the reasons they were willing to be contacted.
Once I had a list of seemingly willing contacts, I asked relevant connections in my network if they would allow me to send an Introduction through them. My goal was to gain more knowledge about the market by having a brief phone conversation with anyone to whom I could gain an introduction.
To initiate an Introduction, simply look for the “Get introduced through a connection” link at the top right of the person’s profile. When you click this, a list will appear of your connections who have a link to the desired contact. (Ideally, you are looking for connections that are only one degree away from your desired contact, but it is possible to get an introduction across multiple degrees.)
Once you choose the connection who will provide the introduction, you get to write a brief e-mail to the person you want to contact. Be brief in explaining your purpose. Make it clear that you are looking for expertise and are not out to sell something. Finally, if relevant, offer to provide any expertise you may have in exchange for the help you are asking the potential contact to give.
I batted better than 80% in my goal to line up phone conversations, and the knowledge I gained through the conversations was incredibly helpful. You could, of course, try the same thing by contacting people directly, or by using LinkedIn’s paid InMail service. If the desired contact is not in your network, you may have no other option. But an introduction through another user can greatly increase your chances of getting a response and ultimately achieving your learning goal
2. Make yourself findable and approachable
One of the best ways to build your own knowledge is to teach others what you know. So, the flip side of the scenario above is to make yourself available for connecting with others to share learning and knowledge. Make sure you have “Expertise requests” selected in the Contact Settings for your profile. Also, take the time to fill in your Specialties, Interests, and Groups and Associations. These all provide clues to the sorts of expertise you may be able to offer others. Be sure to note things like any foreign languages you may speak (and how fluently) as well as time spent traveling or living in other countries. Remember, LinkedIn has global reach.
3. Learn and connect by example
As LinkedIn grows, it is increasingly possible to find profiles for successful people and even highly visible leaders from most field. You may want to attempt to connect with these people, but even if you don’t, you may be able to learn a great deal simply from reviewing their profiles. What jobs have they held and where? How do they describe their Specialties? What are there Interests; their Groups and Associations? To Whom are they connected? These types of information can help you shape your own learning goals, point you to new learning resources, and possibly uncover connections that it would be valuable for your make.
To find specific people within a field, you can use LinkedIn’s search functionality, but also try clicking on the Industry you have selected in your Profile, and browse the names that come up both within your network and the broader Linked in network. You might also try switching your Industry setting to a few other industries that are related to what you do and see how that changes the people and companies that appear.
Pay attention also to Company profiles and the information that is available under the Companies tab in LinkedIn. Digging here can reveal a great deal about the types of people who work for a company, what their career paths have been, competitor companies, and a wealth of other information.
4. Validate your learning through recommendations
While LinkedIn provides a way to enter your educational history, most of us recognize that a tremendous amount of what we know comes through informal processes that don’t necessarily lend themselves well to a listing under Education. One way to make sure the most important knowledge or skills you have acquired informally are properly captured in your profile is to have recommenders speak to them as part of a Recommendation.
Ideally, find a recommender who who carries authority and can be trusted to attest to your proficiency. If you picked up C# programming on a job, for instance, make sure the manager you worked for clearly speaks to your C# skills in a recommendation, and to the extent possible, references specific projects that exemplify your skills.
Validation and accreditation in general are issues that come along with the vast amount of informal and open learning that goes on these days. I think the Recommendation engine in LinkedIn actually has a great deal of potential in this area – but you have to guide your recommenders.
5. Gain knowledge by association
Groups are becoming an increasingly popular feature in LinkedIn. You can find one that aligns with just about any area of interest you have, and if you can’t find one, you can create one. To access Groups, just click on it in the left hand menu. It’s the first item after Home.
From a learning perspective, I see Groups as providing two benefits. The first is that they connect you with people who can share knowledge and learning about a particular topic or field. So, for instance, given my interest in things like serious games, social media, and associations, I am a member of Serious Games People, Social Media Today, and Young Association Professionals (YAP). This makes it possible for me to easily identify others on LinkedIn with whom I might want to connect, and it also gives me access to a discussion forum and update service for the group.
The other benefit, of course, is that merely by associating with a particular group, you become more closely associated with the topic or interest that defines the group. While mere association with a group is a much weaker form of validation than the Recommendation approach suggested above, active participation in discussions along with efforts to meaningfully connect with group members can go a long way toward further validating (and building!) your knowledge in a particular field.
6. Ask & answer questions
Another way to validate your knowledge as well as to continue learning is to take advantage of the Answers function in LinkedIn, located under a tab of the same name. Using this function, you can ask questions of your own network of connections or the entire LinkedIn network. You can also review questions that others have asked and filter them according to Industry.
Questions can range from very narrow – e.g. “What is the average CPC for top keyword terms in the debt category?” – to quite broad and open ended – e.g. “How has the financial crisis affected your business?” In general, you can ask pretty much anything you want, and if you happen to know a good answer to a question that has been asked, you can answer and begin to establish yourself as an expert in that particular field or topic area. And, along with teaching, having to frame a cogent answer to a question is often one of the best ways of solidifying your own knowledge.
7. Pay attention to your Home page
Finally, as you are using LinkedIn, pay attention to the Network Updates, News, and various other items that come across your Home page. Here you will see updates about your connections and Groups, News that may be relevant to your company or industry, and questions that have recently been posted, among other things. Any of these may offer up new opportunities for learning.
So, that’s my list. How about you? Have you thought about LinkedIn as a learning tool, and if so, how are you using it?