What separates high-performing knowledge workers from their more average peers? Superior ability is part of the answer, as is superior expertise. But in an era of exploding information, maintaining one’s expertise is a constant challenge. Formal education and training are necessary but are only a start. The use of impersonal sources — intranet databases, print publications, Web sites — can help keep one current but won’t provide an edge. What really distinguishes high performers from the rest of the pack is their ability to maintain and leverage personal networks. The most effective knowledge workers create and tap large, diversified networks that are rich in experience and span all organizational boundaries.

And contrary to the popular image of the networker, the building and use of such networks is rarely motivated by explicit political or career-driven motives. In part, that’s because high performers rarely need to focus on such matters. By simply getting their work done at a superior level, the most successful knowledge workers develop reputations and networks that bring opportunities and resources to them as needed. As a result, political posturing is of little value. A software engineer put it this way: “My network is incredibly valuable to me, but I don’t think about it politically. It is just totally intertwined with how I get my work done. I make time to meet with people and look for overlap in what we do. Maybe only a quarter of these pan out. But they are often my biggest successes, and rather than being political they start as opportunities where collaborating could generate something good for both of us.”

In addition, high performers are much more than “social butterflies,” who tend to have numerous relationships that don’t scratch below the surface. As one executive put it, “Too many people try to play games in this [networking]. For me, it isn’t calculating — I’m not trying to exploit others.” Effective knowledge workers focus on building deeper relationships that will be mutually beneficial over time. And they tend to employ three tactics to that end.

Establishing Personal Connections

High performers characterize the important people in their networks as more than just business contacts. These relationships are also personal, as two people discover similarities in backgrounds, family experiences or hobbies that allow them to connect on more than just an “instrumental” basis — that is, “I’ll do something for you if you’ll do something for me.” Indeed, it is the social side of a relationship that often determines whether someone will respond readily and helpfully to a request.

Although high performers seem to have a natural ability to find points of commonality with others, managers can also help employees forge productive relationships. For example, they can create opportunities for people to connect on non-work-related matters, structure face-to-face meetings to include a personal dimension and ensure that technologies such as expert locators also include personal information (hobbies, college background and so on). Such information usually is a crucial factor in a person’s decision to reach out to someone, and it is also a conversation starter. When people share common interests or experiences, they are more likely to help each other out, even when an idea is not well formed. The personal touch is also important for network building, as high performers tend to meet other useful people through referrals from their network.

While it’s no secret that relationships take work, it’s surprising how few people put in the time. One high-performing engineer explained how he saw the light: “For years, I didn’t consciously maintain my network. That’s a mistake. If you want to be successful, you have to develop and cultivate relationships. People need to know and trust that you are someone they can talk honestly to. Relationships don’t work without trust. I go out of my way to cultivate it and maintain my relationships. I spend a lot of time making phone calls and sending periodic hellos through e-mail to check in with people and keep my network alive.”

Following Through

High performers not only keep in touch, they also respond to people quickly. Many operate according to an unwritten 36-hour rule in getting back to those who have sent them an e-mail or left a voice message. This is not easy in an age of information overload, when it’s all too easy to respond to a request for help curtly and late — or perhaps, in frustration while reviewing e-mail after hours, to delete it without a response at all. But such action can quickly harm or sever a relationship. High performers understand this and are more diligent than others about answering their colleagues.

High performers also keep their commitments, once made. Because they do what they say they’re going to do, others are encouraged to invest in joint endeavors even when they might not have control over them. Such follow-through also builds the trust that is critical for transferring knowledge. One consultant put it this way: “People have to know they can count on you to remember them when opportunities come up. Probably all of us have been burned by people who talk a good game or make commitments but never come through. That can have big implications for your career if you are taking risks in front of a client or with your boss. The important relationships in my network are those that I know I can rely on and vice versa.”

Actively Reciprocating

For the most effective knowledge workers, a network is a two-way street. They understand that when it comes to information, they have to give in order to receive. And as with personal gifts, the giving has to be done in an uncalculating, organic way. As an information scientist explained, “If I get something interesting by e-mail, I make a point of disseminating it to others who might be interested. I try to share knowledge as much as I can. But I don’t think of it as a “favor bank” in which knowledge is exchanged tit for tat.” That attitude stands in stark contrast to one in which short-term gain is the motivation for reaching out to someone. High performers recognize that it is difficult to get more than surface-level help from strangers, and so they spend time cultivating relationships even when they might not have an immediate need in mind.

There are many misconceptions about how knowledge workers get their work done. Most management interventions have focused on improving or adding technological solutions. Companies invest more in e-learning tools than in mentoring programs, for example, even though knowledge workers often say they learn much more from others and through experience. Some of that money should be redirected to encourage the development of social and human capital. High performers already do what they can to build networks that blend utility with a personal touch. Organizations should use tools and human resources practices that are readily available to hire people who are likely to develop large, widespread networks. Once on board, people should be encouraged through incentives to maintain their networks. Such important work — and it is work, even if isn’t usually visible —shouldn’t be left strictly to chance.