The 'Net at work: Networking at APWA

Dave Reinke
InfoLink Project Manager
APWA Washington Office

The word "network" was first coined in 1560, and while the word is applied to areas never imagined then, its core meaning remains unchanged. Network is defined as a: an interconnected or interrelated chain, group, or system, and also, in more modern use, as b: a system of computers, terminals, and databases connected by communications lines. These two definitions encompass both the types of networks that directly affect you as an APWA member; the first, the interconnected group of your fellow workers, local APWA chapter members, and National APWA members, and the second, the system of technology that can serve to link all those people in different places.

The importance of both kinds of networks is obvious. Both are useful for answering questions, sharing concerns, and learning new approaches to problems and challenges. Humans are by nature social creatures (remember "no man is an island?") and it is the wealth of shared knowledge, experiences, and relationships that helps form our personal and professional lives. Sociologists have a term for the value of these human networks, referring to "social capital" that is accumulated by these connections.

In both types of networks, the larger they are, the better. Some of the links in each might be more primary, but the more of them there are, the more valuable the information, support, and utility they provide. Think about how you use your existing network of peers; some might be the ones to turn to for a particular topic, while a different group might be the first you approach with a different problem.

So what is your network? Are you using both to the maximum extent possible?

I returned last month from Chicago Metro Chapter annual conference and expo, where the benefits of networking were fully evidenced. Particularly at the local level, the ability to meet face-to-face with colleagues from other towns and villages was one of the reasons for the success of the gathering, and exhibiting vendors from the immediate area knew about local issues, regulations, and concerns. The members interact and help each other, and a gathering of individuals becomes a collective event, where each member contributes to the value of attendance. Witnessing the demonstration of this primary personal network, I gained a new appreciation for the role it plays in professional development.

In the more modern definition in the first paragraph, both InfoLink and InfoNOW can and should be important components in your "other" network. Like your human (carbon-based) networks, these silicon, copper, and fiber-based networks are here to help you. These two products are delivered electronically, 24-hours a day, seven days a week (unlike your human network, perhaps!) to answer questions, find information, and help you do your job better, faster, and innovatively.

APWA-InfoLink might be viewed as a direct network, as you are connected through the Internet (the biggest network there is) to multiple other public works departments across the county and internationally. It's easier than using your human network, because each of the public works sites is searchable, so you don't even have to know who specifically to turn to—and if geography is important, you can search that way as well. And just as you wouldn't go up to a stranger in the street and ask him or her about the most up-to-date information on solid waste disposal, InfoLink has collected sites targeted to your areas of interest, and you don't have to try your luck with one of the commercial search engines and weed through results.

InfoNOW even more closely bridges the two types of networks, as it directly communicates, using electronic networks, with your peers in narrowly defined communities. These communities are arranged by subject area, and you can sign up by going to www.apwa.net and clicking on the InfoNOW icon. Once you sign up, you will begin to receive, through e-mail, regular updates and questions from fellow members specifically about that topic. If you "reply to all" to answer an e-mailed question, all the users in that group (currently around 200-600 users each) will gain the wisdom you chose to share. InfoNOW can be used for both questions and notifications, such as updates from the new Legislative Advocacy Task Force in the Government Affairs community.

For both of these, don't forget they are two-way streets. While it is great to get lots of help from them, just as in your human networks you have to contribute to the relationship; in this case, posting answers to InfoNOW questions you can help with, and making sure to register your agency's website on InfoLink.

Congress this year in Kansas City will be a place to tie all your networks together. Attending will bring you face-to-face with fellow APWA members. It will also put you in the middle of more than 100,000 square feet of equipment that you use on a daily basis. And you can visit the InfoLink booth on the show floor, ask questions, try out some new applications, and talk to the folks behind the scenes that make it work.

We are constantly surrounded by networks, both human and electronic; it's just a matter of how "plugged in" we are. There are lots of opportunities to interact personally with coworkers and colleagues, and access to electronic networks is becoming faster and easier every day as broadband and wireless technologies become more widespread.

So, in addition to asking questions to all these network partners of yours, you get to ask yourself a question: As an APWA member, are you getting the maximum benefits from your networks and your membership? And YOU know the answer.

To reach Dave Reinke, call (202) 408-9541 or send e-mail to dreinke@apwa.net.