Rethinking Networking

Business networking mantra focuses on the self-employed and small businesses with limited marketing budgets. It suggests that making introductions (or ‘referrals’) for others inevitably leads to reciprocal new opportunities for the networker. We have all been to networking events even if they were called something else. Attending a friend’s wedding, a family funeral or standing on the touchline watching your child play football are all occasions when you meet and converse with casual acquaintances. That interaction often yields new information (or gossip, which can be just as useful) and can progress to further meetings and sometimes unexpected developments and new initiatives.

We are networking all the time – aren’t we?

The truth is that we are all networkers (cave-dwelling hermits excepted) as we need contact with other people to sustain our existence. The real test of the value of networking, in whatever form, is whether it improves our lives, professionally and personally. In a working environment, we all have regular close contacts with whom we need to have sound relationships built on trust and respect, if the enterprise that we share is to be successful. Reaching out beyond the immediate group can offer all sorts of possibilities for improvement, for the organisation and the individual. It is very much in the employer’s interest to facilitate the discussion of problems and solutions between stakeholders, rather than relying on private initiatives that may not be shared or developed across the wider community.

Improved understanding of and confidence in your co-workers is fostered by dialogue, co-operation and mutual support. In every organisation there will be core values, a mission and a vision that depend on unity and commitment within the workforce. Individuals should enjoy equal opportunities and recognition, but that is not always easy to achieve, so that the feeling of involvement and personal responsibility may not be as strong as it should be.

Networking in many organisations happens mostly by accident, at the watercooler or in the pub opposite the office at lunchtime. It may result in a conversation which feeds on ‘fake news’ that could potentially damage the interests of the employer organisation or cause concern for the employee. Equally, news of benefit to the organisation may not be passed on, if there is no open communication channel to and from the top of the organisation.

Filtering provides clarity

Have you ever been in a crowded room and found it hard to concentrate on what anyone is saying because of the background noise? Filtering out the important messages and reacting to them is part of the networking process. For information to be relayed to the right people and acted upon, the ‘networking’ environment must be designed and managed to encourage active listening and responses.

We know from experience that bad news travels quickly, but that positive incidents and achievements are not shared or celebrated with the same fervour! The corporate alternative to networking is often seen as an electronic equivalent of the old message board in every department that displayed announcements and instructions to employees and visitors alike. Messages about policy and organisational change were cascaded from the top through the managers to the workers and the process was deliberately designed as a one-way channel! We may no longer be in the employee engagement dark ages, but there is always room for improvement.

The personal touch is key

One of the biggest emerging social issues about digital media is its potential to make people feel unpopular and unsuccessful. We are all egocentric and need to feel valued. Mass communication by email, via web sites or other digital channels may be ‘personalised’ but it still feels artificial and inhuman, because it is both of those things!

There is an increasing need for face-to-face interaction, for social and professional development and for personal wellbeing. Live events are the most effective and natural way for us to communicate, co-operate, motivate and share successes. Call it networking if you like, but it needs to be planned carefully and managed properly for everyone’s voice to be heard.