I recently asked a professional friend of mine to define networking for me. His reply? “It is basically meeting new people, right?” And he wonders why he can never get anyone to return his calls. Networking is not as simple as two people standing in a room exchanging business cards, sales leads, or other information. It transcends that level of simplicity by light years.
Now I am not about to sit here and try to convince you that I am the authoritative figure on business networking – the swami of the handshake – the sultan of cocktail hour. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, I would like to offer you some of my views of traditional (offline) business networking.
For the definitive text (IMHO) on the core concepts of business networking, I will simply refer you to the book written by my friend Ricky Steele, formerly with PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Korn Ferry, and now the Chief Development Officer of Thompson Technologies. His book entitled The Heart of Networking is all you’ll need to get ramped up on the basic functional tenets. If I were stranded on a deserted island, and could have only one thing, it would be Ricky’s book. Okay, it would be food and water, but his book would be a close second. Plus, if you buy a copy of Ricky’s book, he’ll be able to afford to keep buying groceries, which is a good thing for his wife and kids.
Networking is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:
the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, and institutions.
John Hoppe, the President of the Independence Capital Company, defines networking as:
the systematic process of meeting people, learning about them, and establishing relationships so that all parties establish and expand a base of resources to support their endeavors.
I should point out that professional networkers do not view the networking process as necessarily being one of a linear nature. Networking is a fluid, dynamic thing – always changing and shifting to fit the landscape around it. But Hoppe’s description is a good generalization of what is involved.
My what a long strange trip it’s been
In ancient times, business networking was essentially all about what you knew. If you were the village blacksmith, people knew that they had to come to you for their smithy needs. If you were the local witch doctor, people knew that they had to come to you to get their health needs taken care of. This is very analogous to the way it is when a person starts their career. In the early phases of a person’s professional career, it becomes all about what they know. Everyone knows that Johnny is a fantastic database analyst, or that Carol is a very efficient tax accountant, so they use their services as needed.
As societies evolved, and civilization spread, business networking evolved along with it, and it became all about who you knew. If you wanted to start a business, or buy a home, you called on someone who could help you. This person would call their friend who was a banker, or investor.
Again, this is very similar to the natural progression of a person’s career. Once Johnny or Carol had established themselves as being “go-to” people, they began to branch out and meet people (colleagues, clients, and other such people).
Pretty soon, it becomes all about who knows you, and the cycle repeats itself, only now, Johnny and Carol are integral parts of a larger, distributed network of people. It is here that we began to realize that technology can play a critical role in introducing efficiencies to such networks.
In this day and age of instant gratification (not to mention instant messaging), the acceptable timeframe between decision points has greatly diminished. Once we identify a need, we expect a fairly rapid resolution. If you realize that you are thirsty, and need something to drink, then you recognize that you have a need. You stick a dollar into a vending machine and that need is instantly taken care of. If no vending machine is around, you go through a fast food drive-through – again, instant satisfaction. If you want to watch a certain music video, or a particular movie, they are but a click away. Convenience has permeated many aspects of our society. If your business has a need for certain software applications, you can even buy them online from the vendor, and immediately download them.
Until now, this instantaneous resolution did not often apply to business networking. The concept of instant satisfaction runs somewhat counter to many age old business networking paradigms. Experienced executives will tell you that it took them years, decades even, to build up their network of contacts. Networking your way into a specific company, say, for a business development or sales opportunity, could take weeks, months, even a year. Some of the biggest business deals that we’ve seen in this country were due to the long-term, deliberate, calculated efforts of some incredibly serious business networkers – the grand chess game.
Unfortunately, the expectations we have now as a society force us to focus on the “here and now”, not the “tomorrows” or “next years”. At the pace of today’s business environment, we are not often afforded the luxury of time. When we see an opportunity, we must seize it, lest we watch it fall quickly through our fingers.
So how can we increase the efficiency of business networking? How can we move to leverage technology to find a competitive advantage to business networking in an increasingly interconnected society? As I’ll write about soon, technology can indeed be used to facilitate business networking, although it isn’t necessarily a panacea for finding the shortest path to success.