Thursday, June 11, 2009


This article originally appeared in The National Networker

Last month saw me celebrate a ten-year anniversary. On 11th May 1999 I started work for Business Referral Exchange, then a new networking organisation founded six months previously and with just four groups running in London, Hertfordshire and Essex. At the time networking as a formal activity was little known in the UK, with a few independent groups supplementing the networking offered by Chambers of Commerce and community groups such as Rotary.

How times have changed! Networking is now a key activity for millions of small business owners across the World and, with the rise of social online networks, is being recognised as a key skill for everyone, from jobseekers to global corporates.

Last month’s personal anniversary started me thinking about the changes I have seen in networking in that time, how the popularity of networking has grown and what we can expect over the next decade. Approaches to networking, behaviour within networks and even where we network and with whom have all changed. I still think there is a long journey to travel before everyone who needs to network recognises its true importance and does so effectively and efficiently.

That, I suppose, is why I write this column every month!

Why have we seen such a rapid growth in networking over the last decade? There have been a number of influences on its increased popularity, and our approach to it. These influences have certainly been strong in the UK, although I think similar patterns have explained the same developments in other countries.

The first influence is the growth of micro and small businesses. Large organisations have been downsizing their workforce for some years, predating the current recession. In fact the move away from relying on employees to bringing in contractors has been growing over the last decade. Many people have been encouraged to leave the security of employment in exchange for the greater rewards of contract work, leading to the establishment of thousands of small businesses.

The current economic crisis has accelerated this trend as hundreds of thousands of people have been made redundant. I believe that one of the long-term results of the credit crunch will be a second surge in numbers of small businesses. It is widely recognised that job security no longer exists in the way it has previously and the ability to be responsible for one’s own future has become more attractive.

The upshot of a growth of small businesses is an increase in networking. One man bands and micro businesses do not have the budget for advertising, PR and sales teams that larger organisations have traditionally relied upon. Instead they quickly realise that they have to grow and reach out to a network of others to find clients and develop their business.

Moving away from working within a large team, surrounded by people to turn to when answers are needed, and towards working in their own homes, feeling isolated from the World, also compels people to look towards networks. Networking groups have been increasingly seen not just as a source of new business, but as a replacement for the ‘water cooler moments’ and support systems that a large office provides.

Another key influence on the direction networking has taken has been the increase in social networking technology. Ten years ago there was little to no online networking, other than groups and forums on sites such as Yahoo. Today you get an invitation to a new site almost every day.

The popularity of predominantly social sites such as Facebook and Twitter has brought the benefits of networking into the wider public consciousness and has been reflected in an increased awareness of professional sites such as LinkedIn. You can now find people on LinkedIn who would not have been found on any other network as recently as last year.

The growth of such technology has made networking accessible to many more people. A decade ago networking was purely for business and took place either at breakfast or early evening, excluding many people, predominantly women, with childcare responsibilities. Now you can network at your convenience, at any time of day or night, through online networks.

The growth of online networks will also impact on the willingness of people to network and their behaviour in networks over the coming years. The ‘Millennial’ Generation, or ‘Gen Y’ have grown up with social networks as the norm. They will expect networking as part of their career and job development and more companies will recognise the benefit of collaboration and networks as this generation reaches senior management levels.

What will be interesting will be the impact of new technologies and new generations on behaviour within networks. When I started work in networking many people were driven by short-term sales targets and brief, transactional, interactions. Over the years the importance of relationship building became a higher priority for many and people began to recognise the futility of trying to sell in an environment where people haven’t come to buy, and realise that referrals carry more weight than individual sales.

With the growth of online networks, however, there has been a backward step. Many people treat networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn purely as broadcast tools. They don’t seek to engage people in conversation or build quality relationships. Instead they focus on getting as many connections, friends or followers as possible and rattle out broadcast messages to them.

The more ‘sophisticated’ among the new networkers boast of a strategy where they drive people to their own website and then to ‘squeeze’ pages where they can encourage a transaction. There is little attempt at conversation or education, once more it is all about the sale.

This approach lacks any sustainability. While some people might thrive, as they have done with other related forms of internet marketing, if too many people follow this approach it will turn away newer converts to networking and those who seek relationships. Very few people join networks to be a notch on the bedpost or to be sold to, therefore any network where everyone seeks just to build huge numbers of connections or sell without looking to help others first will lose members rapidly.

Also people will soon become disaffected with the pursuit of numbers as they realise that numbers alone don’t produce benefits, and find how difficult it is to maintain relationships in a network that has grown too large. I have already seen a number of people shelve Facebook and LinkedIn contacts publicly as they attempt to rationalize their networks and more people will begin to do this.

Moving forward, I expect to see a number of changes in networking behaviour over coming years.

The most important change will be a more strategic approach to networking activity. There needs to be a shift from networking as an afterthought, or as a response to invitations, to a goals-oriented networking strategy. People won’t be able to cope with the number of choices available, both online and in person, and will select which networks suit their personal and business goals. They will be happier to commit to those networks which make sense for them and spurn other invitations.

Such an approach will see a growth in niche and peer-group support networks. There has been a growing understanding of the role networking has beyond sales, and how strong that value is. Mastermind groups will grow in popularity and there will be a shift in the ‘numbers’ game, with people preferring smaller networks of like-minded people to getting as many people together as possible.

We will also see more engagement in networking by individuals and large organisations. Women’s groups have led the field in both areas, striving to even out inequalities in business and in the workplace by encouraging women to work together and support each others’ development. Their successes will encourage others to explore the benefits that networking can bring and evidence of someone’s networking activity may soon take pride of place on CVs as people look for their next career move.

Times may have changed over the last decade but there are still many changes to come. Networking has grown in respectability and popularity over that time, the next step is for an increased understanding of the ‘right’ way to network. A move from quantity to quality and from activity-driven to goal-driven networking is the next natural step.

We’re heading in the right direction but there’s still a long way to go.

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