For years, people in business bragged about the size of their rolodexes, which contained the names and vital information about people who could provide business-related information and share business contacts - the crucial data needed to make good decisions, avoid pitfalls, handle new challenges, and decrease 6 degrees of separation to 2. The computer has replaced the rolodex, but the need to have a group of people who can help in different circumstances is larger than ever.
Now they are called "business networks." A business network is a collection of people, preferably with a broad array of experience and knowledge, to which an individual is connected and with which the individual is in
periodic contact. Ideally, any member of this network would answer an email request for help within 24 hours.
The last criterion is particularly important. One doesn't have a network unless the people in it come through when the need arises. A business network is not built with a single email exchange or by meeting someone at a convention. Its quality cannot be measured by the number of friends on Facebook or connections on LinkedIn. It's a more personal relationship, usually involving at least one face-to-face meeting.
Are business networks a third millennium skill?
If a single word defines the business environment a decade into the third millennium, it is "complexity." As organizations become larger, adopt complicated structures, become increasingly international, and deal more with outside vendors for key parts of their operations (all accelerating trends that show no signs of abating), knowledge needs increase. It is more difficult for people to possess, or have immediate access to, all the information that they need to do a good job. As noted in Figure 1, information needs are mounting at an exponential rate while the knowledge that people in organizations can personally amass is growing much more slowly.
A senior vice president of one of the largest aircraft manufacturers recently told a gathering of newly hired engineers that he thinks that the most important skill of a new engineer is business networking. Why? Because his organization is so large, complicated, and matrixed, there is no way one person can have all the information he needs to do a job. Instead, he told the engineers that they have to figure out who has the necessary information and develop the contacts to get the information when it is needed.
Also, knowledge needs increase as people advance in their organizations. With more responsibility, often in areas in which they do not have technical knowledge or expertise, employees increasingly have to deal with individuals outside the organization, such as vendors, government officials, and board members of not-for-profit organizations.
How do business networks aid organizations and people?
There are many business payoffs from business networking. The three mentioned most by managers in surveys conducted by Development Dimensions International Inc. (DDI) are: less reinvention of the wheel (sharing of best practices); alignment of people or units; and the need to make fast, accurate, decisions.
No business can afford to do the same work twice or to work inefficiently. Nothing drives managers crazier than realizing that their unit has spent a lot of time and money on a project, even though the same or similar work had been done earlier in another part of the organization or in other organizations. It's also frustrating to discover that an individual or team started from scratch to develop a process without benefitting from best practices for similar efforts that were available. Business networks facilitate the sharing of information that helps individuals and teams avoid repeating work.
Just as upsetting to managers are instances of individuals or units not coordinating their efforts for maximum speed and efficiency. One department works overtime to finish a product only to find that the date it is needed has been changed. Or conversely, a new project appears out of the clear blue, even though it's been discussed in other departments for months. Business networks act as an early warning system that keeps individuals in touch with what is going on in the organization.
The third major reason commonly cited for network importance has already been proven in the third millennium. During the recent financial crisis, managers at all levels had to make difficult organizational decisions with little information. Those individuals who had people they could call for help and advice, came out ahead.
These payoffs are echoed when people are asked to explain why their own business networks are beneficial. Specifically, people value their networks because they help avoid time wasted on unimportant tasks, aid them in getting their jobs done faster, and enable them to be more successful in getting critical information. People also mention that networks help them to determine the strategic direction of the organization so that personal or unit efforts can be aligned. When networking helps associates to be successful, they are more engaged in their jobs and are more confident about advancement and pay increases.
What skills are needed for business networking?
DDI research in business networking has identified the following skills as important to successful networking:
Figure out who should be in your network (be purposeful). Building a strong business network requires that a person avoid relying just on lunch partners. Associates need to think about who can help them be better in their jobs, who is "in the know" and well connected to other knowledgeable contacts, and who can help them navigate roadblocks.
A boss or mentor can help identify people for their team members' networks. Managers should also facilitate network building by setting up meetings, introducing people to colleagues, and making introductory phone calls. But associates must also develop their own contacts by identifying people who can help tackle work-related problems or even provide information that helps an individual navigate organizational politics.
A business network needs to include both internal and external contacts. For some positions, a strong business network can be built exclusively from internal contacts. Increasingly, however, this is the exception rather than the rule, especially for middle and senior managers. Now, most managers need to have their business networks extend outside of their work group, and even outside of their organization (for example, contacts in government organizations, vendors, competitors, or technology experts). The broader the reach of a network, the more knowledge and information one will be able to access when it is needed.
Dare to introduce yourself (be courageous). The greatest fear people have about networking is that their efforts to build a networking relationship will be met with rejection. While this fear is grounded in human nature, experienced networkers understand that it is largely unfounded. People are more receptive to helping others than they're given credit for. No one turns down a call from someone who starts the conversation with, "I've just taken over the responsibility for the XYZ project, and I'm trying to get to know people who"
Ask for help (be courageous). It's not easy for many people to ask for help. Some people think it makes them look unknowledgeable. Others believe that asking for help makes them appear as though they are lazy or unmotivated. For many others, they simply never developed the habit of asking for help.
A great deal of research confirms that asking for help is a behavior tied to job success. Critical information, such as content for a proposal or information about a foreign culture, can come from others but must be sought out. Seeking information from others also clarifies expectations about current projects, or yields lessons from past failures that help avoid repeats and develop stronger strategies for the future.
Asking for help comes naturally to some people more than others. To those for whom it does not come naturally, asking for help is a courageous act. Summoning that courage is especially critical when one is taking over a new position or project and has to make fast, tough decisions.
Networking must be reciprocal (be purposeful). Reciprocity is the most difficult networking skill according to DDI research. An effective business network must be a two-way street, with a balance of give and take. In addition to returning a favor by providing help when asked, networkers must keep the relationship going by being proactive to assure that they are remembered by contacts. For example, look for information such as magazine articles that can be shared, or congratulate those in your network on a job change or other accomplishment. Successful managers report spending roughly one hour each week maintaining their networks. Those who invest even more time always find the extra effort to be worthwhile.
What are the top three payoffs for networking training?
Networking is a skill. And as with any other skill, providing training around networking helps managers and associates improve their ability to purposely and effectively connect with other people. The benefits of business networking training are numerous and long lasting, but three outcomes are particularly valuable in today's business climate.
- Networking guidance helps people gain a fast start in a new job. People coming into positions from the outside, by transfer, or through promotion, must be productive as quickly as possible, get up-to-speed to show management that the decision to put them in the job was a good one, and show themselves that they can be successful. The rapid establishment of a business network relates to speed-to-productivity because rapid networkers make fewer early mistakes, which make them look good to their boss and feel good about themselves and their decision to join the organization. Individuals who don't network and make preventable errors often start to rethink their decision to take the job.
- Training helps people expand their business networks outside their work group or unit to other parts of the organization or outside the organization. For many individuals, this is a big leap, well outside their comfort zone, and thus an activity that can easily be put off. People coming into new jobs that require business networks, or who are in such a job but haven't developed high-payoff networks, benefit from training programs that provide a "push" in planning their business network and developing the confidence required to do it.
- People starting their first network or expanding their current one benefit from having their immediate supervisor trained in how to support business networking. The supervisor plays a big role in helping individuals determine who should be in their network, helping individuals make contacts, and providing support and coaching when needed.
Historically, networking has not been at the top of the training and development wish list, and with good reason - in decades past, the ability to build a business network was considered a nice-to-have skill. Organizations were structured more simply, with fewer demands on more people.
At the beginning of the third millennium, however, networking is no longer a nice to have; it's a must. Information is not only more important to success in today's workplace, there is much more of it, and it's harder to access. Today's organizations are more fluid than the simpler organizations of the past, which were easier to navigate.
Also evolving are today's jobs. Gone are rigid descriptions that demand that people work in relative isolation, and one individual in today's workforce may be doing a job that took two or three people in earlier eras.
Networking is the third millennium skill that your workforce, to be successful, has to make a part of their professional day-to-day. Access to information, teamwork, and innovation are all qualities that create a competitive advantage and that are enhanced by good networking practices. T+D