Last reviewed 20 April 2016

It seemed to be in the nineties that networking became an unstoppable force. With online technologies, it has gathered momentum over the last couple of decades and now feels like whole jobs, perhaps entire careers could be taken up entirely by networking with other people, says Gudrun Limbrick. Some network with others doing the same job as them in other organisations, others network with other organisations in the same locality, an enviable few manage to make their networking needs global with visits to localities and businesses overseas.

The advantages are almost taken as read these days, with the idea of networking understood to be a “good thing” while we rarely take the time to think about what it can actually achieve and how valuable this is to us as individuals and to the businesses in which we work. The basic principle of networking is that getting a group of people (as individuals representing businesses) together with similar needs and challenges is useful, as they can share good practice, hints and tips about getting over hurdles, and ideas about suppliers and other resources. A great example of this would be the networking undertaken by a group of small businesses in a locality. They can share ideas about the cheapest stationery suppliers; club together to lobby the local council about parking and take contact details so that, in a moment of strife, there is someone to call upon who may already have been through the same issue.

As individuals, we have tended to use networking as a way of gathering ideas about doing our own jobs from others working in similar situations. Charity fundraisers, for example, have tended to be excellent networkers. Their large networking events mean that the costs of some learning can be shared between a number of organisations and there are both formal and informal opportunities to share ideas and challenges and to make links on both an organisational, and a personal level. This makes sense. Fundraising is an ever-changing, challenging and complicated subject; sharing learning in this way can be cost-effective.

However, it could be argued that, in both of these examples, we are networking with our actual or potential competitors. Any business may find itself competing for premises, the best deals from suppliers, editorial space in the local newspaper and, of course, customers. Charity fundraisers could well find themselves in competition for the funds of the same grant-making trust. Anyone could “steal” our best ideas and benefit from them to another’s detriment or pass them off as their own. Does our eagerness to network cloud our judgment about what is actually in the best interests of the company we are there to represent? More and more, it seems that this could be a very real danger.

It appears to be increasingly common that networking is actually carried out, not on an organisational level but on an entirely personal level. While much networking is conducted in work time, with the resources and under the name of the business, the greatest motivation is in personal development and career progression. Are we now more often attending networking events for our own gain as individuals — to ingratiate ourselves with other organisations and individuals who may well make us a job offer? LinkedIn is a prime example of how we are tempted into talking about the organisations in which we work — making details public — when the prime motivation is in creating our own personal contact lists.

Another significant downside to networking is in the sheer quantity of time it can take up. As we fly from meeting to meeting, updating our online profiles as we go, it is sometimes hard to squeeze in the work we should really be doing. Networking is, after all, a great way to feel busy and purposeful when the actual work of the role is too challenging or too uninteresting.

Conversely, networking can also make us not just appear to be too busy but to actually be too busy to be productive. Unfocused, untargeted networking can leave us with so many ideas to carry out, so many leads to follow up, that it can be hard to find our way through this “work clutter” and focus on what is really important. Networking with others carrying out similar roles can leave us feeling that we ought to be doing everything that they are doing when, in practice, it can make more sense simply to concentrate on one or two elements at a time.

The worst networking is entirely disingenuous. We collect contacts, attend meetings, and join online forums in the same manner as those people who once collected business cards solely to make themselves look well-connected and important. There is no saying that this networking is any more effective than that pile of business cards, which are gathering dust, the named individuals long forgotten.

It should also be said that some of us are better at networking than others. Genuine networking, which not only enables a person to make a link with a person but to also then remember that link and use it, is actually a rare talent. Those people who can work a room and make themselves memorable and appropriate to all they talk to are the people who will make the most of any networking opportunity, for themselves and for the company they represent.

Love it or hate it, networking is not going to go away. It is a fixture of many person specs and a part of many disparate jobs. It is also necessary for many of us who are looking to develop our careers and our ability to carry out our own jobs. While there are many online opportunities for networking, there will also continue to be a demand for face-to-face events, meetings and conferences, regardless of the time toll this takes on businesses.

So how do we make the most of these networking opportunities while limiting the potential pitfalls? The first step is to agree the purpose of any networking. Why are contacts being made? What constitutes a useful contact and what is the intention behind making that link? It seems obvious, but many networkers are actually throwing out a very large net and bringing in whatever fish they catch without really being sure which species are edible and which might leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

The second step is to work out how notes will be kept on who has been met, and why they are thought to be potentially useful. The aim of this is threefold, not only is it a useful aide memoire but also allows some objective judgment of how useful an event is by allowing a count of useful contacts. It also means that these notes can be passed to another should the networking individual leave. All too often, our contacts leave when a single individual leaves their job.

Finally, time allocations should be agreed for networking, say one day a month, so that networking does not take over a particular role.

Networking as a “good thing” is the paradigm under which we currently work. While, there is no doubt that, in the right hands and with the right planning, it can be a good thing, not all time spent on networking is of benefit to the business paying for it, and sometimes, when important business acumen is shared, it can be downright harmful. Networking needs as careful planning and handling as any other part of our work.