The business world is routinely portrayed as a dog-eat-dog affair, and it’s true that competition is absolutely fundamental to how it functions. Yet cooperation also has its place, which is why it’s vital to understand the value of networking.
Now, the owners of small and growing businesses could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve heard everything there is to know about this subject. After all, many business communities are structured around regular interactions between companies, while sizeable swathes of MBA curricula are dedicated to teaching networking skills.
But many people still don’t grasp the nuances. They’re unaware of the source of networking’s potency. They’re unfamiliar with the concept of “mutual aid”. They’re unable to recognise why, even in the age of social media, face-to-face networking remains tough to beat.
The idea that there isn’t much left to learn is therefore both misplaced and, more importantly, potentially detrimental to a business’s prospects. With that thought in mind – and in the hope that some kind of post-pandemic normality will increasingly make networking as we once knew it possible again – let’s take a closer look at the phenomenon.
A lesson from evolutionary science
The basic power of networking lies in humanity’s social make-up. Peter Kropotkin, a 19th-century evolutionary scientist and philosopher, first asserted as much when he argued that the “mutual aid” principle of cooperation was integral not just to the success of societies, but to the cause of industrial development.
Of course, the alternative to mutual aid is mutual struggle. This is where “dog eat dog” comes in. But it’s worth noting that mutual struggle usually takes place between groups, not between individuals, which is why we all need to involve ourselves in some sort of collaboration to reach our own goals.
It’s also why Kropotkin lamented that the “sudden industrial progress” of his own era was “usually ascribed to the triumph of competition”. He vehemently disagreed with this view, observing instead that humans naturally gravitate towards – and benefit from – social groups.
Much the same point could be made today. Most business successes are attributable not to antagonism or conquest, but to a deep-rooted willingness to engage. A business network is merely a more formal realisation of our innate tendency to work together in the hope of generating shared gains.
The genealogy of contact-building
It’s often said that the professional networking process begins during MBA courses or other forms of business education. After all, such settings provide significant scope for potentially useful encounters.
It would be wrong, though, to regard business education principally as a source of networking opportunities. Yes, it’s possible to make some wonderful connections, but this is largely the stuff of fate and serendipity.
The main reason why MBA courses and the like are great for networking isn’t that they bring businesspeople into contact with each other. It’s that all concerned are taught networking skills.
It’s imperative to appreciate this distinction. Opportunities are very nice, but they’re also sporadic and unpredictable. Skills are for keeps, and are likely to do much more to develop careers over the long term.
Staying in the loop
A final endorsement of the power and place of networking can be found in statistical evidence. Research has shown face-to-face networking to be more than twice as effective as any other means of landing a job, including digital channels; relatedly, analysis has suggested that between 70% and 80% of positions aren’t even advertised.
This means that even today, in the age of LinkedIn and other online communities, it’s still essential to be seen and heard in the old-fashioned sense. ‘Mutual aid’-style networking should therefore be at the heart of contact-building efforts, with other methods structured around it to maximise reach.
“It’s not what you know but who you know” is an axiom that has invariably invited somewhat negative connotations. Even so, there’s more than an element of truth to it. Frankly, it’s what networking is all about.
It should be stressed that the “what” is still crucial. Thankfully, very few people simply bluff their way through business life. But the fact is, that without the “who” – in other words, without the enormous value that effective networking brings – the “what” may well be doomed to wallow in comparative and enduring obscurity.
David Falzani MBE is an Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.