An introduction to networking

Overcome your inhibitions to learn the right way to meet people, and it will open doors you never even knew about

It's not just what you know, it's who you know. Obvious, really: in a global economy, how you connect is all-important. So why isn't networking automatically taught in business courses? The answer is that it's beginning to be. Julia Hobsbawm is the newly appointed visiting professor in networking at Cass Business School – the first to have such a title. She will give her inaugural lecture later this month.

"I think that networking is going to become the hardest soft skill – after driving and basic computer skills – that anybody is going to have," she asserts. And she's talking about not just Facebook or alumni associations, but about a much broader web of connections.

"The employees of the future are going to need to keep their eyes and ears open all the time. They are going to need to be curious. So for me, networking is teaching a different attitude as well as specific skills."

Hobsbawm is a networker par excellence. She worked in public relations with Sarah Brown, the former prime minister's wife, and now runs a networking training company, Editorial Intelligence.

"We have a skills gap in this country," Hobsbawm says, "and a corporate culture that has evolved hugely in areas such as leadership, but far less fast in networking. You become an expert in your area, you network among people that are specialists like you, and that is a very narrow-cast way to be."

Hobsbawm is currently involved in discussions with Cass about developing an accredited networking course. "The point about networking is that it delivers people that are more rounded and better at what they do. They get better jobs, keep them, and ride further in the ranks.

To make her case to Cass's MBA and MSc students she will be drawing not only on her own experience but on a rapidly accumulating body of academic work on networking by sociologists such as Ronald Burt and Mark Granovetter, and by thinkers such as Daniel Kahneman and the economist Nassim Taleb.

"We are a country that is synonymous with the old-boy network, with an elite, privileged access to who you know," she says. "The combination of the global economy, technology, public mood and this new academic interest around networking could be profoundly democratising. We could become known as a nation not of shopkeepers but of networkers."

By this, Hobsbawm means more than just standing around at cocktail parties handing out business cards, though "intelligent face-to-face contact" is part of her definition. But even that can be a daunting prospect for a young business student.

Carla Salavedra, 25, did her undergraduate degree in tourism in Barcelona and had some work experience under her belt, but she admits that before starting her Masters in management at Brunel Business School, she wasn't that good at networking. "Speaking with people I didn't know, I was kind of shy," she says. "Serious conversations about business were difficult."

The change came through Brunel's business life programme, which prepares students for the practical aspects of working life. Professor Ashley Braganza runs the programme, which includes training events for third-year undergraduates and Masters students.

"We have voice coaches and people to teach that initial one-minute introduction – how you walk up to someone, make eye contact, shake hands," he says.

At the end the students are given three minutes to introduce themselves to a business manager (wearing a white carnation). With more than a few parallels to speed dating, Braganza explains that a whistle then blows and they all have to move to a new person, so in an hour they've talked to 20 people. "Some students take to it like a duck to water and others find it scary, but it's a very good introduction to the real world."

Salavedra found that this training came in particularly useful during a trip to Istanbul as part of her Masters course. "We visited a variety of international businesses and you have to sell yourself. I just explained why I came to the UK – to learn management so that I could run the family business – and then asked them questions, to get a comparison."

She also uses the school's Facebook communities, a good way of knowing other students whom you might never meet by simply walking around campus. In fact, she has already encountered people online who could be useful to her in her career.

While younger people rarely have trouble with digital networking, the same cannot always be said of older students. In international business courses aimed at senior managers, LinkedIn and Twitter take their place among other "blended learning" technologies, making it easy for students to stay in touch both with each other and with the fast-changing world of finance.

In March, for example, Dr John Glen, senior lecturer in economics at Cranfield School of Management, gave a post-Budget "webinar" briefing for about 35 alumni, based as far apart as Shanghai and New York (and therefore timed at about 1pm).

"We use Adobe Presenter software as support for the webinar," he says. "It's basically like a seminar. The students can hear me and see my slides or videos. If they have questions they type them in real-time or ask them in audio at the end. If anyone needs a one-to-one follow-up I use Skype. The key thing is that everyone knows the rules."

Toby Thompson is the director of networked learning at Cranfield. "I work on customised executive education and a programme often starts months before people actually meet," he says. "We engineer connectivity."

There might be introductory webinars, or web conferences using WebEx, a Cisco tool. When the managers meet in person, they are deliberately placed next to colleagues from different departments or areas. Then between modules they meet online on specially created portals, using Microsoft Sharepoint.

"Networked learning, if it's done properly, allows those that aren't particularly extrovert to contact people at their own pace and in their comfort zone," says Thompson.

As Hobsbawm puts it, not everyone is born with large amounts of chutzpah running through their veins – but good networking makes an indisputable difference to a company's bottom line.

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