Networking: Does everybody need to schmooze to get on?

By Sophie Robehmed
BBC News Magazine

image captionForget the pleasantries, let's talk back office outsourcing opportunities

January is a month for self-improvement like no other, with many people "networking" to get a new job. One business school has gone as far as appointing a "professor of networking", but do you still need to schmooze to get ahead?

Many people will have observed a good networker in action.

Pausing between mouthfuls of prawn vol-au-vents to gaze Peregrine Falcon-like around a busy room, they pick their prey with aplomb.

Swerving in between those who lack the power to enhance their career, the networker closes on the target and makes conversation that feels warm and genuine despite - in reality - being dominated by coming opportunities in "business process outsourcing".

But for less ruthless folk, networking can all be a bit harrowing. Some don't feel comfortable "working a room" with guests that they have nothing in common with.

Others struggle with the notion of contrived conversation where both parties know that the other person is after something - be it insider knowledge, a contact or work.

For these people LinkedIn and Twitter may have come as a bit of a blessing, allowing an altogether less socially taxing form of networking, at a time when a difficult jobs market makes pursuing every opportunity more important than ever.

image captionTim Campbell has come a long way since winning the first series of The Apprentice

But in the era of digital buttonholing, is traditional schmoozing still important? And can it be taught?

The appointment of Julia Hobsbawm as the "world's first visiting professor in networking" at London's Cass Business School might suggest so. Hobsbawm believes networking should be a core skill, like driving or computer literacy.

"In a time of recession, people need their soft skills honed every bit as sharp as their hard skills. Networking is poised to become the most valuable soft skill on a CV," Hobsbawm says.

So do the hours we spend on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn on a daily basis count towards our networking quota?

"Face-to-face contact is much more important in the 'Facebook age' because technology can create isolation despite its many benefits," argues Hobsbawm.

"Trust is the biggest single asset a person can have and face-to-face contact provides this better than any other form of engagement. But everyone needs to be connected on social media too. The more blended your information sources, the better."

Networking, as "the action or process of making use of people for the exchange of information or for professional or other advantage", first came into common parlance in the 1970s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

image captionJulia Hobsbawm thinks networking should be considered a core skill

Before social media was born, networking was something you only did face-to-face at the local pub, a chief executive's mahogany office or in between stuffing your face with smoked salmon blinis in a soulless conference room.

Young people might now be totally au fait with social networking sites, but are not aware of all the techniques of more traditional networking.

Apprentice winner Tim Campbell, who was recently awarded an MBE for his services to enterprise culture, believes this is because networking is not presented in a positive light let alone as a skill that should be learnt.

"Networking is definitely a skill that can be learnt but it is seen as a bit of a dirty word. Americans see it as an essential part of business thanks to sororities and fraternities at universities where life-long links are made. That's an alien concept for most people that come out of our education system."

Campbell admits networking is hard work if done the right way because it involves keeping connections "warm".

"It's a delicate balance between endeavour and connections. I'm all for networking for getting a job whether that's mentioning a name or through a friend of a friend."

Many might be dismissive of the idea that you occasionally need to network to get work, believing it is disingenuous and unnecessary in a meritocratic job market. But the defenders of networking argue that in societies where some people are able to take advantage of family contacts or other social advantages, networking is a conscious way to level the playing field.

Campbell argues not everyone has the same "social capital" when it comes to knowing the right people.

"This imbalance doesn't mean networking is a bad thing," adds Campbell. "We just have to make sure people have more access to networks. Social mobility relies on good networks."

Not all networking is good. You need to do it well, says Cliff Oswick, professor in organisation theory at Cass Business School.

Oswick believes networking often doesn't get positive results because it is carried out in an insincere, superficial and meaningless way with people who share no similarities whatsoever.

Of course, to the critics of networking that is exactly what it is. So what should we be doing instead?

"Authenticity is vital," says Oswick. "Ensure you are connecting with people you want to connect with rather than accumulating a long list of contacts that you have nothing in common with."

It's rather in the same vein that some people hoover up as many acquaintances as they possibly can on social networking sites in order to appear popular.

So what networking skills can be taught?

Oswick thinks networking skills can be enhanced by theorising and adopting practices in a similar way that people are taught how to develop leadership qualities.

Davide Nicolini, professor of organisation studies at Warwick Business School, opts for a slightly different method.

"We look at networks as a way of making your business work at its best rather than techniques to make lots of friends. Although both approaches go together.

"Networking is the name of the game in surviving in most companies. It is an old practice that has been rejuvenated by the introduction of electronic media and has always been important in England hence the notion of an old boys' club in the first place."

But comedian Arthur Smith doesn't rate the power of networking, arguing that using your talent is the most important factor for success.

"Networking is for people who like having their picture taken, [and] going to parties. I can't really be bothered. Talent always prevails in the long run."