Look around. We’ve become a world obsessed with networking. From Facebook to Ted Talks to meetings at Starbucks, we’re a culture that’s grown passionate about building and maintaining relationships. For many, the pressure to be continually visible in our hyperconnected society is what singularly drives us.
But the truth is – as anyone knows – that’s nothing new. Networking has been around for years, from the days of the ‘long lunch’ to a time when many a deal was closed on the golf course. It’s something we do quite naturally every day; only the methods and motivations have changed.
With worldwide internet usage increasing more than 500 percent since 2000 and over a third of the planet’s workforce using mobile technology, we now have the capacity, the capability and the fascination to connect to each other all the time. Superimposing sophisticated electronic methods to assist the networking process has merely forced us think, react and absorb information more intuitively – and at hyperspeed.
Why we connect has changed as well. Previously we networked our way up the corporate ladder. Today, it’s all about collaboration and the sharing of ideas, the constant exchange of knowledge and intelligence, and creating and maintaining circles of confidants and connections that can help us increase productivity.
Indeed, everything we do is defined by networks and networking, whether in person, online or organizationally. Today’s professionals operate in an environment that’s been called ‘The Triple Revolution’ — the virtual and nearly simultaneous merging of social networks, the internet and mobile technology.
But with all this progress – real and implied – we have to assess whether we have the proper mindset and the right time management skills to fully connect at more than just a technological level. Since the number of hours in a week seems to be stubbornly stuck on 168, for the sake of our collective sanity there needs to be some sort of active adjustment to how we direct our efforts to help to successfully navigate the modern business landscape and make the networking process truly workable and beneficial.
In her recent white paper report, Fully Connected: a Look Ahead to Working and Networking in 2020, Editorial Intelligence founder Julia Hobsbawm suggests some distinct steps to handle today’s hyperconnectivity. I summarize those steps below.
Despite the temptation to grow your “connection” numbers, having a large stable of contacts is not usually productive, nor truly possible. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that at any given time, humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships – associations Dunbar explains informally as, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
Julia Hobsbawm suggests assembling that group of 150 people from your current network and then subdividing it into three categories: the essential people currently need to keep up with; those you wish to reconnect with or maintain relationships with; and those who you should get to know: your connection targets.
Paul Booth, PhD, assistant professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University, says there’s been a fundamental shift in the way we communicate. Rather than face-to-face interaction, we prefer email. We’d rather text than talk on the phone.
No surprise there, eh? Given how much time people spend online, it’s surprising they get together in person at all. Yet, despite that, in the decade or so since social media has dominated communications, large scale events like Ted conferences have thrived. Clearly people still crave the one-to-one or one-to-many experience.
Social media, in fact, turns up third behind written communication and in-person interaction when it comes to relationship building. Face-to-face comes not only comes out on top, but it’s unique in that it’s something that can’t really be outsourced or completely replicated by technology.
But there are obstacles, primarily a concept commonly referred to as “time poverty.” As Hobsbawm points out, it definitely takes more time to arrange to meet someone, to do so and to follow up in some shape or form than it does to email them or post something on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. She adds that is also often more comfortable – and comforting – to be behind a screen, a true characteristic even among high-achieving and otherwise extroverted people.
Hobsbawm recommends setting a reasonable slate of meeting people for a cup of coffee or lunch up to five times a week. She notes that one-to-one meetings tend to be more productive than one-to-many settings, as people are more likely to come away from a cup of coffee feeling they’ve learned something and made a real connection as opposed to walking into a room full of strangers.
Stay on top of sources of information that matter to you – be they print publications, online sites or YouTube/video streams – and fashion your own “dashboard digest.” Plan on spending 8-10 hours a week visiting sites and group discussions, and contribute meaningful content when warranted. The more substantive and intelligent your activity, the stronger your potential to build relationships and improve your network.
Finally, in the spirit of collaboration and reciprocity, share what you know with others and/or send a link to something you’ve found valuable. Be sure show interest in what’s been shared with you.
Today’s professional operates with a set of values that includes greater collaboration with colleagues and competitors. This is more than team-building and bonding; it’s about creativity and productivity. Networking is clearly no longer passive, but the key is managing today’s hyperconnectivity with a vision and strategy that works for you.