Business Networking: A necessary third millenium skill

If a single word defines the business environment a decade into the third millennium, it’s complexity. As organizations get larger, adopt complicated structures, become increasingly international, and deal more with outside vendors for key parts of their operations — all accelerating trends that show no signs of abating — new pressures are put on individuals at all levels. But the stresses on middle and senior managers are the most pronounced. To deal with it all, they need to know more than ever about what’s going on both internally and within those outside entities (government, competitors, vendors, pressure groups) that can affect their organization. This means that middle and senior managers today face a knowledge gap — a gap that will grow in the future as the level of complexity accelerates — between the personal knowledge they now possess and all that they need to know to do their jobs effectively. A similar gap exists at lower organizational levels as well, but, as Figure 1 illustrates, the severity of this knowledge gap is much greater for mid-level and senior managers than it is for those at lower, supervisory levels. What does it take to close the knowledge gap? Over the last 30 years, organizations have tried to build or improve their communication systems, introducing intranets and other technology tools. They also have pinned their hopes on matrix management structures and cross-functional teams as workplace innovations that should promote a freer flow of information. But these efforts have proven insufficient at closing the knowledge gap for middle and senior managers. What has become apparent is that the solution lies with the middle and senior managers themselves. Individuals have to take an active role in setting up their own communication channels so they can anticipate emerging issues, get ahead of breaking information, obtain coaching relative to important decisions, and request help to get things done. These activities are part of what constitutes “business networking”—developing, nurturing, and tapping contacts to further business or personal success.

"It’s not the degree of effort that matters; what matters most is the outcome— a diverse, reliable business network."

A business network is a collection of people, preferably with a broad array of experience and knowledge, to which an individual is connected and with which the individual is in periodic contact. Ideally, any member of this network would answer an e-mail request for help within 24 hours. It’s that level of responsiveness that one should aspire to when assembling a sound business network. While building and maintaining a business network is important to ongoing job success, it’s even more important when transitioning to a mid-level or senior manager role. The speed at which individuals promoted into one of these roles can build a solid business network is directly related to how fast they will be able to make correct job decisions, because they will be able to access a range of appropriate information more quickly. Those managers who engage in business networking reap many benefits. Research on business networking has found that it is positively associated with salary growth, number of promotions, perceived career success, and current job satisfaction. It also is worth pointing out that one’s existing business network usually isn’t sufficient when transitioning into a new management role. People beginning a new job make a common mistake: They tend to rely on their old network of contacts and their knowledge of the organization. They don’t stretch themselves to develop broader networks or expand their knowledge. By not stretching themselves, they inadvertently put a drag on their speed to job proficiency. They fail to recognize that networking is a much more efficient means of gaining access to knowledge and information than is “learning it yourself ” through other means.

A business network should not be confused with a social network. Social networks are made up of people that you know and who are probably very much like you. They may be individuals with whom you are acquainted but who do not meet the requirements for a business network—they cannot be counted on to answer your e-mails or offer jobrelevant help when you need it. Even a particularly robust social network is no substitute for a business network. […]

William C. Byham
DDI Founder and Executive Chairman