Three Trends in Business Networking

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There are three trends in business networking that I foresee over the next several years.  They relate to:
  1. Integration
  2. Education
  3. Association

Integration

Many business people have said to me: “I have thousands of connections on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites… now what?”

“Now what?” seems to be the big question.  How do people turn these connections into business?  There are many social media experts out there with suggestions – many of them very good.  However, the question still lingers.  How do business people turn their social media contacts into real business for their enterprise?

First, let me be clear.  Although I am mostly known for my face-to-face networking expertise, I love social media.  I’m definitely a fan.  I don’t believe that it is an “either/or” scenario regarding social media or face-to-face networking.  I believe that it is a “both/and” scenario.  I think that they will not only co-exist, I believe that co-existence will be one of the many ways that social media can have a direct pay off to business people in the future.  This pay off will, among other ways, come through the integration of social media with face-to-face networking.

The phrase – ‘think globally and act locally’ may no longer have the relevance it once did.  We are increasingly living in a global economy.  Businesses are doing business across greater geographic areas.  Many local businesses want a global network. Those who don’t actually do business in another country may still want to communicate with people in other areas just to improve their own expertise in order to lead to greater sales.  Technology flattens the communication hierarchy and allows people to do business or talk business anywhere in the world.

I believe that forward thinking networks will effectively integrate technology and social media systems directly into their face-to-face operations.

This will be particularly powerful for networks that have strong shared values and a clear cut mission of participation.  Many networking groups are seeing their memberships gradually convert from Baby Boomers to Gen Xers and Millennials.  This transition to a younger membership will dictate the need to integrate technology more effectively into a face-to-face model.

I believe the technology piece will take place by having ‘walled-garden’ communities accessible only to members of that group.  This will not only apply to traditional types of face-to-face networking groups but also to other types of networks.  For example, it may also be effectively utilized in professional associations, communities for users of specific products or services, alumni associations, and much more.

These communities will be more than simply groups under existing social media networks.  I believe they will be groups of people with highly controlled access based on a membership database that allows participation from the top of an organization.  In effect, they will be mini-social media sites that are niche oriented but in some cases, potentially global in perspective.

The integration of online communities accessible to limited individuals linked with the establishment of face-to-face interactions will be increasingly popular over the next decade.  The attraction to groups like this will be the niche orientation and the shared values and/or mission of the organizations.  The technology will allow greater connections and the face-to-face will allow deeper connections.

Education

Don’t hold your breath for colleges and universities of the world to begin teaching networking and social capital.  The college and university systems are behemoths of bureaucracy that are so far behind the curve of small business development that I’m beginning to despair that they will ever catch on.  Most full-time professors have never owned a business and are completely out of touch with what is happening in real life, especially in small business.   

Only one or two universities in the world have a core-curriculum university course on networking and social capital and I don’t think that will change anytime soon.  Full-time university professors (who have complete control over the curriculum) view business networking as a soft science and not something that can be taught.  They are—quite simply—wrong on this point.  Networking can be, and is, taught around world, just not in school. 

In the same way that sales and closing techniques are taught outside the university environment, I believe that networking will be taught more and more outside the university environment.

I think the current trend in networking and social capital education will emerge in the form of many private professional training organizations; in much the same way that private industry has controlled the educational market on “sales techniques” (another area where many colleges fail miserably). 

The downside to this is that the consumer needs to be well informed about a training company’s real knowledge in the area in which they are claiming expertise.  I’ve seen many people who think they know how to network but aren’t really qualified to actually teach the process.  I met a man recently who had utterly failed as a business coach and subsequently decided to try his hand at teaching networking courses.  His only substantive qualification was that he had previously attended a networking course by another training organization.  He figured that since he could pass the course, he was qualified to teach one.   I watched him network one evening; he wasn’t.

Buyer beware.  If you want a course in business networking, look over the qualifications of the company that developed the material and check the qualifications of the trainer.  More and more of these types of trainings will be offered by independent organizations in the coming future and it will be important for the consumer to do their due diligence.

Association

I believe there will be attempts to create an association of networking groups over the next several years.  I also believe they will fail and/or greatly struggle to succeed.   There is a genuine need to codify the ethics and education of a business networking curriculum.  As I mentioned above, there are virtually no university level courses on the topic and I sincerely doubt that will change in the next decade.   There are many associations that exist for many purposes.  One might assume that WOMMA (the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association) fits the bill for what I’m describing but it does not.  WOMMA seems to be a very good organization from everything I’ve heard (they have good word of mouth J).  However, their focus is more on buzz marketing and social media than it is on the type of face-to-face networking that I am describing here.  WOMMA works for many reasons and it’s important to note that one of the most important reasons for its success is that its members represent varied companies from many non-competing arenas (such as: AT&T, Coca Cola, Intel, Sony, and ESPN).

An association of networking groups would have a substantial amount of perceived and real overlap and conflict.  For this reason alone, an association devoted to the advancement of business networking will struggle or fail to get off the ground.  I’m afraid it’s one of those good ideas that will be difficult to sustain.

There are many changes in this field.  Technology is a big one.  However, the biggest change is simply the recognition of the field itself.  When I wrote my first book on business networking in the late 1980s, there were virtually no books or materials on the subject.  When I did media interviews, the most common question was: “Isn’t networking just a fad?”  After 25 years, I don’t get asked that question anymore.   This is a field of study that is coming into its own.   When I did my research for my first book, I could find almost nothing in the library on the topic.  Today, I typed the words business networking into Google and got 150 million hits!   Times are changing and so is networking. 

 

Called the "father of modern networking" by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author.  He is the Founder and Chairman of BNI, the world's largest business networking organization and the Sr. Partner for the Referral Institute.  His newest book,Networking Like a Pro, can be viewed at www.IvanMisner.com.