Friday, June 7, 2013

What is Networking?

If you were to ask 100 sports business professionals their advice on how students can best prepare for a career in the industry, two responses are nearly universal:

  1. Get experience
  2. Build a professional network of contacts
Both pieces of advice are outstanding and among the most useful a student can receive. If you teach sports marketing or sports management, there is a feeling of validation experienced when guest speakers tell students about the importance of experience and networking. But, that does not help meet the pressing challenge of grasping what networking is and how to go about building a professional network.

Networking is...
Whether done face-to-face or online, networking sounds a bit mysterious to the newcomer who is about to launch his or her professional career. Questions arise like "Who do I network with?" and "What am I supposed to do?" are not uncommon. Let's remove the mystery- I like the description of networking given by Terrance Williams in a post on the blog New Grad Life: Networking is building good relationships."  Networking is not about how many business cards you can collect or how many "big name" connections you have on LinkedIn. It is an ongoing process of relationship building with people who share common interests and goals.

Students' Views of Networking
I have included networking as a component in my undergraduate sports marketing course for the past four years. The emergence of LinkedIn as a social networking site for business professionals coupled with the importance networking in the sports industry prompted me to incorporate networking into my class. I quickly realized that students' familiarity with social media via their Facebook usage did not prepare them to be successful at networking on LinkedIn. In fact, I was unsure how prepared they were to network in general.

I address this uncertainty by collecting data on students views of networking. Each semester, I gather data on networking about two weeks into the class. I distribute a survey with three items:

  1. Complete the following sentence: Networking is _____.
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very uncomfortable and 10 being very comfortable, I would rate my comfort level with networking with people face-to-face as a _____ because _____.
  3. What I need to become better at networking is _____. 

Transaction or Relationship?
Extending the marketing literature to networking yields two views:

  1. Transactional - Networking is exchange of information or influence for short-term benefit
  2. Relational - Networking activities are not outcome dependent; they are done to build mutually beneficial relationships
A content analysis of students' definitions of networking finds that the transactional view dominates- 74% of definitions collected use words that are consistent with a transactional view of networking. Only 32% of definitions make reference to relational characteristics of networking (The fact that the sum exceeds 100% reflects that some students had transactional and relational characteristics in their definitions).

Networking as Transaction. Here are two definitions representative of a transactional view of networking:

  • "Seizing every opportunity to professionally connect with an individual providing you with valuable professional contacts. It's a small world."
  • "Building a contact base with several people that could lead to more future contacts."
 These definitions are consistent with perceptions of networking as being like notches, with the objective to acquire as many notches as possible, that they are like prizes in some way.

Networking as Relationship. While most definitions emphasized networking as a transaction, some students come into networking with an understanding of its relational benefits:

  • Making advantageous relationships.”
  • When you go around engaging with other business people to form a relationship. This relationship can be the start of a friendship as well as a great career opportunity."
Like the transactional view, networking as a relationship acknowledges there are times we will make "withdrawls" to benefit us (e.g., request a recommendation letter or ask for an introduction to a prospective employer). But, we also need to make deposits with people in our network, otherwise our goodwill account can become overdrawn!

Quantity versus Quality
The distinction between networking as transaction or relationship can be described as a quantity versus quality issue- should we focus on building a large network or develop a smaller one with deeper interactions? There are merits to both sides of the question, and some might even answer "both." Don't let this question stifle your networking efforts, though. You can figure out the answer that serves you better as your networking progresses, but either way get off the couch or from behind the screen and network!