Networking is a highly developed skill that any working professional needs in their professional tool kit. It’s almost a motherhood statement. We accept this as fact, while most of us do not effectively act on it. I recently asked an acquaintance if he had a LinkedIn account. He said that he did, but didn’t really know what to do with it.
I am not an expert on social media or on networking. But I do read a lot. Robert E. Kelley, in his book How to be a Star at Work (p. 75 – 97), dedicates an entire chapter to networking. According to Kelley, we need to network in order to fill gaps in our knowledge. Today, the complexity of organizational life means that we just don’t know everything we need to know. Our networks plug this hole. Kelley’s premise is that networking is about an exchange of favours. You earn your way into a network by doing favours for those in the network, and eventually the people in your network will do favours for you. You need to have integrity to build a network, do what you say you are going to do and do it well. You need to have a skill of value to offer, and you need to be generous. Above all, networking is not about exchanging business cards, (or at least the exchange of business cards is only the introduction).
Back to LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a tool, not the act of networking itself. When you make a connection on LinkedIn, it is the bricks and mortar exchange of business cards. It is only the beginning. Networking is about relationship and trust. At least some of your relationship needs to be face to face, personal and deep in order to build a solid network.
In order to effectively use LinkedIn, you have to be purposeful. That is, you have to have a plan for social networking. Each person will have a different plan. I use it to identity potential guest speakers for my classes, identity case study research leads, and to stay in touch with former students. Other friends from my former business life use it to find sales leads, or to find potential partners for business initiatives. But note that it is most effective if you actively use social media with a purpose.
LinkedIn is one big rolodex. It has a couple of advantages. First, it is portable, you can access it from anywhere you have internet access. Second, you have access to all of your connection’s rolodexes. But please, don’t abuse a connection’s contact list. Ask to be introduced. It’s only polite.
The bottom line? LinkedIn is not networking. You must actively use it with a purpose in mind in order for it to work well. My recommendation? By all means, actively use LinkedIn. It is a powerful tool. But don’t forget the old school methods of networking. If you need something, pick up the phone and ask.