Anne ter Wal Imperial College Business School

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Dr Anne ter Wal, Assistant Professor of Technology & Innovation Management, outlines the two most effective networking approaches for professional success

Received wisdom tells us professional networks matter. We all probably network to a lesser or greater extent, but are we doing it properly? Are our networks the ‘right’ networks? Do they really work for us? Is it more useful to gather as many contacts from as broad a field as possible, or to rub shoulders only with people who share similar expertise?

The answer is neither. Limiting professional contacts to a tight circle of like-minded individuals is risky. Say you work in human resources, for instance. Most of your contacts might all work within the same field and even in the same city – you’ve accumulated a network over time but you probably haven’t paid much attention to expanding your horizon. While it’s useful to have such specialised know-how on call, it also leaves you exposed. You might fall into the trap of ‘group think’. When you get together, there’s a probable convergence of ideas. You all take the way you see things for granted. There’s no sense of perspective and no diversity – the group is too sterile. This may limit your ability to see novel solutions to problems in your work.

Is it more useful to gather as many contacts from as broad a field as possible, or to rub shoulders only with people who share similar expertise?

But there are also risks and limitations at the other extreme. If your associates come from too wide a variety of backgrounds and are too loosely linked – they don’t know each other, for instance – it’s extremely difficult to make sense of all the information that might be coming from them. There’s simply too much to process. That HR manager won’t be able to pull together anything useful from the disparate wisdom of, say, marketing professionals, managers or technology specialists in his or her circle of contacts because there is no common thread, or no one is joining the dots. And while we know we need our own professional networks, there’s little understanding about how to manage and leverage them.

In our research, we’re moving towards a greater behavioural understanding of networks. What do people have to do to be more effective networkers and how they can keep their networks alive? We’ve started to study networking as a more active process rather than as a snapshot of the people we are connected to.

So, which networks actually work best? Our research shows that there are two different configurations that are proven to contribute to individuals’ professional success. We’ve researched this among investors in technology companies in the US, but the results could apply to other settings. These two types of networks can offer the kind of expertise that helps when we need it most – in a new job, say, or when faced with a particularly thorny problem.

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Investors, like many other professionals, build a network of partners over their career simply as a by-product of their day-to-day business engagements. Thus, networks might grow haphazardly, but people can rely on them purposefully for advice when looking for new opportunities. Networks in which professionals share specialised expertise – fintech investors, for instance – are useful, but only if they are spread over multiple ‘pockets’ of interconnected groups and not everyone in your network knows each other. Such open networks are more likely if your contacts, despite all being fintech investors, come from a variety of backgrounds, roles and locations. They might share specialised expertise but it’s important to maintain variety – the group must be open. These networks are, in other words, open but specialised – rather than open and diverse, or closed and specialised.

The other type that tends to work well is a network comprising professionals from a wide variety of disciplines, but strongly interlinked. In such a closed and diverse network, most of them know each other, or have something that holds them together as a cohesive group. In such networks, diversity comes from the variety in people’s backgrounds whilst the interconnectedness among them creates a ‘platform’ in which we can better interpret the diverse information.

In both kinds of networks, individuals ensure there’s enough diversity to bring something fresh to the party that can be meaningfully applied to the current work context. Of course, creating these types of networks is easier said than done. But today, networking technology such as LinkedIn and other professional communications make things easier.

Networking is something you do every day anyway without thinking – such as going for a coffee with colleagues simply because you want to, or calling up a friend you’ve not talked to in a long time, or deciding to go along to a conference to meet new people linked to your field of work

Imagine you’ve recently been promoted to a health and safety position in a London hospital. Does your network comprise mostly similar professionals in the capital? Could you then expand your network geographically, and make contact with professionals elsewhere in the UK, Europe or beyond? Creating such an open and specialised network, you are in a better position to bring new ideas or solutions your colleagues may not have considered before. Are you working on a project that involves bring different types of expertise areas together? You can put your disparate contacts representing those areas in touch with each other – in person or virtually – and, in doing so, create a closed-diverse network which can contribute much to your own personal success. Jointly diverse contacts in your network can help you mull problems and interpret information and bring greater insights. You are the person they all know who can bring them together.

Not everybody approaches networking with relish. We know some people say it makes them feel uncomfortable and opportunistic, or that very deliberately ‘schmoozing’ is frowned upon. But this is one of the main points I try to teach. It’s not something that should make you feel uncomfortable. It’s something you do every day anyway without thinking – such as going for a coffee with colleagues simply because you want to, or calling up a friend you’ve not talked to in a long time, or deciding to go along to a conference to meet new people linked to your field of work. A lot of it is building up good will without any expected returns. Just a putting a little thought into when it may be productive to put people in touch with each other – and when it may worthwhile to reach out to new pockets of specialists – may be all that is needed to make your networking work for you.

This article draws on findings from The Best of Both Worlds: The Benefits of Open-specialized and Closed-diverse Syndication Networks for New Ventures’ Success, by Anne L.J. Ter Wal, Oliver Alexy, Jörn Block and Philipp G. Sandner.

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Anne ter Wal

About Anne ter Wal

Assistant Professor of Technology & Innovation Management
Dr Anne ter Wal joined the Department of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School in 2009. Most of his research focuses on the role of social networks in innovation, with a particular emphasis on networks in geographical clusters, and networks of scientists and engineers within and between companies.

Anne is also Senior Researcher at the Department of Management, Technology and Economics at ETH Zurich and, prior to joining Imperial College, was a doctoral researcher at the Section of Economic Geography at Utrecht University.