Networking can be useful for information exchange, making new contacts, supporting each other, learning, getting your voice heard, and almost anything else that depends on other people. If you believe “it's not what you know, but who you know” then networking can help you get things done.
In practice networking involves keeping in touch with people you know, building new relationships, and using these contacts for different purposes … learning, supporting, sharing information. You may use a range of the different methods, in different situations, at different times. It's what we do all the time in relating to other people, with more thought about how it can help achieve what we want for ourselves, our organisation or project.
Networking builds networks, which are the people involved, the links between them, and the groundrules for behaviour that may be developed formally or informally.
It may be helpful to think about different areas or zones of networking. In an organisation these may be within your core group, with a wider range of members and other interests, between your organisation and others. You may also develop networks crossing these zones that connect people with whom you have a shared interest. You'll have strong links with some people, weaker ones with others. Effective networking is about being clear on what you are trying to achieve in these different areas, and using a range of different methods that are appropriate.
The “where” creates the context within which networking takes place - and has a strong influence on how you may network. Within an organisation you will know people and have some groundrules about how you relate. If you are networking based shared interests it will take time to build relationships and find out how people want to relate, and in what way.
The “who” of networking will depend on the “why” and “where”. You may need to improve the relationships you have with people you already work with - but the new relationships you need will depend on a new piece of work, a partnership to be formed, or a problem or opportunity to be explored.
All the time, in the sense that it is useful to keep in mind and refresh those relationships important to you, and look out for new contacts that may be useful. In practice most people are overloaded with meetings, email, and phone calls, and so need to prioritise. The way people do this is likely to depend partly on their personality. Some people (extraverts) like lots of buzz and interaction with others - that's how they get their energy. Others (introverts) prefer to limit or manage their contacts, and have more time for reflection. When you are thinking about networking take account of your preferences - and other people's.
In thinking about networking - and trying to do more - it's temping to jump to methods as solutions. More networking meetings, newsletters, online forums, telephone conferences … there are plenty of ways to increase communication, in theory. However, in practice networking is about people and their relationships. Pushing out more content and organising get togethers is a waste of time if it doesn't work both for you and the other people. This guide is about how to be clear on what you are trying to achieve through networking, with whom, in what situation, and then to choose the how and when.