Online Networking: Is It a Monster or a Messiah?

Networking has long been an essential part of business. More importantly for some, it’s also been a part of a successful career. According to recent statistics released by the MMC Group, nearly 30% of all external hires are a product of an employee referral, a rate that has steadily climbed since 2000. When one considers that roughly one-third of all the positions filled annually in the U.S. are a direct result of a candidates using professional networks to their advantage, the true value of networking is evident. Historically, the process of networking has been socially enjoyable but frequently tedious, involving luncheons, cocktail parties, and association meetings. While the benefits of such functions are real, they often fall in the middle of a business day and have the ability to sap your productivity for the remainder of that day. Not to dismiss networking in the traditional sense (I am attending one such function later this week), but it has not always been the most effective means of gathering valuable contacts. Anyone who has attended these types of events has certainly met with the dreaded “card-tossers,” attendees who hand out their business cards and credentials in such a flurry that they have no idea whom they have just met and are unable to match a name with a face at the end of the day. In recent months, though, the tide of change has rolled in. Many professionals have now modified their approach to networking and even given up on the traditional method. More and more people are taking their networking online. Websites with names like Ryze, Spoke Software, AlwaysOn, BizTribe, and LinkedIn are taking the desktops of corporate America by storm. These online destinations (I say destinations due to the sheer amount of information available on their pages) have taken networking to the next level by allowing their users to network outside the local business community and on a national, if not global, scale. While most of these websites contain more or less the same nuts and bolts, two of the most popular ó LinkedIn and Spoke Software ó stand out from the pack for numerous reasons. LinkedIn and Spoke Software both enable you to create a vast network of professional and personal connections based on the email addresses saved in your inbox and archived files. Where the two begin to diverge drastically is in how each system uses those addresses. LinkedIn is primarily a web-based application that allows you to select which contacts to invite into your network (by manually entering information or downloading it), with an interface that’s as friendly for a tech novice as it is for an IT guru. Where LinkedIn gets interesting is in the site’s ability to allow you to request contact with connections outside of your own inner circle but still within your network of connections. The whole process is based loosely on the idea of “Six Degrees of Separation” (or for the Generation X readers out there, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”). LinkedIn shines in its ability to allow you to provide and share as much or as little information as you like, even providing the option to “not accept” new contacts. On the flip side, we have Spoke Software. Spoke is a much more robust interface with capabilities that seem to go on forever. Using Spoke, however, requires you to download the application to your PC, which in itself can pose a concern for many users whose company’s have strict computer user policies forbidding the download or installation of software not authorized by the company. If you do decide to go for it and install Spoke onto your system, the program troves your email and collects addresses much like the optional component available with LinkedIn. This is where Spoke takes the process to a whole other level though. Once you have activated your connections list, you can elect to contact your potential connections. The email generated by Spoke implores recipients to reply with their most recent contact information. Up to this point, it all seems harmless, right? Well, recently a colleague of mine installed Spoke Software onto her PC. Within a week, I had personally received at least eight emails requesting my updated contact info, even after I replied to the first email. Unfortunately, mine was not the only inbox barraged with the invitation, which resembled “spam” or the “phishing” schemes I often hear about on the news. It seemed as if everyone she had ever traded emails with ó in addition to everyone in her company, from the president on down to the guy in the mailroom ó had received the same email on multiple occasions as well. The situation escalated to the point where her corporate communications department volunteered to distribute a communication informing the company that the email was related to a technical difficulty currently being addressed and corrected by their IS department. While this incident should be chalked up to a less-than-tech-savvy user, the most alarming and intriguing aspect of Spoke Software is the sheer power of the application. Based on the current version available at the time of this article, a well-versed user has the capability to dig deep into an organization ó even going so far as accessing another user’s archived emails. At a recent seminar regarding this very topic, one user of Spoke boasted at her ability to pull up the names of executives and organizational charts within companies outside of her own, namely her competitors. While this could be seen as a valuable tool to users in the staffing industry, we need to consider the ethical ramifications of such use. If we can pull up this information, what is to stop our competition from doing the same? Networking is a valuable tool, but a tool we need to respect, we need to protect our Rolodex and the impact it could have on our business in the wrong hands. Some important things to consider when making the jump to online networking include:

  • What is the reputation of the website or program? Making the leap from traditional networking into the world of connecting online is not something to take lightly. As with most any type of product, some of the available goods are better than others. You wouldn’t buy a car without at least conducting some basic research on the models available. You should do the same when choosing which online networking tool to use.
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  • What are the costs of using this tool? By costs I don’t just mean the potential monetary costs of these tools (some of them do charge for their services). I also mean the cost or impact to you and your existing network. As previously illustrated, the use or misuse of online networking tools can cause headaches if they are not used properly or if they are abused for wrongful gains.
  • Don’t run with scissors! This or any other cliche stating the importance of not doing anything foolish apply to the world of online networking as well. Not everyone you will meet during the course of your career will pan out to be a great contact; the same applies to the professionals you will meet online.

While the impact that online networking programs can have on your professional contacts list may be significant, don’t let a tool serve as a replacement for actual networking. It will always be important to stay in contact with those in your network so as not to fall out of touch; a professional contact does not serve much value if you are never in actual contact.

Erik Smetana is an HR strategist and talent leader with extensive experience working in and fostering teams and innovation for an eclectic mix of organizations including Fortune 500 companies, international not-for-profits, and institutions of higher education and research. His thoughts and opinions related to all things "employee experience" (and occasionally other topics) can be found online at www.thehrfieldguide.com.

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