Networking or Notworking?

‘Business’ networking seems to have stalled somewhat in this part of the world at least.

The referral networks like BNI merrily do their stuff and, judging by the sheer number of imitations that spring up, must be making money and providing value.  But there is more to business development than referrals and sales.

Then there are the publicly funded networks that seem to be ever more reliant on celebrity entrepreneurs telling their story to large groups, usually with limited Q&A sessions where perhaps 5% of the audience get involved.  The audience is usually entertained, sometimes informed and often well fed by the taxpayer.  The host organisation collects lots of ticks in the ‘business assists’ box and we move on.  Personally I enjoy them – but from a business development perspective I am not convinced about their practical value.

Last night at the Elsie Whiteley Innovation Centre in Halifax (a superb facility with PLENTY of space for new or growing businesses – no surprise that occupancy seems to be an issue) I’d guess over 100 people gathered to hear local girl ‘done good’ Linda Barker (Changing Rooms, I’m a Celebrity…) tell her story.  She was fine. It made a pleasant change to have someone spontaneous and not ‘over rehearsed’ in her delivery.  Linda was. I thought, natural, engaging and clearly pleased to be on home turf.  The room was full.  Vernon, our Business Link host, managed proceedings well and the sandwiches were excellent.  He never missed a chance to promote Business Link.  I did notice that Linda got her business advice from a ‘full blown Harvard MBA’ with a solid background in venture capital – rather than Business Link London.

This was the 10th event in the region in 10 days to mark ‘Creative, Digital and Cultural Week’ or something like that!  That could be seen as a wonderful boost of knowledge and opportunities to a key sector, or (but only an old cynic would think this way) a push to get the numbers up and on track with targets.  Either way it does feel a bit like the London Bus syndrome…

Personally, I think the time is right to move networking to the next level.  As Henry Ford once said ‘Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.

Instead of passive ‘learning’ from celebrity anecdote, followed by polite but generally superficial conversations over sandwiches and cake we should invoke more powerful and inclusive methodologies for learning and building commitment to real business change.  I have some partly formed ideas of how this might be done…

We should use ‘networking’ to start getting local businesses to ‘showcase’ themselves and their challenges and to seek support, advice and guidance from their peers.  Perhaps in the course of an evening a 2 or 3 businesses could make a brief presentation on the ‘who, what, how and why’ of their business.  But they should also have to present a challenge or opportunity that they are currently facing and their analysis of the way forward.  Perhaps a live or recently completed assignment that presented challenges?  Other networkers could then be asked (perhaps in small groups) to review the issue from different perspectives, to ask what else might be done, how else might the challenge be addressed?

From a diverse group are bound to come diverse solutions.  But diversity is another challenge I would throw down to event organisers.  We need to get the digital, cultural  and creative types working with the money people, the marketers and manufacturers – instead of hiving off networking tribes by Standard Industrial Classification codes.  The Law of Requisite Variety is one of my favourites!  But I know the Regional Economic Strategy wants ‘clusters’….

The best ideas and insights would get surfaced for the benefit of the whole group.  Last weeks ‘bettakulture‘ event at Temple Works in Leeds might provide some clues.

I would also have a web 2.0 infrastructure to support networking between meet ups – personally I would not build another ‘web portal’ (sorry Ha), but would use existing platforms including twitter, facebook, ning groups, blogs etc. We really do not need to spend money on web design – just learn how to collectively exploit what is already out there.

Such processes would demonstrate the benefits of networking and collaboration around problem solving.  It would also allow patterns of emerging problems and opportunities to be identified and addressed.  More participants would actually get to meet each other and contribute.  Significant value could be created.  Of course it would mean that we need to get our grey cells into gear instead of gawping at a celebrity from the passivity of our conference chairs…but isn’t that the point of business?

Of course it is likely that numbers might drop off considerably.  Whereas 100 plus turn up to hear a celebrity speak we might get only a dozen who are really seeking to collaborate and add value to their business – but frankly the only people that will worry are those with boxes to tick.  Many will not come near networking events as they are currently constituted because they consider them an entertainment rather than an education.  And, as they say, ‘other forms of entertainment are available’.

So let  us not worry too much about quantity but instead focus on quality – and let’s design some networking processes that deliver real value.  People will soon get on board when word of mouth gets out that there is something interesting going on.

If we want to learn the ‘real life’ stories of celebrity entrepreneurs there are always other ways and means!

In all things balance.  I am not suggesting we should not have any more celebrity gigs (just imagine the damage that would do to the mushrooming professional speakers circuit) – but let us offer clear progression routes so that those who are looking to get down to business development with and for our peers are able to do so.

What do you think?

Oh!  I forgot to mention Linda is twitterer – @ReallyLinda  But she follows nobody!  Perhaps her Harvard MBA needs to look at her SM strategy?

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