Online networking is one of those things that can be a bit hit-and-miss. I'm someone who doesn't like to make too much of my world mix together, but the idea of increasing my network both socially and professionally, and at the same time increasing my efficiency and ability to access a pool of resources is so tempting. So is online networking the lazy person's way of maintaining a professional network, or is it another tool that productive go-getters use to maximise opportunities and make their network work for them?
The traditional view of professional networking brings to mind a whole bunch of images of people in suits at some swish location, taking advantage of free alcohol and trying to off-load as many business cards as possible. Some would say that if you moved that idea to an online setting, the result would be a not as fun, but more comfortable way of doing the same thing, and without the booze. Kind of like the old myspace friend add with a lashing of semi-serious online comments. Also, the social interaction that comes with a bunch of people physically meeting at the same time as opposed to asynchronous interaction is undeniably a loss for online networking.
A great thing about online networks is that users can become centred around content – something that the traditional version of networking hasn’t always been great at achieving. Individuals can publish their ideas on online networking sites via discussion boards or on their own profiles and this data is then connected with people who react to it by replying or posting similar stuff themselves. Learning and development types call this becoming part of a community of practice, but whatever title you put on it, it’s simply bringing likeminded people together around common ideas, issues or products.
So how do you deal with extending professional networking to an online format? There are several attitudes that can be taken to this, depending on individual need and willingness to interact and build an online presence.
Option 1 – keep your network yours.
The first, least interactive option, is to use an online tool to manage the details of your current professional network privately. This is kind of like keeping your contacts list in the cloud. The positive of this is that your network stays exactly that way, yours. No need to share what you've worked hard at building, right? The con of this approach is that you may in fact be missing join-the-dot opportunities that making your network online public might present. For instance, two people in your network may both know another colleague who specialises in your field and is currently doing something really cool that you want to know about (freelancing, touring a book, getting published on their research, whatever), but you don't even realise that you want to know about this stuff, because you don't realise that two people in your network actually know that third, awesome person. Again with the community of practice.