Putting the net into networking

Timothy Barber
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<!--StartFragment--> IN business, your network is your career&rsquo;s lifeblood. Contacts are not there to sit unused in the Rolodex, but to be exploited for ideas, deals, jobs and opportunities. After all, only a fraction of executive appointments are made as a result of applications to advertised positions &ndash; most are down to knowing the right people.<br /><br />In the corporate pressure house, though, it&rsquo;s easy to let the management of your network slip. The good news is that the age of online networking is making the whole process much easier for those prepared to get onboard. LinkedIn, the leading website for professional networking, gained its 42 millionth user this week, and the company says that it is growing by a million users every 17 days. At its most simple, it allows users to create a profile and get connected to other users &ndash; rather like Facebook but for specifically professional purposes. Instead of photos of their holidays and endless updates about the weather, users list their jobs, experience and specialisations. It is, in essence, a virtual representation of your professional reputation.<br /><br />&ldquo;It&rsquo;s a much richer level of interaction and information than a load of business cards, and to me that&rsquo;s what it&rsquo;s replacing,&rdquo; says Jay Bregman, founder of online courier company, who has been using LinkedIn for the past year and a half. A business card, after all, won&rsquo;t tell you who the person on it knows, and if those people are creating opportunities. &ldquo;If I&rsquo;m trying to get in contact with someone in an organisation, I can find a common connection and get introduced very simply, and the fact that so many people are now on it makes that very easy.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>SENSE OF TRUST</strong><br />The site, which was launched in 2003, takes a &ldquo;gated-access&rdquo; approach &ndash; meaning that you need to have a pre-existing relationship with anyone you connect to. Expanding your network is based around your connections introducing and recommending you to theirs, and the gated-access approach imbues such recommendations with a sense of trust that&rsquo;s crucial to business.<br /><br />Bregman also uses LinkedIn as a recruitment tool, and says that for middle-management roles and above, it&rsquo;s the first place he looks for people &ndash; and that&rsquo;s increasingly the trend among recruiters and head-hunters too. The fact is that, in a tough job market, anything that enables you to widen your circle and be more visible is advantageous, and may open doors.<br /><br />&ldquo;By going out and participating in this kind of thing, you&rsquo;re advertising your expertise and enhancing your reputation,&rdquo; says Kevin Ayres, European managing director of LinkedIn. &ldquo;You could find your next great break, because people who are progressive and are active on LinkedIn will be looking for you.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>DISCUSSION GROUPS</strong><br />There are rival websites to LinkedIn&rsquo;s pre-eminence, such as ZoomInfo, CareerBuilder and XING, though these have yet to acquire a comparable foothold in the UK &ndash; according to Ayres, LinkedIn is now used by 15-18 per cent of the UK&rsquo;s white collar population. Additional functions include discussion groups for different businesses and sectors, and applications enabling users to do things like sharing presentations, polling their network and managing files online. But will this reduce the need for human contact in business? Ayres says not &ndash; rather, this is about maximising what you can get out of the people you meet.<br /><br />&ldquo;If you want to close a deal you&rsquo;ve still got to get together round a table,&rdquo; he says, pointing out that tools like LinkedIn may well help you get round that table in the first place. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s making it much easier to manage all the people you know professionally, all the people they know and all the knowledge that comes from that.&rdquo; <!--EndFragment-->