Julia Hobsbawm is the world’s first professor of networking, but she won’t be the last. The honorary visiting professor at Cass Business School, the London MBA provider, is one of a cadre of networking pros brought into the business classroom to show students how to best utilize their swelling alumni rosters.
MBA students will know that in order to secure a senior-level job, they ought to tap into these networks. Traditionally, however, little attention was paid to the practice at business schools.
“If I thought about networks at all, I thought about bundles of cables under the sea,” said Julia, explaining how the office has changed since began her career at a London publishing house in the 80's.
The proliferation of social media – notably Twitter and LinkedIn – has meant that new ways of connecting with peers and employers are available to today’s graduates. In 2014, an MBA is more likely to network in the virtual world, rather than at a cocktail party.
“The age of the desk-based office silo is transforming,” said Julia. “And with it our ways of working – and of networking – need to adapt and to modernise,” she said.
But they should not discount the face-to-face method, according to Jonathan Masland, director of counselling and recruiting at the Tuck School of Business. “Nothing can replace in-person networking. It creates a fundamental personal relationship,” he said.
Tuck is one of a growing number of schools that formally teach networking on its MBA programs. The US-based school, known for its smaller and more intimate class sizes, demonstrates to students the step-by-step tactics of building professional ties with alumni, recruiters, classmates and faculty.
“This includes in-person meetings, email outreach and informational phone calls,” Jonathan said.
Tuck MBAs are also taught the art of networking through company briefings, alumni visits and career treks – the most recent of which saw 38 students fly to Silicon Valley.
While only a handful of schools may in future add “networking” to their core curriculums, Julia believes that it can and should be taught. She is the author of a white paper – Fully Connected: a look ahead to working and networking in 2020 – published by EY, the consultancy, that highlights the importance of networking in the business world.
“Everything we do is defined by networks and indeed by networking,” she argued in the report. But she added that our ways of networking need to adapt and to modernise.
Social media has arguably redefined the recruiting process, and the HR function. Many of the world’s leading employers send their talent scouts into the virtual world to find their next hires.
As LinkedIn in particular has exploded, so too has the way employers find new workers. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 77% of employers were using social networks to recruit through 2013, up from 56% in 2011.
Recruiters especially like LinkedIn to fill mid-level and senior-level positions – jobs that MBAs are fighting for. About 20,000 clients used LinkedIn’s talent solutions products last year – $205 million of the $364 million in revenue that LinkedIn reported in the second quarter of 2013 came from this department.
Francine Bennett is the CEO and co-founder of Mastodon C, a big data-specialist technology firm. She argues that online methods make for more effective recruitment.
“There is a lot of data available online about every individual, as well as in their CVs,” she said. “Collecting that data and then building models which compare CVs and online data to their eventual success in being hired or not, and how their new bosses evaluate them, could be really powerful.”
According to Karl Leung, a senior consultant at CEIBS’ Career Development Centre, social media allows MBAs to connect with multiple people – quickly. He teaches networking workshops at the Shanghai-based business school.
But he added that hiring decisions by HR professionals are largely based on assessments resulting from phone and face-to-face interviews.
“Comparing social media networking to networking in-person is like comparing apples to oranges,” Karl said.
But people still prefer to reach out to recruiters and network from behind a screen, according to Julia, who teaches networking on executive programs at Cass.
“People find it difficult to get into the habit of initiating face-to-face encounters,” she said.
Alongside her paper, EY commissioned market research company Populus to interview a nationally representative sample of nearly 4,200 British adults. The responses of 750 of them who held more senior jobs provide an insight into how business professionals feel about networking.
“At EY we believe this ‘soft’ skill is a ‘core skill’,” Liz Bingham, managing partner for talent with EY, said in the report.
“As a connected and integrated organisation, we see the power that comes from strong global networks.”
People are more likely to network at the early stages of their careers: Nearly 70% of executive-level respondents networked in person, compared to 53% of directors. Yet the respondents made equal use of social media for networking with roughly a third of those at director, manager and executive level using online social networks.
Some MBAs think that networking is too basic, according to Karl. He argues that it is a must for more schools to run networking workshops. But he also points out the importance of cross-cultural networking, which he argues will allow students to find more fulfilling job opportunities.
“It takes a lot of time, experience, and interaction with various people from different nationalities, backgrounds [and] fields of interest before one becomes a master in the art,” Karl said.
Julia said that conferences and cocktail parties are the most common places to network. She has developed techniques to teach her corporate students.
“The number one piece of advice is to concentrate on connecting with someone by looking into their face, and to worry less about exchanging business cards than exchanging meaningful conversation,” she said.
Jonathan recommends starting with common undergraduates, while looking for ways to reconnect after initial conversations.
“Students should become active in the extracurricular life of their business school and stay well-read and informed on their industries – you never know what could spark a network connection,” he added.
However, Karl warns that MBAs must have a clear end-career-goal to make networking truly effective.
“Do I want to find a job in banking? Do I want to start a business? Do I want to connect with more people so that I have more resources to grow my budding business? These are some basic questions one has to answer before setting out to network,” he said.
The gender debate has resulted in the so-called “Stiletto Network” which sees women place networking front and centre in their drive for greater equality in the workforce. Many women’s MBA clubs have been established to help foster these networks.
“A women-only network would help give women as a whole a platform and a louder voice to help balance the traditionally male dominated business environment,” said Karl.
But EY’s survey shows that only 24% of female respondents felt there was a need for women-only networks.
Liz, EY managing partner, warned: “We aren’t there yet, and I believe there’s still a compelling need for networking opportunities for women that still needs to be addressed.”