Dr Denise Best from Oxford University's Careers Service shares some thoughts and provides some practical advice on networking skills and looks at how you can better use opportunities to your advantage.

Metcalfe's law goes something like this, ‘the usefulness, or utility, of a network equals the square of the number of users.’

The designer of ethernet probably did not realise that this statement would encompass career management and business success as well as the rising wave of information technology. As IT professionals you will be well aware of the impact of networking a computer system, but have you ever thought of applying the same principle to managing your career?

Networking is a fundamental and powerful route to career success. Many jobs are not advertised, they are filled by word-of-mouth referrals, so the only way to get them is by meeting more people and seeking those opportunities out through the information and contacts that they may provide you with.

How many times have you heard the saying 'It's not what you know, it's who you know that counts.' If this smacks of old-boy networks or nepotism then think again and don't immediately turn your back on this valuable tool. You won't find it necessary to feign interest or be insincere to people you don't like.

You can network with people you already know. Networking is above board and a perfectly legitimate, widely used, technique. To be really successful you will need to have a genuine interest in people not just what they can do for you.

Developing your network

According to Metcalf if you double the size of your network you actually quadruple its power. You probably have already unconsciously developed a network of contacts, although you may not have recognised that some of them may have useful information. People such as:

  • current and past colleagues;
  • customers or clients;
  • people that you have met at conferences or on courses;
  • college and university acquaintances;
  • members of clubs and societies;
  • family and friends.

You can always add to these by becoming actively involved with societies, such as BCS, and by attending business events or conferences. The key to meeting people that may be able to shape your future is to actually meet them. This may involve leaving the safety of the group of people that you already know at an event and launching out on your own.

Does this sound a little un-British? If it is starting to make you feel nervous, don't worry. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Walking up to total strangers and introducing yourself is not easy but there are ways to overcome those fears by following a few suggestions.

  • Start out by trying to get a mutual contact to introduce you to someone new, or ask them if you can use their name. 'Jane Brown suggested I give you a call.'
  • Learn to introduce yourself and what you do succinctly, practice a 30 second introduction;
  • It's okay to look at name-badges; in fact they are very helpful as a starting point for conversation. 'That's interesting - I see you work for....'
  • If everyone is standing in groups, approach someone that looks friendly and is not having an intense conversation. Ask if they mind you joining them;
  • Eye contact is important and always try to start a conversation rather than launching into an interrogation or a monologue. Don't forget to smile from time-to-time;
  • Conversation will come to a natural end so simply say 'it's been great meeting you - have a good evening, there are a few other people that I wanted to meet this evening, I hope we run into each other again.'
  • Only give your card to people if you feel you have established a rapport. Likewise only ask for someone's if you feel you want to contact the person and continue the conversation. Make sure you follow up.

All of these ideas can help you extend your network of contacts. Once made, it is important to keep in touch with your contacts, even if only infrequently by e-mail, phone or via a card at Christmas, otherwise people will forget about you.

As your network builds so your chances of finding out about job opportunities will increase. Networking does not usually bring immediate results but it sows seeds and helps you get a good insight into other job roles as well as keeping you informed.

Do unto others...

Don't forget to be prepared to help others. You will be a member of other peoples' networks and they may need help. Helping someone is a reward in itself, and who knows what it may bring later.

About the author

Dr Denise Best is a careers adviser for Oxford University's Careers Service - one of the best-resourced and most-used careers services in the UK. Previously a science researcher, Denise now specialises in computing and IT and management and strategy consultancy and is a Fellow of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences. More information about Denise and the University of Oxford Careers Service can be found at: www.careers.ox.ac.uk