Building up professional networks is a long-term endeavour that does not necessarily deliver immediate returns, writes Dr Bastian RakeSchool of Business

Social media makes us believe that we can effectively extend our professional networks with almost no effort. However, building up effective professional networks requires more effort than connecting to as many individuals as possible on LinkedIn or on similar platforms. Instead, we must think much more strategically about building and maintaining our professional networks as these may support or prevent achieving our professional objectives.

On the one hand, professional networks may help us to cross-check information, may expose us to new ideas, and may question exiting views which can help us to better address challenges at work. On the other hand, professional networks may restrict our exposure to alternative views on a problem and may trap us in a net of ideas and views that are rather similar to our own. Therefore, we must think very carefully about the contacts our professional network consists of and adjust our network if necessary.

For some tasks, deep engagement contacts we already have is beneficial. This deep engagement allows us to build trust and to share sensitive information or those that is difficult to transfer. Close interactions with our existing contacts reduce uncertainty concerning the behaviour of our co-workers and facilitates collaborative work towards a common objective. Hence, deep engagement with our existing contacts can support us in getting things done and in turning our ideas into reality.

But focusing only on our existing contacts has also some drawbacks. Not reaching out to other communities of practice increases the risk of getting stuck and not finding appropriate solutions for some of the challenges we face at work. In addition, we may run the risk of not getting appropriate support and recognition for our ideas.

Consequently, connecting to individuals we have not been previously connected to can be very beneficial. These new connections offer new insights that contribute to our individual knowledge bases and offer opportunities to apply knowledge in new contexts. Establishing new contacts provides advantages when we seek support for an idea, or when we would like to spread the word and promote it.
In this situation, we choose to whom we want to pass over information, and we can target those individuals that have a high probability of promoting our ideas, disseminate them to their own network, or support us with their reputation and, hence, provide credibility for our ideas. In addition, connecting to individuals who are members of groups we have not been connected to before supports us in identifying promising ideas, developing these ideas, and applying them to contexts that are relevant for our own work.

When establishing new contacts, we must be mindful of whether these contacts could really offer diverse knowledge that adds to what we already know. If our new contacts are rather similar to our own educational or professional background, they will offer knowledge that is very similar to the knowledge we already have. While this makes it easier to apply it in our own work, it is less likely to offer many new ideas. We need to find the right balance between similarity and diversity of our new contacts.

Establishing meaningful connections is easiest if we share some common knowledge with our new contacts as this facilitates idea exchange but allows at the same time that we can learn something from one another. This is important since it is very difficult to make sense of knowledge that is too different from what we already know and, consequently, very difficult to apply in the context of our own work. Normally, connecting to too many new contacts in a short period of time is also not very beneficial as it increases the risk of being exposed to too much new and diverse information. This information overload hinders us to effectively identify promising ideas, to disseminate these ideas to the relevant contacts in our own net, to make use of them, and to organise support for these ideas.
Although managing our professional network is important, many of us tend to skip networking activities due to our busy schedules and a lack of immediate returns when networking activities are not part of our weekly schedule. But when are networking activities effective? While connecting to people on LinkedIn is a fast way for connecting, it is questionable whether meaningful exchanges emerge from it. Particularly senior or top-level executives normally have already large professional networks and have typically rather low response rates which makes meaningful conversations difficult.

Although more and more professional interactions take place online, effective professional networks are rooted in real-world personal interactions

Connecting to peers at similar career stages and to experts at earlier stages of their careers is often more promising. We can also ask existing contacts who differ the most from ourselves to introduce us to some of their contacts. In doing so, it is important to emphasise why our request stands out by making clear statements of how and why our knowledge and experience sets us apart from others. This implies that we attract potential contacts by offering advice to set the stage for asking them for advice in the future.

Although more and more professional interactions take place online, effective professional networks are rooted in real-world personal interactions. Hence, our attempts to strategically manage the composition of our professional network are most effective when we supplement online activities with face-to-face interactions. This can include meeting for a cup of coffee at a conference or a phone call to congratulate someone in our network who has got promoted.

The arguments above suggest that we need to think strategically about the structure of our professional networks depending on the objectives we would like to achieve. In any case, building up professional networks is a long-term endeavour that does not necessarily deliver immediate returns.