New Networking Facts of Life

"It's all about who you know, not what you know." We're only too familiar with the trendy ideas about the importance of networking. But how valid are they in today's world?

Research suggests that assertive networking may not be as valuable as many employment consultants previously believed. This may be discouraging news for those trying to break into the job market. But employment experts do have some suggestions for the new reality of networking.

The philosophy behind networking is pretty simple. Employers are more likely to hire people they know, or people who have been recommended by a mutual acquaintance, than someone who is simply responding to an ad.

Mark Granovetter is a professor of sociology. He released the second edition of his book Getting a Job: The Study of Contacts and Careers. In contrast to the ideas of assertive networking, his research suggests that it can be counterproductive.

"The advice that you get in networking seminars is often artificial," says Granovetter. "A lot of people try to sell active networking, but it doesn't necessarily work. People are very aware of the possibility that you are using them and that can backfire."

According to Granovetter, people are more likely to hire or recommend someone for a job when they have known that person for a long period of time. That means making new contacts may not be an effective job search tactic.

"It is true that a surprisingly large proportion of jobs are found through contacts people have had for a long time. And of course you can't make old contacts quickly, by definition," he explains.

"But certainly some people are recommended for jobs by those they have only known a short time, if those people have a strong impression of your skills and personality."

If it isn't effective, then why do employment consultants encourage networking? The answer, Granovetter says, is "unconscious" networking.

It's true that people find jobs through their long-term professional contacts. But his research reveals that an estimated one-third of job finders got their new positions unintentionally.

"I found that unconscious networks may have significant value. A lot of people who find jobs were not looking for them. Conversations in professional activity with colleagues, clients and business associates often veer towards talk about new jobs. It is a casual thing."

According to Granovetter, the old saying, "It's all about who you know," has always been true. And that maxim is something he doesn't see changing in the near future.

"I don't see that much change. The same percentage of people who find jobs are finding them through professional networks. As far as I can tell, new job search trends are not having any impact on that."

Even with the Internet, Granovetter predicts people will still be getting jobs "more or less" the same way they always have.

"Lots of people are looking for jobs on the Web, and I think freelance, short-term jobs may be increasingly filled this way," he says. "But longer term regular jobs still are going more through personal contacts, because the impersonal media like the Internet simply do not convey enough information."

Does Granovetter have anything positive to say about active networking?

"I'm not saying that you shouldn't keep contacts -- that's common sense," he says. "But someone isn't going to meet you at a party and recommend you for a job."

Madelaine Halls is the coordinator of an arts co-op education program. She says the Internet is changing the way people get jobs.

"I know quite a few people that have moved from physical virtual networking," Halls says. This is especially true in high-tech jobs.

Recently, one of Halls' students got a job through Internet networking. The student, a linguistics major, began searching the Net. She found a company that was developing phonetics-based software. She e-mailed the company to ask if they would allow her to do some work experience there.

The student and the company e-mailed back and forth, there was a final interview by phone, and she ended up in New York working for the company a few months later!

Although the Internet worked in that case, Halls still says a personal touch is still a very effective way to network.

Employment experts have mixed feelings about both Halls' experience and Granovetter's research.

Kino Ruth is the director of a career center. Despite Granovetter's findings, Ruth still believes that networking is one of the most effective job search methods -- if it is done properly.

"I would say networking remains the most effective form of gathering information and leads towards getting a job," Ruth says.

As for Granovetter's finding that employers hire long-term contacts, Ruth has some advice of his own.

"Networking is certainly a lifelong skill, and it is certainly more than passing out business cards," he says. "It is utilizing contacts of many different kinds efficiently and carefully, and nurturing relationships. If you do that well, good things happen."

Nancy Johnston is a program manager in a university co-op education department. She leads a self-directed work search program for her students. She agrees with Ruth that networking works -- if it's done right.

"Any job search technique done poorly is counterproductive," she says. "If it is obvious that it is a take, not a give and take, then it's a poor execution of networking."

Johnston agrees with Granovetter's theory that people are aware of being manipulated for networking purposes. She says people should think about what they have to offer in return when beginning to network. It is really a relationship-building exercise.

"Young people may not think they have much to offer an adult in return," she says. But she has some suggestions. "It may be coffee. It may be enthusiasm. It may be the opportunity to volunteer for them, who knows."

She says that you should do some research, or just ask, to find out what the needs of the other person are. Then think about what you could do to meet their needs. She compares networking to friendship.

"If you are only thinking, 'What can I get out of this?' no one likes that in a friend, in a partner, or in someone networking," she says. "The best way to get what you want is to find out what other people need."

Johnston encourages students to go online. She says there is quality information that can be found easily. However, she agrees that connecting with people and building relationships one on one is the best.

She suggests joining associations or going to camps or seminars to meet people in your field of interest.

Ruth agrees with Granovetter's prediction that putting your resume on the Web will never be a great job-matching source. But he does believe that the Internet will change the face of networking.

"The Internet enhances one's ability to gather information and to communicate quickly. But it doesn't replace the fundamental, which is presenting yourself well and building a relationship," Ruth says.

"I think if someone relies solely on the Internet, one misses the build a bridge to someone who has a reason to talk to you."

And the most important advice that Ruth could give to you on networking?

"First and foremost: know yourself. I mean know who you are and what you want and be able to articulate that. Present yourself in an assertive, polite, professional manner."