Three Networking Trends to Watch

               There are many changes on the horizon for the field of business networking in 2011. Technology will continue to evolve, of course, but the biggest change will simply be the recognition of the field itself. When I wrote my first book on business networking in the late 1980s, the most common question I was asked was, “Isn't networking just a fad?” After 25 years, that question doesn't come up anymore. Times are changing and networking is, too.

Here's my take on three major trends I foresee in business networking over the next several years -- and how they will impact the future of the industry.

No. 1. Successful networks will integrate face-to-face and online opportunities.
Many business people have said to me, “I have thousands of connections on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Now what?” What they really want to know is how to turn their social media contacts into real business. I believe the answer lies in forward-thinking networks effectively integrating technology and social media directly into their face-to-face operations.

Soon we'll see "walled-garden" communities accessible only to members of that group. These communities will not be sub-groups of existing social media networks. They will be independent networks with tightly controlled access based on a membership database. In effect, they will be mini-social media sites with a niche.

The integration of online communities accessible to limited individuals linked with the establishment of face-to-face interactions will be increasingly popular over the next decade. The attraction to groups like this will be the niche orientation, as well as the shared values and mission of the organizations. The technology will allow a greater number of connections and the face-to-face aspect will deepen those connections.

No. 2. More private companies will offer training in business networking.

Currently, only one or two universities in the world have a core-curriculum course on networking and social capital. I don't think that will change anytime soon. Some university professors appear to view business networking as a soft science and not something that can be taught. In my opinion, they are wrong.

I think networking will in fact be taught -- just outside the university environment. We'll see the emergence of private, professional training organizations, much the same way that private industry has controlled the educational market on sales techniques (another area where I think many colleges fail miserably).

The downside to this is that the consumer needs to be well informed about a training company's knowledge in the area it claims to have expertise. If you want to take a course in business networking, look over the qualifications of the company and the trainer. An increasing number of these programs will be offered by independent organizations in the coming future and it will be important for the consumer to weed out the hacks from the true experts.

No. 3. Attempts will be made to create associations of networking groups.

During my tenure in this industry, many efforts have been made to create an association of networking groups. The most recent was by the RNIA (the Referral Networking Industry Association). It failed, as I believe most groups of this type will.

There are many networking associations that exist for specific purposes or industries, like the National Association of Women Business Owners, the Transformational Leadership Council, and the National Association of Professional Organizers. An association of various networking groups then may present conflicts and substantial overlap. For these reasons alone, an association will struggle or fail to get off the ground. I'm afraid it's one of those good ideas that will be difficult to sustain.

While an association of networking groups isn't likely to work, the integration of technology and face-to-face networking, as well as developments on the educational front point toward a positive future. Twenty years ago, there were no books or articles on the topic of networking. Today there's a proliferation of information. Business networking is evolving and I believe it will continue to grow for years to come.