Networking for staff development
Most businesses recognise the benefits of developing their employees' knowledge and understanding of the industry and markets they work in.
Networking with others allows smaller businesses to share their experiences and ideas, learn from other businesses and professionals to improve in-house knowledge. Networking also helps develop your employee's social interaction and communication skills.
Businesses can network with educational establishments, trade organisations and other businesses.
This guide explains the workings and benefits of networking, the forms networking can take and how to make the most of active participation in networks.
What is networking?
Networking involves interacting with other like-minded people to share experiences, problems and insights. Networking creates an environment where businesses can forge relationships that can lead to new business opportunities or partnerships for new ventures.
Types of business networks
When you network for business purposes you will have the opportunity to do some of the following:
- meet in organised or informal networking forums
- learn and share business experiences - learn how similar professionals or businesses have overcome challenges you are facing or may face in the future or you may share your business experiences
- make contact with potential customers or suppliers
- receive business news, local updates and invitations to business events, eg conferences, seminars, workshops, exhibitions, lectures by prominent business people or industry experts
- participate in debates on topics relevant to your industry or field of business
- contribute to or participate in surveys or research in your field or business sector
Sharing of ideas through business networks
Through networking you stand to gain from the experiences of other businesses and share new ideas on a variety of subjects including:
- training and recruitment
- talent management
- new products and market opportunities
- industry developments
- industry laws and regulation
You may meet customers, competitors, suppliers and service providers who are all looking for similar benefits and to widen their contact base.
Choosing a business network
When choosing a business network or partnership to join, you need to think of your primary requirements, eg market information, training and development opportunities, or expert advice. Aim to balance your needs with the level of participation and involvement you are prepared to commit to the business network.
For example, if you cannot spare the time to attend networking functions and events, you might focus on finding a network hosted online. Similarly, if you do not think you will proactively pass information on or help someone else in return for advice, you might prefer a more passive network that supplies newsletters and bulletins (possibly for a subscription) and hosts online debates, rather than an events-based one.
Actively participate in a business network
A network's strength in any particular area or service depends on how actively its partners exchange information with each other and reciprocate. For example, if you receive advice from a network partner, be prepared to offer your own help in the future.
Partners who are willing to pass on skills to each other will establish the network as a centre of excellence or expertise and facilitate future collaborations. If you have been pleased with a particular supplier, training provider or consultant, let your partners know why or arrange for them to give a presentation of their services.
A well-run business network will thrive if its participants play an active role in keeping the network topical and relevant. If you have experienced the benefits of a network consider whether you have any other contacts who could benefit from joining - talk to other businesses about what you have gained and introduce them to the network.
Advantages of business networking
Networking can provide a number of benefits to businesses. Networking involves meeting, getting to know and interacting with people who share similar interests, who can assist you and that you can help in return. Networking becomes really effective when strong long-term relationships are built through trust and mutual respect.
For a start-up or small business at any stage, networking can provide a lifeline of support, solutions to problems and lead to new business opportunities.
Benefits of networking
Some of the many advantages networking brings to businesses include:
- Build relationships - networking gives you the opportunity to connect with other businesses, helping you to establish effective relationships with key people across various industries, that you can call on if needed.
- Solutions to business problems - if you are experiencing a business problem networking may give you access to other people who have experienced similar issues in the past and can offer valuable advice and potential solutions to help you move forward. You may also find best practice guidance is promoted through business networks that can help streamline how you operate.
- Business opportunities - networking gives you an opening to other people and organisations that could lead to new business opportunities being identified or new partnerships established in the pursuit of new business ventures.
- Develop social skills - regular networking can help build your confidence when dealing with people and this can have a positive impact on future interactions you have with staff, customers and suppliers.
- Helping others - just as networking can provide you with helpful business advice and solutions, you in turn can be a source of help to others, giving you a great sense of pride and satisfaction. It will also help enhance your professional reputation.
- Access new talent - if you are struggling to recruit for job vacancies or are looking for a particular skill set to bring to your business networking could introduce you to the talent you need.
- Benchmarking - networking gives your business the opportunity to measure how your business is performing against other similar organisations, giving an indication of your strengths and areas where improvement may be required.
- Raise your business profile - networking gets you and your business noticed by others and by establishing more connections and by regularly contributing to networks your business will become more reputable.
- New customers or suppliers - networking can help you identify new customers or suppliers either amongst the network members or based on recommendations from others in the group.
- Latest information - business networks can be a rich source of new industry developments, perhaps highlighting upcoming legal requirements or technological advancements in your sector.
The extent to which you benefit from business networking will depend on the events and services the network offers and how actively you become involved. Some businesses are reluctant to seek advice or get help for fear of being embarrassed or giving a competitor an opportunity to take advantage.
However, for most businesses, the benefits of taking an active role in a network usually outweigh any potential concerns or reasons not to get involved in business networking.
Find and get involved in Northern Ireland business networks.
Types of business networks
There are many types of business networks. Often they set joining criteria to take members with common attitudes or requirements, eg size of business or professional background.
You can find and establish links through a number of different channels. Some of these include:
- Education and research organisations - to explore development initiatives and to access studies or research into products, markets, customer preferences, best practice etc.
- Learning networks - managers and other employees can attend training and development activities tailored to their responsibilities, keep up to date with best practice and current thinking, and hear from high-profile speakers and researchers. Approach relevant trade associations and industry bodies and ask them about their seminars and events.
- Employers' federations - eg the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) or Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
- Regional/local organisations - eg Chambers of Commerce or trade associations, for advice, support and local news.
- Community organisations - action groups representing local, ethnic or social interests.
- Online networks - web based communities providing opportunities to communicate with other business people and potential customers. Some offer online networking opportunities, networking events and face-to-face meetings.
- Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) - Seek advice on training and skills for your business and on suitable networking partners from your SSC. SSCs are employer-led and independent.
Networking opportunities at other business events
The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) run a number of conferences, workshops and seminars throughout the year for small businesses on latest developments and practices in employment issues. These events are also opportunities to network with other employers and HR professionals and share best practice. Find LRA employment workshops and seminars.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland also run a number of employer training events throughout the year that offer businesses the opportunity to network. Find the Equality Commission's employer training programme.
You can also use our Events Finder to search for business events across Northern Ireland that may offer networking opportunities.
Forms of networking
There are also various forms of networking:
- organised meetings/conferences - structured ways of networking
- online discussion and debate - coordinated on many websites
- business trips - sponsored by a relevant trade organisation or similar, business trips can provide a coordinated way of establishing foreign contacts and learning about overseas markets
- social events - an informal way to meet people with a common purpose for attending
- survey and focus groups - allow you to meet fellow contributors and the organisers
Advantages of international networking
Many businesses have international dimensions, eg foreign suppliers or customers, overseas branches or staff with a foreign background.
Some belong to international networks of similar businesses because it helps them to manage those international dimensions better and to benefit from them.
Benefits of international networks
Benefits of belonging to international networks can include opportunities to:
- receive information on developments in an overseas industry/sector or market
- set up staff exchanges to facilitate understanding, to help developing countries and to share practices and knowledge
- engage in skills building and training processes, eg employment processes, export/import procedures
- improve your understanding of regulations and documentation, eg for overseas customs or licensing authorities
- meet potential overseas suppliers or new customers
Find out about the Enterprise Europe Network Northern Ireland.
A European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG) is a legal framework that allows businesses in the European Union to establish links with each other and work together in business without losing their independence.