Steinbeis experts offer ideas and inspiration on leveraging and making the best of the potential offered by networks
The working world and the society we are operating in are characterised by great complexity. More and more often, sustainable and sound decision-making is not an individual activity but instead, together in a network . Digital transformation and the ever-increasing volume and speed of data streams are intensifying the pressure to perform and compete. But what can we do to meet these challenges without losing touch with our values in the process – or better: to turn them into opportunities? Steinbeis experts Hanna Schaefer and Beate Wittkopp bank on a strong network. Why? Because its interwoven relationships not only help with complexity, but also offer an effective way to deal with particularly challenging and confounding projects. One question that arises sooner or lateris how exactly to interact with others in your own network. Based on the experience made within their projects, Schaefer and Wittkopp have pulled together four impulses for TRANSFER magazine, all of which help determine the right role to play, how to make better use of networks, and how to exploit the potential offered by relationships.
The good news is, we all have them – networks consisting of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or family members, each possessing unique and diverse skills and expertise. Every day, we interact with them, expanding them continuously. Although interwoven relationships offer enormous potential for us to draw on support, we often fail to nurture those networks properly or keep them going in the long term. This is because in addition to staying in touch with our networks, it’s particularly important to gain a good overview of the know-how offered by our contacts, the specific resources they have at their disposal, and their skills. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to this as “social capital,” i.e. accrued resources, acquired by belonging to a network of relationships of “mutual acquaintance and recognition.”
Good networks are spawned in very different ways, but at their core always lies the ability to forge relationships based on empathy and being open-minded. This implies interaction based on mutual respect and appreciation – an ability to relate to others, a willingness to share knowledge, and genuine interest in building trust. And in turn, trust is the very lifeblood of sustainable relationships. Functioning networks of relationships form tightly knit webs in which exciting ideas, surprising solutions, inspiration and – above all – plenty of support and experience come together and grow.
Impulse 1: Mindset
All successful networks start with the right mental attitude – being open to new things, unfamiliar situations, new topics, and unknown people who are willing to learn and show who they are. Unlike face-to-face events, where attendees automatically go through a process of “tuning in” to others, with online events it’s very easy for participants to stay in their comfort zones and not make use of opportunities to network.
This is where event organisers have to step in: With good preparation and well thought out communication process, you can initiate the “tuning in” process and this makes it possible to establish the right mindset. For example, small stimuli can be offered such as two or three icebreaker questions that say something about the context of the group, foster emotion and a sense of belonging, and help participants to come on board. Alternatively, a short welcome video can be played to immediately involve online participants, offer practical information, and highlight different ways to interact and network with others. Coming the other way, participants must make a conscious decision to participate and engage with offerings in advance – and make use of opportunities to get in touch. Once on board, everybody is then equally prepared to make good use of the potential offered by (digital) events to forge networks.
Impulse 2: The Opportunities Offered by Digital Technology
The pandemic has clearly shown the potential digitisation holds for our network activities. Technology offers different ways to keep in touch, making it easier to form networks – especially in a world of globalisation. This also opens a door of opportunities when it comes to participation and inclusion, because people can participate in events independently of their ability to travel. Taking part in virtual meetings no longer requires real journeys, making it easier to take up offers and significantly expanding the poutreach of events. In addition, there are a variety of channels and tools that now promote and proliferate the possibilities to communicate.
Digitisation has a noticeable ability to expand the scope of opportunities to quickly form networks, embedding our activities in a world of virtual possibilities. It does not make much effort for people to get and stay in touch, spanning long distances in temporal and physical terms, and increasingly even spanning professional and cultural boundaries. Accordingly, the process of transferring or sharing know-how can be significantly accelerated and intensified within personal networks – between sectors of industry, departments, companies, science and academia, but also private contacts.
Impulse 3: Bartering
Quid pro quo – a Latin phrase used to describe the principle of one person giving something and receiving something appropriate in return. Another way to describe this process of give and take is “a favor for a favor.” Admittedly, it sounds quite calculating if you only do something if you expect something in return. Nonetheless, it does reflect the huge potential offered by forming networks. After all, if you can sustain the process of bartering in the long term, you build an expansive network of people who provide support – people who are happy to help one another, talk about their experiences, do each other favors, and give and take in equal measure. No, that’s not calculating or selfish, it’s effective and it motivates people, because being generous and the granting of benefits builds trust – and that’s good for sustainable networks.
In doing so, we should start by thinking about ourselves and asking, “What can I give to others?” or “How can I offer something of benefit to others?” The starting point is therefore giving to others. If you then do reach the point where you need help from others, it’s all right to ask for help from your own network – without feeling guilty about it. This is because there will be many others who are willing and prepared to help you, and perhaps they will already return a favor that you once did for others. The art is to strike the right balance between giving and taking. A good example of a highly systematic approach to this concept in practice is so-called reverse mentoring, in which two people seek dialogue based on the principle of diversity (in the traditional sense, between old and young). Even virtual networking events have the ability to promote exchange – of an intangible nature but of value to others – and this can have a sustained impact on networking.
Impulse 4: Pooling Resources
Growth needs discourse. This is valid for both personal and professional development. The more diverse a group or network engaging in discourse is, the more diverse are the perspectives, experiences, competences and impulses for orientation and further development. Even only exchanging views with others is invaluable. It fuels ambition and motivates you beyond personal perception. Ideas in the form of new information and lessons learned – but also feedback from the network – have a powerful ability to animate you to recognize and comprehend your own weaknesses and strengths, personal values, and priorities. It’s only when you become aware of your personal position and effectiveness that it becomes possible to develop as an individual and engage in ways that are fulfilling. When groups learn together in this way, they build more and more strengths, boosting the perseverance of all involved and achieving a greater impact than the “sum of all individuals.” Not only can recommendations and experiences be shared, they can also be disseminated and multiplied. This creates a space of sustainable learning and development.
So-called working out loud (WOL) circles are a good example of this. According to the WOL principle, which was developed by John Stepper, groups of people are formed – diverse in nature, both real and virtual – and over the course of several months these groups learn together, systematically going through an agenda at regular meetings. With the right feedback, participants support each other in forging long-term relationships, sharing knowledge constructively, making themselves and their work visible, basing action on targets, and entering into new undertakings. This approach has become an established ingredient of transformation in our working world, at a variety of companies.