By Stefan Lindegaard

The reason for creating a networking culture is obvious once you look at the current and future direction of innovation. Let’s start by disposing of the myth of the lone genius – the Thomas Edisons and the Alexander Graham Bells of yesteryear – arriving at a breakthrough innovation on his/her own.

This model wasn’t true then, and even if it were, it simply does not hold true in today’s complex business organizations. Technology and the challenges that must be solved have become so complex that many – perhaps even most – companies can no longer rely solely on their own internal innovation geniuses, no matter how brilliant those people may be.

Innovation is increasingly about having groups of people come together to leverage their diverse talents and expertise to solve multifaceted challenges that cross multiple disciplines. To make this happen within your organization – and beyond as you move toward open innovation – requires a networking culture that is designed, supported, and modeled by your company’s leaders.

Another key motivation for setting up networking initiatives is based on the simple fact that the knowledge of any company is inside the heads of the employees. Discovering and distributing this knowledge has always been a challenge, and now, more than ever, the ability to leverage a company’s collective knowledge and experience is critical to innovation. Furthermore, establishing the ability to bring knowledge and potential new innovation insights in from external sources demands a strong networking culture supported and modeled from the top.

What a Networking Culture Looks Like

So what does a good networking culture looks like? It’s such a new concept that there aren’t a lot of examples available to illustrate it, but here are some key components of a good networking culture:

• Top executives have outlined clear strategic reasons why employees need to develop and nurture internal and external relationships. This includes making clear how your company’s networking culture links with and supports your innovation strategy.

• Among the things to consider when developing your networking culture strategy is what types of networks you hope to build to support your innovation efforts. If your organization is moving toward open innovation, possibilities would include peer-to-peer networks for people working with open innovation in different companies, value- and supply-chain networks, feeder networks, and events and forums connecting problem solvers and innovators with your company.

• Leaders show a genuine and highly visible commitment to networking.

Leaders must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. By making themselves available at networking events and by being visible users of virtual networking tools, they model the desired behavior and motivate others to participate. After all, who doesn’t want a chance to exchange ideas with the top brass?

• Leaders should also share examples of their networking experiences whenever possible. Spread the word about your own and others’ networking successes. Hearing you talk repeatedly about how networking is helping the organization in its innovation efforts will reinforce the message that this is important.

• Networking initiatives mesh closely with your corporate culture. This is not one-size-fits-all; each company’s networking efforts will differ. You can take bits and pieces, concepts and theories, knowledge and experience from others, but you still need to make it work for your own company.

People are given the time and means to network. Frequent opportunities are provided to help individuals polish their personal networking skills. Not everyone is a natural networker. But almost everyone can become good at it with proper training and encouragement.

Both virtual and face-to-face networking are encouraged and supported. Web 2.0 tools and facilitated networking events maximize the opportunities people have to initiate and build strong relationships.

Potential Roadblocks

In working with companies that are trying to build a networking culture, here are some reasons I’ve identified for why such efforts can fail or not reach the hoped-for degree of success:

• Lack of time: Many of us simply do not have the time to network and build relationships. It is necessary to develop a strategy and initiate projects, but you also need to give your people time to invest in initiating and maintaining both internal and external relationships.

• Lack of skills: Some people are natural-born networkers; many others are not. But the basics of effective networking can be learned, just like any other business skill. With appropriate instruction and motivation, wallflowers can learn to work a room. By providing your people with this type of training, you will give them a skill that will be invaluable throughout their careers.

• Lack of focus: A community or a network will only work if it connects people who share a common experience, passion, interest, affiliation, or goal. Your people need to have ways to find and join groups that are right for them and right for your company. In other words, you and your employees should only network when there is a good reason to do so. Random networking rarely results in anything but wasted time, which devalues networking in people’s minds and makes it harder to encourage them to try it again.

When I posed the deliberately provocative question on my blog of whether relationships and networking were overrated, Tim Kastelle, a member of the Technology & Innovation Management Centre in the School of Business at the university of Queensland, commented, “I view most things through a network lens, and the thing that I always remind people is that maintaining links in a network is costly.

So just blindly ‘networking’ to build up connections is likely to do more harm than good. Going down to no connections doesn’t work either though. You have to think about the kind and quality of connections that you want.” I fully agree with Tim and recommend using the mantra of “networking with a purpose.”

• Lack of commitment and structure: The networking-will-take-care-of-itself-and-you-do-not-need-to-work-at-it attitude is not the approach to take toward building what is increasingly a core innovation skill. Building a networking culture requires commitment and structure to support it.