Julian Hobdswan

One good test of whether a business activity has become worthy of study – and worth doing well – is when it is subject to a newly created professorship at the esteemed Cass School of Business in London. A further sign of acceptance is when BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a four-part series on said activity – networking.

It is no coincidence that the presenter of the series, broadcast in October 2014, was Julia Hobsbawm, who became Visiting Professor in Networking at Cass barely three years earlier. That appointment was a world first and, as Hobsbawm says now, it sent “a strong signal” to the business world that networking needs to be taken more seriously.

If anything, networking has been taken for granted in big business and, as she acknowledged in her Networking Nation series on the BBC, it is still widely regarded as “something of a perk for those at the top”. But for Hobsbawm, it extends well beyond the rushed exchange of business cards during the morning coffee break at an industry conference.

She advocates “knowledge networking”, which is more to do with the exchange of ideas within companies and across sectors. In other words, this ‘soft’ skill should be fundamental to business success and, as she puts it, to the wellbeing of any organisation, especially large companies, and their employees.

She put it another way in a white paper called Fully Connected: A Look Ahead to Working and Networking, published recently by the consultancy Ernst & Young, when she concluded: “Without networks and without networking, we are all isolated and our ability to deliver and communicate, to connect at all, is restricted.”

Settling in to this interview, she adds: “Knowledge networking is about who you know and what you know.
It isn’t about transaction. It’s about longevity of learning about other people. Yes of course business is done through good networks, but it’s important to understand it is more like fitness and health than it is about sales.”

As the BBC introduced her to its audience, Hobsbawm is “a businesswoman who has made networking her personal passion and her professional living”. After an early career in communications, she founded Editorial Intelligence (EI) 10 years ago. EI is part corporate consultancy and part ideas forum, both online and through organising conferences.

Hobsbawm herself is a regular conference speaker while finding time to sit on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Informed Societies and the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office Diplomatic Excellence Panel. She followed the honorary professorship at Cass with a similar position at University College Suffolk, England.

All of this has helped push networking up the agenda, at least among the more progressive boardrooms and policymakers. In her eyes, the work at Cass is crucial to “the need for literacy” in this area of business.

As for the school itself, Professor Cliff Oswick, Deputy Dean & Head of the Faculty of Management, says that Hobsbawm’s role reflects the growing importance of networking within organisations and between organisations.

As Oswick suggests, they are starting to rely more on networks, partly because of technological advances and the influence of the millennial generation in the workplace. “There is a kind of mood and demand requirement to think about organisations in a more networked and less hierarchical way,” he says.

“Networking requires something more enduring and not based entirely on reciprocity.” To that end, Hobsbawm prompts the MBA executives at Cass – as she does her corporate clients – to think of networking in terms of “fitness to manage this tsunami of information that drowns all of us” and to be more inclusive in their approach.

“Networking has to incorporate the people below senior management – the new talent. It’s not in the corporate interest for these people to be stuck at their desks in a silo,” she says. “People want to learn how to make their teams resilient and agile, and it hinges on how they organise who they know, both internally and externally. In global businesses, that’s a very serious challenge.”

Among the Hobsbawm principles espoused at Cass and in the Fully Connected white paper is the need to have diverse networks but manage them actively: create a group of 150 people who you must see or wish to reconnect with or should get to know. It’s better to meet five people face to face in the week than 50 on email.

She continues: “We’ve spent the last 15 years of the internet revolution thinking that bigger is better, faster is better, and that the crowd is the thing. What we’re now learning is that what makes change happen and what makes people feel involved and connected and productive often operates at a much smaller level but can nevertheless have a huge impact.”

Hobsbawm is convinced that we will be talking about human capital in a decade’s time in much the same way as we refer to financial capital now: “Networking is beginning to be measured and understood in the panoply of indices by which one judges the health of a system or business.”

She adds: “I think we are going to use the best of technology – from the Cloud and the internet – but we are going to allow the human smarts that you cannot replicate to come to the fore. And if that happens I think you are going to see a transforming landscape, and the ones who don’t conform to this new way, I think will fall by the wayside.”

Douglas Morrison

Formerly city editor of Scotland on Sunday and a city reporter for The Sunday Telegraph

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