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Ideas & Observations

Jeni Smith: The connection apocalypse

Jeni Smith is founder of networking and training consultancy NetKno. During her career, Jeni has won several awards in enterprise, including being named as one of the Future 100 Young Entrepreneurs in the UK, a Growth Accelerator Programme winner and a finalist in the Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2021. Between 2017 and 2019, she conducted two rounds of academic research with Durham University, exploring her unique strategic business networking model. Here, Jeni shares some of the surprising benefits of business development.

Sit in any restaurant, travel on any train, walk through any shopping centre and you’ll see it; people staring intently into their phones.

Friends in the same room talk through their screens instead of outload, couples communicate via WhatsApp when they’re in the same house, and kids connect with their parents through social media instead of at the dinner table.

The connection apocalypse is officially upon us, and our natural abilities to have real-time conversations are diminishing by the decade.

So, could networking hold the key?

Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Reclaiming Conversation and The Empathy Diaries, has done years of research into the impact digital adoption is having on young people – their emotional development, mental and emotional health, confidence, social skills, communication. The list goes on.

In America, schools are already including ‘conversation classes’ in their curriculum, in a bid to give the next generation the skills they need to thrive out in the world.

If left to own devices, and I mean actual devices, we’d be building a world without any form of meaningful connection.

This is where networking can come in.

Teaching our kids, our staff, our colleagues, and ourselves how to network could in fact be the answer to this connection apocalypse, because networking is much more than just a business development tool my friends.

Within the last 50 networking training sessions I’ve delivered to professionals and academics all over the world, 98 per cent referenced sales or new business as words they associate with networking events.

Yet there are so many other beneficial assets networking provides.

Research has shown that well-networked chief executives build more successful businesses not because of business development, but because of their access to knowledge – knowledge that empowers them to make more strategic decisions and tap into the experience of their peers.

Even more impactful are chief executives with diverse networks.

Harvard Business Review released a study revealing that bosses with diverse networks run businesses that are, on average, valued at an additional $81 million more than those whose chief executives don’t have diverse networks.

This is due to innovation – new ideas are sparked and opportunities spotted by building more diverse networks.

Plus, if we only talk to people who know what we know, we’ll never learn anything new.

Another study, by UCLA and called The Centre of the Universe, highlighted the impact networking can have on an individual’s career progression, following well-networked individuals in the French Riviera for five years.

The half of the group with the strong personal network progressed quicker, had better job security, were paid more money but yet were less productive in the jobs they were employed to do.

This really showcases the doors that can be opened to you through your network, as well as the value employers see in staff with the ability to build and nurture effective relationships.

The problem is, going the way the world is, in a few years no-one will be able to talk to each other.

Within the same 50 training sessions I mentioned earlier, 100 per cent referenced confidence as being a barrier to networking.

With recurring themes across industry and academia citing things such as ‘knowing how to approach people’, ‘small talk’, ‘approaching groups’, and ‘what to talk about’ as additional barriers to attending events, people are missing out on accessing all the valuable knowledge, innovations and personal development opportunities that come with it.

I believe a lot of these barriers are a bi-product of the connection apocalypse – people just aren’t getting the practice they used to when it comes to face-to-face communication.

We’re working remotely, connecting through screens, studying from home, and even dating online.

All of these things can be fantastic additions to our lives, but should not be to the detriment of developing social skills and creating meaningful connections.

Using networking events as a safe place to develop yourself, and/or your teams, in these vital skills could be a win-win for everyone.

Business leaders and entrepreneurs spark innovative ideas, tap into knowledge and expertise, build a support network and mentor relationships, and increase the value of their firms.

Team members become more confident, progress quicker, increase their salaries, improve internal communications, enhance company culture and employee engagement, and generally become happier, more fulfilled people (see Johann Hari’s Lost Connections for more on relationships and emotional health).

So, next time you walk into a networking event with the sole focus of selling, remind yourself of all the other benefits that room could provide and engage with people accordingly.

Because you just never know what you might learn.

Jeni Smith
Founder of NetKno