Spreading the Net
It’s an accepted fact that you won’t get far in the world of business without a good personal network, and the ability to keep making the right contacts.
That may sound easy, but there can be challenges. That’s especially true if networking involves navigating a path through an unfamiliar culture, or adapting an approach to reflect increased seniority or changing priorities.
“Managing Networks for Business and Career Development”, the latest in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s (HKUST) Business Insights Presentation Series, addressed the issues. Bilian Sullivan, associate professor, and Yonghoon Lee, assistant professor at the Department of Management, shared their thoughts on networking at the seminar that took place on May 25.
Using a mix of academic research and practical insights, the two experts outlined the essentials of good networking, and explained why it is vital to take an active approach rather than allow things to simply drift along.
Sullivan focused on the Chinese concept of guanxi, or relationships with “Chinese characteristics”, and how it works in the business world.
She looked at the certain aspects such as renqing inherent in guanxi, and noted some of the idiosyncrasies which are not immediately apparent to “outsiders”. Sullivan also explained how some new forms of guanxi are emerging in China’s fast-changing business environment.
“From a research point of view, in any social network, you look for structure and pattern,” said Sullivan, who specialises in strategic and international management. “You start from a focal person (ego) and then branch to another (alter). Any human being in society has multiple ties that entail different aspects: family, neighbourhood, friends, workmates, groups, community and supervisors. Guanxi is to some extent similar to the relationships in other countries, but Guanxi has its unique characteristics as well.”
She added that this aspect of “who you know” is ubiquitous in China, and unavoidable when it comes to getting things done. It does not mean, though, that everyone likes it, and it does not automatically imply that something illegal or underhand is taking place.
In its most basic interpretation, it means that people want to know who they are dealing with, and how they are connected. They also want to establish some mutual trust and obligations.
“We can say that work relationships reflect a cultural template, and the values in the surrounding society,” Sullivan said. For example, research by Sullivan and her associates has shown that in the US, where a “market transaction” culture predominates, more attention is paid to efficiency and maximising the information obtained from a minimum number of ties.
In German workplace culture, there is a more legalistic and procedural approach to dealing with colleagues and contacts. In Spain, the emphasis is more affiliative, with colleagues chatting as friends and talking about non-work topics. In the Chinese culture, due to the influence of Confucian values of filial responsibility, which demand respect for the system, promote order, and enforce seniority, employees tend to give favors and affective deference toward superordinates.
“The webs of relationships connect multiple social circles,” Sullivan said. “But you can fall into a trap by giving an orientalist gloss to the universal necessity of networking as characterized by Andrew Kipnis. The method of managing relationships in China has been changing, especially during the last decade. What you know and what you can provide are becoming more important than who you know.”
Lee focused on how best to manage your personal networks at successive stages of career development. A key point is to realise the difference between two types of network, closed and open. To be successful, you must learn how to operate effectively in both.
In a closed network, your friends or workmates know each other. This is an advantage when mobilising for collective action or building an initial reputation, but less effective for acquiring novel information, or reaching out to new contacts.
An open network puts you at the centre, in control of a network of separate relationships. You’re in position to find opportunities, oversee the information flow, and be more entrepreneurial.
“There is a lot of popular advice about how to network, but that can be misleading if taken out of context,” Lee said. “Research shows it is actually quite difficult to build a network because, in practice, you have little control over other people’s social relationships.
“If you socialise instrumentally [to get information or some other perceived advantage], you may feel guilty about doing so, or even face a backlash, being seen as manipulative, selfish or self-oriented,” Lee noted.
The most effective approach is to realise that different networks are beneficial at different stages of a career.
An early priority is to learn the informal rules and expectations of the network. After that, it’s important to find a niche which suits you, and concentrate on working with people who offer mutual support and protection. Later, as an established player, you can make wider choices.
“Other people will start to come to you for advice, so you need to be selective,” Lee said. “Try to spread your network evenly, and give time and energy to getting new knowledge from different people.”