Is there a future for digital networking? Expert opinion.
Few can question the importance of networking in solving work issues today. You can find new customers through personal acquaintances. You can quickly assemble a focus group and test new business ideas through a post on your personal Facebook page. If you need to find a good specialist for your team, it is always better to seek recommendations in the professional community. All this is possible if you regularly keep in touch with your colleagues, meet new people, communicate and find common interests with them. In other words, you need to constantly build up your social capital. Is it possible to do this without leaving home? The COVID-19 pandemic and followed transition to remote work left us no choice. Together with experts in communication and business events organization we tried to figure out how the coronavirus affected communication among professionals and whether digital networking has any prospects in the future.
Opinion one: Julia Malkova
I came from another country 5 years ago. I didn't have a single acquaintance in Belarus. At that moment, I realized the importance of connections and social capital. Basically, if you have friends who are willing to help, many things can be done without money. Networking offers many opportunities for the experiences and ideas exchange, assistance and partnerships. It's important to remember, however, that networking doesn't work one way - you have to give something as well as to get something in return.
If we talk about the work of a non-profit organization, we always provide opportunities forof networking to participants at our events. Usually we do not organize separate events for this, but embed networking in other formats. We noticed that it is important not only to provide a platform for establishing connections, but also to explaining how to do it right. For example, how to present yourself briefly and succinctly to fulfill your goals and objectives.
Online networking is very different from offline. First, it is difficult to read people's emotions and non-verbal cues. Second, it's harder to engage people - some participants just don't want to turn on their webcam. The online format implies that you can join an event from anywhere literally in your pajamas, so many are just not prepared - someone is embarrassed by their surroundings, someone is disturbed by family members or pets. In addition, not all participants have a stable Internet connection, a microphone in the device, normal lighting and sound.
After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic there were many available training options on the Internet that people began to use. At some point, we noticed that the participants have a great need for informal communication and exchange of experience. Firstly, everyone is tired of the format when only one person speaks. Secondly, at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone found themselves in a situation that no one had ever encountered before - it was important for people to learn how others act and to exchange personal experiences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown everyone the importance of networking, as there are almost no networking opportunities left. And what used to be a simple informal conversation during a break at a conference, now is impossible to get.
I think that real live communication cannot be replaced by anything. Many people are tired of online and other people's images on their computer screens. However, there is one important advantage of the online format: now events have become more accessible to everyone. If earlier, for example, a woman from another city would have had to come to meet someone from Minsk, now this can be done without leaving home. From this point of view, online is an opportunity that you don't want to lose.
I do not presume to make predictions, but I think that the more extensively online assistants, chat bots, artificial intelligence develop, the more sincere emotions and live communication will be appreciated.
Opinion two: Svetlana Zinkevich
In our work, networking is almost the most important thing. We need partnerships with people who have information resources with large outreach to disseminate information about our events. We need expertise and good connections with organizations from different fields to find experts for events.
I believe that the most brilliant ideas and projects are born through the collaboration of organizations and people from a wide variety of fields. Networking plays a crucial role in this. Sometimes the collaboration starts during a coffee break at a conference or training. Now such moments are sorely lacking.
People need to stay connected and work on collaborative ideas even remotely. When we hold events online, we devote much time for getting to know each other, small groups work, we give the opportunity to work interactively so that people could establish contact with each other. In addition, we help people support connections after the event. For example, during long-term online programs participants call up once a week on Zoom and just chat or throw virtual parties. As a result, people often agree on joint projects or create separate chats, where they continue to communicate on a topic of common interest.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic it was enough to organize a coffee break or a buffet to sparkle informal communication. Now our task is facilitation. From participants’ feedback we learnedthat people were very happy to meet interesting people and inspired by activists from all overBelarus. I am glad that people are building partnerships in the learning process, doing joint projects, and sometimes just becoming friends.
I love to hold meetings over a cup of coffee and will be glad to have this opportunity again. But after we have worked online, life will never be the same again, because we can save a lot of resources. For example, in one of our online programs, we do virtual study tours to non-profit organizations in other countries to get acquainted with the activities, establish partnerships, learn about how everything works. Previously, this would require flying and staying there for a week at least. Now it only takes a couple of hours and everything becomes clear!
It will be a pity if networking goes completely online. Shaking hands and hugging is a very important part of building trust. However, online has given us more options. Who would have ever thought that inviting international experts to your events would be so easy?
In business education networking between students is one of the learning values. Communication, exchange of experience, establishing contacts is much easier in the environment of motivated people who are united by one task.
Networking is also important in the educational process itself. Students assimilate information better when they are involved in a discussion or problem-solving. They communicate, meet informally and thus receive not only knowledge, but also exchange experience with each other. Before the COVID-19 pandemic we regularly held informal meetings and parties for participants.
In the process of offline learning the teacher can pay more attention to the interaction of participants with each other. When discussing cases in small groups, we even divide them into different rooms so that they can communicate more freely, get to know each other better and just chat. This will no longer work with the remote format.
With the introduction of online training it has become much more difficult to engage the audience, so at the beginning we always ask all participants toturn on their cameras during work. So as they are not tempted to be distracted by something else. In addition, teachers ask specific questions to listeners, involve them more in discussions, etc.
At the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were forced to transfer training to an online format, we got a lot of negative feedback from many participants. Especially in groups on the MBA program, where students are directors and owners of the company. We even had to pause our sessions. People wanted to fully immerse themselves in the educational process, not to be distracted and be able to communicate with each other.
You can adapt and even love the remote format when solving work issues and organizing business processes. However, networking and live meetings with professionals from different fields cannot be completely transformed online.
Now there are so many different virtual communities, networks, channels of information and communication around us that we are starting to lose focus. I think that after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, the offline format of events will not go away, but will even revive with great enthusiasm. We are now resuming face-to-face classes at the business school. According to our observations, only those students who are in quarantine choose learning remotely. Others come to the classroom together with the whole group.
As we can see, according to experts, digital networking is unlikely to completely replace live communication. However, this experience allowed us to expand our understanding of how to build communication with partners, clients and colleagues more effectively. Online tools save our time and resources, and in some cases give us new opportunities to grow business. As part of the UNDP Initiative for Rapid Response to Challenges Related to the Spread of COVID-19 in Belarus, we have developed practical guidelines for using digital technologies in solving work problems. The first manual was created for business owners and can be downloaded for free from the link. The second guide is designed specifically for non-profit organizations and can be downloaded here. Both guidelines are focused on solving day-to-day tasks in organizations using digital tools and provide clear instructions and tips for their use.