Does networking work?

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Getting a grasp on what exactly networking means, and how it differs from making friends, can be difficult. Some people define networking as simply as making connections. Are old friends considered part of someone’s network? What about siblings, or family members?

To others, networking is a life force as irresistible as a new business card holder. Do those well-networked people go in to and out of networking mode when interacting with friends or colleagues? It’s hard to know exactly, but those same people who praise networking will also no doubt tell you that it’s more like building a friendship than completing a transaction.

According to Jessica Shambora, head of corporate communications at Quora, a popular Q&A site, networking is “absolutely vital.” She said relationships will often pay off in ways that you can’t immediately see — sometimes years down the road.

“You have to be able to offer something in exchange; you can’t just always be asking,” Shambora said.

Shambora added that networking cannot be substituted for valuable skills and abilities. Success is not just determined by who you know, and what you know is at least as important.

Alan Xu, campus sophomore and recruitment and technology manager at Voyager Consulting, agreed that networking in technical fields such as computer science can’t get a person all the way into the job. He said the tests one will take during application processes matter far more. No amount of smooth talking or networking will improve one’s technical proficiency.

Networking for professional goals can make someone feel dirty and disingenuous, according to a study titled “The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties.” So if the thought of smiling and firmly shaking someone’s hand at an event to make a connection and build your network makes your skin crawl, you’re not alone. It can feel ingenuine and a bit manipulative, even. Does this person I’m speaking to know that I’m actually just here to land an internship next summer and that I would much rather be doing literally anything else right now?

To avoid this dirty feeling, don’t build networks — build friendships. I don’t mean that you should invite the CEO of a major company that you just met to coffee or a study session. Building friendships means exactly what you think it means. Smile, and meet interesting people. Ask them about their lives because they are interesting and you care, not to feign interest so that you can sneak in some juicy details from your resume.

Friendships are better for business, anyway. Social cohesion between individuals has a positive effect on sharing valuable knowledge, according to a study titled “Network Structure and Knowledge Transfer” that was published in the June 2003 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly. The study found that social cohesion can be critical to some of the most integral aspects of professional success, such as cooperation.

The types of people that can help you out when you launch a new company will not just be whoever you connected with on LinkedIn or barely met at an event months prior. To build a meaningful and successful future in the way that most businesspeople do, you will need partners.

“Social cohesion around a relationship affects the willingness and motivation of individuals to invest time, energy, and effort,” the study found.

This may sound a lot like networking, and in practice the two look fairly similar, but the difference between friendships and networking is a simple one: If there were nothing in it for you to keep connecting with some person, would you stay connected?

Contact Henry Tolchard at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @htolchard.