I was recently invited to attend a networking function at a major IT firm’s very impressive London headquarters to discuss the development of the women’s network within their business. The hosts were typically generous, and I’m glad to say that there weren’t any technical hitches (!) but what was really interesting was the apparent interchange-ability of the words ‘network’ and ‘community’ which seemed to suggest that the speakers felt they are the same thing.
I’m not sure that I agree. For a start, ‘network’ is both a noun and a verb (to ‘network’) whereas ‘community’ is quite definitely a noun. Nobody has ever said that they are attending an event ‘to community’! And if you look at the Collins dictionary definitions of each a network is ‘an interconnected group or system’ whereas a community is ‘a group of people having cultural, religious or other characteristics in common’. How can we think that these are one and the same?
In my opinion a ‘Network’ is a purely functional entity, and is often associated with a large group of strangers (overwhelmingly male), frantically swapping cards and making rushed introductions whilst balancing a glass of wine. There is a place for this type of event in developing contacts of course, but it is rather like Speed Dating for business. There is no common characteristic apart from the need of the attendees to achieve a connection for a future potential business gain.
Even if you take the definition of a network being ‘a group’, this is still very different from a community. My company, Primaverita, includes an Associate Network of highly experienced advisors across a wide range of disciplines, and whilst we share common ambitions to support SMEs by sharing our knowledge and experience, I would not venture to suggest that we are a community.
A ‘Community’ has a much more emotionally engaging and altruistic purpose, and is often based on helping others who have a broadly defined need. This is something that is very personal, and is something that is based on a depth of commitment to the objectives, building on-going relationships, and is empowering through the strength of the whole group rather than the individual members. It takes time to develop a community, to coalesce around agreed shared values and aims, and to organically grow the member base.
I also wonder if there is also a gender bias between ‘network’ and ‘community’. How often have we heard that women hate networking? Men don’t seem to have much trouble with it, but I don’t see many communities being set up by men. I challenge you to name more than two! Perhaps this is because women are far more comfortable in developing deeper personal relationships, simply having a coffee one on one, and find the superficiality of the classic networking event to be of limited value. It has nothing to do with confidence, just a matter of preference. Are ‘Networks’ a male domain and ‘Communities’ a female one?
Maybe it is more helpful to think of networks as being the precursor to the establishing of communities. Facebook is a virtual network that has enabled communities of shared interests and values to be formed. It never set out to be a community.
So what is the value of these ‘Communities’ in business? Clearly they can provide a platform for some very important issues to be discussed and actions developed. However, I do feel that they miss the opportunity to reach out beyond their members, in order to develop further through more direct and individual ‘value adding’, for example by mentoring of entrepreneurs and young people just getting started on their careers. I recently have offered to become a Business Mentor at The Princes Trust in order to support their work in helping young entrepreneurs to have the best possible chance of achieving success in their ventures, and I would encourage anyone with business experience to also think about getting involved.
And finally, we should not under-estimate the power of ‘doing good’ in terms of our own wellbeing. There are a lot of articles currently being shared that consider the need to look after your physical and mental health, all of which are well-intentioned and perfectly correct. However in my experience the personal value of ‘Business Altruism’ through communities and mentoring is even more rewarding and provides the perfect perspective from which to measure your own challenges.
Something to think about:
Here are 3 things for you to ask yourself about your potential for deeper involvement:
- Are you part of an influential community? Are you active or passive in your involvement?
- Look in your own networks. Can you identify an opportunity to create a community that has a more altruistic business focus.
- How could you through your company help the next generation of entrepreneurs and employees to develop their talents and improve their life opportunities?
And as a final thought until next time….
“From my very first day as an entrepreneur, I’ve felt the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people’s lives better.” Richard Branson
Have a great week.
Lead Consultant & Founder – Primaverita