Thursday, April 24, 2008

Summary of 4/22 Discussion Group Meeting

It was another great meeting Tuesday night! Everyone who attended was very engaged and enthusiastic. Given the challenges experienced at the last two meetings with trying to keep the discussion on topic with a large group and a public venue, this time I came prepared with discussion guides. Each sheet had questions related to our topic – virtual networking. I asked everyone to write down their answers to the questions and then use them to guide their small group discussions. I then collected the sheets at the end of the meeting. I’ll summarize the responses from the sheets as well as from the discussions in which I participated. This approach seemed to work well, so I’ll continue to use this format for future meetings.

What networking sites do you currently use?
LinkedIn – 5
MeetUp – 4
Facebook – 3
Naymz – 2
Career – 1
Google – 1
MySpace – 1

How do you use networking sites?
The majority of our attendees use the sites primarily for social purposes, staying in touch with former classmates, friends and family members. One of the reasons I left sites like Facebook and MySpace off of my list of sites to try out was my perception that these are primarily social sites and my focus for this topic was how these sites could be used for business purposes and career development.

I’ve read in several articles that Facebook is currently looking at how its platform can be used for business purposes. Interestingly enough, two of the attendees at the meeting were working on a project to develop a social media tool for their company. Of course, the goal for this project will be focused on business applications – making people and information easier to find. They are looking at Facebook as a potential tool for this application.

Many of the people at our meeting came to find out more information about these tools and how they could be used for professional/career development purposes.

What is your favorite site?
When asked about their favorite site, most people had no opinion at present since few attendees were actively using any of the sites. However, the most consistent response was “I don’t have a favorite site yet”, which indicates to me at least some degree of interest in learning more and trying out the various sites.

Only two attendees indicated that they had a favorite site and both chose Facebook. However, as mentioned above they were primarily using the site for social and business purposes.

I was asked what my favorite site is but before I share my opinion, I want to stress that your choice should be driven by your goals. My goals for this project were to 1) find tools that would make it easy to identify manage my network contacts 2) identify resources to help with projects, and 3) expand and build upon my current network. Based on these goals, I have 2 favorite sites – LinkedIn and Smaller Indiana.

LinkedIn makes it easy to upload contact information from existing address books and data bases. In addition, they have a great search function that makes it very easy to find former colleagues. So this satisfies my goal of managing my network contacts. As I’ve mentioned previously, the “Answers” feature has been a fabulous tool for identifying resources and also expanding beyond my existing network. Based on some really great interactions with individuals who responded to questions I posted, I’ve now added them to my network.

My experience with Smaller Indiana has enabled me to “meet” individuals locally which had provided a great source for potential resources as well as expanded my network. A side benefit was the introduction to Ning and their free networking software. I have completed a basic template to launch a Women & Hi Tech community site and will be sending out initial invitations to past attendees of our discussion groups. A number of people have asked about a way to maintain contact with the women they meet at the discussion group meetings and this can be one way of doing so. If people like it and invite others to join, it will expand everyone’s network.

How often do you log in and/or actively participate on these sites?
Our Facebook users were the most active, logging in several times a week. The majority of people only logged on to sites in response to an invitation from someone else. Like anything else, you will get out of these sites what you put into them. There is no one “right” answer about how often one should participate. It will depend on your goals. My experience has shown me that tapping into my network on a more regular basis can yield impressive results and ultimately make it easier to connect to the resources I need.

If you’re not currently using online networking sites, why not?
You can probably already guess the number 1 barrier – “I don’t have time”. If you are starting from scratch, researching sites, creating your profile, adding contacts, establishing your web presence, this does require a time investment. However, if you start small with one or two sites, create a basic profile, and build your network gradually you can do this with a minimal investment of time. Look at it this way, investing time in building a network will make it easier for you to connect with resources and information in the future thereby saving you time and effort.

Set goals for yourself and work toward them one step at a time. Review and refine your profile so it will reflect what you have to offer. Join in conversations, ask questions, and share your experiences. Once you begin interacting with others, you’ll want to check in regularly. Use these interactions to establish new connections and continue building your network.

Another source of concern was making your personal information public. That’s always a concern, especially for women. As with anything else, you need to go to trusted sites, don’t reveal information such as your address or phone number. And be cautious when interacting with people you don’t know. I can share that even after putting profiles up on a lot of different sites, I haven’t had any negative experiences.

A related concern is that people may not always be genuine in what they post on line. There are ways to verify the information that’s out there. It’s amazing what you can find out about someone by just performing a simple Google search. If you’ve never done it, I recommend doing a Google search on yourself just to see what’s out there.

I had a great time researching and working on this month’s topic! I’ve learned a lot and also realized just how much more there is to learn. While I’ve seen some short term pay off, I want to be able to gauge the longer term benefits. So I’d like to have a follow up discussion on this same topic in 6 months. Hopefully by then, many of you will have your own stories to share. Stay tuned, and I hope you can join us again in October for Virtual Networking – Part 2.

As always, I hope those of you who attended this meeting will share your thoughts and insights from your discussions.

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