Networking events have been integral to the growth of our business. I go along to some networking event or other at least once a month. Granted, they are not all created equal. Some are much more fruitful (and enjoyable!) than others.

But one thing I have noticed is that manufacturing businesses are very poorly represented at networking events. At a recent networking event here in Norfolk, the total number of people who represented a business that actually manufactures a product was less than 1% of attendees. Even if we recognise that the manufacturing industry is no longer the largest employer within the local environment, the number seems disproportionately small.

But why is that?

Is it that the typical business breakfast is not at the right time of day for manufacturers? Or do they feel that networking isn’t a suitable method of promoting their business? Maybe they’ve never even considered networking as a potential avenue for new business? Or perhaps they feel that the people who do seem to frequent these kinds of events – accountants, solicitors, marketing professionals, IT companies – are unlikely to be useful to them?

But I think there are many very good reasons that people in manufacturing should persevere with networking events. And it’s not all about the direct generation of another pound for your pocket.

Reasons for manufacturing businesses to attend networking events

Here are my top 5 reasons manufacturing companies should network. Read on below for a more detailed explanation.

  • Increase innovation
  • Problem solving
  • Building value
  • Reaching new opportunities
  • Generating competitive advantage.

No one can be an autonomous innovator. Companies are dependent on one another within a wider business ecosystem. By ecosystem I mean the network of organisations that can influence the way a firm delivers value through the provision of a product or service. Members of your business ecosystem might include collaborators, clients, regulators, clients’ stakeholders, suppliers and competitors.

Having a healthy business ecosystem in place can increase innovation, accelerate time-to-market, identify new ways to solve problems, plug gaps in capabilities and create new markets. It might also include synchronising investments to build value and increase efficiency. Collaborating with other companies has the potential to create far more value than any single firm could have created alone.

The best way to build this valuable ecosystem? Getting out there and speaking to people!

I recently read a study about organisational networking behaviours in the UK manufacturing sector*. The authors interviewed manufacturing leaders who do take time to network. Some of it’s pretty weighty, but there are some interesting observations.

They identified four main networking behaviours which all achieve different outcomes and all of which could have significant value for manufacturing businesses:

Information acquisition: This could relate to information on competitors, potential suppliers and customers, technological development, gaps in the market, local knowledge or a new market. All of these aspects can be crucial for firms to sustain and grow their business.

Real-time market data can better allow manufacturers to be more proactive in resolving problems and seizing opportunities. The speed of idea generation can also be increased by bouncing ideas of people with different perspectives.

Opportunity enabling: There may be a potential buyer there, or potential supplier who provides novel technologies. Someone may know someone who could be a potential customer. You may sense a chance of collaboration which might give an edge over your competitors. Whilst not every event will result in a business win, you should ask yourself: “If I don’t go, what am I missing out on?”.

Strong-tie resource mobilisation: Strong-tie relationships are characterised by high levels of trust and understanding developed over time. To pool resources, firms need to build a certain minimum level of trust. Established relationships are better suited for this purpose. And you have to start somewhere!

Weak-tie resource mobilisation: Weak-tie relationships are characterised by lower levels of trust. They can still be helpful, however, to help quickly penetrate new markets or obtain novel knowledge in a new area. The main goals are bridging and bypassing issues.

Firms are more likely to openly share information in well-established relationships. But novel information very often comes about via counterparts they do not necessarily have a long-term established relationship with. “This stresses the importance of keeping a wide range of ‘information hubs’ through constantly interacting with various counterparts.”

The study suggests that as emerging countries move up the value chain by enhancing their technological capacity, manufacturers in the UK have to differentiate in order to survive. So they need to constantly seek opportunities to innovate and expand by using their network of relationships and accompanying resources. A business network is uniquely difficult for competitors to imitate. 

How can we get more manufacturing businesses to network?

It feels to me that networking organisations rather ignore the need to attract manufacturing businesses and address their needs. That seems a real missed opportunity to me. Our economy still relies on a strong manufacturing sector for wealth generation, employment opportunities, and often to provide long-term structure within a local community. Whilst some more traditional manufacturing industries may be shrinking, new high-tech manufacturing needs to be represented.

So how can networking be made more relevant to these key sections of the business community? I’d be wary of recommending sector-specific networking events. I think it is the very mix of backgrounds and skills that make a networking event the perfect ground for cross-fertilisation of ideas. But perhaps more networking groups need to actively seek different industry representatives to bring fresh ideas to the meetings.

My advice?

For me, networking is a useful tool to meet, and get re-acquainted with, potential colleagues from different industries and sectors. It is really useful to have access to different perspectives. And you never know who people know! Don’t underestimate the depth of the contact pool your fellow networkers are swimming in.

If you work in manufacturing but you’ve not been to a networking event before, I would urge you to reconsider. It could be the most beneficial Full English you ever have!

 

* Understanding types of organisational networking behaviours in the UK manufacturing sector by Sabrina C. Thornton (University of Huddersfield), Stephan C. Henneberg (Queen Mary University of London), Peter Naude (Research Group, Manchester Business School).