WHILE the Internet has created great networking opportunities for businesses and individuals, the value of face-to-face communication should not be forgotten, according to recruiting expert Hays.

This issue is explored in the latest Hays Journal, where some critics argue that the use of technology is causing people to lose their interpersonal or soft skills, both in terms of external networking and communicating with their colleagues.

The technology boom has opened up many networks online and created real, focused, commercial opportunities.

One merit of making connections online is the opportunity to tap into a vast international knowledge base.

The Internet is not just a new, expansive way to communicate with other individuals.

Businesses are exploiting these new networks, such as web-based crowdsourcing sites that allow new ideas to be shared with user communities, many of them specialists in a given field.

However, since most business communication has migrated online, some believe a static workforce has been created, one that is losing confidence, dynamism and the tangential benefits of real human contact.

Develop your staff's soft skills

In a knowledge-based economy, it is a high-risk strategy for individuals to neglect person-to-person connections, says Hays. And companies should help their staff to learn to network more effectively, both in person and online.

E-mail should not be a substitute for human contact, and companies should develop their staff’s soft skills, as there are gains to be made whether within or outside the organisation.

Staff who are isolated by e-mail can become a threat to an employers’ competitiveness, so offering formal training in networking skills would benefit both companies and the individuals concerned.

Introductions via technology can be a good starting point, but professional relationships are often cemented in person.

If you want your business to succeed, sooner or later you will need to meet the people you would like to turn into clients or staff.

And you should not underestimate the need to get people together physically to create the required trust and common understanding, especially if it is a new group or team.

Here are the top five networking tips according to the Hays Journal:

* People should cultivate their “weak ties”. These are individuals encountered casually or unexpectedly who could develop into new and useful relationships. Potential networks are everywhere and not always in work-related places.

* Gather information beyond the office. Technical knowledge of a job role or organisation is a given in anyone with any professional ambition. But “loose knowledge” — what and who you know outside of work — is also relevant and could also be useful to career development. Such information should be exploited appropriately.

* Create an open environment. The “global green room” — the elite networks that welcome senior people but remain closed to those farther down the professional chain — stifles creativity. Opening up established groups to outsiders and sharing knowledge and best practices on a more meritocratic basis could revitalise networks.

* Everyone should have networking opportunities. “Marzipan managers” should be a source of concern for organisations. These employees sit beneath the icing — the leaders — and often feel frustrated and swamped in a sea of e-mail and paperwork. Responsible employers will encourage them to network for their own benefit and that of the organisation.

* Organisations should aspire to becoming “curious corporations”. To flourish and succeed, businesses must not be too insular and should be aware of what is happening outside their operation. To achieve this, they must engage with the broader world through external networks and information sharing to generate new ideas.