Teaching the Importance of Networking by Conducting Informational Interviews

Due to the changing nature of the work environment, from bounded careers to boundaryless careers, networking is still a skill that must be learned. Students planning to work in today’s business environment must be entrepreneurial. That means students must take responsibility for their own career path. This paper describes an exercise that teaches students the importance of networking by completing the Networking Research Project. This exercise is a group project where students analyze and discuss the data collected through conducting an informational interview and read-ing on networking. Also, this exercise incorporates collaborative learning and reflective assessment. Students are given feedback on their interview, research, written, and presentation skills through this experience.

Keywords: Career Advancement, Networking, Social Networking, Networking Exercise, Informational Interview Disciplines of Interest: Business Communications

 

INTRODUCTION The mentor–prote´g´e relationship is the most significant relationship for career development [Levinson et al., 1978]. Levinson et al. [1978] stated that the mentoring process consists of teaching, providing feedback, and counseling. A mentor is a role model the prote´g´e can follow. The benefits of the mentor–prote´g´e relationship were supported in the literature as providing both career and psycho-social support [Allen & Finkelstein, 2003; Higgins, 2000; Higgins & Kram, 2001; Blake-Beard, 2001].

Kram [1988] proposed a constellation of relationships to foster career and psychosocial support. Higgins and Thomas [2001] studied those individuals who take an active interest in, and action to advance, another’s career by assisting with the mentee’s personal and professional development. This turns out to be a myriad of relationships. Due to a number of changes in the current work environment, Kram’s constellation of relationships concept is re-examined.

The more conventional terms to describe the constellation of relationships are networks or networking. Networking represents proactive attempts by individuals to develop and maintain personal and professional relationships with others for the purpose of mutual benefit in their work or career [de Janasz, Dowd, & Schneider, 2002; Forret & Dougherty, 2001]. Because networking is so important to the individual in their career, it is important that educators teach the definition and concepts of networking, and provide students the opportunity to learn and improve their networking skills [Whiting & de Janasz, 2004].

One way to incorporate teaching the principles of networking into a course syllabus is to include an exercise which promotes collaborative learning. Collab-orative learning is an educational practice that (1) encourages student-faculty interaction; (2) encourages cooperation among students; and (3) promotes active learning [Barkley, Major, & Cross, 2014].

I have used the Networking Research Project (NRP) exercise ten times in the past five years within a business communications course and a first-year intro-ductory course for freshmen, both at the undergraduate level at a university located in Los Angeles County. Approximately 400 students, in class sizes ranging from 20 – 40 students, participated in this exercise. The exercise is introduced and conducted over a six week period within a college semester.

This exercise is based on collaborative learning theories with a reflective assessment component aimed at giving students an opportunity to network by conducting an informational interview, gathering data on the purpose and benefits on networking, and analyzing the groups’ data to determine similarities and differences. Students are given an opportunity to reflect on ways to enhance the NRP and ways to incorporate networking activities into their college experience.

THE VALUE OF NETWORKING

Networking is important for a number of reasons. Networks satisfy the same needs as in the mentor–prote´g´e relationship and may include providing sponsor-ship, exposure and visibility, coaching, protection, and challenging assignments [Kram, 1988; Adler & Kwon, 2002]. Psychosocial support is directed at enhanc-ing one’s sense of competence, clarity of identity, and sense of self. These functions include role modeling, acceptance and confirmation, counseling, and friendship [Robinson, 1996; Kram, 1988].

Next, networking is identified as important in the job search and re-employment process [Eby & Buch, 1994; Wanberg, Kanfer, & Banas, 2000]. Seventy to 80 percent of professional jobs are obtained through networking [Koss-Feder, 1999]. The “hidden” job market can assist in establishing contacts, obtaining interviews, and identifying and cultivating mentors. Last, contacts obtained through networking enable the individual to meet people who can provide new ideas and timely information, obtain business leads, and provide social support [Baker, 2000].

While the mentor–prote´g´e relationship is still significant and important today, the benefits of the relationship are obtained through networking relationships. This is significant because prote´g´es are often selected by a mentor, and many individuals are seeking an alternative or more proactive approach to career advancement and career support. Networking is a more proactive approach for individuals who are adaptable, self-directed, and focused on employability [Hall, 1996; Hall, 2002].

As researchers analyze the benefits provided by the mentor–prote´g´e relation-ship to networking relationships, the same benefits apply. Job opportunities, business leads, and influence are benefits from relationships [Baker, 2000]. Access to information, resources, and career sponsorship, which are related to increase in salary, promotions, and career satisfaction, are outcomes of a net-working relationship [Seibert, Kraimer, & Liden, 2001]. Career success is linked to effective networking [Eddleston, Baldridge, & Veiga, 2004; Hwang, Kessler, & Francesco, 2004; Forrett & Dougherty, 2001]. Therefore, because networking is a vital skill to learn, it is important that educators teach the importance of networking by teaching how to network [Whiting & de Janasz, 2004; Friar & Eddleston, 2007].

One networking technique students should learn during college is how to conduct an informational interview. An informational interview is an interview conducted with a professional by an interested party (student, job seeker, infor-mation seeker) with the intention of finding out more information. It is my experience as an educator in the field of business communications, that most students do not know a person in their chosen field. Plus, students choose careers with very little knowledge about that career. The informational interview is a tool to link real-life connections to academic experiences [Mulvaney, 2003]. In 2002, the Occupational Outlook Quarterly confirmed the viability of conducting an informational interview for a variety of purposes in nearly all fields [Crosby, 2002]. “1 out of 12 informational interviews results in a job offer, compared with 1 out of 200 resumes” [Anonymous, 2000]. Informational interviews are useful throughout one’s career. They can be used to explore career opportunities [Kim, 2011], stay on top of the job market [Mulvaney, 2003], and learn about the workplace [Mulvaney, 2003].

I have shown that networking helps students in various ways throughout their careers. The purpose of the NRP exercise (informational interview) is to provide students the opportunity to practice their networking skills.

EXERCISE CONCEPT

The NRP incorporates various skills needed to network effectively. First, the exercise teaches the students the concepts of networking, as the concept is not clear to students. The exercise provides a forum for students to discuss the tools and techniques to network effectively and to listen to the networking experiences of other students; the group project is shared by the students presenting their analysis via a class presentation. This process reinforces the importance of networking as presented in lectures, discussion, and readings. Second, the exer-cise provides a proactive approach to networking, which is then discussed as part of the job search. Third, the exercise provides students an opportunity to seek out and conduct an informational interview with a business professional. Students have limited exposure to professionals within their chosen field of study. Com-pleting an informational interview with an unknown person within the students’ area of concentration or anticipated profession is at first daunting and a valuable experience for the students. After completing the NRP, it is apparent that students learn not only the importance of networking but also techniques to sustain the practice of networking throughout their careers.

THE NRP

The NRP introduces the student to multiple aspects on the topic of networking. The NRP is conducted as a group activity. This activity is introduced to students towards the end of the semester. By this time in the course, students are prepared for the skills needed to network effectively. This exercise provides an experiential learning component aimed at giving students experience, feedback, and opportunity to discuss the importance of networking for their future endeavors.

The NRP consists of the following components. Students are grouped by the same or similar field of study. Groups consist of a maximum of four to five members. Next, the topic for the research paper is presented. The assignment requires the students to:

(a) locate a professional employed in their field of study,
(b) contact and request an informational interview from the professional,
(c) meet and interview the professional,
(d) write a formal thank you email to the professional,
(e) read journal articles on the importance of networking, and
(f) analyze the data collected from the informational interviews and journal articles.
At the end of the exercise, the students synthesize the information into a research paper, which includes a reflection section on the informational interview, and prepare a presentation to share the experience with fellow classmates. Towards the end of the assignment, students evaluate each other’s participation in the NPR using a peer-evaluation form.
The research paper outline, interview questions, and students’ peer-evaluation form are located in Appendices A, B, and C, respectively. Table 1 outlines the steps in conducting this exercise with a detailed description in the following sections.

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