A news item I heard on the radio caught my attention because it sounded so unlikely: a business school in the UK has just appointed a Professor of Networking. It sounded like a cushy number for someone who knows how to conjure up orders via Linkedin or acquire 146,000 Facebook friends in the space of half an hour. Not so, claimed the school: electronic social media are just another manifestation of an activity that has been around since humans first began to grunt at each other but businesses have lately lost sight of the fact that networks should be mutually beneficial - and the Professor is going to set them back on course.
To those who are unfamiliar with the ways of business, ‘networking’ might appear to be a black art practised by initiates while they play rounds of golf - not for sport, but in order to cultivate secretively advantageous connections, stitch up monopolistic agreements and line their pockets at the expense of others. All these things certainly do happen but the process isn’t intrinsically evil just because some are more selfishly inclined than others. Amongst salespeople there is an adage: “people buy from people”, which is another way of saying you are more likely to win a sale if potential customers know and like you, so get to know them, do your best to be likeable - and don’t abuse the relationship: network responsibly. Unfortunately for society, businesses are prone to rampant greed and the Professor clearly has some work to do.
Of course the principles of networking don’t apply exclusively to business: it is a fundamental human activity comprising the building of supportive relationships in the form of friendships made and maintained over the years, relatives nurtured and indulged, small favours granted and inconveniences graciously endured. This essentially benign process creates informal, mutually beneficial social structures. As in business, however, danger is always present in the form of exploitation by those who are ruthless in pursuit of their own ends. History, as Hilary Mantel demonstrates in her novel Wolf Hall, illustrates the point.
Set in Tudor England, her story of power-brokering depends on connections made and cemented by the elaborate manipulation of money, might and marriage; and the most important of these was marriage. The Tudors may not have played golf but they certainly understood the importance of networks to their hold on power and sought to entrench them legally with contracts devised for the purpose and known as marriages. So important was the contract of marriage that it was purported to be sanctioned only by the highest authority (God) and interpreted and controlled by His representative on Earth (the Pope) whose only interest (he claimed) was that all souls should go to Heaven. The rather useful “till death us do part” clause was included in the contract to ensure lasting and legally incontestable possession of goods and chattels by the survivor. By these means were whole nations effectively owned by certain families for as long as they could get away with it.
The practice was not confined to the most powerful families, indeed the ‘strategic alliance’ aspect of marriage remains well-understood and valued within certain circles of society to this day, but a more popular, romantic delineation has evolved and the “till death us do part” clause is now likely to refer to fidelity rather than property. But this romantic gloss lately applied to marriage has obscured its original purpose: in the recent case of the woman who was imprisoned for embezzling a quarter of a million pounds from her employer to pay for her dream wedding we may conclude that her folly was not to have heeded the lesson of history which illustrates a principal tenet of networking: if you want money, marry into it.