Building effective partnerships: a tale of two networking events

by Jen Dickie

Throughout my academic career I have always jumped at the chance to develop my national and international research networks. But networking can be difficult. We’ve all been in that awkward situation at a conference or workshop where we’ve desperately looked around, hoping to make eye-contact with someone to instigate a conversation with, only to find that everyone in the room is in deep conversation with someone else. If that isn’t hard enough, building meaningful and sustainable networks is even more challenging. In this blog I want to reflect on my experiences at two quite different networking events. I’ll also share some thoughts on what I think helps effective networking and what I (and organisers) might do differently in the future…

The first I attended was a Newton-Bhabha workshop (4th – 8th September 2017) held at the Indian Institute of Science Education  and  Research (IISER), Pune; this brought early career UK and Indian social and physical scientists together with practitioners and innovators to tackle the challenge of ‘Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India’. The second workshop was part of the RCUK’s Global Challenges (GCRF) engagement programme in Delhi. This meeting was a large international event aimed at showcasing the opportunities available through GCRF and to create new networks between researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Both events had networking at the heart of their remit but I want to pick up on some of the pre, during and post conference activities that I felt impacted, for better or worse, on the success of my networking.

Firstly, pre-conference activities – many of the ‘top tips’ for effective networking highlight the importance of doing your homework and planning whom you want to meet in advance (e.g. “The Eight Steps to Effective Networking at Academic Conferences”). In preparation for the Newton- Bhabha workshop we were provided with a ‘biog booklet’ (with photos – v. important!). I found this incredibly useful. I identified key people I wanted to talk to and even attempted to learn some names in advance, something that I find quite difficult to do when meeting people face to face. I was able to annotate the biogs during the workshop and have kept them for future reference when my face/name recognition skills fail me. I’m lucky, I enjoy meeting new people and can (mostly) strike up a conversation with anyone but I know that some people find it incredibly difficult – I think being prepared like this can help alleviate some of the anxiety around who is going to be there. It can also give you ideas for ‘conversation starters’.

In contrast, the GCRF meeting organisers only sent us a list of names without any indication of disciplinary background or research interests. Their argument was that they wanted us to ‘network’ to find out such information. I can see their reasoning for this but I’m not sure it worked particularly well; this was a 2.5 day event that had a large number of participants. During the event, however, I thought their ‘soapbox sessions’ were an interesting way of giving participants an opportunity to say something about their research interests, tout for collaborators or pitch an idea. The 2 minute limit was great because it meant we got through most people. It demonstrates why we should all have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready and waiting! This is a method that I think I’ll use in future when time is limited, but I’d make sure all the soap box sessions happen earlier on in the workshop to maximise the opportunity to follow up relevant interests, otherwise the soapbox approach can become a flurry of business card exchanges, and little else.

Building meaningful and sustainable collaborations takes time, and the Newton-Bhabha workshop had this on its side. It was more participatory and was facilitated in a way that meant we could explore different disciplinary perspectives and learn about each other’s expertise in a way that didn’t feel forced. (I’m not going to go into details here but if you are interested in how this was done you can look at Sara Shinton’s excellent blog and the workshop report). We were often pushed out of our comfort zones, having to deal with complex disciplinary differences and I often struggled to see how I could contribute to some of the more technology-based projects. It got the key ingredients right though; everyone respected and listened to each other and everyone was given the opportunity to contribute. To me, this is what really helps build strong and meaningful collaborations. And don’t forget, spending a bit of time together before submitting a bid is incredibly useful – working with people you like makes such a difference.

I really enjoyed both events and found them useful in different ways. Not only have I started to build what I hope turns out to be a strong and sustainable inter-disciplinary collaboration but I’ve also picked up some useful pointers on running effective networking events.

There are lots of great resources out there to help you, and cover much more than this blog (e.g. this page on the value of networking) but a top tip from me – don’t forget your business cards. It doesn’t look great handing out your contact details on a napkin…