We have all heard it isn't what you know but who you know, but networking today has taken on a new magnitude of importance. It has been described as an art, a way of life, and some people even make claims for its spiritual value. It is something more than a business lunch and less than a political campaign, and it is something most people will come across in their working lives.

The allure of networking is the empowerment of individuals to use themselves, rather than their position, to increase their overall prosperity in the world. No matter who you are, where you are and what your job is, you can network your way to success.

So what exactly is networking? Essentially, it is the modern term for making lots of business acquaintances, the understanding being that if you amass enough of these acquaintances, you will derive enormous opportunity for financial and personal gain. Of course, amassing them isn't quite enough: you have to work them correctly. Here is where networking becomes a science, understood by a new breed of professionals with bulging databases who have the credentials to represent the industry of the truly connected.

Structured networking
In recent years, the value and influence of membership organisations has been usurped by “structured referral networking groups”, which purport to accelerate the process of contact-making by bringing together people with common business goals. Perhaps the most famous example of a modern-day structured network is First Tuesday, which describes itself as “a forum for would-be entrepreneurs to meet venture capitalists”. Started in October 1998 in London by a small group of friends, the idea quickly spread to 120 cities on five continents. It was the place to be seen for a while, until venture capitalists kicked their seemingly indiscriminate dotcom habit.

A rather less conventional collection of networkers meets once a month at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The club is an invitation-only group of people (mostly under 40) working in design, film, architecture and creative technology. Many of these “cultural entrepreneurs” work for young creative businesses with names such as D-Fuse, Squid Soup and Bump. They are on the lookout for useful advice, if not capital, from the few investors present. But the most desirable outcome of an evening spent at the club is the promise of a collaboration with another skilled creative. With such a concentration of talent in the same room, it's hardly surprising that those invited study the list beforehand to make sure they extract maximum value from the occasion.

But what if joining a networking group sounds like pure torture to you? Can't you survive perfectly happily going about your job with diligence and skill and leave networking to the extroverts and the name-droppers? Well, yes, up to a point. But if you want your career to thrive, you really have no option but to continually extend your range of contacts, whether you like talking to strangers or not. The good news is that you don't have to get to know anyone very well. You just have to know people, lots of people. You will be known by who you know.

When it comes to finding out about new jobs – or, for that matter, gaining new information or looking for new ideas – weak ties tend to be more important than strong ties. We generally reckon that the most important and influential people in our lives and careers are those we are closest to. But these people tend to have similar interests and move in similar circles to ourselves. The real power of networking lies in an ever-widening circle of acquaintances, improving the likelihood that, following the logic of the six degrees of separation, you too can associate yourself with anyone in the world.

What the experts say
If, like me, you're convinced that networking is a necessary, if somewhat painful, activity, which may just reap unknown benefits in the future, then it helps to be familiar with some of the techniques employed by the experts.

Just opening your mouth at an event full of strangers can require a lot of courage, especially if you are naturally shy. However, BBC radio producer Carol Stone, in her recent book Networking: The Art of Making Friends, points out that “the sternest people melt when they think you could be interested in what they have to say”. If you have listening skills, then it shouldn't be hard to show them off in a networking situation. And be prepared to make the first move. “Do you mind if I join you?” is seldom met with the answer “yes, I do”. Your own introduction then gives the other person the chance to launch into their story, and you're away.

Most of the networking gurus repeat another golden rule: always keep your promises. How often has a person said they'd do something that might make a real difference to you, then completely forgotten about it? We're all guilty of it from time to time, and this is where good organisation comes in. Stone maintains a database of more than 14,000 names, from which 1,000 get the coveted invitation to her Christmas party. When you operate at this level, there's no option but to manage your network of contacts like a military operation. The rest of us should just be sure to write down who we've met, with any action points, as soon as we can after the event. Waiting until the alcohol has worn off is not a good idea.

Cultivating contacts
Some people approach networking as they would hunting. They beguile their way into their prey's company, stalk them until the perfect moment, then pounce. I prefer a horticultural analogy: cultivate a wide variety of plants, and the chances are some will bloom or bear fruit when it matters.

So, when you next find yourself with the opportunity to network, don't fall into the habit of speaking only to those you already know. You can open up exciting new worlds for yourself: all it takes is some effort, a positive attitude, good manners and a little organisation behind the scenes. All of which are easier to cope with than a school reunion or a round of golf. Unless, of course, you like that sort of thing.

  • Alastair Rolfe is head of content for Spencer Stuart Talent Network. For further career advice, see spencerstuart.com.