The social side of rural business networking (first published 2/10/2012)

As a social scientist carrying out research in the broad field of the Digital Economy, I’m always looking for the interesting social angles in the areas that we explore. My research is ultimately about the impact that broadband (or its applications) can have on rural businesses – so on the surface it looks more to the economy than the dynamics of social life in the countryside. But as soon as you start talking to people about these issues, you’re immediately reminded of the bigger picture. As individuals, we don’t fully segregate the different aspects of our lives. We define ourselves loosely (and fluidly) around a set of identities along with other attributes – particularly those relating to our personalities, interests and values.

When we start our working day we perhaps enter more into one identity than another – we put on the right hat for the job. But the activities that take us through that working day invariably call on other aspects of self too. For example personality, values or mood might influence how we respond to a blunt email, and our interests have a bearing on the value we find in opportunities in the business or work place. So when I started to speak to rural businesses about their networking behaviours, my understanding of what it means to live and work rurally started to grow. I discovered that networking wasn’t just something that people did to drive sales and grow their businesses. Networking is embedded into the social and cultural aspects of life, whether rural or not. Yet rural businesses in particular seem to value business networking not just for its professional benefits but also for the social interaction that comes with it.

Perhaps this is because many of the people I spoke to are entrepreneurs, often working from home with few or no employees. The social elements of a traditional workplace are often not appreciated until they are gone – something I learned myself on having my first baby, spending most of my days at home with a small person and no adult conversation. Even for those in an active rural community, life in the countryside can be isolating. Many of the people I visited live very remotely with large distances even to the nearest village. Working all day on your own can lead to loneliness, meaning that contact with others takes on an added significance, even when that contact is, strictly speaking, work related. This isolation can also mean that people feel that they are not keeping up to speed with developments in their sector. Networking (both formally and informally) helps to give rural entrepreneurs a sense of what is going on in their wider professional field.  Some of the business people I spoke to had made a lifestyle choice – starting a business from home would allow them to work flexibly around other important aspects of life such as young family. But this ultimately affected other social areas. This perhaps explains the greater importance of networking for such individuals.

The interviews that I carried out on networking are the first part of a project which seeks to understand the networking needs of rural businesses with the aim of designing a networking site that is truly useful for those businesses. I learned a lot about how rural businesses are already using social networking sites to expand their networks, gain support and seek out business opportunities. Not all of the businesses had taken this path. Some shunned social networking, unable to make the connection between what they saw as mindless babble on Facebook with business opportunities in the real world. Others understood the distinction between personal pages and business pages – although some observed that certain business pages seemed to crossover too freely into “I’ve just had a nice cup of tea” territory – highlighting the important and perhaps tricky task of managing one’s professional identity online. Yet at the same time, a degree of warmth and personality is valued. Overall, for those engaging with social media, Twitter emerged as the favourite place for professional networking and Facebook as the medium through which to reach out to potential clients. LinkedIn was often described as something people were doing but without any obvious benefits – it just felt like a growing list of names to some.

I could talk at length about the findings around networking and the ways in which rural businesses network and collaborate to add value to their business activities. I will be sharing those findings in forthcoming academic publications. But this post is more about the other insights – the ways in which the social is embedded in business practises. The literature on business networking acknowledges the importance of social factors. A “business” network is typically constructed not just of business contacts, but also of family members and people from the local community whose connection with the business is not immediately obvious. These connections (which the literature would call “strong ties”) provide a backbone which supports rural businesses in numerous ways – anything from creating a culture of loyalty towards that business within a particular community, to the sharing of resources to solve problems. There seems to be a sense of reciprocity in rural communities – a belief that doing good turns for others will result in benefits to oneself – if not today or the next day, then perhaps in 6 months or a year. Whether these benefits relate to the business or other aspects of life is immaterial.  This is what the literature might refer to as social capital. Even rural businesses which we would expect to be in competition often support one another. This expands the concept of rural community from notions of place to those of interest and mutual benefit. Rural business people are shrewd in recognising opportunities for the growth of their business, but they also respond to others who share their values or ideas and look for ways to work with them.  Many told me that although online networking tools might help them identify potential people to work with, they would have to meet these people in person to establish whether a rapport existed between them – something they felt could not be achieved through the web. It will be interesting to explore how these perceptions might change as the project progresses and their experience of online networking grows. The main lesson for me though was to acknowledge that social and cultural life is not distinct from business practises but rather these things coexist naturally. Perhaps for some the trick is to differentiate these effectively in order to achieve a successful work-life balance. But for those living and working rurally, the benefits might lie not in compartmentalizing the social from the professional but rather in their integration.