More and more professionals discover the importance of virtual networking, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Xing. However, the possibilities are still seriously underestimated by many enterprises. But the contours of the person solving this, are appearing: the "Chief Networking Officer."

Octavio Pitaluga says being "passionately, even drunk of enthousiasm" about the concept of virtual networks." The Brazilian is founder of TopExecutivesNet (TEN), an online business community. He is amongst the top 15 of most often connected persons in LinkedIn and organizes seminars/workshops concerning Business Network Management (BNM). Meanwhile, he is a specialist in the field of 'social networking' and 'social media'. He recently gave a lecture in Zellik on virtual social networks and the emergence of the Chief Networking Officer (CNO).

The new company

The strong turnout of 'virtual networks' fits in the fundamental change in the way things are being done, Octavio Pitaluga believes. He explains: "Information and communication technologies are getting cheaper. Hence, companies can offer their goods and services within a minimum of time and with a minor investment in all corners of the world. Saying this otherwise: a global, very competitive situation arises… Companies doing well in this context, are fast, flexible, globally oriented and are able to well handle new media, such as the Internet. They no longer work within a pyramid-kind of hierarchy, where a CEO is the head of an army of subordinates. Instead, they organize themselves as a matrix, wherein the CNO creates around him/her a community of entities affecting business activities. Examples of such entities are: customers, employees, suppliers, managers, media, government, associations, academic personnel, investors and local residents. An enterprise with such a community-enhancing way of operating and managing will attract and retain talent in an easier way, because there is a lot of attention for satisfying interpersonal relationships. Thanks to an efficient communication along the threads of this network, knowledge itself will float from person to person. Shortly: it is getting increasingly important to work on a good Business Network Management in order to boost business and to be able to cope with the global, competitive environment we live in."

Looking for a win-win relationship

In order to manage their social capital in an efficient way, companies wanting to survive in this globalized world, are forced to take into consideration the – brand new - 'Chief Networking Officer (CNO)' system. The person establishing contact with the companies connections has, of course, to be chosen carefully. He/she will use various forms of virtual social media: LinkedIn, Yahoo! Groups, Skype, Slideshare, Youtube, etc. He/she makes sure that those connections will help the company achieve its projects, with the ultimate goal of getting more able to survive than other companies. Octavio Pitaluga: "The CNO should focus on commitments between people with long-term returns. And this should not just be a commitment which serves their own goals, but also those of the contact. For some companies, this means another way of thinking has to be considered. Particularly, the mentality 'I have to win, they should lose' has to be abandoned. This is particularly a challenge for large firms dealing with small companies. The CNO is a new kind of leader. He/she doesn’t impose leadership, but deserves it. He/she is the leader of the future. "Octavio Pitaluga also explains which people are most fit to fulfill this role in a company: "They need to be strategic thinkers and have an unalterable credibility. They ought to be creative, to be able to meet the different interests and expectations of the network’s members, and make them match.” Furthermore, they need very good communication and negotiating skills, they need to be able to propose people to each other and link them, and they can listen to opinions and questions. "

BNM in the real world

Once the appropriate person is found, the business networking starts. "The first goal of CNO is to build a core group of employees," continues Octavio Pitaluga. "I recommend to build this Business Network Management Team out of the chiefs of each department. Thus, the commercial responsible will have a key role in the development of the company’s client network, the buying responsible in the one of the suppliers, etc. In fact, everyone in the company has - upto a larger or lesser extent – a role, a responsibility to play in the development and success of the network. They must be trained and should understand that the successful implementation of such a network will also advance their own careers. As a consequence, the targets for the different connections will have to be defined, and the time frame in which this has to occur. In case this is done in a really thorough and detailed way, the negotiations with the members of the network will be going on efficiently and quickly. Also, implement a scoring system that allows you to review your contacts on a regular basis. Consider questions such as: what are the experiences so far with those people, what is their potential for the future? Finally, set up a continuous action plan for each network and all stakeholders in the short, medium and long term. You can start with those who influence the ins and outs of your company the most: the employees. The CNO should also, from time to time, make the virtual contacts real-life contacts. This can be done by organizing a seminar, party, reception,. Actually, there should be a calendar of activities over the whole year." Finally, Octavio Pitaluga points out that, in the beginning, companies should not necessarily have a permanent CNO service: "It could be a person working temporarily, for example three weeks, in the company, expanding its network. Or someone who trains employees through seminars, courses and workshops in this matter. In any case, it is a function that will be required in the near future, because the current business model will gradually evolve into a new type, in which the CNO will play a key role."

Expand your network… Tips from Octavio Pitaluga:

• The sooner you start, the better.
• Gain volume.
 Later you can approach people in a more specific way. Keep in mind that your network can grow with 1,000 people in two weeks (this is could make about 30,000 per year!).
• Preferably, make contact with someone having many connections. Why? Because it proves that the person 'knows the game."
• Contacts attract other contacts. If you make sure that you are a valuable contact (because of your expertise, many connections, etc...), your network will automatically grow. 
• Ask for a contact to introduce you with one of his contacts. 

• Do not be intrusive and communicate regularly with the person you´d like to add to your network.
• Do not doubt the value of a broad virtual network, it will really help your business. However, you will only fully understand the benefits if you play the game fully. 
• The virtual 'social media' are divided into six groups: debate forums (MSN, Yahoo! - Google,… - groups), social communities (Youtube, Slideshare, Blogger,…), business directories (LinkedIn, ZeroDegrees,…), business communities (TEN, Xing, CIOnet,…), contact managers (Plaxo, Tacit, Visible Path,…) and communicators (Skype, Google Talk,…). Try to be present in least one of each group: your presence in one of them strengthens that in another.

– Koen Vandepopuliere for KMOPME Business Magazine