Networking: Back To The Future

Presenting in Noordwijk

Because I don’t always wear running clothes… Click on the photo to download your free copy of the Harvard Business Review article on “How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Companies”

As anyone with an Internet connection will know, last week saw “Back To The Future Day”. October 21 was the day to which, some thirty years prior, young Marty McFly and the erstwhile Doc Brown had traveled. In the second installment of a series that captured the imagination of many a mid-80s child, teenager and adult, the scriptwriters guessed some developments and overlooked others. In particular, that same Internet that the film took over on October 21 never got mentioned. And yet the first ever e-mail was sent as far back as 1971…

Everybody’s talking about our 24/7 connected, ever-shrinking world. We network online in a way that Doc Brown couldn’t even dream of. Because epilepsy means I cannot drive, I’m as ‘guilty’ as anyone: LinkedIn, Twitter… I’m there. A happily married man (least so my wife tells me), I’m even one of those who got lucky with online dating.

That said, the digital world is not our natural habitat. It’s a source of information and an enabler of productivity, but it’s not where Maslow would expect ups to climb his pyramid. And I got a timely reminder of this the day after “Back To The Future Day”.

I was on the North Sea coast in Noordwijk for the “Aftermarket Business Platform” conference. Having worked with its organisers for nine years, back in June they told me they were thinking of offering delegates a pre-breakfast “Jogging Club” option. As someone who runs every day, I was interested not just in participating but, indeed, in leading it. Having run in Noordwijk at the time of the previous event, I knew a couple of routes that lend themselves to a group of varied abilities as we’d pass the hotel several times should anyone wish to jump off the bus… why not?

Day 1: getting ready to explore Noordwijk!

Day 1: ready to explore Noordwijk!

At a time when keeping up to speed with technology and its implications can be overwhelming, running offers a welcome distraction. It’s the simplest sport out there. Yes, we can overcomplicate it: I know, because I often do. Every day I go for a run wearing a GPS watch and a heart-rate monitor, allowing me to monitor my progress and analyse a plethora of stats once I’m back. I often get myself to sleep by thinking about my upcoming runs, what kind of runs I should be doing ahead of races, what I should and should not be eating… a lot of thought can go into what, ultimately, is all about putting one foot in front of the other.

But last week’s two morning runs in Noordwijk were truly refreshing – and not just courtesy of the howling North Sea wind that accompanied us along the sand dunes. As we stepped out into the 6:45 darkness, we were not Marketing Managers, Service Directors, General Directors and so on: we were runners. We shared a common interest and made friendly conversation along the way, talking about triathlons, injuries, marathons, ultras and many of the other topics that runners cover on club runs. The only difference was that we were not a permanent club: we were the Copperberg Jogging Club, taking over Noordwijk for two mornings, running past bemused locals unaccustomed to a dozen runners together, before going our separate ways at the end of the conference. And a very good conference it was, by the way.

As a Marketing Manager for a software company, I would dearly have loved to use this 45’ slot to promote the benefits of a connected service strategy. But that wasn’t what people who’d got out of bed before 6:30am wanted to hear any more than those who might have been in the hotel bar just a few hours earlier. We wanted to talk running, share what it was that had made us the sort of people who get out of bed before dawn and lace up… it was old-skool networking. The sort of networking in which you build relationships rather than hold up a loudspeaker. The sort of networking in which the digital world doesn’t always afford you the time to engage. But then this, whilst over twenty miles short of a marathon, was definitely not a sprint.

I took some mid-run photos and e-mailed them to my fellow runners. I got responses thanking me “for taking the wonderful initiative, it made a difference” and for the “great experience in Noordwijk, specifically the morning run”. During the runs I’d already established that at least one person generally packs their running shoes but rarely wears them and goes for a solo run, whereas being part of a group ensured he did.

Group Running

The Copperberg Jogging Club’s second outing… not quite as busy as day 1!

Since I generally run early in the morning (earlier than I did in Noordwijk…), I rarely get to enjoy this sort of camaraderie. Thirty-six hours after getting home, I was lining up for a marathon: I ran the first seventeen miles with a friend, which was far more enjoyable than the nine solo miles that followed, and shortly after crossing the line two runners approached me separately to thank me for pacing them. I didn’t know either of them, but, as they struggled, they kept up with me and eventually hit their target time. Hearing that, just like hearing comments earlier in the week, was a great feeling: in many ways, better than crossing the finishing line. Running may fundamentally be a solo activity, but it lends itself beautifully to socialising.

Someone in my organisation may well ask me if leading a Jogging Club delivered any leads. And I would have to say no. But it didn’t cost anything but time, and it has enabled the formation of relationships which mean that maybe, just maybe, when there is a fit between what we offer and what those runners need they may think about us. For now, I’ve taken some of those relationships from the physical to the digital, from the Noordwijk seafront to LinkedIn. In a world in which the divide between the digital and physical is increasingly blurred, that was the logical next step.

And that’s what it’s all about: one step in front of the other…

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