Many entrepreneurs hear the word "networking" and assume that this is what you do when you need a job. I know several individuals who cringe at the thought of having to "push" themselves on others in order to search for a new position.

Breathe deeply and take a few minutes to absorb the realities of what the terms "networking and networks" mean in today's competitive environment.

The way business is conducted is changing faster today than at any time in history. How to reach a customer, how to configure the product/service, how to utilize the latest technology, how to communicate an effective marketing message and what kind of support is expected by customers after the purchase are some of the issues that can change seemingly overnight.

For many entrepreneurs, networking is a way of connecting the business to the market, to employees and to suppliers, and it requires thinking outside the box. These days the need to network on several levels on a continuing basis is a requirement, not an option.

Following are two ways in which CEOs should be involved in networks and networking. Next week I'll follow with two more.

Personal networking. It is the responsibility of the CEO to set the networking standard for the organization by meeting with other professionals, attending conferences and workshops, engaging in relevant professional discussions with industry leaders, promoting and providing training and learning opportunities for employees and creating an open environment for change and innovation within the company.

Think of the CEO's role as the leader of an expedition to the summit of a majestic peak. The lead climber is constantly looking for new paths to the next higher level, talking to other climbers about their experience, exploring new equipment that will improve the chances of success, seeking input from fellow climbers to see what new ideas they may have on how to reach the summit, and then pausing to assess how all of this information can be consolidated into a plan to enhance their push to the summit.

Product networking. In most contemporary business models, product development is shrouded in secrecy. But Nicholas Negroponte is turning that concept on its ear. In an effort to make laptop computers available to children throughout the world, the former director of the MIT media lab has opened product development and design to interested parties around the world. There are currently 1,423 individuals who are collaborating on the effort, and more than $31 million has been raised for the project that is in the process of redesigning laptop computing.

The message here is that new and compelling methods of product development are becoming a reality. Even a major industry like the computer industry is opening to new, smaller, more efficient entrants who know how to network in innovative ways.

Entrepreneurs can join this product networking revolution by opening collaborative channels among developers, designers and customers (and don't wait for the annual user conference to solicit feedback). You can also network with outside vendors and professionals and use technology to speed up the process from prototype to production by creating virtual feedback channels.

And thus help to bring new entrepreneurial meaning to the word "networking."


Gary Williams is affiliated with the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship. He can be reached via e-mail at cfe@byu.edu.