Networking is one of the most underrated activities in the business world.
Maybe because it can look a lot like socializing. But you can learn a lot from talking to colleagues, competitors, suppliers, customers, college buddies — even your seatmate on that flight to Atlanta.
There’s a lot you can learn by talking to people, especially when you take the time to get out of the office or factory and see them in person. Life is more than liking something on a Facebook page or keeping up with job changes on LinkedIn.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those things. But people tend to do less face-to-face interacting these days. For proof, just check the attendance figures for just about any event — at least the ones that take place outside China.
I was thinking about this last month when I attended a plant tour at Nicolet Plastics Inc. in Mountain, Wis., which was organized by the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors (MAPP).
I had not been to a MAPP event in a few years, which was my loss. Executive Director Troy Nix still gives a rousing opening speech at MAPP events. The crowd — in this case it was limited to 60, to make the tour manageable — is full of plastics processor company managers, if anything skewing on the young side of 40.
But the plant tour itself was something new for me. Oh sure, I’ve been on dozens of plastics plant tours. (I lost track a long time ago. I really should have kept a log.) But MAPP-sponsored plant tours are different. They have a purpose — both for the attendees and the host.
Here’s how: After the introduction and overview, the attendees were divided into groups of about six and taken on a very structured tour of the plant, with each group led by a Nicolet manager.
In this case, there were 10 stops on the tour, so each of the groups started at a different station (they called it a “shotgun start,” which golfers will appreciate). And each stop had Nicolet people who explained what they did, or what was going on — for example, the material logistics area, the skills matrix (training), and engineering.
Typically you’d think that the attendees get a lot out of a tour like this, and they do. The opportunity for an injection molding company manager to see how another molder does things is invaluable. Think about it — you’re going to come away with some idea that’s going to save your company time or money.
But what surprised me about this tour was how much the host company learned. That’s by design. At the start of the tour, everyone gets a card with a list of all 10 stations, and they’re asked to write down comments about each one. After the tour is finished, the groups sit together at lunch and discuss the comments, and each group makes a presentation about their findings. Attendees tend to say what they like about the host company, and also pass along candid feedback and suggestions for things the company could do better.
MAPP tries to do about four plant tours each year, Nix said, and they target companies that are open to helping and teaching their colleagues.
If the others are anything like the Nicolet tour, I hope to attend some more — and I recommend both hosting and attending the events to anyone in the industry who sees the value of networking.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”