Networking is an essential skill - the key to building a career and even to finding a job. And in these economic times, your network becomes an even more vital resource.

Aly McNicoll of the New Zealand Coaching and Mentoring Centre says "business is about relationships - and building a business is about building and maintaining good relationships".

Through a work contact five years ago, she now has been offered work in Bahrain. "We worked with this person's company. He moved to Bahrain but remembered us because we had a good working connection, so, now, five years later, we're being flown to Bahrain to do work with his new company."

McNicoll quotes international consultant and author Margaret Wheatley as saying: "Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone."

McNicoll says this is particularly relevant for New Zealanders "as we have a 'do it yourself' sort of culture which makes it hard for us to ask for help from others sometimes".

"It is good to remember that other people may like to help you achieve your goals, especially if you make it a hassle-free and enjoyable experience for them," she says.

McNicoll says she has an aversion to thinking of networking as looking for "sales opportunities" - if you think of it as building relationships, it's an easier task. "Most people like connecting with others - if you're too focused on sales it can lead to ghastly conversations."

She suggests if you are going to a meeting, conference or networking event, firstly prepare. "See who will be there and identify people you would like to get to know better - set yourself a networking goal list."

She says you should learn to "bump" elegantly. "Give yourself permission to finish the conversation so you (and they) can talk with someone else," she says. "Shy people tend to either be a wallflower and hang around on the edge, or a leech and attach themselves to someone and firmly stay with them for the whole event".

Importantly, McNicoll suggests you follow up with anything you say you will do promptly. This gives the impression you are reliable and credible.

Galia Barhava-Monteith, of professionelle.co.nz, an online community for professional women, says it's absolutely crucial when networking to be authentic. "Don't just network for the sake of networking - do it because you are genuinely interested and want to expand your horizons."

She says she and her partner Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes have gained sponsorships for their events and business opportunities through networking.

For women, particularly, networking can be a challenge, especially as they are not socialised to do it.

"Networking is a key way by which we can build our social capital. Social capital is about 'who you know' and a way to build personal and professional resilience through supportive networks.

"For example, if you're made redundant, you might not have a close friend who has undergone redundancy, but you have met someone through your networking who did. You can always have a coffee and talk to them about their experience, how they handled it, and also ideas on the best ways forward."

Barhava-Monteith says networking is an excellent way of keeping current. "It's not just about drumming up work - it's a way of getting to know what's happening in the field. Who are the real influencers? Find mentors and find ways to build relationships and help others. Work comes in in a natural way."

If you're out of work, Tom O'Neil of cv.co.nz says to consider everyone as a contact - teachers, the bus driver, everyone you meet. "New Zealand is about three to five degrees of separation - therefore through your networks you're bound to have contact with pretty much everyone in the country. Really work that."

Barhava-Monteith says the internet is also an excellent tool for networking, and she should know as her site professionelle.co.nz is all about career women sharing advice. She also organises networking events from the site. "Professionelle allows people to write articles, comments and share ideas. Content is important - finding out what's happening out there."

She says people are not limited to being out in person with online networking. "Perhaps you're busy and need to be with the children - at the end of the day you can go online and network while still at home."

She says Linkedin is an excellent site. She also belongs to mentorcoach.com, which gives her access to a global community of coaches and which runs courses.