Having spent several years as a member of both BNI and 4N, as well as attending many other networking events, I have a number of views and opinions. That doesn't make it true, so whether you agree with it or not is up to you.
Most groups are on a spectrum with BNI at one end (only one person from a particular category in each group, tracked contributions) and 4N at the other (go anywhere, meet anyone). So I'll use these two as the benchmarks for the sake of comparison
Let's break things down a bit
1) Common themes
All networking comes down to three main points. First of all, collaboration is better than doing things by yourself. Secondly, look to help others first and finally, make it easy for them to help you.
BNI may have trademarked the phrase “Givers gain”, but the principle is sound. It doesn't matter if you're a member of BNI, 4N or on social media, the most effective method is to look outwards before looking in.
After that, it's all about adapting to the specific situations, and that becomes our own responsibility.
BNI and 4N are just platforms for us to practice in. To say that one or the other doesn't work is the equivalent of saying “exercise doesn't work” just because you bought a gym membership. It's not the platform that counts, but how you use it and what you're suited to.
2) Different mindsets and learning points
Once we've established the give to receive concept, there are two fundamental differences between the 4N and the BNI way of doing things, both of which lead to really useful skills and learnings.
4N is really good at helping you test and fine tune your marketing pitch. If you get no response to your 40 second pitch today, try it again tomorrow in a different way and see what changes. Plus, the fact that you have 'competitors' in the room is a great way to sort out your positioning so that you can demonstrate how you're different.
BNI is completely different. The trick to BNI is this. How do I make it easy for that guy over there to get me in front of my ideal client without him really knowing what I do?
Now that is a much deeper question and needs some serious thinking about but, if you can crack it in BNI, then you can crack it out of BNI.
In both cases, the results are incredibly useful outside of the networking group and both need some work applied.
And yes, for some businesses, it is easier than it is for others. But that will probably be true outside of the organisations as much as in.
3) Nothing is perfect
Both have their flaws and these are easy for people to jump upon. They are also things that are easy to ignore and make things work for you – if you want them to.
The only exception there is the mere practicality of attending. If you can't do mornings then BNI is just not an option, for example.
Both networks are focussed more on new groups than good groups. Regardless of the mantra that may be given, people are rewarded for opening new groups – end of.
Neither system is perfect. BNI is the most systemised, which is one of the things that put people off, however, the actual flaw arises when people don't use the system.
The traffic lights and tracking of behaviours are meant to be used as a guide to help you get the best out of your networking. BNI was developed by a marketer and so he tested and measured everything. If you do this, you'll get the best results, so let's measure those key things. If you're not getting the results you want, analyse the behaviours through the numbers.
What tends to happen in some groups is that the measure becomes more important than the behaviour, which leads to poor referrals and token contributions to get up the 'leader board', which is completely the wrong way around.
Plus, the desire to grow the group means that people with the wrong attitude will be accepted. Like any recruitment process, hire for attitude and teach the skills.
There is a belief around BNI that, if you don't bring in enough referrals, you will get kicked out. That is not strictly true. It can be used as a reason, however, if the member is keen and active – turning up early, getting involved and doing their best but failing to produce results – then that will generally be seen as more important, as it's just a matter of helping them learn.
In one of my first training sessions at BNI, someone was concerned about the number of referrals they were bringing. The trainer asked how long she'd been a member and she said “three weeks”. The trainer's response was “Good. You shouldn't be bringing referrals yet. You don't know the people in your group yet. You can't possibly build up that level of trust so soon in a relationship. It takes about 9 months before you can comfortably pass referrals to people in your group”.
As a note, BNI now tracks referrals outside of the group so it's technically possible to be top of the 'leader board' without passing a single referral into your group.
That having been send, many of the flaws in both organisations run up into through the higher echelons, with politics, egos and cliques forming, leading to illogical and irrational decisions which can hack off members and visitors alike. However, don't damn an organisation down to the impact of one or two people, as you can manoeuvre round them and get the value from the process.
Everyone has their own preferences but need to give things a proper go before they can fully judge. I liken BNI to working in London – everyone should have a stint at it so they know for sure whether or not they want to do it.
Both organisations have their merlts and both have their flaws. Both organisations can make you step outside your comfort zone, which needs to be fully explored before a decision is made.
Ultimately, they both develop skills that will be forever useful in your business. Things are not consistent or even. Experiences can vary dramatically depending on where you go, but don't damn a barrel due to a few bad apples.
Ultimately, it comes down to putting some work in, getting to understand the system and making it work for you.