Professional networking has gotten pretty sophisticated in the internet age, and that's been a good thing both for job seekers and for companies seeking the right talent. But there is one aspect of networking that remains a bit misunderstood and underutilized: informational interviews.

An informational interview is most often requested by someone who is not in your industry but may be interested in joining it. A firm might receive a request for a 20- to 30-minute conversation with a manager, in which that person answers questions about the nature of the work in that industry, the specific knowledge and expertise required and the manager's specific role in the firm. But neither the individual nor the company should have any expectation that such a session is a job interview, hence the name.

Cultivating Talent

It is understandable that managers and executives at a company, especially a small or midsized firm that has much work to do and not many people to do it, would steer clear of conducting informational interviews. After all, what is the upside for a manager and for the firm? What can they gain from the time commitment?

Actually, there are a few potential benefits that could persuade a midsized company to allow the occasional informational interview, and to promote that fact on its Web page and social media channels. First is the fact that a firm can earn the affinity of high-quality potential future employees that are beyond human resources' radar. It's common for people with significant work experience to consider changing industries, and it's very likely they will research industry players online. So when they see your firm's stated willingness to conduct informational interviews, they will come to you before going to your competitors.

In effect, your company is luring experienced people to better understand not just your industry but also your firm's specific mission, structure and culture. If a person shows promise, even if that prospect might first need some formal training in a particular discipline, your company will have the inside edge on getting that person to apply for and perhaps fill a future open position. And if not, that person will likely speak well of your company to colleagues and friends, which could strengthen awareness of your firm as a good employer. This could also boost awareness of your products and services.

Changing Your Company's Perspective

Beyond cultivating future talent, experienced people who come in for an informational interview could provide you with a unique perspective that might broaden the thinking within your firm. Their ability to see your company and your industry from a different perspective might uncover a blind spot among the firm's managers and employees. This benefit could also come from informational interviews with novice workers or recent college graduates.

For instance, a discussion could reveal an observation about your firm's Web page, its social media presence or another area where trends or competencies are at least partly influenced by demographics. Even those who are inexperienced in the working world, then, might be able to provide a nugget of information that improves the company's approach in a particular area. This is despite the fact that those novice employees are using the informational interview to learn from you.

Given all this, it is imperative that any midsized company that agrees to conduct informational interviews establish a framework of expectations for its guests. When confirming the appointment, the manager should ask not only about the type of information that the person will seek during the session, but also make clear the types of information the firm would like to gain from the guest in return. Such an approach fulfills the goals of both parties.

Have you ever conducted informational interviews before? What sorts of information were exchanged? Would you offer these interviews again? Tell us by commenting below.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, he has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets.