LinkedIn was established in 2003 to connect professionals around the world. Today, the online professional networking site includes more than 160 million members. You may be thinking, why do I need a website to keep track of my colleagues when I’ve got my trusty rolodex of cards or email contact list? One reason: People are no longer staying with the same employer for very long. Unless you’re sent new contact information every time someone gets a new job, it’s easy to lose track of those valuable contacts. And a good business network takes years to cultivate; you don’t want to lose those connections just because they move into another position.

Linkedin features

Profiles. One of the most valuable components of LinkedIn is the profile feature. Because people who join can fill their profile with a photo and information about their experience, expertise, background, former employers, and interests, it’s a great place to learn about or review your contacts’ work-related details. This is useful when reconnnecting. But it’s also helpful for people trying to expand their network. And the next time you see someone at a public works event and can’t remember exactly where they work or what they do, you can look up their LinkedIn profile for a quick review on your smartphone!

Groups. Members can create and manage their own groups. These groups can represent interests, professions, companies, and many other topics. Managers can add others to help manage the group, and can establish the group as public, open to anyone, or private (membership-only by invitation or approval after a request to join has been accepted). Groups are great for encouraging open discussion, getting answers to questions, or just keeping track of what’s going on in that specific area. You can access discussions on the site or have summaries of each discussion emailed to you daily.

Q&As. While groups are great for tapping into the collective mind of members, there’s also a question-and-answer feature. Anyone can ask a question, and anyone can answer. While this feature is useful for those looking for information, others providing answers can use it to help establish their expertise in that subject.

Jobs. If you’re looking for a new job, you can check postings using the site’s search function. Or you can have LinkedIn send you regular job postings you might be interested in based on your profile.

Let’s join this thing!

First, go to www.linkedin.com. Your screen should look similar to the image at right. Just fill in your first name, last name, email, and choose a password. Then click the “Join Now” button.

Edit your profile. Your main page should have a horizontal menu at the top — this is your route to other areas in LinkedIn. Once you’re in, one of the first tasks to complete is your profile. Click on “Profile” in this menu to reveal the drop-down menu and choose “Edit Profile.” This takes you to your profile screen. The layout is similar to that of a resume, offering you places to input your work experience and education. Don’t worry about being too detailed — you can always add information later.

Group up. The next step is to find at least one group to join. Click on “Groups” at the top of your screen. This brings up a drop-down with several choices; click “Groups Directory.” This takes you to a screen showing featured groups. And look, over there on the left, LinkedIn has placed a search window to help you find applicable groups. I tried “transportation” and got 2,501 results! A search for “public works magazine” takes you to the Public Works’ group.

Once you find a group that looks good, go ahead and click the “Join Group” button. Some groups require approval to join, so you might have to wait for access. Some groups are open and allow anyone to view and comment on their discussions . You can join up to 50 groups.

You can receive summaries of the group discussions in your email, and then go to the site to read the information and provide comments. But not everyone wants more email. Fortunately, you can manage your group notifications in settings. Just hover over your name in the upper right-hand corner of the screen and click “Settings” from the drop-down menu. In your settings page, click “Groups, Companies, & Applications” in the menu on the bottom left, then click “Set the frequency of group digest emails.” You can choose from “No Email,” “Weekly Digest Email,” or “Daily Digest Email.”

Connect and network. The last step is connecting to someone. Begin by searching for someone you know, who you think might be on LinkedIn. Go to the main page and type in their name in the search box at the upper right corner. There’s also an advanced search available that allows you to search for people using key words and location. If you cannot find anyone, you can certainly connect to me. Just choose the option to add a message to your invitation, and mention that you’ve read the Public Works article and would like to connect. Once you connect with your colleagues, you can send them messages through LinkedIn or provide recommendations for each other.

Exploring. If you’ve followed these suggestions, you’re well on your way to making the most of LinkedIn. Once you feel comfortable with the site, you can also check the jobs section or even search to see if your employer already has a company page. And if you have a question or just get stuck somewhere, LinkedIn has a useful help center — just scroll to the bottom of the site, and on the bottom menu look for “Help Center.”

Pam Broviak publishes the Public Works Group Blog at www.publicworksgroup.com/blog and is a former senior editor of Public Works.