I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about networking, both in the IT sense and the social/business sense. There have been many studies performed that actually seem to confirm that nearly every person on the planet can be linked to every other person on the planet with six or seven connections between people each know personally (a friend of a friend of a friend....).
The emerging science of networks has also discovered that a similar pattern exists in randomly generated networks like the internet and the power grid. They feature clusters or groups that share information with each other on a regular basis, connected to other clusters through randomly generated, but critical connections. Clusters with unusually large numbers of connections to other clusters serve as hubs. A system with millions of clusters can enable a connection between any two through a small number of hubs. Direct connections between hubs make the trip much shorter.
Another pattern that has emerged is that most people have about 5 or fewer really close relationships (strong connections) with other individuals. Before you start thinking about your 527 "friends" on Facebook, consider only those people with whom you engage in direct two way conversation on a daily basis. Now eliminate those you converse with because it's part of your job. Consider only those you contact daily simply because you want to. I'm guessing the number is quite a bit smaller than 527. If I had to take another guess (and I do), I'd wager that the number is not coincidence, but a natural optimization.
What are the take-aways for business networking. First and foremost, always keep in mind that every person you interact with is likely just 6 handshakes away from the most important person in your universe (besides yourself). You don't know who they talk to or who the people they talk to talk to. Make sure, to the greatest extent possible, that the encounter is something that will be relayed in a good light. In other words, do the right thing, every time. There are no insignificant people.
Another possible take-away is that if my hypothesis is correct, that an element within a network can most efficiently deal with a limited number of strong connections, make the most of them. If your most frequent contacts are all in the same field, your only connecting to one cluster. You may want to consider making time for developing other relationships in more tangential fields. For example, most mortgage brokers like to make connections with realtors. This makes good sense. The fields are very closely related. But what if our mortgage broker somehow established a strong working relationship with a grocer? Grocers come in contact with a wide variety of people every day. What kind of cooperative marketing opportunities might arise? How many more people might be reached? What if you established some sort of working relationship with the manager of the Safeway in the neighborhood in which you'd like do more business. Odds are, the staff at the local Safeway are among the most familiar people to those who reside in the area.
Although the number of strong connections in our business and personal lives may be fairly small, we also have a great deal of lesser connections; acquaintances, business associates, suppliers, clients, customers, neighbors, etc. During the infrequent and possibly very brief periods that you come in contact with any one of these individuals, it would behoove you to really listen to what they are saying. The more you know about someone, the more you know about who they might know. I'm not suggesting invading anyone's privacy, but if information is being offered, be receptive and attentive.
Establishing a good working network is about more than receiving information though. You make good connections, in part, by being a good connection. Be alert for opportunities to put people in touch with others who can help them, or who may be willing and able to work with them for their mutual benefit. Even if you are not directly involved in the ensuing transaction, you have proven yourself a valuable link to both parties and that has value in and of itself. If you establish and maintain yourself as a sought after hub, you don't have to ask for favors, they'll come looking for you. It's how we reinforce connections.
Of course, all these connections aren't worth very much unless you have the ability and confidence to communicate with them effectively and efficiently. Communication with people you don't know very well can be awkward and intimidating. There's no magic bullet for getting over this apprehension. The only thing for it is practice. Engage, evaluate, adjust, repeat. Ultimately, you don't become proficient at networking by attending seminars, reading books, watching videos, or even from great blogs. You learn by doing.
Making time for new connections may mean taking time away from others. But, as the most successful CEO's know, you don't have to know everyone or everything, you just have to know who knows who and develop the ability and the wisdom to recognize, nurture and make the most of your network.