"Connecting is only a start in networking. The greater value can lie in earning access to rarefied air."
Even people with thousands of people in their professional networks often lack substantial access that some of these connections may offer. How is this possible? It depends totally upon your definition of the term access.
Reach does not constitute access
Networking can enable different types of access. The first is access to particular people or types of individuals. This is its most common and familiar usage. If you have any doubt of this, realize that it constitutes the basis for multibillion dollar industries, ranging from the pursuit of romantic interests (e.g. eHarmony, match.com) to social ones (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) to professional ones (e.g. LinkedIn, Klout). It also is the cornerstone of the professional conferences industry where individuals pay thousands of dollars each for the opportunity to hobnob with attractive prospective customers and business partners
(and also to experience some of the latest thinking in an area of interest...which leads us to discuss a second type of access).
True access means being able to tap into highly select and coveted information
The other use of the term refers to being privy to highly select business opportunities and closely held knowledge. This info is not commonly available, but can become known through privileged relationships. These disclosures typically don't occur casually or immediately. The associated relationships often must be nurtured and cultivated over time. The parties must trust each other sufficiently to confide and exchange potentially valuable intelligence.
This type of access really does help to explain why the rich often get richer. Wealthy people by virtue of their more exclusive professional and social networks, often can gain access to information, opportunities and deal flow that most others can't. This is how some investors learn about high potential companies like Facebook and PayPal near their inception and were able to reap great financial rewards. It also helps explains how Martha Stewart suffered a career setback due to the Imclone insider trading scandal that sent her to prison for 5 months. Access does not in itself guarantee that all of the information shared will be valuable or even worth having. It only means that it can become available.
When devising a networking strategy, one should think in terms of achieving both types of access. To derive full value from networking one should seriously consider taking a long term view and selectively seek to build more substantial relationships. To earn trust, we must first be trustworthy. To be provided with valuable information, we must first demonstrate value. Not exactly rocket science. However, it can require a considerable investment of time, effort and interest. It may also require operating outside of one's comfort zone or "social circle". One should also do his homework and approach any new relationship carefully, cautiously and thoughtfully.
These are my thoughts. What are yours'?