it is hard to predict the future network of a person might have. but someone’s key value to an organization is their network — especially weak ties to other people. obviously, the younger a person is, the more likely s/he is to have massively increased network 20 years from now as people’s value grow.
many people go through what i call a “network enhancing event” — that is some sort of life event/change that massively increases one’s network. Like b-school. Harvard Business School is a good example (large, highly social people). One’s network can essentially double or triple. most of the people who go to college experience this.
my feeling on the value of college is not much (besides pressures from society and learning how to drink beer). but the network one gains can be extraordinarily important and one can learn a lot.
A “network enhancing event” could be a variety of things. for an academic, it might be writing a well-received paper or book. it might be a job change that forces you to interact w/ tons of people. it might even be gaining a new good friend or significant other that is more social or has access to a different set of people. it might be moving to a new town.
many people go through 2-4 network enhancing events in their lifetime and thus “valuing” someone’s network might change over time
A separate, but related point – many “network changing events” have the perhaps negative effect of dropping your prior network (mostly) and replacing it with a new one. College often means the severing of many ties from high school. Grad school may mean the severing of ties from college.
Even a shift from one city to another or from one firm to another can (for many people) represent the severing of most of the connections which were made (but were weak bonds generally).
A few firms and a few schools (and other organizations) resist this – McKinsey is well known for the strength of the network of former (and current) employees – likewise some schools (Notre Dame and Harvard for example) are well known for the bonds they form – even amongst alumni from non-overlaping years.
What you are talking about, I think, are more the personal, specific networks of relationships with other people – again these are formed strongly by some events, less so by others.
For myself, I have found that non-formal groups often form stronger, longer lasting ties than formal corporate affiliations or even college. I stay in strong contact with only a few people from college but I have a very deep and rich network from connections formed via events such as Renaissance Weekend and from online communities and mailing lists.
The key to these relationships, however, has been and is the attempt to stay in touch and renew those connections. This takes work, effort, and ongoing communication – and works best when you give back to your network.
But that said, I agree generally speaking that most people will experience a handful of “network enhancing” events in their life. A few people, “connectors” to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, are the sort to have many such events on a regular and reoccurring basis.
This can be deliberate – I often advice people that if they want to meet people but can’t find a group to join/attend/participate in where the people they want to meet are – to form that group themselves and by forming it, put themselves in the center. It is real, significent work – but whether you organize a group of co-workers, of collogues, or of fellow fans, the rewards over the long term can be very high.
The groups they have to have some manner of reoccuring and ongoing communication – often and usually best with some face to face component (I would go so far as to recommend sharing a meal together – something about eating with people helps form bonds)
Indeed, US News now has rankings of colleges by “strength of alumni network.” One friend of mine was telling me that USC has a great reputation for strong alumni networks such that after college you’re assured at least a few interviews in standard professions (lawyer, doctor, etc).
The Value of Personal Networks
Auren Hoffman, founder of the Stonebrick Group, has been publishing a series of interesting posts (here, here and most recently, here) on the factors behind personal influence.