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"The fit get rich." It was these four words that made all the difference to me. I read them in Albert-Laszlo Barabási's book Linked,1 and I knew it right away: This was the final piece to complete the jigsaw puzzle. In this article I will share with you several of the concepts that play a decisive role in the puzzle of networking. Read them carefully and you will find that you rule the world.

What are the driving forces behind the growth of our networks? There are two main forces: time and preferential attachment.

First: Networks grow over time

Let's take a group of people, and say that the people within this network are nodes and the relationships between them are links. The only way networks may grow in size is through the connection of new nodes to ones that are already present in the network.

I, for example, know more people these days than I did when I was 5. Back then I only knew my family, my neighbours, the other children at school, and one very nice Italian girl of 7 I had met on holiday. I may since have lost touch with many of them, including the Italian girl, but I still meet up with Jan and Mario to name but two. Ever since the age of 5, I've been adding new nodes to my network through work, sports and hobbies, and friends and relatives.

Second: Nodes show preferential attachment

That is, certain nodes are faster at getting new nodes than others. Barabási stated that nodes which already have a large number of connections are more likely to attract new ones. I have a living example of this under my very eyes: My friend Jan knows more people than I do already, and sure enough, he gets to know new people faster than I do.

Getting off on the wrong foot

So here we are: Networks grow over time and the better connected a node is, the more connections it will get. So start early in networking, keep at it, and you will see the number of your connections go higher and higher. Or will it? Barabási showed that this would be true if all nodes were equal, or in human terms, if all people were alike. But we all know people who can count their acquaintances on one hand and people who turn every chance meeting into a life-long friendship. So the big question is: What makes people good at attracting new connections from other nodes?

Equal or not equal? Some examples

But before you go and get the tools that will make you fitter at building more and stronger connections, a few words as to why you should bother. McDonald's, Apple, Microsoft, Boeing, and Gillette are all perfect examples of the fit getting rich in various environments. They were not the first in their market, but they took it over anyway. They turned out to be fittest and thereby they overtook companies that were previously thriving in their own market. And yes, this rule may also apply to you, since a person and his or her friends is as much a node with links as is a company and its customers. So, I am sure you now would like to know how you can become fit in networking terms.

It's all in the structure

Just like you do when you join the gym, you first have to assess your fitness and learn how to monitor your progress. The way to measure fitness in networking is to look at the structure of your network.

Take a look at the following two pictures:


Figure 1. A cosy little closed network

 


Figure 2. An open network example

In Figure 1, you can see a very cosy little clique: my friends Jan, Bert, and Mario and me. They all know me; I know them all, AND they all know each other. This is what we call a closed network.

OK, look at this figure now, where you'll find Ms X and her clique (Figure 2). Does it look cosy to you? Her friends hardly form a circle, in that they've never met each other. This makes of Ms X's network an open one.

 

Be open to get rich

Having an open network can get you rich, and I mean it literally, too. As Robert Burt showed, managers who have an open network stand a better chance of being seen as outstanding, of being promoted sooner, and getting more bonuses. He explains that this happens because these managers are able to act as a bridge between fairly distant cliques, helping transfer information between them and even acting as a source of information for their own clique. So what conclusions can we draw here? You need to start thinking about how you may open your network.

But wait, don't become antisocial and stop introducing your friends to each other, as there is more to this than meets the eye.


Figure 3. A cosy clique, but externally open

Fairly odd friends rule the world

Take a look at the surroundings of what you know of as my cosy clique (Figure 3). I have added friends of my friends, and see how odd it makes them look. Each of my friends has other friends who are not connected with anyone else. Jan for instance has three friends (Black Dots) that none of the other guys in my network know. And they, the Black Dots, don't know each other either, even though they'll have their own group of friends.

Jan has friends in the most unusual of places. He has very old and dear friends (like me), he sings in a group, he lets apartments, he works as a consultant, he's involved in politics in his local community, and he is also a member of the labour council with his company. Jan has many friends who look like fairly odd friends to me, because I do not know them at all, nor their clique.

Why is this of importance?

Burt2 found that teams which are internally closed (that would be my cosy clique) and externally open (thanks to the Black Dots) are the most creative and have the highest performance. Within an internally closed team, there is an effective sharing of information, values, and beliefs because you and your friends think, feel, and act in the same way. However, a team performs even better when each of its members is able to act as a source of information from 'places far away'. You and your friends rule the world because of one another's fairly odd friends.

So where does that leave you?

What you have to do is simple: Just go and have a nice time within as many different closed groups as you can. In each group you can be yourself, even though you'll probably show a different 'self' to different groups. Hanging out with these groups will make of you a fairly odd friend, and you'll be able to help these groups while they will introduce you to other fairly odd friends. And here you are, ruling the world without even realising!

References

  • Albert-Laszlo Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks (Plume, 2002, 2003)

  • R. S. Burt, "Structural holes vs network closure as social capital," preprint for a chapter in Social Capital, Theory and Research, edited by M. Lin, K. S. Cook, and R. S. Burt (Aldine de Gruyter, 2001)