You can read the previous posts here. To finish up my thoughts on networking I want to brain storm some about how we might make it easier and more effective for the average Joe (which is most of us) to network.
If you've been to the PASS Summit, or similar sized conferences, most have an opening night reception that is a 'networking event'. You go to a large ballroom type area, some free food, maybe a free drink or two, some music/video or other entertainment, and you "mingle". This isn't a bad plan if you're the really outgoing type, or if you know a few people and can find one of them to talk to, but how many of us are really good at walking up to a stranger and starting a conversation? Or more likely, we eat some food, hang out a bit, and then back to the hotel feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the event.
So, how do we fix that? One idea I had is that when you get to the door, you can either go directly in, or you can go to one of the two "I want to meet someone new" lines. We put an emcee type person at the front, they introduce you to the person at the front of the other line, hand you a drink ticket or something, send you off with instructions to grab some food and make a slow circuit of the room together (call it 5-10 minutes). When you're back at the door you get a natural point to break off, and then you can jump back in line or just mingle. I like it because it gives you someone to talk to, and if either of you meets someone you know, you introduce to the other person - another new person met.
How about something similar at lunch? When you walk up to the lunch line you can go to a line that indicates you're looking for company at lunch. The emcee asks you what your interests are, and somehow (magically) looks around and picks a table that he thinks might be a good fit, walks you over, introduces you to the table, and presto - you're not eating lunch alone and you've met a few new people.
For the last few years SQL ServerCentral has done a gambling party at the Summit. It's very successful and it's fun, but I don't think it's that effective from a networking perspective because everyone is focused on the game. Is there a different game that would work better? How about bingo, a game where you can sit and talk while that multi-tasking capable brain keeps up with the bingo cards. Chess requires too much concentration, Monopoly probably takes too long. Scrabble? Crazy Eights? Or about some kind of adhoc team thing, where you get to join a "team" and compete in some easy to master challenge?
The recurring theme is that it's easier to talk to new people when you can get past the first step, and when you can do it in the context of a subject - most any subject. Sit with people from Florida at lunch and talk about the weather, sit with people that are really into high availability, sports, whatever.
The right setting can make it easier to network, but that's only half of it. We need to teach people how and when to follow up, and maybe even teach them some basic networking skills. Should we exchange business cards when we meet? Beam over a card via Bluetooth, send an SMS message to each other? Does everyone you meet need a follow up email (I'd vote yes). Can we turn it into a mini-contest to see who can meet the most people?
I'm not sure any of those ideas are perfect, but they seem easy to test and I'm hoping we can see all of them and more tested somewhere this year. Got a better idea, or see a flaw in these? Think about the last event of any size that you went to, did you network effectively and was it because you are good at it, or they did a good job facilitating it? Do you see the value in having a better class of networking event?