When Geoff Workman, vice president of business development with the online event registration company Acteva, was recently looking for a consultant who specialized in payment processing, he didn’t advertise it on a job site; he looked for passive candidates on a social-networking Web site, LinkedIn. That’s how he found Scott Loftesness, principal at the consulting firm Glenbrook Partners. "He referenced his company’s blog and Web site," Workman says. "I started paying attention to the blog and Web site, realized they were indeed the experts I was looking for and contacted him. Now his firm is engaged in a contract with us, and there’s no way I’d have found them by a Google search, or without LinkedIn."
"Social networking" is the business buzzword of the moment. It’s become conventional wisdom among recruiters and workforce-management professionals that friends of friends (or friends of friends of friends) often make the best candidates. More than a hundred Web sites attempting to map and facilitate these interpersonal relationships have sprung up in the last few years. They might be the future of both job-hunting and recruiting--even if they’re not quite there yet.
Among the social-networking sites currently operating, there is an immense variety of goals and means. There are personal sites (Friendster, MySpace), professional sites (Ryze, LinkedIn, ZeroDegrees), and sites that cover both sides of their users’ lives (Orkut, Tribe). Some business-oriented sites are built for targeted contacts: getting users in touch with specific people via friends of friends. Others are better suited for "crawling": searching for people by shared interests, former employers or chains of personal recommendations. Big money is flowing into social networking. Barry Diller’s InterActive Corp. acquired ZeroDegrees earlier this year. Sequoia Capital has invested in LinkedIn, and Google is throwing its weight behind Orkut.
Many of the sites rely on their users to input information directly. A few, like Eliyon and Spoke, harvest data about people wherever they can find it. And Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, notes that services that had existing social networks and didn’t see the rise of social-networking software coming, such as Monster and Yahoo, have been reintegrating the idea of formal social networking into their operations.
Networks in action
The largest business-oriented social-networking site, LinkedIn, claimed 800,000 registered users, most of them white-collar workers, as of July 2004. It is based on targeted networking, and guards its users’ privacy carefully; you can see who your contacts’ contacts are, but you have to be vetted by people you both know to communicate with them. The company recently partnered with DirectEmployers Association to provide job listings.
Another major player in the field, Ryze, with upwards of 80,000 registered users, almost all professionals of one kind or another, was founded in 2001, ahead of the social-network curve. It centers on message boards meant for "interacting" and "growing organizations"--more business-based community-building than job-seeking. And it sponsors real-world events where users can meet. Other business-based networking sites include Monster Networking (which proactively introduces professional peers to each other) and ZeroDegrees (which distinguishes between "contacts," "members," "friends" and "inner circle," and relies on a friends-of-friends introduction system similar to LinkedIn’s).
Doug Stone, CEO of the interactive marketing firm Abstract Edge, was looking for a vice president of marketing and business development last fall, and ended up finding a half dozen candidates--and hiring one--via Ryze. "We used their data tools to conduct searches on everything from some of our competitors’ company names to keywords like marketing, interactive marketing and vice president of sales," he says. At this point, Stone says, he’s likely to use LinkedIn as well for similar searches. "There are gatekeepers in LinkedIn--not anybody can contact anybody--and as a result I think higher-caliber people are willing to join it."
Workman agrees: "I think the digerati are very well represented within LinkedIn--it’s company founders, top executives." He uses it extensively to recruit contractors and to look for candidates for the company’s full-time job openings, half of which are director level or higher. Workman also notes that LinkedIn is useful to him for running background checks on candidates, and finding out who they used to work with who doesn’t show up on their references. "The great thing about those references is that they haven’t been in touch with the candidate--it’s good for independent reference checking."
Benefit could diminish
As widespread as networking sites now are, though, the experts are skeptical about how useful they can be to recruiters in their current form. "The key on the Net is not who you know but who knows you," says online-recruiting consultant Peter Weddle. "Networking is absolutely the secret weapon for effective online recruiting; it’s one of the best ways to reap passive job-seekers. But the yield from social networking is considerably lower than from the chat areas, bulletin boards and so on where like-minded professionals talk to their peers."
Compared to sites that require users to map their own social networks, Weddle says, Eliyon Technologies’ site "is much more robust--they’ve used their spider to compile dossiers on over 19 million Americans." For free, he says, users can type in the name of a company and get a list of the people on whom the company has built dossiers.
That "free" will be a factor in social software’s future usefulness, according to Peter Zollman, founding principal of the consulting service Classified Intelligence. "Right now, if you want to find people who work for a specific company, you can. But as soon as these sites start charging and people start dropping out, that benefit [for recruiters] is substantially diminished." In other words, the pool of users who’d be willing to pay to use networking sites is likely to be substantially smaller, with a higher ratio of active to passive job-seekers.
Social technology and social networks are, significantly, not the same thing. As Molly Wright Steenson, associate professor of connected communities at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy, points out, economic systems and nation-states also qualify as social networks: they work because of personal relationships. Steenson argues that what’s needed to make social software more useful to recruiters are better ways of visualizing exactly how individual networks work. "Recruiters naturally try to understand who is a ‘sticky node’: who’s going to be the gold mine for the people they don’t already know. Decent visualization tools might make it easier to find out who seems like they’d know the right person. But there aren’t a lot of those tools."
And the sort of targeted networking available through sites like LinkedIn and ZeroDegrees, Steenson suggests, may actually be counterproductive: "Let’s say there’s someone who wants to meet my friend the CEO, and is using LinkedIn to try to pass the message to me. Whether or not I’d want to introduce someone to my important friend is going to depend on what I think of the person, because if I waste someone’s time, I’m going to damage my own relationship with that person"--and a friend-of-a-friend connection makes that sort of introduction much riskier.
The future of social networking
Most experts agree that the purely social Web networks aren’t too useful for recruiters, but that hybrid social/business sites may be somewhat more helpful. Shirky says, "If you go to Orkut or Tribe communities and say, ‘We’re looking for this kind of person,’ that’s midway between crawling--searching by interest--and targeting, or being introduced to someone. But it also means that you have to do a lot more filtering of inappropriate candidates."
In any case, the mini-bubble of networking sites may well contract. That’s partly because the market can’t support hundreds of them, but also because the more there are, the less useful each one becomes--users don’t like the hassle of dealing with more than a few sites.
Acteva’s Workman notes that networking sites are still in their infancy, and doesn’t believe they’ll ever replace conventional job-search sites altogether. But he does think that they can be a strong supplement. "Right now, they’re a secondary or tertiary tool that helps us find highly specialized consultants for given projects, and prospective candidates for positions," he says. For now, social-networking sites are a large, unruly experiment, cash infusions notwithstanding. The real usefulness for recruiters is yet to come. Says Zollman: "I don’t know how many people have signed up on social-networking sites because they honestly believe this is a way to improve their business, and how many have signed up because they want to see what happens."
Workforce Management, August 2004, pp. 70-73 -- Subscribe Now!