Beyond the Hype: Making Social Networking Work

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This is why trying to tap employees’ social networks as a source of hires is not easy. First, the network of most people is not likely to consist of similar professionals, and most of their “friends” are weak links at best — not likely to be influenced by them or even pay attention to appeals from their employers. Second, the core network of friends where they have influence will be a group that they are very protective of. As a recruiter you are not likely to be an offline connection or a source of social capital, so your chances of becoming part of those core networks are on par with those of Sarah Palin’s being invited to join the Democrats.

Another challenge is that identifying talent is not easy. The information about people on social networking sites is very limited or not particularly useful in being able to gauge their skills and abilities. Sites like Facebook and MySpace are not primarily intended to facilitate finding talent. LinkedIn is obviously something of an exception, but even there, a lot of profiles have only cursory details. Some consider the lack of information to be beside the point — these sites are not job boards (though LinkedIn is well on its way to becoming one). All that’s needed is a mechanism to connect with potential talent. Assuming that is the goal, it’s not easily achieved. So much depends on the culture of the organization, the commitment to support networking, and the willingness to accept that a lot of that effort may not produce any results on any sort of schedule.

Communities of Interest

So what can an employer do to develop and make social networking an effective source of hires? Richard Nacht, CEO of Respond Media, recommends creating a community of interest. Help establish a group of individuals with similar professional interests that find value in being part of that community and are willing to share some useful personal information in return — useful in a professional sense. An example of this is Sermo — an online community of physicians who share clinical insights and comment on challenging cases. Access is restricted and members must be active participants. There is a jobs section where physicians can post and comment on jobs. This is a close-knit group whose members are willing to share a lot of very specific information about themselves, their skills, and abilities. Contrast that with the typical social networking site where anyone can join but the information they provide about themselves can have very little value in terms of identifying their professional abilities. Creating a community of interest is not easy — it requires sustained effort an commitment and is possibly outside the reach of most employers. At Microsoft, Marvin Smith heads up the effort to do so, and has done a remarkable job but only after years of work.

The Tupperware Model

In an earlier article I had recommended using the Amway model — provide a forum for like-minded and similarly interested individuals to interact, and incentives to propagate your message, i.e., the prospect of employment. That’s an approach recommended for employers with the goal of promoting themselves as a great place to work. The idea being that the network will get the message to some of the right people who will become candidates. For individual recruiters the approach to take is that of the Tupperware party. This involves getting one individual to invite a group of their close friends to an event where the individual hosting the party promotes the company’s products. The actual salesperson is there to facilitate the event. They do not attempt to sell directly to the attendees. The reason this approach has been so successful for Tupperware is because the people at one of these parties are there to build social capital and not because of any attraction for cheap plastic utensils. Attendees at these parties are not a bunch of acquaintances who barely know each other. Most people have been invited to some such event at one time or another — how likely are you to go if the invitation came from someone you barely know?

This, in essence, is what a recruiter needs to do: be on the sidelines encouraging employees to tap their networks and participate in a small way. It’s difficult to do that with networks on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn where it’s basically in or out, all or nothing. Employees will understandably be reluctant to let an employer’s representative be their friend when the risk is that by letting them in they have full access to their core and wider network. One site that has devised a far better solution is Cachinko, that lets members create subgroups and allows employers selective access. This is a much more nuanced solution than that available elsewhere.

No Silver Bullet

Employers and recruiters alike are hoping that social networking is an easy solution to their hiring needs are likely to be disappointed. Online social networks are, for the most part, fundamentally not suited to facilitating hires, since identifying the skills and abilities of individuals who belong to them is difficult. The goals of employees in joining them are also basically at odds with an employer’s goals of tapping them for talent. It’s doable, but don’t underestimate the challenges. And regardless of what anyone claims, social networks are not the ultimate solution. They are a solution, but just one of many. A strategy to tap social networks for talent requires effort and a light touch. Employers hoping to reduce recruiting costs while finding an effective long-term solution to their talent needs should think about it like a weight-loss program. There is a lot of hype, it takes work, and individual results will vary.

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By Raghav Singh, reprinted with the permission of Electronic Recruiting Exchange
 BlackDog Recruiting Software Inc.
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