I. My, How Things Have Changed
When I came to Australia six years ago, to seek my fame and fortune, business communications had remained largely unchanged for nearly a century. You could engage in face-to-face conversation – something humans have been doing since we learned to speak, countless thousands of years ago – or, if distance made that impossible, you could drop a letter into the post. Australia Post is an excellent organization, and seems to get all of the mail delivered within a day or two – quite an accomplishment in a country as dispersed and diffuse as ours.
In the twentieth century, the telephone became the dominant form of business communication; Australia Post wired the nation up, and let us talk to one another. Conversation, mediated by the telephone, became the dominant mode of communication. About twenty years ago the facsimile machine dropped in price dramatically, and we could now send images over phone lines.
The facsimile translates images into data and back into images again. That’s when the critical threshold was crossed: from that point on, our communications have always centered on data. The Internet arrived in 1995, and broadband in 2001. In the first years of Internet usage, electronic mail was both the ‘killer app’ and the thing that began to supplant the telephone for business correspondence. Electronic mail is asynchronous – you can always pick it up later. Email is non-local, particularly when used through a service such as Hotmail or Gmail – you can get it anywhere. Until mobiles started to become pervasive for business uses, the telephone was always a hit-or-miss affair. Electronic mail is a hit, every time.
Such was the business landscape when I arrived in Australia. The Web had arrived, and businesses eagerly used it as a publishing medium – a cheap way of getting information to their clients and customers. But the Web was changing. It had taken nearly a decade of working with the Web, day-to-day, before we discovered that the Web could become a fully-fledged two-way medium: the Web could listen as well as talk. That insight changed everything. The Web morphed into a new beast, christened ‘Web 2.0’, and everywhere the Web invited us to interact, to share, to respond, to play, to become involved. This transition has fundamentally changed business communication, and it’s my goal this morning to outline the dimensions of that transformation.
This transformation unfolds in several dimensions. The first of these – and arguably the most noticeable – is how well-connected we are these days. So long as we’re in range of a cellular radio signal, we can be reached. The number of ways we can be reached is growing almost geometrically. Five years ago we might have had a single email address. Now we have several – certainly one for business, and one for personal use – together with an account on Facebook (nearly eight million of the 22 million Australians have Facebook accounts), perhaps another account on MySpace, another on Twitter, another on YouTube, another on Flickr. We can get a message or maintain contact with someone through any of these connections. Some individuals have migrated to Facebook for the majority of their communications – there’s no spam, and they’re assured the message will be delivered. Among under-25s, electronic mail is seen as a technology of the ‘older generation’, something that one might use for work, but has no other practical value. Text messaging and messaging-via-Facebook have replaced electronic mail.
This increased connectivity hasn’t come for free. Each of us are now under a burden to maintain all of the various connections we’ve opened. At the most basic level, we must at least monitor all of these channels for incoming messages. That can easily get overwhelming, as each channel clamors for attention.
But wait. We’ve dropped Facebook and Twitter into the conversation before I even explained what they are and how they work. We just take them as a fact of life these days, but they’re brand new. Facebook was unknown just three years ago, and Twitter didn’t zoom into prominence until eighteen months ago. Let’s step back and take a look at what social networks are. In a very real way, we’ve always known exactly what a social network is: since we were very small we’ve been reaching out to other people and establishing social relationships with them. In the beginning that meant our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. As we grew older that list might grow to include some of the kids in the neighborhood, or at pre-kindy, and then our school friends. By the time we make it to university, that list of social relationships is actually quite long. But our brains have limited space to store all those relationships – it’s actually the most difficult thing we do, the most cognitively all-encompassing task. Forget physics – relationship are harder, and take more brainpower.
Nature has set a limit of about one hundred and fifty on the social relationships we can manage in our heads. That’s not a static number – it’s not as though as soon as you reach 150, you’re done, full. Rather, it’s a sign of how many relationships of importance you can manage at any one time. None of us, not even the most socially adept, can go very much beyond that number. We just don’t have the grey matter for it.
Hence, fifty years ago mankind invented the Rolodex – a way of keeping track of all the information we really should remember but can’t possibly begin to absorb. A real, living Rolodex (and there are few of them, these days) are a wonder to behold, with notes scribbled in the margins, business cards stapled to the backs of the Rolodex cards, and a glorious mess of information, all alphabetically organized. The Rolodex was mankind’s first real version of the modern, digital, social network. But a Rolodex doesn’t think for itself; a Rolodex can not draw out the connections between the different cards. A Rolodex does not make explicit what we know – we live in a very interconnected world, and many of our friends and associates are also friends and associates with our friends and associates.
That is precisely what Facebook gives us. It makes those implicit connections explicit. It allows those connections to become conduits for ever-greater-levels of connection. Once those connections are made, once they become a regular feature of our life, we can grow beyond the natural limit of 150. That doesn’t mean you can manage any of these relationships well – far from it. But it does mean that you can keep the channels of communication open. That’s really what all of these social networks are: turbocharged Rolodexes, which allow you to maintain far more relationships than ever before possible.
Once these relationships are established, something beings to happen quite naturally: people begin to share. What they share is often driven by the nature of the relationship – though we’ve all seen examples where individuals ‘over-share’ inappropriately, confusing business and social channels of communication. That sort of thing is very easy to do with social networks such as Facebook, because it doesn’t provide an easy method to send messages out to different groups of friends. We might want a social network where business friends might get something very formal, while close friends might that that photo of you doing tequila shots at last weekend’s birthday party. It’s a great idea, isn’t it? But it can’t be done. Not on Facebook, not on Twitter. Your friends are all lumped together into one undifferentiated whole. That’s one way that those social networks are very different from the ones inside our heads. And it’s something to be constantly aware of when sharing through social networks.
That said, this social sharing has become an incredibly potent force. More videos are uploaded to YouTube every day than all television networks all over the world produce in a year. It may not be material of the same quality, but that doesn’t matter – most of those videos are only meant to be seen among a small group of family or friends. We send pictures around, we send links around, we send music around (though that’s been cause for a bit of trouble), we share things because we care about them, and because we care about the people we’re sharing with. Every act of sharing, business or personal, brings the sharer and the recipient closer together. It truly is better to give than receive. On the other hand, we’re also drowning in shared material. There’s so much, coming from every corner, through every one of these social networks, there’s no possible way to keep up. So, most of us don’t. We cherry-pick, listening to our closest friends and associates: the things they share with us are the most meaningful. We filter the noise and hope that we’re not missing anything very important. (We usually are.)
In certain very specific situations, sharing can produce something greater than the sum of its parts. A community can get together and decide to pool what it knows about a particular domain of knowledge, can ‘wise up’ by sharing freely. This idea of ‘collective intelligence’ producing a shared storehouse of knowledge is the engine that drives sites like Wikipedia. We all know Wikipedia, we all know how it works – anyone can edit anything in any article within it – but the wonder of Wikipedia is that it works so well. It’s not perfectly accurate – nothing ever is – but it is good enough to be useful nearly all the time. Here’s the thing: you can come to Wikipedia ignorant and leave it knowing something. You can put that knowledge to work to make better decisions than you would have in your state of ignorance. Wikipedia can help you wise up.
Wikipedia isn’t the only example of shared knowledge. A decade ago a site named TeacherRatings.com went online, inviting university students to provide ratings of their professors, lecturers and instructors. Today it’s named RateMyProfessor.com, is owned by MTV Networks, and has over ten million ratings of one million instructors. This font of shared knowledge has become so potent that students regularly consult the site before deciding which classes they’ll take next semester at university. Universities can no longer saddle student with poor teachers (who may also be fantastic researchers). There are bidding wars taking place for the lecturers who get the highest ratings on the site. This sharing of knowledge has reversed the power relationship between a university and its students which stretches back nearly a thousand years.
Substitute the word ‘business’ for university and ‘customers’ for students and you see why this is so significant. In an era where we’re hyperconnected, where people share, and share knowledge, things are going to work a lot differently than they did before. These all-important relationships between businesses and their customers (potential and actual) have been completely rewritten. Let’s talk about that.
II. Linked Out
Of all the challenges you face in your professional practice, the greatest of them comes from a website that, at first glance, seems completely innocuous. LinkedIn is the “professional” social network, where individuals re-create their C.V. online, and, entry by entry, link their profiles to other people they have worked with over the years.
Just that alone is something entirely new and very potent. When a potential employer sees a C.V., they don’t see the network of connections the candidate created at every position – a network which tells the employer much of what they need to know about the suitability of the candidate. Suddenly, all of this implicit information has been revealed explicitly. An employer can ‘walk the chain’ of associations, long before a candidate submits any references. The LinkedIn profile is the reference, quite literally.
This means that a LinkedIn profile is more valuable than any hand-crafted C.V., because it is, on the whole, a more accurate read of the candidate. A candidate’s connections tell you everything about who the candidate is. They certainly tell you more than a list of hand-picked referees ever could. LinkedIn is simply a better way of doing business.
This means that LinkedIn has caught on like a bushfire in Big End of town. Throughout the nation, employers look for the LinkedIn profile of potential candidates, and these profiles carry more weight than any words from the candidate, or a recruiter, or, really, anyone else. This transformation happened suddenly over the last 12 months, as businesspeople reached a critical mass of involvement with LinkedIn. LinkedIn benefits from the ‘network effect’: the more people who create profiles on LinkedIn, the more valuable the service becomes – because it’s more likely you’ll find someone’s profile there. That, in turn, makes it more likely another individual will create a LinkedIn profile, making it more valuable, etc. It also means that any candidate without a LinkedIn profile is immediately suspect – what’s he or she trying to hide?
LinkedIn become the new standard in recruiting. But don’t look too closely, or you’ll get scared. LinkedIn takes one of the things the recruiter brings to the table – an extensive and wide-ranging set of contacts – and reproduces that electronically in such a way that anyone can take advantage of them. In other words, everyone is now on a much more equal footing. The time and energy you have dedicated to building up those networks can now be matched by someone spending a lot less time on it – someone who is employing the latest tools.
The big worry, from here forward, is that recruiters as we have known them will be obsolesced by social networking technologies. As we get further into the social media revolution, and these tools become more refined, many of the functions of the recruiter-as-networker, recruiter-as-matchmaker, and recruiter-as-talent-finder will be subsumed into these social networks. Already I can dial and tune searches on LinkedIn to give me, say, a list of electrical engineers who work in Melbourne. That’s a list I can work from, if I’m doing a personnel search. I can message those folks through LinkedIn, to find out if they’re interested in a conversation about a potential opportunity. The platform provides the basic set of capabilities to amplify my effectiveness – without any substantial investment.
People will begin to ask why they need recruiters. People are already beginning to ask this question, as they see the social network providing the same capabilities – and for free. This is something that should scare you a little bit, because it shows you that recruiting, as we’ve known it, has about as much life expectancy as a buggy-whip maker did in 1915. There are still a few years left in which recruiting will be a profitable business, but after that it will simply be overwhelmed by social networking tools which can amplify the powers of the average person so effectively that recruiting simply becomes another task on offer, like sending a message or posting a photo.
As people are drawn together over social networks, they get a better sense of the talents of those around them. This talent-spotting used to be the sine qua non of the recruiter. Now that each of us can manage connections far beyond the natural limit of 150, we each learn our respective strengths. We use systems like LinkedIn to help us keep tally of those strengths. We use the tools to deploy those strengths. Everything happens because the tools empower us. But will they empower us so much that recruiters become redundant?
You need to have a good think about your business, and about the way you practice your business. You need to have a good look at the tools – particularly LinkedIn, but also Twitter and Facebook. You’ll learn that these tools are good at some things, and lousy at others. Here’s the question: are you good at the things the tools aren’t? Tools are no substitute for relationships. Even though the tools give us some false sense of relationship, it’s not the real thing. Recruiting is the real thing. But, is that enough?
III. Social Media Gods
In times long past – and by this, I mean just five years ago – recruiters were the masters of the Rolodex. You survived and thrived by knowing everybody, everywhere, with talent, and everybody, everywhere, who needed that talent. That in itself is quite a talent. But that talent is no longer enough. It is, however, the springboard to get you to the next level.
Fasten your seatbelts. You’re about to get launched headlong into the future. I want you to imagine a time – let’s say, tomorrow afternoon – when the average person now has quite extraordinary Rolodex capabilities, courtesy of the social networks, and where you, the masters, have gone beyond that into regions undreamed of. Imagine being able to take each of your contacts, and use those as starting points for new contacts within new networks. You’d have an inner ring of close contacts – just as you do today, but multiplied by the capabilities of the tools to support and nurture these contacts. Outside that inner ring, you’d have consecutive rings of contacts-to-contacts, and contacts-to-contacts-to-contacts, and so on, all the way out until the network simply becomes too diffuse and too difficult to maintain.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes the famed ‘six degrees of separation’, a theorem that provides that we are all just six people away from any other person on the planet. Australia is a lot smaller than the world; within any particular domain of expertise, there’s really only one or two degrees of separation, whether that’s in filmmaking, medicine, or software engineering. There just aren’t that many of us. Fortunately, that means that our networks aren’t deep: we can more-or-less know everyone involved in our field, with the help of a good Rolodex.
You have more than a good Rolodex. You have the new tools; you can build a Rolodex of Rolodexes, one Rolodex per discipline, and use that to track everybody, everywhere, who matters. In this future, that is really tomorrow afternoon, you’ve so leveraged your network resources that each of you sits in the middle of a vast web, and each time there’s a twitch upon a thread, you know about it, because that information is shared throughout your networks, and finds its way toward your receptive ears.
You’re going to need good tools to make this ambitious project a reality, and you’re going to need them for two entirely contradictory reasons: first, to be able to listen to everything going on everywhere, and second, because that chaotic din will deafen you. You need tools to help you find out what’s going on, but, more significantly, you need tools to help you winnow the wheat from the chaff. Being well-connected means bearing the burden of drowning in pointless information. Without the right tools, as you grow your networks you will simply sink under the noise.
What tools? They barely exist today. Google Alerts is one tool that will help keep you abreast of news as it is created on the net. Within the next few months, Google will begin to digest the endless ‘feeds’ created by Facebook and Twitter users, and you’ll be able to search through those as well. But again, there’s just too much there. You likely need a more professional tool, such as Sydney’s own PeopleBrowsr, to sift through the wealth of information that will be generated by your ever-more-encompassing networks of networks.
I should point out – for the more entrepreneurial among you – there is now a market for tools that recruiters need to become better recruiters: tools that harness the networks. Such tools will need to be designed by someone who understands the recruiting business and the network. That means it could be one of you. You could partner with a Google or a PeopleBrowsr, or strike out on your own. If you don’t do it, one of your competitors – either in Australia or overseas – certainly will.
The first half of my advice is simply this: build your networks. Build them out to unimaginable reaches. Use the tools to leverage your capabilities. Use the tools as if your livelihood depended upon it. Because it does. Behind you are a new generation, unafraid to use the tools to build their networks up. When you go head-to-head against them, those with the best networks – and the best tools – will tend to win. That’s what the next decade looks like, as we transition from the Rolodex to the social network: more and more business will go to the well-networked. So really, there is no choice: adapt or die.
There’s another face to this, one that turns itself outward. Sure, you’ve created this vast and nationwide network to feed you information. But you’ve got to do more than listen. You must present yourself within the network. You must be present. Many people and most companies think that they can use social media as an advertising medium. Plenty of firms set up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and post lots of advertising messages to an ever-decreasing number of followers.
People don’t want to get spammed. They don’t want to hear your marketing messages over a communications channel that they consider personal. So please, don’t make this mistake. In fact, I’ll go even further – don’t think of the Web as an advertising medium. Sure, it had a few good years where a business presence online was simply a great way to get your marketing materials out there inexpensively, but those days are over. Today everything is about engagement. Engagement begins with conversation.
Conversation is a tricky thing: on the one hand it’s the most natural of human capabilities; on the other hand, it’s fraught with disaster. Social media amplifies both sides of this equation. There are more places for more conversations than ever before, and more opportunities for these conversations to run off the rails. Here are some simple rules of thumb which should keep you out of trouble:
- Only go where you’re invited. No one likes a salesman who sticks their foot in the door.
- Participate in a conversation from a place of authenticity. Let people know who you are and why you’re there.
- Spend time building relationships. Social media is a lot like friendship – it takes time and investment and a bit of love to make it work.
- Be consistent. Invest time every single day, or at least with regularity. If you can’t do that, it’s probably better you do nothing at all.
Where are these conversations happening? All around you: on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and YouTube and Flickr and thousand blogs. They’re happening all the time, everywhere. You probably want to spend some time investigating these conversations before you participate. That’s known as ‘lurking’, and it’s the foundation of successful net relationships. Having an appreciation and an understanding of a community before you participate within it shows respect. Respect will be reciprocated.
That’s about it for today – and frankly, that’s quite a lot. I’ve asked you to re-invent yourselves for the mid-21st century. I’ve asked you to become the gods of social media, to translate your natural role as connectors and facilitators into a greatly amplified form, just so you can remain competitive. I’m not saying that this transition will happen overnight. You have at least a few years to become adept with the tools, and a few more to build out those nationwide networks. But I can promise this: at the close of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, recruiting will look entirely different.
Every social network has a few individuals who are ‘superconnected’, who have many more connections than their peers within the network. Those individuals are the glue who keep the network held together. This is your natural role. The challenge, moving forward, is to remain extraordinary when everyone around you becomes superconnected themselves. It will take some work, and some time, but it can be done. Good luck.