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Jun 4, 2008

What makes a network valuable to you or me?

Is it the number of connections you have? I don’t think so. I have over 10 million first-, second- and third-degree connections on LinkedIn, but I get almost no value from that network, per se. I know recruiters who collect names because they are looking at quantity not quality. They judge themselves and others as “successful” by how many people are in their network.

Yet, successful collectors in any area do not just collect at random. The good ones have a system, a focus, and a rationale behind their collecting.

For example, stamp collectors are usually focused on a specific country or theme. The same is true for coin collectors. Baseball card collectors concentrate on a team or league or person. Focus is necessary and is the first rule for successful use of networks because it is so difficult to sift through thousands of anything to find the one(s) that meet your criteria.

It is much better to have hurdles to entry that ensure the integrity of those who are admitted. A recruiter needs to know exactly what type of people they are looking for and then spend the time to attract only those and admit them to a community of similar people.

Does the amount of communication that goes back and forth between connected people make networks successful? Volume does not predict success. Most communication on networks is small talk, meaningless chatter, and disengaging tirades.

Rare is a conversation that allows a recruiter to evaluate the qualities of a prospect. While there is nothing wrong with chit-chat, it does not refine what a recruiter knows about a candidate. The networks where people engage in discussions about relevant issues and have arguments that are based on facts and evidence are powerful, but hard to find.

The second rule of getting value out of your network is to create a forum where good discussion can take place and where people get engaged in issues that shed light on their skills. Volume and frequency of communication is not an indicator of quality.

The Most Valuable Network

The most valuable network I could imagine would help me attract similarly well-qualified potential candidates. It would ultimately lead me to people I could place, after using less energy and time. Anything else would be less useful and less valuable.

Valuable, robust networks need to meet at least four criteria:

  • Have a mix of people with similar interests and motivations.
  • Be led by an instigator, or a rebel who rouses passions and gets people engaged.
  • Have a large-enough number of people so that someone is always “there” to respond, comment, and keep the ball rolling.
  • Save time and energy in the screening and interview processes.

Most networks fail to become significant factors in recruitment because they lack one or more of these criteria. Take a typical recruiter’s version of LinkedIn. It probably contains between 400 and 1,000 contacts, if the recruiter is slightly above average and has spent some time building her contact list.

Almost all of those contacts are not personally known to the recruiter and they belong to a broad spectrum of skills and backgrounds that have little similarity. The recruiter almost never engages the candidates in discussion and learns little about the prospect even though the person might have been in the network for some time.

In theory, a recruiter can then ask for a referral to a person she has found that looks like a promising prospect. If a referral takes place, the recruiter most likely falls back to yesterday’s model of interaction and asks the prospect to submit a resume. By doing this, she circumvents the network and makes it even less valuable.

More Power for Your Hour

If you’re going to spend the time networking, use a more powerful engagement model that ensures that everyone who enters the community has a similar set of skills. Use a short questionnaire or screening tool, or simply invite people based on title, years of experience, or educational level.

Whatever the criteria, remain consistent and relevant to the kinds of positions the organization has open.

Once people are invited to join the community, the recruiter can act as an instigator of a discussion. Their job would be to set up a discussion board or case study site where there could be a quality period of exchanges.

These exchanges would get the prospect engaged and interested in the opportunity (or not) and act as a preliminary screen of the prospect’s skills in solving a problem, answering a question, or analyzing a case. The interactions would be recorded and saved for future analysis.

Of course, it takes a significant number of community members to keep a discussion going and that may be hard to do at first. It will mean that the recruiter will have to spend time getting personally involved in discussions or find a hiring manager who is willing to take on the responsibility.

The recruiter will also have to know when a topic is fading and get another topic ready to stimulate thought. The goal is to reach a point where the recruiter can spend as little time as possible and still learn a great deal about a prospect.

Finally, networks need to have criteria and processes that channel prospects to more relevant career sites or explain why the organization is not a good fit for their skills or values.

Eliminate those who are not potential candidates. Strive to keep your network filled with those you would actually hire, and of course, those you would be happy to work with. Cultural harmony and candidate quality can only come from networks that are deliberately set up to achieve those goals.

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