Beyond the Hype: Making Social Networking Work

Social networking is all the rage in recruiting these days. Hearing or reading about some of the claims being made — that soon sourcing will become extinct as social networks begin to interact, for example, or that we are close to finding the “ultimate solution” as some would have us believe — one could be forgiven for thinking that soon recruiters will be able to just tap social networks for all their talent needs.

The buzz around social networking is reminiscent of the claims made by weight-loss products. While there are some success stories, these tend to be the exception. There is not a standard template that can be used to replicate success. There are some approaches that hold promise, but a reality check is necessary to separate the hype from what’s practical.

The premise of social networking — that by getting connected to a group, a recruiter or an employer can tap into a vast pool of talent — seems logical, but it’s not quite that simple. One common fallacy is that social networks are an easy way to connect with groups of similar individuals — software engineers likely have lots of friends who are similarly employed. But there’s little evidence to support this line of thinking. There’s a lot of academic research on social networks, and what it shows is that people join online social networks 1) to primarily support pre-existing social relations, and 2) to build social capital. Research shows that a person’s network predominantly reflects factors like ethnicity, age, religion, and sexual orientation. A person’s professional interests are very low on this list; even peoples’ attitude toward children ranks higher.

Research at Michigan State University established that the single biggest motivation for people to establish or join online social networks is to maintain offline networks — that is, stay connected with people who are already their friends or with whom they have some offline relationship. That doesn’t preclude similar professionals, but those are a minority of a person’s connections. This is reinforced by evidence from Korea — the population of which is among the heaviest Internet users in the world — that some 85% of people claim that they use online social networks primarily for the maintenance and reinforcement of pre-existing social networks. There’s no reason to believe it would be any different elsewhere.

The other reason people join social networks is to build social capital — broadly referred to as the resources accumulated through the relationships among people. For individuals, social capital allows a person to draw on resources from other members of the networks to which they belong. These resources can take the form of useful information, personal relationships, or the capacity to organize groups. Access to individuals outside one’s close circle provides benefits such as employment connections. Social capital is also related to an individual’s psychological well-being, such as self-esteem and satisfaction with life.

The size of any individual’s network is also far smaller than what it may appear to be. Research by Facebook shows that the while the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom they frequently interact is much smaller. An average man responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall.” An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to 10. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. For people with larger networks such as 500 friends, men leave comments for 17 friends and communicate with 10, women for 26 and communicate with 16. The smaller numbers largely represent the offline networks and the source of their social capital. So what about the hundred plus other “friends”? Lee Rainie, director of The Pew Internet & American Life Project that has done much research into social networks, has an explanation: members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances.”

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.

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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.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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