The power of weak ties (in recruiting)

by 27 Nov 2007

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point examined the phenomena that often causes products, ideas and behaviours to go from obscurity to ubiquity virtually overnight. Gladwell pointed to the “connectors” and “mavens” among us whose networking is as viral as a flu pandemic. Some of today’s new recruiting methods and tools aim to tap into this kind of power – the power of weak ties – for sourcing top candidates.

The difference today is more the medium than the method. Prior to the advent of the web about 10 years ago, most employers relied on newspaper advertising for the bulk of their day-to-day recruitment. Staffing agencies and referrals made up the rest. In 2002, the newspaper recruitment advertising industry peaked at almost US$9 billion ($10.2 billion) in North America before plummeting to under US$4 billion ($4.5 billion) in 2004. Along the way, online job boards grabbed the momentum in recruitment advertising, going from virtually nothing in 1997 to over US$2 billion ($2.3 billion) today.

But the job board industry may already be losing some steam. The candidate quality advantage gained by early internet adopters has disappeared. Today, recruiters often complain about the volume of unqualified candidates they receive from their postings, or, more frequently, about the lack of any activity at all in response to their postings.

No wonder then that recruiters are keenly interested in anything that can help source good candidates. Third-party recruiters can make this promise but the expense is prohibitive for most positions. That leaves us with employee referral. There is nothing wrong with the way many organisations manage referral programs but some new approaches may make those programs easier, less expensive and more productive.

Jason Goldberg is CEO and founder of Jobster Inc, a Seattle-based software and services provider that helps organisations source job candidates through a combination of enhanced referral and social networking. Jobster is less than a year old but already serves more than 100 customers, including Nordstrom, Cisco and Starbucks. When asked whether Jobster and companies like it are creating a brand new category in recruiting, Goldberg demurs. “It’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution,” says Goldberg. “Everyone brought their jobs online but that didn’t solve the problem. How do you get better at targeting the right people in the first place?”

Tools like LinkedIn, Spoke and others earned our attention a few years ago because they brought the concepts of Six Degrees of Separation into a medium that could truly exploit the weak ties that connect all of us. Today, as many of these companies add recruiting to their features, there is a great deal of speculation as to what advantage early adopters might gain by using them.

Goldberg believes his company is unique among the others, in that it was designed from the ground up as a recruiting tool and remains focused on candidate sourcing. Asked how it can improve a solid employee referral plan in an organisation, he recommends that organisations enable more employees to assist in filling positions of relevance to them and to which they can leverage networks of people beyond those in their immediate circles. In other words, he believes that internet-powered networking solutions can extend employees’ networks and allow them to tap people several degrees out from those directly in their own rolodexes. Further, Goldberg encourages recruiters to go beyond referrals and into new media like blogs (he points to Microsoft’s recent use of company blogs to identify top talent as an example) and even Second Life-type virtual worlds.

But Goldberg offers a caution as well. “Part of the beauty of social networking is that there is a rarity to it. If it was easy for any of us to connect with anyone else, we would remove the scarcity and erode the value of networks. We don’t want to go overboard, we want to help employers find great people through trusted referrals. Our goal isn’t to bring strangers together.”

The jury may still be out on social networking and enhanced referral tools for recruiting, but the premise is sound. In a 2005 HCI/ExecuNet survey, 62 per cent of recruiters listed networking as their most effective means of finding senior managers and more than two-thirds of managers and executives listed networking as their best method of finding jobs. A startling 76 per cent of managers said they plan to leave their positions within the next six months. Indeed, workers are more mobile and, coming off a lengthy buyers’ market for labour, more disgruntled than ever. While they may not be looking for work on job boards or in newspapers, you can bet the smart ones are nurturing their networks.

So today, for recruiters or job seekers, tools that extend our networks may be making it less about who we know, than who the people we know, know.

By Allan Schweyer, president of the Human Capital Institute