April 24, 2014 3:44 pm

The LinkedIn crowd decoded

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26: Job seekers wait in line to meet with employers at the 25th Annual CUNY big Apple Job and Internship Fair at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on April 26, 2013 in New York City. The unemployment rate for Americans ages 16-24 is currently 16.2 percent, which is more than double the national rate of unemployment. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)©Getty

Making sense of the masses: applicants at a New York jobs fair wait to see prospective employers

Finding a needle in a haystack is no mean feat. Imagine, then, a haystack where each individual strand of hay is desperately trying to look like a needle.

Such is the conundrum facing recruitment agencies and employers that use LinkedIn, the biggest online networking platform, to hire staff. The sheer weight of data – there are 300m users worldwide – is overwhelming in itself. In March, the number of LinkedIn users in the UK surpassed 15m for the first time – almost a quarter of the entire population.

LinkedIn is different to the traditional databases that recruiters have used for decades; users are marketing themselves, and are able to modify their self-published CVs at any given moment.

“People are placing their personal brand on there, making it relevant and public,” says Steve Weston, chief information officer at Hays, a UK-based recruitment agency that spans 33 countries around the world.

Recruiters have been quick to acknowledge how LinkedIn has changed their approach. Neill Fry, director at UK executive search firm Edward Drummond, notes that the platform, especially in a professional environment, can become an ex­tension of your self: “It sort of creeps into your life and your consciousness.”

Social media platforms in general have created vast quantities of information. And users of LinkedIn – most of them concerned with their own professional or personal “brand” – are creating yet more by changing their profiles, recommending and endorsing each other, and following companies.

For recruiters, the timing of user behaviour, and its relationship to the user’s underlying psychological motivation, can help them sift through a data overload.

Hays is leading the drive to act upon so-called “psychological triggers”. The idea is that if somebody changes their LinkedIn profile, they may at that very moment be more receptive to the idea of a new job.

Hays finished aligning its internal database, containing 10m candidates, with LinkedIn in January 2013. Recruiters at the company can now receive real-time prompts when potential candidates change their LinkedIn profiles. Such notifications are designed to overcome the problem of “noise” created by huge data sets.

Hays’s database is 10 terabytes in size (a single terabyte contains 1tn bytes) but by observing the users who are changing their profiles – in much the same way journalists might observe Twitter in the hope of finding news – it can zero in on what appear to be the best opportunities.

“This is information that I can use commercially,” says Ian Clark, head of UK financial markets recruitment at Hays, as his screen buzzes with notifications about LinkedIn users’ real-time behaviour. “I just sit and watch it.”

Alistair Cox, chief executive of Hays, gives an example of another way in which psychological triggers can have value. He describes a potential candidate who started following a rival recruitment company on LinkedIn – a “trigger” implying a willingness to move jobs. Hays received a notification, contacted the candidate and was able to place him in a job within three days.

LinkedIn itself says one of the main advantages it offers employers is “that the majority of members aren’t actively looking for a new job”.

It is not just recruiters who are alive to the psychological meanings attached to LinkedIn behavioural patterns – they extend across professional life. One City of London worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, describes an experience he had before changing jobs.

“I knew I would have to move jobs as my role would probably disappear after a takeover was completed, so I solicited and received a number of recommendations on LinkedIn before talking to recruiters,” he says. “Straight away, a number of colleagues asked me if I was planning to leave.”

The employee in question says that he has since advised friends to “stagger” their recommendations if they want to be discreet and avoid tipping off their employers or colleagues about their intentions.

William Vanderpump, an analyst at UBS who last September wrote an extensive report on LinkedIn’s disruptive effect on the recruitment industry, says people are increasingly aware of how their online behaviour might be interpreted.

“People are aware of the power of LinkedIn and have reservations about changing their profile because they are conscious about the signals that it might send to their employer,” he says.

“If it’s a flag for recruiters it’s a flag for your line managers as well,” says Stephen Edwards, group marketing director at Robert Walters, a large UK-based recruiter. “There are certain professions more sensitive to this, legal being an example.”

Paul Quain, a partner at the UK’s GQ Employment Law, says LinkedIn profiles stand to become increasingly important items of evidence in cases when employees leave their companies. A legal grey area is emerging
as to who owns LinkedIn profiles.

“An employer will have a number of clients to whom the individual worker is linked in. After that individual worker leaves the company, they may want to say ‘they cannot contact any of these people who are our clients’,” he says.

Mr Quain adds that, in some instances, the kind of real-time behavioural patterns observable on Linked­In could be used to decide if an employee had defected, or breached their contract in soliciting further employment.

It is not yet clear whether recruiters will make much more money through observing real-time LinkedIn behaviour. Robert Walters, chief executive of the recruitment agency that bears his name, agrees that the use of databases is changing, but suggests that underlying business models remain relatively unchanged.

“We no longer just own a database, we own and filter a database,” he says. “But the role of a recruitment consultancy in cutting through the noise and filtering the best candidates is now even more important than ever. Relationships have always been and are still the key in the recruitment process.”

But even if LinkedIn’s disruptive effect on recruiters has been exaggerated, its social effect is difficult to understate. Users – most of them professionals – are increasingly aware that their psychological motivations may be revealed by the way they behave online, not just by what they add, but by when and how they add it. The databases of yesteryear were relatively static; LinkedIn is alive – a mass aggregation of thoughts, desires, expectations; a catalogue of shifting psychologies.

Emma Jacobs’ Working Lives will return next week

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