Washington - Every second, at least two more people join LinkedIn’s network of 238 million members.
They are head hunters. They are the talent in search of a job. And sometimes, the career site for the professional class is just a hangout for the well-connected worker.
LinkedIn, using complex algorithms, analyses their profiles and site behaviour to steer them to opportunity. And corporations parse that data to set business strategy. As the network grows, LinkedIn’s trove of information also grows more comprehensive.
It’s big data meeting human resources. And that data could catapult the company beyond building careers and into the realm of education, urban development and economic policy.
Chief executive Jeff Weiner put it this way: “Our ultimate dream is to develop the world’s first economic graph”, a sort of digital map of skills, workers and jobs across the global economy.
So far, LinkedIn’s data-driven strategy appears to be working: Its stock price has grown sixfold since its 2011 initial public offering. And because its workforce has doubled in a year, it’s fast outgrowing its Mountain View headquarters, just down the street from Google.
The company makes money three ways: members who pay for premium access; ad sales; and its gold mine, a suite of products created by its talent solutions division and sold to corporate clients, which accounted for $205 million (R2 billion) in revenue last quarter.
When LinkedIn staff talk about their network and products, they often refer to an “ecosystem”. It’s an apt metaphor, because the value of their offerings would seem to rely heavily on equilibrium.
LinkedIn’s usefulness to recruiters is contingent on the quality and depth of its membership. And its usefulness to members depends on the quality of their experience on the site. LinkedIn’s success, then, depends on its ability to do more than amass new members. The company must get its users to maintain comprehensive, up-to-date profiles, and it must give them a reason to visit the site frequently.
To engage members, the company has deployed new strategies, for example: a redesigned site; stuff to read from the likes of Bill Gates, Jack Welch and Richard Branson; new mobile apps; status updates; and targeted aggregated news stories.
By throwing more at users, LinkedIn risks undermining the very thing that’s made it the go-to site for recruiters: a mass of high-quality candidates, sorted and evaluated and offered up.
“I think there’s a chance of people getting tired of it and checking out,” said Chris Collins, director of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.
LinkedIn trolls a variety of sources for member data. There’s the information users put into their profiles, listing current employers, past employers, certifications and skills sets. And there’s everything users do on the site. LinkedIn notes what kind of job postings they view or which company pages they visit.
In Building 2016 on LinkedIn’s Mountain View campus, its scientists pound away on keyboards, surrounded by walls covered in colourful data maps and windows scrawled with equations.
In real time, they study the site’s every detail and move with an eye towards making their product more useful for members and recruiters.
For members, data influences the suggestions that show up in a module on one’s home page called “Jobs you might be interested in” with information on how to apply.
The algorithm that powers the module takes into account an exhaustive range of factors that go far beyond one’s current field and city of residence.
For example, from analysing the migration patterns of its users, LinkedIn has determined that a worker in San Francisco is more likely to move to New York for a job than to Fresno.
LinkedIn’s algorithm also factors in how often a user has changed jobs.
“Are they being promoted quickly? In that case, maybe we should recommend jobs that are a step up for them,” said Parker Barrile, senior director of product for the talent solutions division. “Or have they been stable in their career for the past several years? In that case, maybe we should present new opportunities at the same level.”
LinkedIn says more than half of job-seeker engagement comes from the “Jobs you might be interested in” feature.
For corporate clients, LinkedIn mines its member data to assist them with strategic planning decisions. If a company is trying to decide where to open a new office, LinkedIn can inform that.
“We could tell you what the best city to hire voice-over IP engineers is, based on the supply of people available and the demand,” said Dan Shapero, vice-president of talent solutions and insights.
LinkedIn also helps its corporate clients understand how they’re stacking up against rivals when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. By combing through the profiles of every member who currently or previously worked at a company, they can determine how often a firm tends to lose talent to its competitors.
It would all come together in the map.
“We could look at where the jobs are in any given locality, identify the fastest growing jobs in that area, the skills required to obtain those jobs, the skills of the existing aggregate workforce there, and then quantify the size of the gap,” Weiner wrote in the blog post. “We could then provide a feed of that data to vocational training facilities, junior colleges so they could develop a just-in-time curriculum that provides local job-seekers with the skills they need to obtain the jobs that will be, not just the jobs that once were.”
Such a tool is hardly imminent; Weiner writes it is an innovation he expects to materialise “a decade or more” in the future.
Some analysts say there are limits to the value that big data can bring to the talent search process.
David Lewin, a professor of human resources management at UCLA, described using LinkedIn to talent-search as “a data mining exercise that is broad, but not deep”.
Lewin said certain characteristics were critical to one’s success in the workplace but difficult to measure from a LinkedIn profile or from any algorithm-driven search process.
“The issue of predicting fit and performance with the company, that still remains the big issue,” Lewin said.
This could explain why the old-school referral, a personal recruitment approach more art than science, remains the top source of external hires.
“The social tools are good for reaching out to people and creating a brand,” said Josh Bersin, principal and founder of talent consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte. “But they end up coming through the normal channels” to apply and interview for a position.
While its data strategy seems to be the fulcrum of its future, that’s not the only area in which the company is pushing to innovate.
The imperative to think big is literally written all over their walls – on white boards plastered with Post-it notes and others covered in diagrams and numbers and others with sketches of dinosaurs and Hello Kitty.
Barrile said one big target was the recruiter on the go. Like every other tech company, the growth opportunity in the mobile market is considered exponential. Smartphones and tablets now account for 30 percent of visits to LinkedIn.
This trend has forced Barrile and his team to learn how to tailor recruiting products for smaller screens and thumb typing.
“What we’re learning is that they’re in response mode – they’re not in proactive mode,” he said.
They want to be alerted to a new message from an applicant or forward a profile, but they’re not likely to conduct a detailed search for a candidate while on the move.
In May, LinkedIn announced a new mobile application called CheckIn that is meant to be used at career fairs. Instead of collecting CVs at these events, recruiters can have candidates enter their names and e-mail addresses into the app.
It will instantly add that person to the recruiter’s LinkedIn dashboard, even if the prospect doesn’t have a LinkedIn profile.
CheckIn was devised to solve a problem faced by LinkedIn’s talent acquisition team: They were burdened by the stacks of paper CVs at campus recruiting events.
“You have to divide it up to make sure you can physically get it home so you’re not over the weight limit with your luggage,” said Brendan Browne, LinkedIn’s director of global talent acquisition.
Also, once home, it took so much time to log the CVs that sometimes the candidates had been scooped up by other employers.
A lurking challenge for the company is engagement. LinkedIn said in its most recent quarterly earnings filing: “A substantial majority of our members do not visit our website on a monthly basis, and a substantial majority of our page views are generated by a minority of our members.”
The company has moved aggressively to move the needle. Last October, it launched Influencers, a series of published content written by business titans, thought leaders and even President Barack Obama.
LinkedIn’s home-page traffic has more than doubled compared with last year, an increase it credits in part to the success of the Influencer feature.
Two recent acquisitions also suggest an emphasis on user engagement: In April, LinkedIn purchased Pulse, a news reader for cellphones; last year, it bought Slideshare, a service for sharing presentations.
LinkedIn continues to grow its member base and pull in revenue. And through innovative use of its data and a focus on its members, it believes it can have a big impact.
“Hiring today is still an incredibly manual and laborious process on both sides,” Barrile said. “And so our vision is to make it dramatically more efficient.” – The Washington Post