News: LinkedIn Gets Bought

Normally when a giant company such as Microsoft buys an application I actually depend on to get my work done (such as Skype), I shudder and fret about what will happen. But LinkedIn has been so wrong-headed for so long that I clicked my heels upon hearing the news.

By Bill Kutik

I'll bet everyone reading this has some sort of personal connection with LinkedIn.

It probably ranges from listing yourself with minimal details just to have your profile online or updating your profile every month by embedding your latest presentation to taking part in a LinkedIn discussion group or, if you're a corporate recruiter, spending much of your work day on it.

So you have a personal stake in this pending acquisition: from pretty small to your entire career.

Since the announcement, there have been many fine blogs about the potential business consequences, new applications, new markets, etc. I especially like John Sumser's take on what could come out of this deal, approved by both sides and expected to close by the end of the year.

But since I have a personal stake, too, this is my personal account of my LinkedIn experiences. So settle back for some serious whining and complaining. Or not.

But first, the broader implications are indeed huge. As Jason Averbook (once again an independent consultant) first said in the early days of the talent-management suite, "LinkedIn knows more about your employees than you do!"

Let me put a finer point on that. LinkedIn knows more about you and the people you interact with at work than any other network out there. Certainly more than Facebook or Google+.

When I'm notified that someone has subscribed to my show Firing Line with Bill Kutik  on YouTube (owned by Google, of course) and I click on the name, the details are pathetic, similar to when I'm invited to join someone's circle on Google+. And you know most people don't fill out the new professional profile details on Facebook.

So the moment I'm contacted by someone I don't know, I look up their profile on LinkedIn and don't bother with a Google search.

That knowledge will be put to myriad uses after the acquisition. I'm most looking forward to Microsoft's personal assistant application, called Cortana, becoming more like Scarlett Johansson's character in the movie Her. Without the sex, of course.

So my personal connection to LinkedIn started in 2003, when I edited an issue of my friend Esther Dyson's looking-over-the-horizon newsletter which was astoundingly early in covering all the nascent social networks 13 years ago. At the time, MySpace was the leader. LinkedIn had, as I recall, 50,000 members.

Back then, a member had to invite you to join, much as with the beginning of Gmail. In Google's case, I actually read the "Terms of Use" boilerplate after being invited, discovered it allowed Google to read every word I wrote, so I declined. Not knowing that it hardly mattered, since the National Security Agency was probably already doing that.

But it was free, so I did join after Esther invited me, thus becoming one of LinkedIn's first million members. I was taken by its guarantee that a stranger could never tap you on the shoulder. That no one could find you, read about you or contact you except by linking to people already linked to you. That's why it's called LinkedIn, by the way. Really hard to remember that now.

Back then, the system would show you how to reach someone by linking through, at most, five other members. Like five degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Don't know how many people bothered doing all that and now, maybe only twice a year, do I get a request from someone I'm linked with to introduce them to another.

Point was, you had your privacy; you had your friends; strangers had to be introduced. That was the deal -- at the beginning.

Then the members started skyrocketing: 23 million in May 2008 to 433 million now, eight years later. But the demographic has always been the real killer: the average user is in his or her early 40s and at the director level or above at work. Perfect for recruiting and for selling.

Who could resist making money off such a group? LinkedIn could try to sell you something or just sell to everyone willing to buy. That is, if you're willing to violate the fundamental covenant of membership.

LinkedIn did a little of the former with selective online advertising targeted to profile characteristics, but mostly chose the latter.

It started selling individuals Premium Business memberships, now $1,000 a year. With those accounts, suddenly you could search for people you didn't know and then directly send them an InMail (LinkedIn's proprietary e-mail which also shows up in your inbox). No more bothering trying to find personal e-mail addresses.

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Recruiters were quick to take notice of this new access to a huge pool of passive and enormously attractive job candidates. And access depended on how much you paid.

Then, without so much as a notification to its members (perhaps a new privacy policy appeared in tiny type somewhere) and certainly no opportunity to opt out, LinkedIn burst open its entire database to recruiters with a single application called "Recruiter" and now, a growing list of "Recruiting & Talent Acquisition Solutions."

With the various applications, recruiters can do more or less what they please with the database. It has become so central to their work that most recruiters would not accept a new job without the guarantee of getting a seat at the cost of about $10,000. LinkedIn now claims 2.1 million people paying for a variety of advanced memberships, with "Talent Solutions" representing $2 billion in revenue.

I felt suckered. When I'm promised privacy and then get monetized instead, I like to be asked first and maybe get a split of the take. I wrote a column about it in 2008, which the Wall Street Journal picked up. The power of the press: Nothing changed.

Naturally, every vendor of recruiting software wanted to partner with LinkedIn and get at all those profiles in the most complete and convenient way possible. Faced with dozens of suitors, LinkedIn acted like the prettiest girl in high school (substitute "cutest boy" if you think the following is sexist): capricious, self-absorbed, fickle and horrendously difficult to deal with.

The first date was "apply with LinkedIn," which allowed a candidate to send a sharply abbreviated version of the online profile instead of a resume as a job application. That was announced as "exclusive" to Taleo (at the time) and soon spread around its competitors within weeks. Now it's been withdrawn.

Then a proximity program called "LinkedIn Preview," which allowed recruiters and hiring managers to view LinkedIn profiles directly through their recruiting application. This was no small thing, with recruiters getting cross-eyed toggling between the two applications thousands of times a day.

Software vendors lined up for that one, which was granted arbitrarily and seemingly whimsically after four of the top ATS vendors got it. It's really only a preview or partial profile, but recruiters who also used "Recruiter" could quickly access a candidate's full profile and see which candidates have already been viewed by colleagues.

This proximity has now been widely spread around various vendors. For the last few years, it seemed that every deal made with a vendor changed within a month or two.

Then there was the implicit deal I made creating a LinkedIn Group for the HR Technology Conference and Exposition in 2009, initiated by the queen of HR tech PR, Jeanne Achille of The Devon Group.

LinkedIn has an estimated 2 million groups, and to be fair, they are all free to their owners, moderators and members. But during the five years I was heavily involved, I watched the terms of engagement change arbitrarily and nearly always for the worse.

At the start, the thinking was LinkedIn loved groups because it made the site sticky and more attractive to advertisers. Aside from group members, really, who would stay on LinkedIn except recruiters and people updating their profiles?

Recognizing this potential goldmine, LinkedIn hosted an official group for group moderators and Ian McCarthy, then the group product manager, was on there frequently, responding both to the useful suggestions and ridiculous whining that each made up half the comments.

When I started, a moderator could choose the five discussions that would appear at the top of the list, like a magazine editor creating a cover. For larger groups getting 100 new discussions a day, that was probably just too much work and impossible.

Eventually, LinkedIn created two piles of posted discussions: "recent" (ordered simply chronologically) and "discussion" (ordered by group popularity, determined by the speed and number of comments and likes).

That way, members could instantly see what others thought was important and decide for themselves. Discussions constantly changed positions based on engagements. It was all very dynamic and engaging.

Despite howls of protest from members of the group for moderators, LinkedIn decided groups had to become like Facebook and Twitter, with all discussions posted simply in a chronological stream with no actions possible to change their time-stamped order.

LinkedIn shut down the official group for group managers. Who needed to read all that whining? Independent groups sprang up. LinkedIn came back with a new official group with strict rules that complainers would be thrown out. This is called "customer service"?

Moderators were left with one tool: the ability to pin one discussion to the top of the pile so members would see it without having to scroll down endlessly.

After spending at least a fifth of my work week moderating the group, I was so glad to have stepped aside by the time all the rules changed. And I'm looking forward to a whole lot of new thinking about LinkedIn when Microsoft takes over at the end of the year. As John Sumser points out, you don't buy a company to leave it alone.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 19th Annual HR Technology Conference & Expo, back at Chicago's McCormick Place, Oct. 4-7, 2016. Watch author and futurist Karie Willyerd on the 17th episode of the broadcast-quality video series, Firing Line with Bill Kutik for useful tips on avoiding becoming obsolete in the workplace.


Jun 20, 2016
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