dogs greeting
I would hazard a guess that, both in business and in our personal lives, ‘finding people’ is our most inefficient process, the one we waste the most time doing ineffectively, and the one we do the worst job at. This is another instance of ‘the cost of not knowing’ — Who is the best supplier to repair your furnace, or advise you on managing your business, who are the best people to go into business with, what is the best community of people to live in and with, and, of course, who is Mr. or Ms. Right to spend the rest of your life, or at least the rest of the week, in the romantic company of.

There are a lot of tools to help you do these things — yellow pages, personal ads, social networking software, association directories, consumer guides, dating services and so on — but they don’t work very well. First of all, ‘best’ is a very subjective and personal concept — what’s best for you isn’t necessarily best for me. And they don’t really give you much context for assessing whether the candidates meet your decision criteria. As a result, many of us, in both our business and personal time, spend a large proportion of it in the constant search for people we would like, for a project or a lifetime, to partner with. And we spend a lot more time in conversations with people we trust, to tap into their knowledge of people we don’t know — drawing on the strength of weak links. Our processes for doing so are inconsistent, arbitrary, serendipitous, even anarchic. There has to be a better way to find people.

I recently suggested that, as a result of James Surowiecki’s ground-breaking (though in retrospect pretty intuitive) discovery that experts are, for the most part, not anywhere near as good as the collective intelligence of many in solving problems or making decisions, perhaps ‘Expertise Finders’ in business aren’t as important as finding mechanisms to tap into that intelligence. But while that may help an entrepreneur get the management counsel he needs, or help the homeowner find the best furnace repair person in their area, or even learn how to fix the furnace himself, the Wisdom of Crowds doesn’t help much in finding people to work with, to live with, or to love.

Consider these three scenarios:

  1. Ms. A wants to establish a new business to home-deliver organic, vegan produce to the people in her city. She’s researched potential suppliers and customers and has a qualified list of both. She’s looking for the right business partners.
  2. Mr. B wants to establish a new Intentional Community of people who might wish to live in a natural setting, work collectively in that setting in socially and environmentally responsible enterprises, and lower their ecological footprint. He’s looking for members to help him establish the community.
  3. Ms. C wants to find some new friends who share her interest in studying the language of birds and animals, and is also looking for some people to help her explore her curiosity about a polyamorous lifestyle.

These are not extraordinary scenarios, but they are so difficult, awkward, even precarious with our present social processes and networking tools, that many people who might like to do these things give up before they start. Ms. A instead goes and works at a local organic food store and tries to talk them into offering home delivery. Mr. B instead teaches and writes books about social and environmental responsibility, and joins the Green Party, whose members seem more interested in political pursuits than Intentional Communities. Ms. C instead joins a birdwatching club and takes an ad out in a respectable singles publication, but the people she meets through these avenues are not at all what she’s looking for.

Is there a better, more efficient, more effective way for these three people to find the partners they’re looking for? And if not, how might we create a mechanism to make it better?

leversIn business, a well-entrenched mechanism for introducing something new involves three avenues of approach:

  • Tools & Technologies — that lead people to do something a particular way as they work through the steps in the tool.
  • Methodologies & Processes — that tell people how to do something in a proven ‘best practice’ way.
  • Culture Change Programs — that teach people how to do something a new way.

Different combinations of these three avenues work best in different organizations. Highly individualistic organizations with great autonomy generally rely on tools, because everyone thinks their own process is the best one, and top-down teaching is usually looked upon skeptically. Even tools may not work, because people who don’t like the implicit process or behaviour (because it differs from their own) may try to boycott, sabotage, or end-run the tool or technology. In organizations with high levels of obedience to superiors (voluntary, culturally imbued or coerced — and yes, many such organizations still exist) people will follow new methodologies and processes, and adapt to culture change programs, and hence the use of tools to reinforce the new processes may be unnecessary.

But now we’re talking about introducing better mechanisms for finding people in a whole society. And we’ve seen a host of new tools and technologies, called Social Networking applications, which more than anything else are designed to help people find other people, and for the most part they don’t work. And this challenge of finding people among 6 billion in the world to work with, to live with, or to love, is unique to modern man, so looking at lessons and practices in nature and history doesn’t help either. So what can we do?

The mistake the Social Networking tool-makers have made, I think, is to try to manage the process for us, to impose constraints (“fill in these fields in this form”) and organization (“index your interests and what you’re looking at using this taxonomy”) that works for them, and makes the tool development simple and manageable from an IT viewpoint, but which doesn’t meet the diverse needs of the individual customer. Finding people is not a complicated process (one that has a lot of known variables), but rather a complex one (one that has a lot of variables, not all of which can ever be known). When you solve a complicated problem (e.g. determining what you’re allergic to), you identify all the variables and their relationship to each other, and then design an algorithm, a rigorous, analytical process, to capture the data for these variables (your response to various allergy tests) and formulate a solution (aha! you’re allergic to X). When use solve a complex problem, by contrast (e.g. determining what is causing global warming), you have to content yourself with capturing all the data you can over as long a period of time as possible, and looking for patterns and correlations (global warming correlates closely with the amount of fossil fuels released into the atmosphere, and inversely with the amount of ozone in the stratosphere) but (much to the discomfort of many scientists, and to the glee of the parties that probably caused the problem) complex problems can never be solved with certainty. Databases are useful for complicated problems, but not for complex ones.

So rather than just capturing artefacts about ourselves: personal data and interests, “what you’re looking for”, and “what you offer” (work experience, credentials, self-assessed personal qualities, personal values and aspirations), what we need is ways to capture much more telling, context-rich knowledge about what we’re looking for and what we have that others might be looking for. Some head-hunters and dating services have made clumsy moves in this direction by having their customers record videos. But it’s still just talk. What gives us much more context to assess others, and vice versa, is evidence of action, what people have actually done. Personal stories are one way to convey this, but only if they’re honest and representative (a big ‘if’). One-on-one conversations can also be very valuable, but only if there is a previous context of basic understanding of what the other person is about, and a consequent level of trust between the conversants (an even bigger ‘if’). Blogs often consist of a combination of personal stories and clumsy conversations (started through the blog post, joined through comments) and it is not surprising that they have been relatively successful mechanisms for allowing people to find like minds. Shared experiences are a third very powerful tool for assessing whether others meet the criteria you’re looking for. Astonishingly strong, durable relationships have been forged (and others dramatically altered) by a single, powerful shared experience (a whitewater rafting trip, a sudden crisis like a blackout, a foreign language exchange trip, a retreat, a political campaign etc.). Why? Because there is shared context that allows for an unimpeded, objective flow of knowledge about others sharing that experience. And because unlike meetings in bars, first-date dinners or theatre visits, conferences, or even singles cruises, there is a lot of action happening — we judge people by what they do, not what they say.

So our people-finder (whether it be a tool, methodology/process or training/culture change program) needs to

  • convey our personal stories,
  • establish a foundation of basic understanding and mutual trust so that subsequent conversations are candid,
  • facilitate a seamless transition to those subsequent conversations,
  • show us in action, and
  • facilitate active, face-to-face get-togethers.

This is a tall order, but before we try to design something that meets these objectives, let’s think about the people-finding process for a moment. It’s a self-managed process — we naturally object to people imposing management on it. Match-makers and head-hunters are obstacles that get in the way of the process (in the latter case, for understandable business ‘filtering’ reasons). It is a self-selecting process (we choose to opt in, or opt out). It’s a reciprocal process: In each case there isn’t a subject and an object of the search: As Ms. A, Mr. B and Ms. C are looking, other people are looking to partner with them. So except for filling mundane job vacancies (I’ll explain in a later post why all the interesting advertised job positions have either already been filled or will not be filled by people replying to the ad) it’s almost absurd to try to capture “what you’re looking for” and expect someone will actually say “that’s me”. That person is busy looking for partners that meet their own criteria, and systems that take a buyer/seller approach are doomed to lead to ‘two ships that pass in the night’ scenarios. So whatever design we come up with has to be a place where people can show who they are, not say what they want. It’s up to the searcher to make the connection. And any place that shows us as we really are opens us up, perhaps dangerously, to a whole world of possible relationships, not just the ones we might be looking for. I confess that I’m always looking for possible business associates and new friends, but my inarticulate blog, which tells you relatively little about me personally, has led to some surprising and flattering personal overtures from readers who think they might be looking for me for other reasons. A good people-finder needs to acknowledge that risk, and its possibilities: Sometime when we go looking for someone for one reason, we find that we find someone that meets another need, perhaps one we didn’t even know we had. We don’t always know what we’re looking for until we find it.

The transition from a blog or other online correspondence relationship, to friendship or other partnership, is currently a very difficult one. My first phone and Skype conversations, and first face-to-face meetings, with people I’ve ‘met’ online have usually been pretty awkward and embarrassing — it’s a wrenching transition, usually revealing how little, or how inaccurately, your (and others’) online personas really convey who you are. Or maybe that’s unfair — perhaps I should say ‘differently’. Who am I to say that the persona that you convey in face-to-face conversations is any more the ‘real’ you than the one you convey in thoughtful and passionate online ‘conversations’?

What would a system that meets the criteria in the five bullets above look like? How could we design it? I’m not sure — I’d like to gather the Wisdom of Crowds before trying to answer that question. But here are some quick thoughts:

  1. I think the stories about us that would be most valuable would be stories authored by others that know us, not self-authored ones.
  2. Stories are highly personal, evolutionary, free-form and dynamic. ‘Templates’ for stories won’t help, and could hurt. We need to learn and teach a lot about story-telling.
  3. Maybe it’s because I’m male, but I want to see someone in action, even if it’s pursuing their hobby, rather than just hearing about what they’ve done, or seeing them sitting passively at their computer. So we need to learn and teach how to make short movies, ‘personal documentaries’ as well. If you think this is silly, ask yourself this: If there was a 5-minute movie on your favourite blog showing the author doing something active, even something silly like flying a kite with their children, would you hesitate for a second before watching it (bandwidth permitting)? Now, if it was just a webcam showing them passively at their computer, would your answer be the same? You’re thinking what I’m thinking, right? — The 5-minute action movie is another type of story.
  4. After trying Skype and Webcams, I’m convinced audio conversations (especially if they could be twinned with voice recognition software that would create an IM thread) will be critical to deepening established relationships, and will also be valuable tools in collaboration, consensus-building, and innovation. But I’m not so sure they’re of any value in finding partners and establishing those relationships in the first place. You need a context of basic understanding and mutual trust to do that, and weblogs alone can’t give you that. Until you have that basic understanding, through a lot of stories, 5-minute movies and/or face-to-face conversations, I think audio conversations between people looking to establish relationships will just be jarring and awkward. They might actually sabotage what could otherwise be an important relationship. As for Webcams — they’re just too static, and add the same value as video of a presenter droning on at the front of a boardroom, or video of a news anchor reading the text of a story — zero.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this, and I’m sure the designers of the next generation of Social Networking applications, innovatinve business search companies, dating services and others struggling with the complex problem of people-finding would welcome them too.


This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Derek says:

    I think you’re on to something very interesting here. I think stories play a part in conveying our personality out into the web, though I think association and community should also play a part.Communities like IRC channels (the few ones like #joiito which are still mostly polite), Wiki communities and even Blog circles; seem to be society taking difficult first steps forward to finding new ways of connecting people.I think some future hybrid may create the virtual corner coffee shop, where regulars can hang out and set the tone; but also where strangers may wander in, take a look around, and maybe stay for a conversation or two.As for your suggestions about video and stories with independent perspective … alas it takes a collaboration to shoot a video or create a story about others. For those of us stuck out in our social islands, we’re going to have to pull ourselves up with just our own resources, through our own stories, realtime communications (IM/IRC/Skype), and finding new communities that we can easily contribute to.

  2. Herwig Rollett says:

    If there was a 5-minute movie, would I hesitate for a second before watching it? Yes I would, and usually rather do without it, simply because I am used to skim text but have not yet found a way to do something comparably efficient with videos. People’s time is a far scarcer resource than bandwidth.Regarding Derek’s virtual corner coffee shop cf. the concept of ‘ba’ which can also be interpreted as a kind of place (which may be virtual) enabling interactions between people (and also between people and things). I wonder how fluid the boundaries of such places will be, both in terms of subjective experience (would it feel like moving from one community to another, or more like a gradually changing environment?) and in terms of technical infrastructure (if we are serious about virtual social places, their identity should not be defined by the system used to host the platform – but social boundaries and interests change, so where will the associated data reside, who will have admin rights, who will pay?).Also, let’s not forget that available services lumped together under the “social networking” label are very different beasts: Some do in fact try to deliberately address this vision (e.g. Ecademy), while others focus more on forms and filtering (e.g. LinkedIn). Don’t get me wrong: Of course Ecademy is lightyears away from what we would like to see. But it begs the question whether our virtual coffee shops will eveolve from a few centrally maintained services with many users or from a federation of personal sites offering collaboration facilities.

  3. dilys says:

    Interesting question for the blogosphere. The metaphor that works for me is a “front porch,” or–as in my residential compound in Austin–“renting the clubhouse.” That is, I can invite a passer-by to sit down, or host a little party. That takes care of “who pays.” Greater difficulties arise in the privacy and hipness areas. By that I mean, navigating self-disclosure without inviting every potential stalker or unbalanced bore. Boundaries indeed. As to hipness, I infer that there are stereotypical rules of thumb that can work against full self-disclosure up front. A woman over 40, I’ve found cyberspace extremely responsive, have made international friends in affinity discussion groups and met up with them later, to the pleasure and profit of all concerned. The initial mode has been essentially pen-pals. These friendships have leapfrogged questions of appearance and age, and gone right to the tenor of mind. A video would not have accomplished that, would probably have discouraged it. Therefore, I suggest at least a staggered disclosure, except for pure romance-match services.But an algorithm for disclosure, with templates. Magnificent idea! Why not try it? I do communications consulting, and will put it into the Mental Ferment Engine. Outcome more suitable to innovative high-energy site, than to program development.There must be studies of how, neurologically and behaviorally, people become adquainted. I remember seeing a video of toddling children, effective and ineffectively striking up contact with other children. Adorable and instructive.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Interesting metaphors and models in this thread!Derek/Herwig: I think the ‘virtual neighbourhood koffee klatch’ might be even better than ‘coffee shop’. What we need to do to find true partners (business or personal) is create a sort of intimacy that allows relationships to progress quickly. When I’m getting to know people (I’ve chosen to get to know) better, I don’t think I really want strangers dropping by. As for the need for 2 to make a video, that’s something that technology could, and should, solve. We need a webcam pointed the other way, that we can edit and show to people to give them a flavour for what we’re like in the real world, face to face, working together… I’m intrigued that Herwig wouldn’t often bother to look at the 5-minute videos of favourite writers. I’d do it in a moment — maybe I’m a voyeur at heart. I’d actually rather do this than spend 5 minutes in a halting awkward first phone call with someone.Dilys: Love the front porch metaphor. My friend Xian’s new book The Power of Many explains how living room meetups were the dynamic that launched the Dean campaign. It intrigues me because I’d be afraid to let strangers know where I lived, while I think at the same time the chance to spend a couple of hours in my living room with a handful of my readers would be extraordinarily valuable, and possibly be the launch pad for some Natural Enterprises or even a Model Intentional Community. Maybe what we need, as you say, is an algorithm with various routes to gradual (or not-so-gradual, if the participants agree) self-disclosure. What do you think it might look like? Would we start with the model that small children meeting for the first time offer us?

  5. dilys says:

    Some of the elements for success would involve relative informality in the beginning (the front porch metaphor), incremental advancement of the relationship, honoring stages, and a) eliciting relevant information while b)eliminating noise. Beginning to think about stages of trust, communication, and bonding, I’m reminded of a couple of things. Carl Jung said in his letters that every relationship has its proper distance. Traversing the stages fluidly, and designing and detecting signals about when to settle or back away one notch, would be important. In addition, the concern is in part about formats. Art Kleiner has thoughts I find generally provocative in The Next Wave of Formats, Dave, is there any technological, social, or economic reason to stop you from having “the chance to spend a couple of hours in [your] living room with a handful of [your] readers”? Probably virtually. You could think through purposes, topics, and desired outcomes, either issue specific invitations or announce to your readers an “open house,” design and circulate a format for participation, and arrange a videocam through a website, accompanied by a telephone bridge connection. It would take some groundwork and focus, but the awkwardness could be minimized. With e-mail prearranged among all gathered at the same time, it could be an interesting experiment. Should you choose to consider the idea.One of the few things I remember from the toddler video was that the socially successful initiators gave other children some candy. One version of “candy” might be information, a contact, accurate professional advice, or some other kind of “goodie” that someone says they want or need. That is, in the candy metaphor, early in the progressive template it would be helpful to know, like a Wish List, what others would consider valuable, if I were in a position to give it.All over the lot, but hopefully nuggets worth considering.

Comments are closed.