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:
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?
In business, a well-entrenched mechanism for introducing something new involves three avenues of approach:
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
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:
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.
FINDING PARTNERS: HOW TO MAKE IT MORE EFFECTIVE