Does LinkedIn help or disrupt headhunters?

(I am looking for a M.Sc. student(s) to research this question for his/her/their thesis.)

The first users of LinkedIn were, as far as I can tell, headhunters (at least the first users with 500+ contacts and premium subscriptions.) It makes sense – after all, having a large network of professionals in many companies is a requirement for a headhunter, and LinkedIn certainly makes it easy not only to manage the contacts and keep in touch with them, but also allows access to each individual contact’s network. However, LinkedIn (and, of course, other services such as Facebook, Plaxo, etc.) offers its services to all, making connections visible and to a certain extent enabling anyone with a contact network and some patience to find people that might be candidates for a position.

I suspect that the evolution of the relationship between headhunters and LinkedIn is a bit like that of fixed-line telephone companies to cell phones: In the early days, they were welcomed because they extended the network and was an important source of additional traffic. Eventually, like a cuckoo’s egg, the new technology replaced the old one. Cell phones have now begun to replace fixed lines. Will LinkedIn and similar professional networks replace headhunters?

If you ask the headhunters, you will hear that finding contacts is only a small part of their value proposition – what you really pay for is the ability to find the right candidate, of making sure that this person is both competent, motivated and available, and that this kind of activity cannot be outsourced or automated via some computer network. They will grudgingly acknowledge that LinkedIn can help find candidates for lower-level and middle-management, but that for the really important positions, you will need the network, judgment and evaluative processes of a headhunting company.

On the other hand, if you has HR departments charged with finding people, they will tell you that LinkedIn and to a certain extent Facebook is the greatest thing since sliced bread when it comes to finding people quickly, to vet candidates (sometimes discovering youthful indiscretions) and to establish relationships. I have heard people enthuse over not having to use headhunters anymore.

So, the incumbents see it as a low-quality irrelevance, the users see it as a useful and cheap replacement. To me, this sounds suspiciously like a disruption in the making, especially since, in the wake of the financial crisis, companies are looking to save money and the HR departments dearly would like to provide more value for less money, since they are often marginalized in the corporation.

I would like to find out if this is the case – and am therefore looking for a student or two who would like to do their Master’s thesis on this topic, under my supervision. The research will be funded through the iAD Center for Research-based innovation. Ideally, I would want students who want to research this with a high degree of rigor (perhaps getting into network analysis tools) but I am also willing to talk to people who want to do it with more traditional research approaches – say, a combination of a questionnaire and interviews/case descriptions of how LinkedIn is used by headhunters, HR departments and candidates looking for new challenges.

So – if you are interested – please contact me via email at self@espen.com. Hope to hear from you!

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