LinkedIn provides a valuable platform for individuals to build and nourish professional relationships. I was an early adopter of the service and regularly recommend it to recent graduates as a useful tool to help build their careers.
But it’s far from perfect. Although it can help users to surface information about professional connections within their networks, there are serious gaps. They’re not really the fault of LinkedIn, but they end up being glaring omissions at the end of the day.
LinkedIn only tracks relationships that are willingly disclosed. So if someone doesn’t use LinkedIn religiously, you may not be able to find relevant connections. Many high-profile individuals — politicians, celebrities, executives — don’t have a LinkedIn profile at all. Nor do many of their most senior aides and advisors. Yet these are some of the most valuable relationships that someone might want to mine.
A recent article in the Boston Globe underscored the value of personal relationships when it looked at the wide network of companies with ties to Genzyme, the prominent biotech firm. The piece emphasizes the relationships between former employees, with a special focus on retired CEO Henri Termeer.
Just for fun, I looked up Mr. Termeer on LinkedIn. He wasn’t there. Yet the story makes clear that those who can tap into his advice come away better for it.
Of course, even if Henri Termeer and his fellow former Genzyme execs were on LinkedIn, it might not do as much as it could to help me reach out. That’s because LinkedIn doesn’t distinguish the strength of relationships. Like most people, I am connected to folks on LinkedIn that I know very well. We’ll take each other’s calls (or emails, actually) and can easily open doors for one another. But there are also people that I have connected with after meeting with them at a single event. Or people that I worked with in the past, but perhaps don’t stay in touch with all that well today.
These are two big weaknesses in LinkedIn’s platform. The latter could be resolved by allowing users to characterize the strength/nature of their relationships, but that’s not likely to be popular. Who among us would want to say that we barely know somebody? Or acknowledge that we don’t take them all that seriously?
Perhaps LinkedIn could come up with some other way to rate the relative strength of a relationship without resorting to public disclosure. For example, by connecting with my email account, LinkedIn could easily see who I frequently communicate with and assign a stronger bond on that basis. Or perhaps it might look at my social networking accounts to see if I engage with certain individuals there. This data could be quietly used with search results so as not to reveal relationship strength information overtly.
But it’s really the former problem — dealing with relationships with people that don’t actively use LinkedIn or may not even have an account — that has much greater potential. There’s not an easy answer — you don’t want people claiming relationships that they don’t actually have. Yet somehow identifying these relevant connections could be an extremely valuable service from LinkedIn or some other company in the future.