Social influence or social propagation?

I’ve written before about my doubts around the concept of social influence.  Instinctively I was and am of the view that the measurement or ideas of online social influence are clumsy at best and misleading at worst.  I had the pleasure of meeting John Sumser at #HRevolution a couple of weekends ago and whilst I really enjoyed our, albeit brief, conversation, I’m not convinced by the model that is used by HR Examiner, nor indeed any of the suggested measures or rankings used by others (I daren’t even mutter the name beginning with K).

Last week I was fortunate to spend some time listening and discussing social networks with Nicholas Christakis.  Christakis is somewhat of an expert on social networks – you can see his TED lecture here – his focus is on real social networks…the old sort, people who talk to people, like we used to do.

Listening to the work that he has undertaken I started to pull together my thinking a little more to try and explain my instinctive discomfort.

The HR Examiner model looks at three main factors,

Reach: A measure of the audience size (number of eyeballs) for each individual. Traffic.

Relevance: The degree to which content associated with the individual matches a cloud of keywords prepared for the analysis

Resonance: The number of mentions, inbound links and participation found for each individual

Which sounds relative sensible. Until you start to really unpick the concept of “influence”,

“the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something” – Oxford English Dictionary

And the critical word is effect.  There needs to be an effect, in other words some sort of change, which isn’t measured by any of the online registers of influence.  The argument goes that the “resonance” goes some way to addressing this. But does it?

Christakis mentioned a really interesting real life example that had happened to him.  He is co-author of a book called “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives” and last year a link to the Amazon page for the book was tweeted by Alyssa Milano (no I didn’t have a clue either) who has 1.5m followers on Twitter. The tweet went on to be re-tweeted nearly 2m times.

Being scientists, Christakis and his co-author went and looked at their sales through Amazon in the following period.

There was no discernible change AT ALL.

But that is because Alyssa is a TV personality, right? And therefore there is no relevance. So the authors asked Tim O’Reilly to tweet the link to his 1.5m followers. Which he did and which was then retweeted and retweeted.  When the authors checked back in on the sales,

There was no discernible change AT ALL.

The story goes that hearing about this, Susannah Fox (social network researcher and author) tweeted the link to her 5,000 followers believing them to be a highly relevant demographic.

And guess what? There was no discernible change to sales at all.

Both O’Reilly and Fox had Reach, Relevance and Resonance in abundance.  But this hadn’t led to any action, they had failed to actually “influence” anyone. Why is this? I’d be lying if I said that there were any concrete answers, but there were a couple of things that we discussed that I think are at the root of the issue.

Their research has indicated that there is a big difference between what I would call “contacts” and “friends” on social networks (they specifically looked at Facebook). There is a big personal factor on people’s propensity to be influenced. And that of course makes sense, we are more likely to take action based on the words or advice of people we like, trust and want to be like, than people we know nothing or little about. The “influencers” may have a lot of followers, but how many of them are just contacts and how many are in a real relationship with them?

Secondly, Christakis talked a bit about the “influencable” suggesting that we focus too much on trying to identify the shepherds and not enough time considering the sheep.  Influence isn’t a purely passive game of pushing out information, it requires a certain level of complicity, on either a conscious or subconscious level.  A lot of the way in which we look at online influence measures propagation alone, or as Christakis puts it,

“I’m not saying that Twitter is useless, but I think that the ability of Twitter to disseminate information is different from its ability to influence behaviour.”

So are we dealing with real influencers or are we dealing with a relatively select group of individuals churning about the same information, tweeting, retweeting and commenting about one another in some sort of mutual beneficial self-fulfilling prophecy?

Well I am absolutely convinced that a number of people on these lists are doing good work and doing it for the right reasons. However, there are a lot of people doing that who don’t spend their time tweeting, retweeting and connecting to people on LinkedIn.  Does that make them any more or less influential?  And the simple fact is that we don’t know.

And why don’t we know? Because we simply can’t measure it without undertaking a breathtaking longitudinal study.  Social media and the internet allow a lot of people to profess expertise and to build profile without any just cause or track record. The risk of online measures like these are that they could, unwittingly, legitimise this.

I don’t want to beat up on a particular measure or organisation, that isn’t my intention, but I will be viewing these accreditations with a huge dose “scientific and behavioural research” salt, until they can prove otherwise. I’d advise you to do the same.

HR across the pond

One of the things that we often forget as British people, is how small our country is in relation to many in the world.  Even most of our near neighbours are bigger than us, despite our unwillingness to accept this.  We also have somewhat of a split personality –  we are Europeans but perhaps our closest neighbour and friend is America, a country that sits several thousand miles away from our shores.  As a quick confession, I should throw in that when I travelled to the US last Friday it was for the first time.  I’ve never really had any inclination to go there in the past, but the difference this time was the attendance at HRevolution.

Now the fug and haze has gone away from the event, now that I’ve had time to reflect, what do I take away? I’m not going to be able to compete with the many wonderful posts being written on the event itself, but there are some things that struck me when I look at my US colleagues compared to those in the UK.

– Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was that we are having many of the same conversations.  There is a huge amount of management literature coming out of the US (as I write this I’m sitting in a dorm room at HBS, one of the major culprits) and I guess I wrongly assumed that US practitioners would be streets ahead of the UK in the way that they practiced. They’re not.  US HR pros are dealing with the same struggles, the same frustrations and the same obstacles as practitioners in the UK.  Whether I’m relieved or disheartened by this I’m yet to work out.

– On the plus side, I think there is an absolute belief from everyone that I met that HR and HR professionals CAN make a difference and regardless of which side of the pond we work, there is an absolute business benefit to be achieved from great, aligned, focussed and down to earth people interventions.  How far people are down that path is more dependent on the quality of that individual and the appetite of their business than it is the country, state or county that they come from.

– We all have frustrations with our professional bodies, but we’re all working to improve them.  One of the great things that I took away was that SHRM were actively involved in supporting and sponsoring HRevolution.  Could the CIPD play such a role in the future? I would certainly like to think so.  Not only would it add to their credibility, but it would show that they are willing to open up their doors (and wallets) to non-CIPD events that helped to grow the profession.

– We lack a bit of cool and swagger.  I know that I was with a select group of HR pros and that those that attend Hrevolution are smarter than the average bear, but there was a confidence in the HR people who I don’t see in similar events in the UK.  Is this a general US vs UK factor? I don’t know, I’ll have to work that one out over time.  But if we could get it to rub off on us a little then I don’t think it would be a bad thing.

 What else did I take away? Well a whole load of great new friends and contacts.  A sense of energy and excitement and a real curiosity to learn and cooperate more with my friends and colleagues across the pond, to see how we can continue to make progress in our practice and in the profession as a whole.  And for that I am truly grateful.  I can’t list the people who I want to thank as there would be far too many and no-one would get to the end of the list (think the movies). Without exception everyone I met was exceptional. The organisers were amazing and the entertainment…..unusual.

Given the chance I’ll be back as soon as I can.

HR Evolution – An Englishman* abroad

This time tomorrow I’ll be flying to Atlanta to participate in HRevolution, “an event for human resources professionals, recruiters, and business leaders to come together and talk about the problems facing businesses today”. I’m lucky that it coincides with a business trip to the US, which means that a normally difficult event for a Brit becomes more accessible.

Having been hanging around the blogging and social media HR scene for a couple of years now, I’m particularly looking forward to meeting a number of people who I have conversed with during that time and actually making a proper “connection” with them.  I’m not a natural socialite so I’m also particularly pleased that there will also be a number of friendly faces that I have already met; my friend Laurie Ruettimann and of course my fellow British attendees Gareth Jones, Mervyn Dinnen and Jon Ingham.

I’m also really interested in hearing different national views on the HR agenda.  One of the joys (and frustrations) of working internationally is that you get a diversity of opinions and perspectives.  In fact, one of my long time blogging heroes, Joe Gerstandt is talking about Diversity and Inclusion, which I’m really interested in – but that is one of many great tracks. You know, if I’m giving my long bank holiday weekend up for HR, it has to be for something special!

I’m also hoping that there will be food for thought, ideas and people who set the neural pathways buzzing, challenge and inspire. HR people, like anyone else sometimes need a shot in the arm to drive their creativity, passion and enthusiasm.  Getting together with such a veritable smorgasbord of HR talent has to be a great opportunity to do just that.

Atlanta….and #HRevolution….here I come!

*I’m actually a Welshman not an Englishman….but it just didn’t work so well!