Sixteen years ago, around this time of the year, I was one semester away from finishing up my Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. As with most students getting ready to finish school, it was job hunting season. Perfecting resumes, writing customized cover letters, researching potential employers, attending information sessions and all other job hunt related tasks added up to an almost full time job by themselves.
Part of that job was getting ready for interviews. My friends and I spent many hours conducting mock interviews with each other, preparing ourselves for those stressful meetings with recruiters. Each type of job had its own interview format, and as a candidate for management consulting positions, I spent a lot of time practicing for Fermi Problems.
Named after physicist Enrico Fermi, Fermi problems are typically about estimating quantities that seem impossible to compute given limited available information. These are questions like “How many airplanes are in the air around the world right now?” or “How many color printers are there in Istanbul?” The most famous Fermi problem, asked by Fermi to his students, is “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?”
In a consulting interview setting, the interviewers are less interested in the actual number answer to the question than the methodology used by the candidate to get to the answer. In the absence of relevant data, the candidate is expected to make use of commonly available knowledge, break the problem into smaller problems while making assumptions and approximate calculations. Fermi problems help interviewers evaluate the candidate for reasoning, structured thinking, practical knowledge, mathematical skills, ability to deal with uncertainty and making estimations – all very useful skills in management consulting.
While practicing for Fermi type consulting interview questions, I sometimes fantasized about the following scenario: A candidate walks into a consulting interview. The interviewers ask the candidate to estimate something like how many personal computers there are in Mexico. The candidate asks them to wait a moment, makes a call on his cell phone, and repeats the question. He waits for a few seconds, says thank you, hangs up and says “As of this past Monday, there are 18,453,901 personal computers in Mexico. Would you like to know anything else?” The interviewers are very impressed and hire the candidate on the spot.
Whenever I talked about this fantasy with my friends, they would all object to the ending and say that would be considered cheating and would defeat the purpose of the interview and as far as they were concerned, the candidate should be kicked out. I did see their point, but disagreed because I thought surely, someone that well connected and can reach seemingly impossible data with a simple phone call would be worth a lot to any organization.
That was sixteen years ago and we live in a very different world now. Last month, I read Andrew Razeghi’s Fast Company article, Do You Hire For IQ Or Klout Score, which reminded me of my fantasy. Razeghi considers both intelligence and social connectivity as important traits in business, especially from an innovation perspective.
“The line is quickly blurring between the value of what we know and who we know. This then begs the question: which is more important? Is it more valuable to have the answer? Or is it more valuable to know who has the answer?
In an academic environment we call the latter cheating. But in the corporate world, does it really matter if you know the answer to the problem, or is it more important that you can find out who does?”
In Understanding, Defining And Achieving Innovation, we talked about the seven brain attributes (thinking and behavioral tendencies) of people. What Razeghi’s questions really lead to is when strong analytical and structured thinking skills are more essential than social thinking, expressiveness and assertiveness, and vice versa.
My answer to Razeghi’s question is “it depends.” While intelligence and ability are important across the board, certain business functions especially benefit from the size of an individual’s social network, and how influential the individual is within that network. It is essential, for example, for product management and marketing, where a manager has to interact with many external service providers (agencies) of varying functions, managing them to get work done on time with a reasonable budget. For recruiting, knowing how to reach people with various sets of skills and the ability to convince them to take a particular job is priceless. (Receive any connection requests on LinkedIn from headhunters recently?) For sales, this is even more so, for each contact within the salesperson’s network becomes either a potential customer or a lead to a potential customer.
Even within an organization, who you know and how influential you are with them matters. Once you “learn the ropes” of an organization, things run more smoothly. Being on friendly terms with Bob the CEO’s Assistant may get you a brief meeting with his boss during an otherwise impossibly busy day. Your friendship with Mary from IT can determine whether your laptop gets repaired by lunch or by the end of next week.
Social connectivity has always been important in business, but never more so than in today’s world. Businesses are increasingly looking at measures of social connectivity such as Klout Scores when screening candidates. Klout is an online service that measures people’s online influence and scores it on a scale from 1 to 100. In order to do so, Klout analyzes people’s social media data from all kinds of sources such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Foursquare. The Klout Score is calculated by applying Klout’s proprietary scoring model to more than four hundred signals such as number of friends, followers, comments, likes, retweets, all gathered from seven different networks on a daily basis. The claim is that the better someone’s Klout Score, the better connected and influential that person is. Klout spokeswoman Lynn Fox is quoted in a recent Forbes article:
“We look at this as similar to an SAT. It is one of many factors that is considered when a person applies to a university. Likewise, the Klout Score can be used as one of many indicators of someone’s skill set.”
Although somewhat controversial, Klout is beginning to get recognized as a legitimate measure of influence by businesses. In his Wired article titled What Your Klout Score Really Means, Seth Stevenson tells the story of an experienced marketing consultant who gets asked what his Klout Score is during an interview with a marketing agency. The candidate gets turned down for the position due to his low Klout Score. He then spends the next six months working hard to increase his Klout Score, and realizes that as his score rises, so do the number of interviews and job offers he gets. The consultant’s take: “Fifteen years of accomplishments weren’t as important as that score.”
The point is that social connectivity, however it gets measured, is important, sometimes even essential. One person who wrote about this way back in 2000, before there were social networks, user generated content and Klout Scores in our lives, is Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell saw the importance of social connectivity and talked about it in his bestselling book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In his book, Gladwell examines what he calls social epidemics, which are “ideas and products and messages and behaviors [that] spread like viruses do.” According to Gladwell, there are three laws in the tipping points of social epidemics:
- The Stickiness Factor, which is about the actual informational content and packaging of a message. Messages must have a certain quality which not only causes them to “stick” to the recipients’ minds, but also is considered to be worth passing on.
- The Law of Context, which is about the rule of the environment in which the message is being passed. Gladwell states that “epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”
- The Law of the Few, which states that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Gladwell calls these people Mavens, Salespeople and Connectors.
Mavens are the information specialists of the social network. They accumulate knowledge, evaluate it and if they deem it worthy, pass their evaluations and the original message to others in a skilled fashion. Mavens control what messages flow through the social network.
Salespeople are charismatic people with strong persuasion and negotiation skills. They can propagate messages through the social network, even to people they do not personally know. Salespeople control how strongly the messages flow through the social network.
Connectors are people who have made large number of friends and acquaintances, and are in the habit of facilitating the formation of new social connections between them. They invest time and effort into maintaining their social connections, which are many more times the number than the average person. Gladwell calls them “[people who] link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” He also attributes the social success of Connectors to the fact that “their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.” Connectors control how wide and how quickly the messages flow through the social network.
Tying all of this back to the seven brain attributes, it would be safe to say that we would expect the three types of people stated in The Law of the Few to be strong in different brain attributes. I would expect a Maven to be strong in analytical and conceptual thinking, whereas a Salesperson would most likely excel in expressiveness and assertiveness. A Connector would undoubtedly possess great social thinking skills and good flexibility.
If one sees the world of business through Gladwell’s eyes, it is clear that the goal of any business organization is to start social epidemics, for every business exists to create “ideas and products and messages and behaviors” and make sure that they “spread like viruses do.” Assuming that the other two of the three laws are fulfilled, meaning the product/service/message possesses high quality content and packaging in a favorable environment, The Law of the Few can very well determine the success of a business.
So I repeat my answer to Razeghi’s question. It depends. It depends on the line of business, it depends on market conditions, it depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. But social connectivity does make a big difference. Deciding on how to use it, where to apply it and whom to hire to get it – well, that is the art of management.
Let us take a moment here, and recite a paraphrased version of the Serenity Prayer for executives:
God, grant my business the analytical resources to develop a high caliber product/service/message and a well functioning organization,
The social connectivity to start social epidemics that can make my product/service/message reach and stick with my customers,
And the business wisdom to help me decide how, when and where in my organization to utilize the two.