by Guest Author, Michael Blanding
Debating whether to connect on LinkedIn with that more senior executive you met at that conference? You should, says new research about professional networks by Iavor Bojinov and colleagues. That person just might help you land your next job.
When it comes to seeking a new job, making connections on LinkedIn can be key to landing an offer. But building a large network on the platform isn’t as crucial as cultivating the right kinds of connections, new research shows.
While networking on digital platforms can open doors, research published this week in Science suggests that the specific types of connections job-seekers make online matter in terms of their ability to secure new positions.
The research breaks new ground on how to network on the professional channel LinkedIn and pinpoints the connections that are likely to yield the most job offers. The implications are significant for career planning and recruiting, and demonstrate how powerful digital networks can be for advancement—especially important in a hot labor market at a time of economic uncertainty.
“Your digital network can have lasting implications on how your career progresses, not just over the next year, but over your whole life,” says Iavor Bojinov, assistant professor and Richard Hodgson Fellow at Harvard Business School, who is one of the study’s authors. “If you are connecting with people who are strong ties, that’s not as useful, but if you are connecting with people who are extremely weak ties, that’s also not as useful. Moderately weak ties are the ones that are the most helpful.”
The study, conducted along with Stanford University Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor Sinan Aral of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and two LinkedIn employees and recent Stanford and MIT Ph.D. graduates Karthik Rajkumar and Guillaume Saint-Jacques, involved more than 20 million LinkedIn members, who made 2 billion new ties and created 600,000 new jobs over a five-year period.
Are acquaintances more helpful during a job search?
For decades, social scientists have debated whether casual acquaintances—or arms-length relationships—are more helpful than good friends in discovering new job opportunities. The theory, known as the “strength of weak ties,” has been an influential principle in the business world and the practice of networking.
Acquaintances, the thinking goes, are more likely to have information that you don’t already have access to within your circle of close friends, and therefore are more valuable in discovering options you didn’t already know about.
“This social theory, which has been influential over the last hundred years, says that weak ties are more beneficial for employment opportunities, promotions, and wages than strong ties,” says Aral. “The theory has borne out in surveys and anecdotal information, but despite having over 65,000 citations in the last 50 years, there have been no large-scale experimental causal tests of this theory as it relates to employment.”
Enlisting a LinkedIn algorithm
To put the theory through a rigorous test, the research team exploited LinkedIn’s People You May Know (PYMK) feature, which uses an algorithm to suggest new connections to members. LinkedIn constantly improves the algorithm by introducing new versions and testing them using randomized experiments for relevance. The team was able to tap into that process.
First, Bojinov and his colleagues leveraged an experiment conducted in 2015 on LinkedIn’s PYMK algorithm that randomly varied the prevalence of weak ties for 4 million members. During the experiment, 19 million new connections were formed and they led to 600,000 new jobs. Using the data, they analyzed how connection strength impacted the likelihood of finding a job at a connection’s employer. They then examined a larger experiment from 2019 on 16 million members, creating 2 billion new connections and observing 70 million job applications.
“We used this experimental data to provide the first large-scale causal test for the weak tie theory and its impact on the labor market,” says Saint-Jacques.
The researchers analyzed whether a connection led to a new job and how strong that connection was, based on how many people the pair had in common in their networks, and the intensity of their interaction by looking at how much they communicated.
When they crunched the numbers, the team found that weak ties yielded more jobs than strong ties, but with diminishing returns as the ties got weaker.
The sweet spot in networking seemed to be “moderately weak ties,” providing people with diverse connections that broaden opportunities, but not bogging them down with an echo chamber of more than a dozen friends in common. A moderately weak tie might be someone three or four years ahead of a job-seeker in the same industry, whom the job-seeker met at a conference; while an extremely weak tie might be someone five or six years ahead of the job-seeker in a different industry.
Where weak ties work best
The researchers found that the usefulness of ties varied according to the specific situation.
Weak ties are especially helpful, they say, in fast-moving industries such as technology and research and development, where it’s essential to keep up with the latest information in the field. “In those type of industries, information is evolving very rapidly, so weak ties can help you access that efficiently,” Rajkumar says.
Adds Brynjolfsson: “The strength of weak ties effect was true on average, but was even stronger for jobs in more digital industries.”
The research team also found that weak ties are more important for people engaged in remote work, where they might not hear the latest information in their field around the proverbial water cooler. “If you’re working remotely, you’re not on the factory floor interacting with people every single day,” says Bojinov. “You really need to focus on getting yourself exposed to novel information.”
Lessons for job seekers and recruiters
The study demonstrates the usefulness of cultivating a digital network, whether it’s on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other digital networks, before job-seekers need to use them.
Bojinov, who previously worked as a data scientist for LinkedIn, suggests workers connect not just with their immediate coworkers, but also people they meet at conferences, workshops, networking events, and collaborations across companies. In addition, he says, workers should be receptive to the people reaching out to them.
“If the algorithms are working right, then those people may be just a little bit junior or senior to you, but they might still expose you to novel information,” he says.
The principle works in the opposite direction, for hiring managers as well. Managers should be expanding their networks so when it comes time to hire, they have access to a wider, possibly more innovative, selection of candidates, he says.
“People are realizing how important it is to have diverse teams, and by having a diverse digital network, you will be more able to find higher quality candidates,” Bojinov says.
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About the author: Michael Blanding is a Boston-based investigative journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, Smithsonian, Slate, The Nation, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Boston. To contact Michael, email him at email@example.com.