Entrepreneurs are tapping into Facebook and other sites to develop networks and share ideas, but those sites also create a lasting profile you may not like.
In online networking, your past is forever
Is it too far fetched to imagine that in the near future a ratings agency will come up with a ranking system for business professionals? We would all be neatly catalogued in order from "AAA" down to "CCC." Every time an executive was fired from his post, naturally it would lead to a drop in his ratings profile.
A whole new index could be created and linked to company ratings being run by such as the industry heavyweights Standard and Poor's Ratings Services and Moody's Investors Service. The statistical possibilities are endless. All it takes to formalise such a system is for tech valley to perfect algorithms that collect all of the digital trails we already deposit daily on the internet and suddenly everyone is racked, packed and stacked in an orderly index. It is just a question of time and computing power.
Knowingly, or unknowingly, we leave digital fingerprints everywhere: e-mail, web searches, RSS downloads, blogs, forums, social-networking sites such as Facebook, and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn. The list is endless, and our electronic DNA is scattered throughout cyberspace. "So what?" the sceptic asks. "As long as I haven't done anything wrong, it's OK." I agree. But companies and recruitment firms around the world are increasingly making initial hiring decisions and evaluating staff based on their online profile and network. Who you know, what you've said, how your profile is shaping up on a PNS is the order of the day.
"As recruiters we use LinkedIn to keep in touch and make contact with other professionals and companies in our target industry sector," said Ben Waddilove, from the recruitment firm Macdonald and Company. "We do not use nor rely on content displayed on the site, but would establish further details ourselves if necessary. "Nothing can replace face-to-face contact and we meet all candidates and clients, as this is still by far the best way to develop a relationship.
However, the online site is extremely useful for establishing initial contact." If, like me, you've decided to take the plunge and share your profile and that airbrushed photo from 10 years back with the online business community, what next? Taking LinkedIn as an example, you can start with building your own professional profile the way you want it to be, much like a tailor-made curriculum vitae but a lot more interactive, with the ability to add photos, links, comments, references to other people on the same professional networking site. The really interesting part comes once you are uploaded and ready to go.
Invite people to hear what you have to say by scribbling down the occasional blog note on your profile page. Because it is connected with your network, it will give everyone access to your pearls of wisdom. Share ideas with others by uploading presentations, files or white papers you may have prepared. Seek advice from experts around the world by posting a question on a business problem you may be struggling with.
LinkedIn says it has more than 50 million users worldwide. That is an awful lot of cerebral power to tap into. And you can look for new business opportunities by approaching prospective partners or investors. It's certainly a quick way to build up your business network and it beats having to shake 1,000 people's hands. Instead you can have 1,000 cyber salutes as you go about greeting fellow professionals in the digital landscape.
As a recent member of Facebook, a social-networking site which says it has 300 million active users who spend 8 billion minutes daily on the site, I'm surprised to hear how Olivier Auroy, the managing director of gsFitch, the creative design agency based in Dubai, uses it. "Facebook is a tool for management, intelligence and information," Mr Auroy says. "Thanks to Facebook I know the mood of my employees, my competitors' activities and potential employees' background and interest."
His use of Facebook for business purposes is pioneering and it allows him to stay in touch with contacts across the globe and to keep on top of industry trends. "Facebook enables me to create a community of influencers and advisers around me," Mr Auroy says. "Recently I posted a question and got great answers from my virtual community. But if you want something you have to give something back and, as a manager, I leave the door open for people to access my profile."
His company has even created an online display of its work for new clients to look at and employees to comment on. The fact that with a couple of clicks you could be collaboratively working on a business problem with someone facing the same issue in Sydney, or headhunting a candidate from New Delhi, or becoming a member of a technology forum with most of its participants in Silicon Valley is, to say the least, quite exciting.
If like Mr Auroy you are working in an industry that requires collaboration and idea sharing with people inside and outside of your company, then online networking sites are ideally positioned. But it's worth remembering the comment from the US President Barack Obama recently, when he cautioned young Americans about what they upload on to social-networking sites such as Facebook. Mr Obama said it might cause them embarrassment later in life or create a problem with a future employer.
You can imagine the scene in an interview room where an employer says: "I see from Facebook, Joe, that at university you were a member of 'Anarchists Against Corporations'. What benefit could you bring to our company if we hired you?" You get the drift. Informally, and in a much less structured way, we are constantly being evaluated based on our professional business networks. Historically, as you went up the ladder, people would ask whether you were a member of a private club; whether you attended the same university as the chairman or any members of the board; or who you paired off with at the last golfing day.
Today we also have online forums to mingle and build up our networks. These create a space to show and share profiles and ideas. At the same time, they leave an indelible digital watermark for all to see. Be careful what you say, because the whole world may be listening. Rehan Khan is a consultant and writer based in Dubai.