Friday, February 01, 2013

Are LinkedIn Endorsements Meaningless?

Recently, Todd Wasserman of Mashable wrote an article stating that LinkedIn's endorsements have become meaningless. Feel free to read the article, but he's basically saying that, because endorsements are so easy to give (friction-free, in his terms), they're widely abused, so they have become meaningless. He cites examples of random endorsements he's received for languages he doesn't speak, or requests for reciprocal endorsements, as examples of their misuse. He then goes on to make the argument that they would be more useful if more effort was required to give or receive them (i.e. add friction to the process). Almost all of the comments on his article agree with him.

I disagree with both the argument that they're worthless, as well as the suggestion that making them more difficult to give would improve their usefulness. Fundamentally, I think they're serving their purpose well, which is to implement almost a 'wisdom of crowds' assessment of a person's skills.

First, let's remember to differentiate between recommendations and endorsements, because, as I've researched this a little on various discussion forums, they tend to be confused. Recommendations are the items where someone took the time to write something nice about you. Here's an example from the profile of Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn CEO:

In the language of the article, they are a high-friction activity, so should be viewed as having some value.  But you can help someone to write your recommendation. To me, recommendations are similar to references used when you seek a job. They're somewhat illustrative, but must be viewed with some suspicion and not heavily weighted in the decision process.

Endorsements are the little check-boxes on skills on your LI profile. At first I thought they were of little value because, as the shared article states, they're just too easy to give. But then I watched how the endorsements on my profile evolved:

Over time, certain skills on my profile clearly rose to the top: marketing strategy, digital marketing, online marketing, and lead generation. Those are exactly the skills that I believe I do best, and that I want others to know that I do best.

UNSCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT: Take a look at your own LinkedIn profile. If you have a solid number of connections, say a couple hundred, see if the skills identified as the most endorsed are an accurate representation of what you believe to be your actual skills, or if they at least reflect how you think the world may view your skills. I'd be curious to hear your conclusions in the comments below.

The Wisdom of Crowds?

So is this actually a small implementation of the 'wisdom of crowds?' In his book defining this concept, that the "many are smarter than the few," James Surowiecki points out that a diverse collection of independently deciding individuals is likely to make certain types of decisions and predictions better than individuals or even experts. Is that the case with LinkedIn endorsements?

Endorsements seem to fit the four criteria Surowiecki identifies as separating wise crowds from irrational ones:

  1. Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  2. Independence: People's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of those around them.
  3. Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
  4. Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.
Yes, you get the noise of the occasional friend that endorses every skill, or endorsements from people that don't know you that well and endorse you for something that makes little sense. Aren't those just 'eccentric interpretations?' And the bar graph display of endorsed skills seems to provide the evidence of the collective opinion.

Endorsements are a Valuable Indicator

Over time and over a larger population of connections, a true profile of your skills, as acknowledged by your peers through endorsements, should show through. And that can only be accomplished by making it very easy, or frictionless, to provide endorsements. 

Here's how I think endorsements should be used:

  • For a hiring manager, use the top few endorsed skills as a quick indicator of how others view a job candidate. If there's a mismatch between the skills endorsed and those required for the position, ask the candidate to explain that mismatch.
  • As a job candidate, confirm that the skills endorsed accurately reflect your true skills and how you want to be portrayed to others. If they don't, you can delete individual skills, or you can delete the entire endorsements section from your profile.

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