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July 31, 2005

The Ultimate LinkedIn Cheat: To Delegate or Not To Delegate?

I just got back from a great three week vacation. 

I was in France attending a wedding and visiting family & friends — and then I flew back to go camping with my 16 year old son Remy in the high deserts of southern Utah.

Kind of an interesting contrast to go from champagne, wine, cheese, bagettes, charcuteries, and foie gras to rain water and beans & rice cooked in a tin can on an open fire we made ourselves by rubbing sticks together.  Actually, my son did the rubbing and cooking — I did the eating.  (Perhaps this contrast mimics the range of possibilities in-store for my portfolio companies?)

Anyway, visiting friends & family in Europe and camping in the desert aren’t activities very conducive to Internet connectivity.  So, on my return, I was greeted with the usual backlog of thousands of unanswered emails — and unattended to LinkedIn Requests to Forward.  Even with my atypically heavy email loads and LinkedIn Requests, I’ve learned to adapt well on a daily basis — but after three weeks, the “catch-up” chore is tediously time-consuming — even using my time-saving methods ( Email System For High-Volume Email Management | CHEATER'S GUIDE TO LINKEDIN ) .

I recognise that, without a LinkedIn “Out of Office” feature, I am not alone with this problem.  Furthermore, seasonality will have a big effect on the efficacy of LinkedIn.  I suspect that any LinkedIn Request to Forward with a European intermediary will be crippled during the Annual European August Vacation Break — i.e., thousands of LinkedIn requests will be effectively deferred until September.  Something Konstantin will know the answer to shortly.

Of course, with my CEO sensibilities, when I detect I am becoming a bottleneck in any process, the first thing I think is — “DELEGATE!” — but therein lies the rub.  How can anyone effectively delegate any one-to-one communication in any media — telephonic, regular mail, email, or even LinkedIn?  One-to-Many is no problem.  One-to-Many communications are standardizable, event-driven, scalable, and therefore delegatable. 

But how do you delegate one-to-one communications?

Personal Assistants are indispensable for any busy professional who wants to increase their “personal throughput” — i.e., increase their productivity. With the “intimate” relationship that develops over time, a personal assistant is endowed with special knowledge of you which enables you to build enough trust that a wide range of tasks can be “safely” offloaded — including some “routine” correspondence. 

But even a Personal Assistant, with their special knowledge of you, can’t really handle true one-to-one correspondence.  This is a structural weakness in all of the current crop of communication platforms — PBX, Alpha Paging, email, IM, SMS, and communicating applications like LinkedIn.

  • How do you create a smooth and time-sensitive communications flow while simultaneously integrating a third-party to handle the bulk of “routine correspondence”?
  • How do you sort what can be handled by your assistant from what must be handled by you?
  • How do you strike the right balance between “High Tech” and “High Touch” for your own communications portal to meet the needs of your network?

In professions which depend on both large social networks and high-volumes of one-to-one communications within those networks, this is a perennial challenge.  For example, there is a $1 billion US telephone answering industry which exists to solve only the in-bound voice component of the mission-critical communication portals of 500,000 US physicians.  Physicians could fully automate this process but they feel that the “High Touch” of a Live-Operator is better suited and more appropriate for their stakeholder needs than the “High Tech” of “an answering machine”.

Clearly, it would be possible to have a personal assistant log-on to LinkedIn and handle most of the Referral Requests and perhaps some other “routine” tasks.  How hard is it to sort out spam requests from legitimate requests?  However, the logical progression of this trend becomes an even bigger cheat if one imagines the advent of “Social Network Assistants”, “Personal Social Network Coordinator”, or “Personal Business Network Managers” who would become your full-time proxy devoted to managing your networks — perhaps even enabling you to effectively participate in many more networks.  They would become your online doppleganger.  They would handle your communications so completely that they would develop an intimate knowledge of your network that you yourself would no longer possess. 

With a full-time “Social Network Assistant”, not only would you no-longer have to do the work yourself —  but you would no-longer be able to do the work yourself —since you would no-longer have sufficient knowledge of your own network to process communications effectively.   Only your assistant would possess that level of knowledge.  For me, it would be self-defeating to lose intimacy with my active network.  However, for some professionals, this approach might make some sense. 

A “Personal Social Network Assistant”, I believe, would constitute a “true cheat” — not just a “time-saving short-cut” I have previously called “Cheats.”  In my mind it would be self-defeating. You would systematically miss multiple opportunities to pass additional “personal” information to many of your “closer” contacts, as well as lose a valuable level of “information intimacy”, or “connection”, with your personal network.   Basically, with your entire social network outsourced to your assistant, you would be rendered truly “out-of-touch” with all of your professional stakeholders.  (I believe politicians are already do it this way quite effectively, but I don’t think it works for a doctor, lawyer, CEO, recruiter, or even a VC.)

Part of the problem is that cognitive and service-oriented industries depend on non-scalable individualized one-to-one communications. These professionals tend to cobble together their individual communication solutions from disparate off-the-shelf components in order to practice their trades efficiently and effectively. 

However, high-volume one-to-one communications of “large-network-dependent” professionals is a problem that probably effects less than 1% of the workforce.   While LinkedIn will surely solve the LinkedIn “Out of Office” problem, I’m not holding my breath that they will ultimately do much to solve my “specialised high-volume mission-critical vertical-market communications needs.”  As LinkedIn grows from 3m to 10m users, I doubt the features I need will matter much to those next 7m users who are really only looking for a “Job Board on Steroids” and not a robust full-featured business networking platform. 

In the future, I would be looking to firms other than LinkedIn to address these niche communication needs.

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