Big Social Data: Predicting the Future of You

How many times have you bought a gift for a loved one online? Perhaps you’re busy at work and don’t have time to go shopping. Or, if you’re anything like me, perhaps you’ve forgotten how soon a gift is due and you’re looking for a quick solution. Either way, you can select, buy, and pay for an item in less time than it does to walk to the shops. And every time you use it, the website becomes more intelligent. How many times have you been surprised by the accuracy of Amazon or Alibaba’s recommendations to you? I sometimes wonder whether Amazon knows my family better than I do!

Now imagine that those algorithms could be used in executive search and leadership consulting, both for search firms and for candidates. Imagine that an algorithm in a database or on a social networking site could provide you with valuable information about cultural fit, required skills, and leadership traits. Or for candidates, imagine that a social networking site could provide you with a probability score for a promotion, based on various career and training opportunities available to you.

Many executive search and leadership consulting firms are already gathering tremendous swathes of data that will yield this depth of intelligence, not to mention the vast amounts of information being amassed by consumer social networking sites, like LinkedIn and Facebook. “There is a whole field of science that is interested in how you assemble the most effective teams,” says Jennifer Golbeck, director at the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab. “People want to know how well an individual is going to perform in their job. There are algorithms to infer personality traits around effectiveness that can get results without a search firm even interviewing someone.”

The science of executive search is evolving rapidly, with development and research in areas such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Golbeck estimates that in the next five years we will see companies launching off-the-shelf products that leverage Big Social Data algorithms to predict individual performance. But she cautions that there will be “growing pains” during the implementation of these tools.

Growing pains

Back in 2012 the American retailer Target hit the headlines as they predicted a teenage girl’s pregnancy and started marketing to her before she had told her father. The retailer can predict whether an individual is pregnant with 87% accuracy if they purchase these three seemingly random objects: a large handbag, vitamins, and a brightly colored rug. This is a startling insight into the depth of consumer insight provided by these algorithms and the slightly scary Orwellian marketing tools available.

Through analyzing a range of social media sites, executive search and leadership consulting firms will benefit from the same depth of information about candidates. But is there any tension with discrimination, privacy, civil rights, and equal opportunity laws? Social media is increasingly being used to screen candidates, and is also being used during the background checking stage. Employment law hasn’t yet caught up with this, as Jim Hostelter, AESC’s general counsel, explains. “It is a rapidly emerging issue from a legal point of view. There is no question that when you access information on the internet all of the usual laws apply.” But what happens if you check a shortlisted candidate’s social media profile and discover they have an undetected drinking problem, that they are having an extra-marital affair, or that they routinely get into online arguments? Or what if the candidate reveals an ugly opinion – racism, anti-Semitism? How do you walk the tightrope between presenting the information to the client without breaking discrimination laws?

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