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Crowdworking: Let the Tail Wag the Dog  
11/12/2008 3:30:16 PM

Weddle's WisdomWeddle's Wisdom
Crowdworking: Let the Tail Wag the Dog
By Peter Weddle

The potency of using a "long tail" strategy in selling to consumers was first popularized in an October, 2004 article in Wired magazine. Written by Chris Anderson, it urged companies to abandon their conventional focus on selling a small number of popular items and, instead, retool themselves to concentrate on "selling less of more."

Citing the experience of the online bookseller Amazon.com, he argued that the arrival of new technology and the Internet, in particular, changed the dynamics of efficient sales. Unlike traditional bookstores, Amazon makes most of its profits not by selling a huge number of a very small number of best sellers, but by selling a small number of a huge number of much less popular books or what he called “the long tail.”

That idea has revolutionized the sales activity in a number of product markets, but it’s just as important to how we sell ourselves to others or what we traditionally call our networking in a job search campaign. While networking experts have always encouraged us to network broadly, our actual efforts have been much more constrained. Typically, we network to only a small number of current work associates and friends. In our own inimitable way, we focus on just a handful of our personal “best sellers.”

We impose this limitation on ourselves for two reasons:

Reason #1. As with traditional product sellers, we think we’re likely to have the best chance of success by focusing on only a small number of the best prospects. Think of your local bookstore. You’re much more likely to see a Harry Potter book in the window than one by Peter Weddle because a wizard, alas, is much more likely to generate a sale. The same is true with our networking. We assume that those with whom we are most frequently in contact and those with whom we have most recently interacted are more likely than someone else to yield a connection to a lucrative employment opportunity.

Reason #2. Networking is a time consuming and demanding activity. Traditionally, it has been a one-on-one and very focused kind of interaction, requiring that we stop everything else we are doing. We set up a meeting in someone’s office, or we play phone tag with them until we finally connect or we attend an association meeting in the hopes of making a helpful contact. In a society that is hooked on multi-tasking, such an intensely unilateral activity feels like a time hog, so we do as little of it as we think we can get away with.

These views made sense in the 20th Century. There was a logic to them because the Internet had not yet been fully deployed as a means of mass communications. Today however—in the 21st Century and a widely wired world—they are as inappropriate as … well as a quill and parchment are for writing your resume. As the long tail theory envisions, we can now use technology to move our networking from its traditional focus on a small number of recent contacts to much more productive connections with a much larger number of former contacts. I call this approach “crowdworking.”

Crowdworking acknowledges and draws its potency from two realities:

• Most of us have far more former contacts than we have current ones. In the present, we’re limited to (thank goodness) one boss, a small circle of coworkers and a handful of friends and neighbors. In the past, however, we might have had three, four, seven or more bosses; fifteen, twenty-five, fifty-five or more colleagues; and in today’s mobile world, hundreds of neighbors and friends. In addition, for many of us, the past also holds connections that we no longer have in the present: former teachers, former classmates, former teammates, and former clubmates. These more numerous and unique past associations—all of them—represent the crowd in crowdworking.

• The digital divide has all but disappeared. Almost all of us now have access to the Web and as a result, to networking tools that can remove some of the time commitment involved in traditional networking. Here, it’s important to make a distinction between social networking—what occurs at sites like Facebook and MySpace—and professional networking—which involves work-related interactions that typically occur on career portals and association Web-sites. The working in crowdworking represents the professional networking that occurs online and thus is able to take advantage of the asynchronous, mass one-to-one communications capability of the Web. It enables you to find and be in touch with former contacts easily, efficiently and on a heretofore unimaginable scale.

Crowdworking does not replace traditional networking. In fact, it is a form of networking that is, at one and the same time, very different from and very similar to its conventional, real world cousin. Think of it as an activity that establishes real relationships through virtual communications that are regular and relevant to all of the recipients. Unlike traditional networking, those virtual communications do not involve meetings, phone calls or other time-consuming activities. You can crowdwork at home while wearing your fuzzy slippers and sipping a glass of merlot. As with traditional networking, on the other hand, crowdworking does involve a commitment to sharing. The Golden Rule of Networking is as simple as it is profound: you must give as good as you get. That’s as true on the Web as it is in the real world. If you want others to be helpful to you, then you must first be helpful to them by sharing your knowledge and contacts in your online as well as your offline communications.

There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t let the tail wag the dog. It was a way of telling us that the best results come from focusing on what’s most important and not on what first catches our eye. Ironically, the best way to achieve that objective in today’s world, however, is exactly the opposite of that old axiom. To achieve the best results in our networking, we should ensure that the dog is wagged by the tail—the long tail of our former connections in the world of work. That’s the crowd that gives modern networking its power.

Thanks for reading,
Peter

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