Is craigslist or eHarmony the Right Model for Enterprise 2.0?

I had a very interesting talk a little while back with Gregg Petersmeyer and a couple of his colleagues. Petersmeyer is the CEO of Personal Pathways, a startup that aims to increase levels of trust and confidence among people within an enterprise “who need to collaborate successfully, but who don’t really know one another.” (I have no financial interest in or business relationship with PP)

PP believes in the power of technology to increase trust and confidence among weakly-tied colleagues (and perhaps even to convert potential ties into actual ones). The company harnesses this power by creating “internal corporate social networks that accelerate, deepen and extend purposeful relationships around the work that needs to be done. Users develop a unique 360° user profile of depth and substance, celebrate one another’s large and small successes, and create meaningful groups and communities of interest.”

As they explained this to me I was, of course, nodding my head vigorously in agreement. As I’ve written before, I believe that the new crop of digital tools for building, maintaining, and exploiting social networks are both novel and powerful for individuals and enterprises alike.

The element of PP’s offering that I found most thought-provoking was the “360° user profile, ” which is composed in large part of responses to questions that PP has come up with. These questions are designed to reveal what kind of person a respondent is, and what kind of colleague she’d be. If I understand correctly, they’re intended to accelerate the process of getting to know someone who might work half a world away, and to facilitate the process of building a trust relationship with that person. Presumably, the PP questions and user profiles will also be used by managers to select people into teams.

After they described their company I responded to what I’d heard by brutally oversimplifying, then further insulted PP by implying that it was derivative. “So this is Facebook meets eHarmony for the enterprise?” I said (I was evidently channeling a screenwriter pitching a script to a studio executive). Petersmeyer replied, with more grace than I warranted, that this was a fair summary.

We then had a fascinating discussion about whether this was the right approach. We talked not so much about the Facebook part (everyone in the room agreed that some type of digital social weak-tie-maintaining glue is valuable) as about the eHarmony part.

eHarmony advertises that its “patented Compatibility Matching System® narrows the field from millions of candidates to a highly select group of singles that are compatible with you. Unlike other sites where you can post a picture and paragraph and then browse the profiles of other users, eHarmony does the matching for you based on 29 DimensionsTM of personality that are scientifically-based predictors of long-term relationship success.” These 29 dimensions are determined from an individual’s responses to 258 questions. I have not attempted to complete an eHarmony application myself, but friends who have tell me that it is quite a bit of work.

The quote above indicates eHarmony’s confidence that its algorithms will do a better job matching people than the people themselves could. The company as much as asserts that in the important task of looking for love we don’t know what we’re looking for as well as the brains behind and computers within eHarmony do.

eHarmony’s approach to connecting people is to first collect a large amount of structured data from them, then have the people themselves sit by while computers and algorithms go to work on this data. The company claims a great deal of success with this approach and has become popular, with perhaps as many as 25 million members.

Craigslist, another extremely popular website, takes exactly the opposite approach to facilitating personal connections. Craigslist asks its users to categorize their postings (‘jobs,’ ‘housing,’ ‘personals,’ etc.) and to specify a geographic area, but makes no further attempt to specify or standardize the information posted. And as everyone who has spent time on the site knows, the diversity of posts is simply astonishing. If you’re a CL newbie and want to get an idea of this variety, check out the best-of-craigslist (Be forewarned, though, that a great deal of viewer discretion is advised.).

CL’s approach is to let people describe what they have and/or what they’re looking for with no rules, guidelines, or requirements (beyond a few intended to keep things legal). There are few communities more freeform on the Web, and its personals sections is, like eHarmony, highly popular.

Is one of these two approaches better than the other? Leave aside for the moment the fact that eHarmony automates the work of connecting people, and concentrate only on the fact that it requires them to supply a large amount of structured information. And compare this to CL’s almost completely unstructured environment. Which of these two types of digital connective tissue would you rather have throughout your organization?

This is far from an idle or academic question. At present most social networking applications —  Facebook, Twitter, etc. —  are close to CL. They require very little and offer great freedom of self-expression. Underlying their architectures is a conscious or unconscious philosophy that if left to their own devices people will do a good job of expressing themselves, and that their self-portraits will be both accurate and revealing.

The success of these communities strongly indicates that this philosophy is not bankrupt. In other words, there’s clearly some validity to the idea that unguided self-description leads to connection. But would guided self-description work better?

Personal Pathways is betting that it will. A large part of their value proposition (as I understand it) is the survey they ask people to complete when they join their organization’s PP-built social network. This survey is intended to provide valuable information to their current and prospective colleagues, in particular the kind of information that people might not have thought to provide if left to their own devices.

Given what I’ve learned about the strength of weak ties and the value of converting potential ties into actual ones, if PP’s approach is better than CL’s for interconnecting people than it’s the one enterprises should adopt. But is it the better approach?

My intuition tells me that I’d learn a lot more about someone from reading their Facebook profile, 50(?) of their tweets, or even a couple paragraphs of freeform self-description than I would from reviewing their answers to a standardized questionnaire, no matter how carefully constructed it was. I find that responses to standardized questions look, well, standardized; they tend to flatten out variety rather than highlight it. Because of this, when I’m getting to know someone I want to hear what they want to say, not what any third party (no matter how smart or well-intentioned) wants us to talk about.

Do you share this preference, or do you find more structure beneficial? Some sophisticated organizations are in the latter camp. McKinsey, for example, has a highly standardized interviewing process for new hires. Hiring is, of course, a crucially important type of interconnection; McKinsey believes that it’s far too important to be handled in a freeform manner, and so has adopted a PP-like approach.

For other kinds of personal connection in professional settings, do you think an at least somewhat standardized approach is best, or do you have more faith in the freeform? Are you closer to the eHarmony or craigslist philosophy of interconnection? Leave a comment, please, and let us know. And if you have any data on this topic or know of any good research in the area, let us know that as well.