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My Totally Unscientific LinkedIn Groups Experiment

Over the past week I conducted an experiment on LinkedIn partially in an attempt to see whether there was value in participating in groups. As a Civil Engineer in Canada, it seemed obvious to attempt to connect through several groups all of while I’ve been a “silent member” of for over a year – (membership statistics below are as of August 20, 2013):

LinkedIn penMy experiment consisted of posting a question about developing a National Stormwater Standard for Canada – similar to the Australian Rainfall and Runoff document that Australia developed decades ago and is in the process of revising. In my mind this is a serious question that on posting I had not received an answer explaining why a National Standard would not be necessary or that there are already adequate resources available for design engineers and municipalities to use((Before you complain that posting one article on three LinkedIn Groups is hardly a rigorous scientific process… I know! But I do want to know what your experiences with Groups on LinkedIn have been too)).

What are Groups on LinkedIn?

So, for those of you who are new to LinkedIn, or don’t really know what “Groups” are meant to be for, here’s a good summary:

Although many view the social networking site LinkedIn as just an online Rolodex or a business version of Facebook, it is actually much more than that. The Groups section of LinkedIn is a powerful online forum in which you can market yourself to new customers or clients, or even engage with your professional peers on neutral territory.A LinkedIn Group is an online forum set up by an existing LinkedIn user which others can also join to partake in discussion or make new connections. LinkedIn Groups are set up to reflect a variety of interests or subjects, whether it be a group for a company’s customer base, a group for an industry’s practitioners to debate emerging trends, a group to reflect a geographical area, or a group to host online discussions in regards to a particular conference or event.

via: What is a LinkedIn Group? | Nick Lewis Communications

Success on LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an excellent place to do some pretty amazing things ((One of the best discussions on the value of LinkedIn for professionals is from the Manager Tools guys – LinkedIn For Managers – Part 1 check out all their podcasts for valuable professional advice.)), such as:

  • storing your professional contacts,
  • keeping in contact with them without clogging up their email
  • seeing who they know and expanding your network, and
  • searching for talent as a recruiter, (but only with a pro account).

It seems like the engineering profession is mostly using LinkedIn as a smart roladex, but with Groups, there is the potential for LinkedIn to be a forum for the type of discussions that happen between peers at a conference.

So… What About this Experiment?

Of the postings to these three groups, I observed the following activity

I have to say, disappointed, but not surprised. Of these comments, I’d rate three of the participants as holding a great discussion, while the rest either misunderstood the question or added little to the discussion in general. I don’t feel that this type of interaction would occur at a conference – in fact had I brought this up at the last conference I went to (BCWWA in Kelowna), this would have sparked a deep discussion on the merits of stormwater design practices across the country – I’m imagining conversations that would have been engaging, thoughtful and fun.

But it’s not a Conference

I’m still not sold on the power of groups, especially after my recent experiment with the LinkedIn engineering community, and here’s some of the reasons why groups don’t function as well as they could:

  1. While there are a lot of members in some of these groups, there is very little active participation.
  2. The “active” participants are very keen, to the point that they can dominate the conversation.
  3. Moderation is scarce, most of the people who would care have a real job.
  4. Despite efforts to remove promotion and jobs to other tabs on the pages, too many of the discussions feel like sales promotions or efforts of members to promote their skills as they look for work.
  5. Many of the comments and responses received appeared to misunderstand the topic and the real issue I was trying to address and seemed to be commenting for the sake of exposure rather than adding to a conversation.

This is a pretty sad state of affairs when the best a genuine discussion on a legitimate forum can gather is ten comments, of which maybe half kind of get the issue being discussed.

The Takeaway

What did I learn from this quick experiment on LinkedIn Groups?

  1. Engineers for the most part, while present on LinkedIn, are not actively using it for discussions, it really is just a digital roladex of sorts.
  2. Discussions on LinkedIn groups are not a representative sample of industry perspectives.
  3. Social Media as a tool beyond peer to peer communications and pushing news sources has not been adopted by the engineering community in general.

Doing a quick search for people not impressed with LinkedIn Groups yields a variety of concerns,from moderated discussions shutting down genuine conversations to complaints about spammy marketing discussions and mindless self-promotion pieces. It seems I might not be alone, but it also seems that most people just don’t care.

Having blogged on engineering topics for seven years at Urbanworkbench and seeing the lack of meaningful dialogue on articles across all media types within the scope of engineering, it is not really a suprise. But it does beg the question – other than conferences and peer to peer discussions, where are engineers honing their tools and developing their best practices? Are we content to read an article in an industry magazine and not engage in a meaningful discussion on the merits of the concepts?

I’m not trying to poke fun at the engineers on LinkedIn, remember I’m one of them too! But I’m wondering where this tool fits in compared with the other communication means we have and whether there is any value in attempting to gain value from LinkedIn Groups as an Engineer.

If you are an engineer, let me know in the comments what you do to engage in professional discussions and whether you have posted anything for discussion on LinkedIn or other professional social media sites.

 

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.