Many listeners probably use LinkedIn. That’s the social media website aimed at connecting employers with employees. My guest today, Janja Komljenovic, researches the ways in which LinkedIn is shaped by and shaping higher education.

Janja argues that LinkedIn furthers the employability mandate in universities.

Janja Komljenovic is a lecturer of higher education at Lancaster University. In today’s show, we discuss her new article “Linkedin, Platforming labour, and the new employability mandate for universities,” which was published in Globalisation, Societies and Education.

Citation:Komljenovic, Janja, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 129, podcast audio, October 8, 2018.

Transcript, translation, and resources:


Will Brehm:  1:26
Janja Komljenovic, welcome to FreshEd.

Janja Komljenovic:  1:29
Thank you for having me, Will.

Will Brehm:  1:30
So you have over 500 connections on LinkedIn and over 1000 followers. I actually went online and looked you up a couple days ago. Can you tell me when you first decided to join LinkedIn and why?

Janja Komljenovic:  1:44
So I suppose I joined rather early on that is in the mid-2000s.

My main reason was curiosity, I would say. So I was interested in what these new platforms that appeared at that time were offering. And I was also a part of international organizations and European higher education policymaking. So it was a good way of me keeping in touch and track of people that I worked with, while people move or change their email addresses or jobs. I could still stay in touch through these kind of platforms. So I like that aspect of it, I must admit I wasn’t really putting too much attention on it. I just kept an eye on it, although I was obviously experiencing how it was changing in time. So it was just curiosity and pragmatics, I would say.

Will Brehm:  2:40
I mean I’m on LinkedIn as well. But I think of LinkedIn is just something that clogs up my inbox. I get all these emails from LinkedIn, and things I don’t even really care about.

Janja Komljenovic:  2:50
Yes, I get that comment a lot. But then it’s also quite interesting that you still stay on it.

So that is also interesting. It is sort of characteristic of it, that people still like to hang in that just in case, you know, just in case it’s important.

And that is also the thing with the digital platforms that we now experience that there is this business model where they really try to get as many people and as much data as soon as possible and then figure out how to deal with them later on, or monetize them later on. So I also write a lot about experimentation as a key process that is part of platformization in general. So basically it’s an open future for the companies that own and manage these platforms, as well as for the users because you sort of never know what kind of possibilities they will offer, and what kind of consequences they will have. So it’s also quite a different for different people in different sectors. Some have very big use of it, particularly in IT, finance and management sectors, people actually get job offers a few times a day, while in other sectors or countries, they don’t. So you know, it’s a very diverse and even kind of animal that we see here.

Will Brehm:  4:14
Yeah, I know, I think I continue staying on LinkedIn in hopes that I will be somehow headhunted for some amazing job. But of course, that never ends up happening. But before we get into the experimentation that platforms like LinkedIn use and the business model of a platform like LinkedIn, can you just explain to listeners, what is LinkedIn?

Janja Komljenovic:  4:37
Yeah, so in its most simplest, I could say that it is a social media site, a professional networking site. However, it is also many things at the same time. So it is a professional social networking opportunity for individuals, for individual people that want to keep in touch and share their updates about what they do, where they work or they move.

But it is also a marketplace for the global labor market for companies and other organizations. So companies and employers can look and search for workers and labor. It is also a place where many actors promote and brand themselves or their products. So it offers exposure, like other websites, or social media platforms here. It is also a data extraction and analytics actor, and part of the big data, global governance. And it’s also a subsidiary of Microsoft. So it’s a data engine for Microsoft’s product, and new complimentary service. And it is all this at once. And this is also a characteristic of digital media platforms that writers write about in platform studies. That it is a platform is a multi-sided market-coordinating infrastructure, and you can then see how it actually brings in together more than two actors, people, devices, and so on.

Will Brehm:  6:08
So is it easy to differentiate who are the consumers and who are the producers on LinkedIn?

Janja Komljenovic:  6:14
Well, I quite like the notion of the “prosumer” coined by Ritzer. So people that use these platforms are both at once, meaning that while they are using social media platforms, they leave the digital traces and enormous amounts of data. So they are at the same time producing it. And an important notion here is network effects. So this means that the more that people use it, and the more people use it in numbers, the more it’s useful to them. So it’s like a snowball effect, the more they use it, and the more people use it, the better use they have. That’s why these platforms have monopoly tendencies. It makes sense, scale matters, if they are bigger, the better they are for their users as well. And the richer services they are able to provide, as well as more finest and better serving algorithms behind the data production and manipulation.

Will Brehm:  7:19
So what are some of the monopoly tendencies of LinkedIn?

Janja Komljenovic:  7:23
So I mean, LinkedIn has very optimistic ambition. It says that actually, they want to bring together all of the workers and potential workers in the world, all of the employers in the world, all of the universities and training institutions and all of the possible skills out there and then offer the services of best matching, etc. So it’s a very, very optimistic ambition, I would say. Obviously, they’re not there yet. But they do have a growing number of users and services. So obviously, the more people they have, and the more employers and skills and universities, the better they can do the matching. So apparently, the latest number is now half a billion users, that’s just individual users. But there are also institutional users like universities and employers. So universities, it’s apparently about 25,000 universities. I have institutional profiles.

Will Brehm:  8:29

Janja Komljenovic:  8:30

Another thing to say about LinkedIn is that it is, well, in comparison to other social media, it is still a networking site. And it offers a collaborative production of content. So it is engaged in web 2.0. And you can see it as a social media. But it’s also different in the sense that it found its niche, it’s very much focused on professional networking since the beginning, all right. And also, what is interesting about it is that it focused specifically on the higher education sector in its strategy, so that was since about 2012 onwards. So it’s targeted students and services for students. Students are its fastest growing demographic for a few years now. And it’s targeted universities as institutions. So it established the flagship product called University Pages and for most universities, this was established automatically, actually, it’s not that universities would go and create their profiles. But LinkedIn did this for them, not for everybody, but for quite some number. And if universities that this wasn’t done automatically for them, wanted their university page, they could get in touch with LinkedIn, and they would do it for them. And at that time, at the beginning, universities could still create their own company page in their role as employers. So they had two sort of pages, one they created themselves and acted as an employer. And the other was their university page as an institution. In 2017, these two pages merged. And then some services are still free for universities and since this merger, they also now have to pay for some additional extra services in the sense of subscription.
Now, what is also interesting with university pages is that it’s not a digital profile, controlled completely by its owner, the university, but it’s partly managed by the university as they can post content and description about themselves. And it’s partly managed by LinkedIn’s algorithms. So the algorithms produce the statistics about the graduates where they work, how many of them work in particular sectors, how quickly they find jobs, and what is also now growing is the information about salaries, etc. And this is then not managed and manipulated by universities, but by LinkedIn itself. So university pages now, it’s a combination of what is managed by an institution and the platform. And in a way it is standardizing competition in the higher education sector and a particular kind of competition.

Will Brehm:  11:27
And these metrics to evaluate where graduates of a particular university end up going are based on the user, individual user profiles of students on LinkedIn. Is that how they get this data?

Janja Komljenovic:  11:43
Yes, exactly. So LinkedIn can only use the data from their own profiles. That is why it’s very important for them, that they have as many users as they can. And when I said before, they were particularly targeting the higher education sector, this was with particular services, but also quite actively. So LinkedIn staff would visit physically universities around the world, asking them how they’re happy with the service, what else they could do, forming the sort of relationships. So quite interestingly, there is a whole series of motivations of motivating universities to then teach students how to best use LinkedIn, and how to best create their profiles.

Will Brehm:  12:32
Like it’s part of career services?

Janja Komljenovic:  12:34
It’s part of Career Services at some universities. It is also part of modules, some universities have career or employability modules in their curriculums. So students are actually taught as part of their curriculum, how to create that sort of digital profiles and how to use them. It’s called “personal brand”. So you know, you have the idea is that you keep yourself updated, interesting, use particular kind of words that are most popular in particular sectors or contexts, etc.

Will Brehm:  13:08
It seems as if LinkedIn is beginning to define what education is, and is for, and, you know, it might actually have these effects on students who are choosing degrees that are perhaps less employable in the future, and then maybe altering their decisions to go in other directions? I mean, is that an outcome that we’re seeing here?

Janja Komljenovic:  13:31
I think it’s far more complicated. There’s no simple answer to that. LinkedIn is never saying that university education or degrees don’t matter. But what we can see happening in parallel and consistently in time is building this sort of skills, global skills, marketplace. So they are very much focusing on skills in sense of teaching, training, jobs, employability, and personal profiles. And people can get skills in different places by experience, for example, they can claim that they’ve learned skills themselves, they can get them at universities, on the job, or with just short courses, other training institutions, and so on. So what then LinkedIn here does is that it provides new infrastructure of valuing this sort of skills and experiences. So it marries the network effects with the training and personal profiles of people. So the idea here is that the personal network at the beginning, and now more and more algorithms are the ones that are providing new valuation of profiles, and what then counts for in the job market, what counts in the hierarchy of employers, people’s skills, etc.

So I think what we see happening is this sort of alternative or bigger focus on skills, which is anyway part of the employability discourse in the knowledge economy more generally. So I think LinkedIn really benefits from this and feeds into it as well, since it seems that it’s gotten some policy attention as well. For example, it featured in the latest human capital report in the World Economic Forum. And there are also other initiatives, like in the city of New York, for example, they had a project with the mayor and examples like that.

Will Brehm:  15:39
How would you define this employability discourse?

Janja Komljenovic:  15:43
So the employability discourse is we have to understand it in the context of the wider knowledge economy policy into which universities and knowledge got entangled. So the idea here is that universities are key institutions in the knowledge economy as they are generating new knowledge. And, well, I don’t want to use this term, but it’s often said, producing workers. So it’s not their role has changed that it’s not just any more about research and teaching. But in the sense of employability discourse, there are more and more responsible for employment of their projects as well. So in some parts of the world, you could say that they have universities turned into the labor market institutions. And this goes beyond adapting their curriculums for to provide knowledge or skills that is needed at the labor market. This is also about strategic changes and structural changes. So universities to then make sure that their graduates get jobs and you can trace this at different scales, at the international level for example, this was employability was one of the aims of the Bologna process at national levels, you can see that in many countries, governments are tying financing of public universities with the results in terms of employment statistics, or quality assurance agencies and even institutional levels, you can see that universities are promoting themselves with employment statistics, or working hard basically on this new call, or this new mission of theirs. And it’s grown tremendously to the extent that you can say it’s now in everyday lives of universities across countries.

Will Brehm:  17:33
So LinkedIn, in a sense, isn’t simply just creating this employability discourse but it’s in a sense furthering it that this employability discourse that has existed in higher education for some time, and as you said, operating on many different levels and scales.

Janja Komljenovic:  17:49
Yes, it is, it is feeding definitely from it, because obviously, it can provide data and statistics that is much needed. But it is also structuring it because it actually owns the infrastructure and the data and the knowledge behind it.

Will Brehm:  18:03
Right. I mean, if it’s making pages for universities with its own information, and not necessarily university permission, they are certainly structuring. And if they have an algorithm that somehow quantifies all sorts of you know, in a sense, resumes of all these different students that they constantly update. I mean, it really is shaping what it means to be a graduate in a in a way, of a university.

Janja Komljenovic:  18:26
Yes, exactly. Read the question of what the impact it has on higher education. We have also, I’m also involved in the other study with Susan Robertson and Eva Hartman from Cambridge University, and Adrian Mackenzie from Lancaster, he has now moved to Australia, actually, but we were interested also in how actually then universities use a LinkedIn in not just from the promotional aspect of it.
So when LinkedIn says it has 25,000 university pages, but we actually wanted to know, okay, what is happening on the ground? And we did a study in Europe, across European countries. So we did surveying of universities and we are very grateful to the European University Association to support us in that. We got 84 universities answering our survey from 26 European countries. And we also complimented that study with digital methods, so link analysis. Basically, we are now in the process of analyzing the data. But the first results show that universities indeed use social media platforms to a very big extent. In fact, social media platforms seem to be the key communication device in the digital world with the society. So the most external links on universities’ web pages actually go to social media. So it’s also quite interesting in the web, and web page architecture what social media mean.
Anyway, what we found was that in general, Facebook is by far most important, and all respondent universities use it a lot, regardless where they come from and who they are. Next is Twitter and then YouTube and LinkedIn share the third place. But LinkedIn is quite popular. So about 65% of universities say that they use it regularly or very often, which is quite a lot. Around 70% suggest to students or motivate them actively to create a LinkedIn profile. 37% provide regular training for students or graduates on LinkedIn usage, and additional 30% do it occasionally. So these two together mean actually, that around 70% of universities teach students how to use LinkedIn and their profiles. They said that they do not do this for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and the other social media. And in this sense, LinkedIn is specific and it is used to quite a big extent. As we discussed before, this shows that universities in fact, do act as brokers for the platform as they train and motivate students on the usage. Now, to think of the effects also is that 92% of universities think employers use LinkedIn in their recruitment process. 90% think that having a LinkedIn profile is important for graduates to find a job. And 95% think it is important that graduates acknowledge on their profile that they have graduated at their university. So at least it seems that universities believe that social media and particularly LinkedIn for employability matters, and that it is used to a big extent. So I can’t really say much more from that study, because we are in the middle of data analysis. But there is some very exciting data coming out and insights that we will publish by the end of the year, I think.

Will Brehm:  22:05
It’s interesting that universities have to pay LinkedIn for certain services, but they also act as you have found as brokers for LinkedIn. And so I mean, I guess the question I have is what is the business model here? Where is the money flowing? Is LinkedIn profitable? I know some startups never end up making a profit, but I mean, has LinkedIn? Are they profitable? And if so, how do they make their money?

Janja Komljenovic:  22:33
Yes, so obviously, higher education is not the only sector that is, or even the key sector, I would say that LinkedIn gets money from or profits from. LinkedIn reports that it has three strands of monetize solutions they call it. So the first is talent solution. Here, they are selling the data or data products or databases for hiring purposes, to employers, very refined, very specific search engines that you can use, or contact potential employees, and so on. LinkedIn job postings, job seekers, and also LinkedIn learning service is included here as well.
So LinkedIn bought a company called Lynda fairly recently, which was an established online education company that was charging fees. So not like MOOCs, that in principle offers at least part of the access to the content for free. Lynda was charging for their education courses. So since LinkedIn bought this, it developed LinkedIn learning possibilities. Now, whenever a user logs in to the system, they are offered a tailored particular courses that would complement their digital profile. So it is promoted as something that would boost your profile, make it more attractive, competitive in the contemporary the labor market. So this counts in the talent solutions as well. And this is the highest growing income stream for LinkedIn. The other two are marketing solutions. So this is similar to what would count 90% in other social media, like Twitter, or Facebook. Here, it counts less than 20% for LinkedIn. And then premium subscriptions for individuals or some institutions. As we said before, this sort of experimenting with services of what kind of data products, how can they use the data for different kinds of services is very much alive. And it seems that this is experimenting with talent solutions is key and fastest growing income stream.

Will Brehm:  24:56
So I want to just dive into this a little bit deeper. So you’re saying these marketing solutions that are 20% of the income for LinkedIn? This would be like in a sense advertising, is that correct?

Janja Komljenovic:  25:10
Yes, it will be in a sense advertising, in the sense that people are displayed particular ads or information when they log in, or would get what they call sponsored in-mails, so messages, its exposure and getting to the users. Yes.

Will Brehm:  25:27
And so like Facebook, for instance, as another platform, that would be where the bulk of their money comes from, right? Is advertising essential for Facebook?

Janja Komljenovic:  25:37
Exactly, yes, at least that’s what it’s reported.

Will Brehm:  25:40
And there’s all sorts of privacy issues that have come out of late about Facebook, and targeted advertising. That might be for various political purposes. But LinkedIn, you’re saying is different. It’s about this talent solution. And this is 80% of their income comes from selling databases, and job posting, and this new service of Lynda.

Janja Komljenovic:  26:07
Yes, so a lot of the services come under the title “talent solutions,” but the bulk of it, you’ve explained. So what is also particularly interesting is that this is highest growing income stream, while the publicly available data sort of stopped in 2015. In 2016, Microsoft bought LinkedIn. So Microsoft bought LinkedIn for $26.2 billion. And it was the third largest acquisition in the history of tech industry. Since then, it is hard to actually see the exact amount of income for LinkedIn services. But it is reported in news that it keeps steadily growing, particularly the talent solutions. So what we can also see is that Microsoft is experimenting how it can complement data from LinkedIn into its other services. So for example, one of the fairly recent service in Microsoft Word software is so called resume-assistant. So basically, when you write your CV, you can get examples or ideas on what kind of skills other people that apply for the same job, sort of state, or the best wording in your CV, you can compare yourself to other job seekers in the same context. So it’s a service in the sense useful, I would say, potentially for free users, obviously, when they use Word for particular reasons. But you can see how Microsoft now is trying to learn and merge services from different sectors that it actually owns and complement each other.

Will Brehm:  28:02
Should we as users of LinkedIn be concerned in any way?

Janja Komljenovic:  28:07
I think it’s like, with every other digital move that we make on the Internet, you should be aware that everything you click or do is out there forever. But if you are sensible and aware of how this is used, if you use it responsibly, I think it can also be useful, it can also offer new opportunities. So LinkedIn is different also in one more way to other social media platforms, in that it is closed, so you cannot get freely the data as freely as with other social media, so their API’s are closed. You have to have particular permissions to download data in it, it’s not as easy to get. So LinkedIn is trying seems quite hard to sort of keep the privacy and ownership and managing of their data.

Will Brehm:  28:59
Is that because they’re concerned about the privacy of our data? Or is it more that they’re going to monetize these databases to whoever can purchase it?

Janja Komljenovic:  29:08
Right, it’s hard to say probably, it’s a bit of both, I mean, you do hear examples of what kind of firms that are established out there, actually what kind of purposes they use LinkedIn data for. So in other words, a company could hire this service where they could actually spy on their staff. Because apparently, research shows that if you want to change the job, you sort of focus a bit more on your LinkedIn profile, you update it or you make it more attractive. So this company was then actually analyzing these sort of moves and reported back to employers what you know, about these employees that are seemingly because of these actions, planning to make a move. So LinkedIn was not happy about that, you know, it wasn’t happy that these are the sort of in all of the ways that their data use. Now you can say, okay, it’s about profits elsewhere. But, you know, it can also be a moral issue. So what I also wanted to say is, obviously, there are a lot of privacy challenges and potential threats out there.
But there are also opportunities. Eva Hartmann was presenting on this that these new digital platforms in the sense of new content called production and matching also enable potential to reduce the traditional bias that we have in the recruitment processes. So, for example, in the recruitment process, you know, how you look, your background, words you use, and so on, all can have an impact in whether you’re chosen for a job or not. And this potentially these sort of, well, if they if we can say that they can be more objectively done, or at least in different ways, you know, you can potentially also have better opportunities for more equal treatment. I’m not saying that it is like that, or that it will happen. But at least there’s a potential. So I think there needs to be a debate around how this data is used, what are the moral limits of it, how we can manage it. And it’s a political debate, even though it’s owned by a private company, and it has a for profit interest.

Will Brehm:  31:25
Have you ever found a job through LinkedIn?

Janja Komljenovic:  31:28
So I know, I have not, to be honest, I haven’t even looked. But as I said, at the moment, it is still quite uneven across economic sectors and countries. So it is quite big in particular sectors, as mentioned in IT and finance and so on, but not in academia. However, I can see that LinkedIn is trying very hard to penetrate all the sectors to penetrate all the jobs. So I won’t say it will not happen because you can also see more and more universities posting jobs there, they didn’t in the past, whether this is for administration or for academic staff, it still differs. And perhaps academic sector is a bit specific in that it works with its own rules. And the recruitment happens in different ways. But but it is happening what I also hear from some colleagues and this is more anecdotal is that some universities asked their staff to create profiles in different social media platforms, one of them LinkedIn, but then also AcademiaEdu or ResearchGate and so on.

Janja Komljenovic:  32:47
So it’s also about, it’s, it seems that it’s now in universities institutional interests that their staff is showcased. So we are moving in the academia slowly away from “publish or perish” to “promote or perish” kind of logic and you know the digital platforms are a big part of that.

Will Brehm:  33:09
Well Janja Komljenovic, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. I’m going to use LinkedIn very differently I think from now on.

Janja Komljenovic:  33:16
All the best with it. Thank you, Will.

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