Tuesday, 27 July 2010

My first tweetup

I’ve been an active Twitter user (or Twitterer or Tweeter) for around 18 months now, but have not until recently attended a tweetup. A tweetup is a get together of people on Twitter to socialise and get to know each other, and to put that crucial face to the name. You may know some of your Twitter followers in real life, you may not. So it’s an opportunity to meet people you have tweeted with, but perhaps not met. If the person has not posted their real picture on their Twitter page, you also have no idea what they look like.

One of my Twitter followers Richard Chester aka @captain_doodle had arranged a tweetup for Saturday 24th July. The location was Fairholme visitor centre in the Peak District, the activity a 10 mile walk around the Lady Bower reservoir, taking in some lovely scenery and stunning climbing in the process. This may sound like an odd way of getting to know people, but it worked very effectively. By walking with different members of the group on the way round, you got to spend time with all of them in turn, and find out about them.

To some people the very idea of a tweetup may sound dangerous or sinister. Meeting people you know only from the Internet. I agree this probably does sound dangerous or sinister, if that’s how you put it. However, we had all been in contact with each other for some time and had gotten to know each other well, and had shared comments, jokes and held conversations on Twitter. Hardly the activities of some obsessive serial killer! Also, as the location was a very public one (the great outdoors) there was not a lot that could go wrong.

So we all met in the Fairholme visitors car park before the 10am start. The weather was looking good, and a fine day of good walking lay ahead. On arrival I was introduced to my fellow Twitterers, some of whom I knew from outside Twitter already, some I did not. After the initial introductions were made, and some photos taken of us all, we made our way round the walk, with Richard and Shelley Chester acting as our guides as they knew the route.

The walk was absolutely gorgeous. Finding a stunning walk in the Peak District is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Point your boots in any direction, and off you go!

As we walked, we all started getting to know each other, with all of us taking the time to talk to each and every member of the group. What struck me most was how much a person reveals of themselves through their social media persona. Whilst most of us do not reveal everything about ourselves, we reveal enough to see that the real life and online personas are the same. The characteristics that endears you to someone online, their traits, quirks, sense of humour are all present when you meet the person for real. So it’s reassuring to see that they are exactly as they appear online. The jokes that someone makes online are the same sorts of jokes they make when you meet them.

The walk itself went extremely well. We had walked up some very steep hills, and over some very exposed ridges. Throughout the walk, the scenery was stunning and the weather was more than kind. We all bonded with each other, and now have a much better idea of what we are like.

By the end of the walk, I had gotten to know my companions really well, and had made some brilliant new friends in the process.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

How the economic crisis is hurting undergraduates

The current recession is hurting everyone, and no one has been immune to its effects. It has affected everyone universally. However, I can't help but notice that it has unduly affected undergraduates and graduates. I have seen this effect first hand.

With money being tight, fewer and fewer employers are hiring undergraduates, as they simply don't have the budget to do so. Those that do have the budget are using them as cheap labour, rather than actually investing the resource to train them adequately.

Many undergraduates are working tirelessly for an employer, trying to impress them and gain that valuable experience which will differentiate them from their peers. So that come the time for them to enter the job market, they will be the one who is successful in bagging that all important job. However, many are simply not receiving that experience. They are not being trained or receiving any kind of useful experience.

This is not the fault of the employer. With the best will in the world, they are just strapped for cash and cannot afford to give them the training they require and deserve, or are under resourced. Equally though, the undergraduate is blameless and is powerless to improve the situation for themselves.

The outcome is that many undergraduates are entering the job market without the necessary experience or skills to perform the job they are being asked to do. This is not the fault of either the undergraduate, or the employer who employed them. Both are victims of the current economic crisis.

What of the long term situation? As each generation of undergraduate enters the job market without the necessary skills or experience, are we just making the situation a whole lot worse? Will this problem make any economic recovery more difficult? After all, today's undergraduates are tomorrow's managers, supervisors and leaders.

Although an undergraduate may gain the necessary experience and skills eventually, it will take them much longer to do so. In the meantime, we have a raft of undergraduates who may not be up to doing the job through no fault of their own.

We need to have greater investment in our undergraduates. After all, the entire economy will suffer if we do nothing. Employers taking on undergraduates need to invest as much as they can into giving them the skills they need. Employers should be encouraged to take on undergraduates, even if this means government subsidies.

Over the longer term, everyone benefits from improving the lot of the undergraduate, not just the undergraduate themselves!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Creating a blog with another writer

Regular readers of my blog cannot have failed to have noticed that my last two blogs were co-written with my good friend Vicky Perry. The idea for writing a blog together was Vicky’s idea, and I didn’t need to be asked twice. I thought it was a great idea. It would be good to work on something with another writer, to inject some fresh ideas and look at things from another angle. Vicky would also come up with different topics to write about that I may not have thought about on my own.

For our first blog Sensory compensation: Re-train your brain the subject was one that I was unfamiliar with. So Vicky offered to undertake all the research and get me all the relevant information. Which she did admirably. I also let Vicky have the responsibility for proof reading the blog before it went live. The joint partnership of creating a blog with another writer was a success, especially when we received a positive comment from the very same professor as we had quoted in the blog. When Vicky first told me he had left a comment, I wasn’t sure if she was being serious at first.

We wrote another blog Hiring and firing with social media together. Vicky did all the hard work of researching the subject. We had a good idea of what the topic should be about, and how it should be constructed. We discussed the topic during several telephone conversations. Once again, I delegated the proof reading to Vicky and gave her the responsibility for giving the blog the go ahead for going live. We also came up with several other topics for future blogs.

It‘s great to be able to tap into another writer’s creativity, and bounce ideas off them and just see where an idea might land. Sometimes I would have a raw idea, and after a discussion with Vicky, it would eventually become a fully fledged topic. Or sometimes it would be the other way around. The most important thing was that we were generating new ideas by discussing them with each other. This was a process I had never tried before on my blog, and was more than pleased to give them a go. It goes without saying that I was more than happy with the results, as both blogs have now been published.

Without giving too much away, the idea of working on joint blogs is now something we are working on together in a slightly different capacity. So watch this space!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Hiring and firing with social media

Many thanks to Vicky Perry for helping me to research, write and proof read this blog.

All opinions expressed within this blog are those of the authors and do not represent those of our employers.

Using Social Media in the recruitment process
Social media has crept into most areas of the modern business, and Human Resources is no exception. The long reach of social media has impacted the recruitment process from all sides: the recruiter, the candidate and the employer.

A good example of how a social media channel can be used in the recruitment process comes in the form of LinkedIn. This is a popular social media tool for professional networking. By building a profile of your qualifications, experience, skills and so on, you can meet other like-minded individuals within your industry sector. It also attracts recruitment agencies keen to place individuals into new career posts.

LinkedIn has been offering recruitment services for some time, since around 2008 in Europe, and it is keen to extend these services as they become increasingly more popular. And it is easy to see why. From the perspective of a recruiter, what could be better than having millions of online CVs at your disposal. This is one of the key attractions of LinkedIn – the fact that is has such a large user base. While traditional recruitment channels are filled by those who are actively looking for a new career, LinkedIn contains a much wider user base where not everyone is necessarily looking for a new career. This allows recruiters to find those with the skills and/or experience they are looking for, and head hunt them directly.

According to Ariel Eckstein – Managing Director of LinkedIn’s Hiring Solutions service, “Only 10% to 20% of LinkedIn members are actively looking for work, but businesses that are looking want access to 100% of members”. So for a recruiter, LinkedIn provides a much larger pool of talent in the selection process.

I have been contacted by several recruiters on LinkedIn myself, and am connected to them too. If a job comes up for which I have the necessary skills and experience, it would be good to find out about it even if I wasn’t actively looking. Until you see what’s being offered, you can’t turn it down, and it’s a far better situation where you are having offers put your way where you can consider them.

It also much cheaper to use LinkedIn because there are no associated recruitment costs as there are using more traditional recruitment channels. Microsoft says that it saved £60,000 on recruitment costs when it was looking for software developers.

Some LinkedIn statistics:
· Four million UK members
· 15 million European members
· 500,000 LinkedIn groups
· One new member every second
· 25% of FTSE 100 companies hire through LinkedIn
· 50% of Fortune 100 companies hire through LinkedIn

LinkedIn is not the only social media channel that can be used in the recruitment process. From the perspective of a candidate looking for a job, web applications such as Facebook and Twitter can be useful. Using Facebook you can enter your professional details, and then let your friends know that you are job hunting. It may also be worthwhile finding out if there are any groups that are associated with the particular career you are looking for. If so, you could join and become an active member. This will get you noticed by others in the group. Many organisations and businesses also have a public Facebook page, and this can be a great way to find out what they are up to.

The microblogging site Twitter doesn’t have any direct job search tools, but it will allow you to connect and network with people in your industry or career sector. Start by ensuring your profile contains an accurate description of what you do, with a link to your online web site or blog. Create a professional looking background, ensuring it contains all your contact information should a prospective employer try to contact you. Leave your Twitter profile public, and post topics related to the industry sector you wish to work for. So if you are a software developer, find interesting topics and articles that are relevant to that industry and post them. You could also try to locate the Twitter accounts of local businesses and organisations.

Linkedin has a specific role to play due to its professional networking ability, huge user base and recruitment tools, but Facebook and Twitter can also be useful.

Searching a candidate’s history
In addition to formal services such as the use of LinkeIn above, employers often use Google, Facebook and other applications to determine a candidate’s personality. Strange or unusual incidents, cursing / swearing, personal attacks and other negative comments can really hurt someone’s ability to successfully integrate into a culture or organisation, especially if those searches become public knowledge within the organisation.

This is a more controversial use of social media within the recruitment process. While social media channels such as LinkedIn are open and transparent, what about when social media is used in a less than transparent manner? It is common practice for a company to do an Internet search before looking to interview a prospective candidate. If the candidate in question uses social media channels, then information relating to them will be surrendered in the search results. This may or may not be relevant to their interview, and some of it may even place the candidate in a less than flattering light. If their social media footprint demonstrates that the candidate’s personality or character is at odds with the interviewer’s, is it right that this is taken into account without the candidate being aware of it? A search result may surrender activities including affiliations to political or religious movements or militant behaviour. Or it may just be the case that the interviewer objects to their personal life on any number of grounds.

On the other hand, the candidate’s social media footprint may work in their favour. If they have a well written blog on the subject on which they are due to be interviewed, then this would rightly impress the interviewer. If they are well connected and conduct themselves in a positive way, then this too would count in their favour.

Three quarters of graduate recruiters are concerned about whether using a candidate’s public profile obtained from their social media channels could obstruct a “fair and measurable” recruitment process. Despite these concerns however, 41% of organisations in the UK have rejected candidates using this method.

Only 5% of organisations have a clear policy on using a candidate’s online social media profile as part of their recruitment process. Philip Lane, head of research at Penna Barkers “We found that most organisations didn’t have a policy in place to explain to line managers whether they can go on Facebook before interviewing the candidates”.

Reputation management
There is a surprising lack of confidence among organisations when it comes to managing their online reputation. Although 90% think that doing so is important, only 38% actually felt they did were doing it well. Managing their online social media reputation becomes increasingly important for an organisation or business who must be ready to cope with disgruntled former employees, that may use blogs and other social media channels to criticise their former employer. Examples of how an organisation can quickly garner a negative online reputation in this way, consider how the rapper Jay-Z's Las Vegas club earned a reputation for abusing its employees. Another example is how Shell Oil treated its North Sea workers.

Organisations need to have the tools to monitor for such attacks, and to be able to respond quickly, and in an appropriate manner. Although legal action may be the obvious course of action, you may not always know who your online attacker is. A blog author may be anonymous. The person who leaves a negative comment on the organisation’s blog may also do so anonymously. The latter may be dealt with by the introduction of a captcha screen, or by simply removing anonymous comments from the blog. If an organisation has a blog, it can use this to tell its own side of a story, and to clarify their message.

It’s clear that social media has a role to play in the future of the recruitment process. As they become more popular and gain larger user bases, so they are also attracting the attention of the recruitment organisations who are looking to exploit such a wide and diverse spread of online talent. It’s easy to see why, when Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media channels have such huge numbers of users.

There needs to be clear policies in place for when someone’s social media profile has been used as part of the selection process, what information was extracted and whether this was deemed to be negative. Everyone is entitled to have a private life, and many people make a clear distinction between their online private and professional lives. Indeed, many people have social media profiles that deliberately exclude their work colleagues for just this reason. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to work for a sought after organisation because I posted an inappropriate comment on my online private profile.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Sensory compensation: Re-train your brain

All opinions expressed within this blog are those of the authors and do not represent those of our employers.

This blog is a first for me, as it is the first blog I have written in collaboration with another author. The idea for this blog, and the research that I have used to provide the content has come from good friend Vicky Perry. The discussion started from Vicky’s experiences of physiotherapy, and some of the techniques used to aid her recovery from a knee injury (more on this later). Specifically, I was interested in the concept of sensory compensation – the ability of the senses to compensate where one or more of the senses is restricted in its ability to function. Vicky suggested that if I found the subject matter interesting, that it may be a good idea to write a blog about it, and that she would be more than willing to help me research and write it.

And so here is the first (and hopefully not the last) joint collaboration between myself and Vicky (pictured below) in writing a blog.

I’ve been aware of the idea of how the body will compensate for the lack of a sense by heightening the remaining ones. For example, most of us will be aware of the fact that a person who has restricted eyesight will have their other senses raised to compensate for the missing one. This makes perfect sense. The body is adapting to try to reduce the effects of the missing sense(s) by raising the ones that remain. It is also a superb example of what a wonderful piece of machinery the body is, that it can so quickly adapt so that it is able to extract as much information from the environment as possible.

What I didn’t realise was that this same mechanism doesn’t just work over the long term, where the body has time to adapt over a longer period of time, but it can take effect almost immediately. For example, it can be found by simply blindfolding someone and removing the eyesight. Very quickly, the body compensates by heightening the remaining senses.

This phenomenon has been well documented in the article Overcoming Blindness: Other senses Compensate in Just 10 Minutes. One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon is the following account of blind cyclists:

“Four bikers headed off down a street in Southern California, safely navigating through traffic and past parked cars, and turned onto a narrow bike path leading up a steep hillside. None of them veered off the dirt path, and all safely avoided boulders along the way, always conscious of their surroundings and any possible obstacles.” Extracted from the above article.

Three of the four cyclists were blind, but could navigate equally as well as the sighted cyclist. Using the same mechanism as bats do in a dark cave, they would use echolocation to navigate, using the sounds echoing back from the trees, rocks and other features as they cycled along. The article goes on to describe other extraordinary examples where the senses have compensated for a restricted one.

These examples have been documented by Professor Lawrence Rosenblum from the University of California, Riverside. He is a psychology professor with 25 years study under his belt. What is even more extraordinary than these accounts of breathtaking adaptations by the human body, is research that suggests that these adaptations can take effect very quickly. The human brain is capable of rewiring itself – albeit even if only temporarily – so that a person can continue to lead an enriched life, and is able to perceive the world as well as someone with the same sense(s) unrestricted.

To demonstrate this ability to quickly learn how to compensate for restricted vision, Lawrence Rosenblum conducted an experiment where a blindfolded person can learn to walk towards a wall and stop before hitting it. Here’s how it works, and you can try this for yourself. Make a sound, doesn’t really matter what it is, a hissing sound will suffice. As you walk blindfolded towards the wall, the sound changes depending on the distance between yourself and the wall. Walk towards the wall and you will begin to recognise how the pitch of the sound changes in relation to your distance from the wall. After around 10 minutes or so practice, you should be able to walk towards the wall without hitting it.

In a recent article in The Independent newspaper is the story of a musician who had suffered from a condition called hyperacusis. This is a disorder whereby the hearing becomes acutely sensitive to sound, often to the point of pain. The condition shows no physical symptoms, as there is no physical damage to the ear. Instead, the condition is brought about by the brain playing tricks on the ear, and causing the ear to become more sensitive to sound. In the case of the musician described in the newspaper article, he had become afraid of hearing loud sounds, and this had caused him to become anxious and stressed, which in turn caused his brain to produce a substance which increased his sensitivity to sound. Effectively, the more anxious he became, the worse his condition became. With no physical damage to his ears, this is another demonstration of how the brain can directly affect the senses.

There is naturally research that is critical of this phenomenon. The main grounds for this criticism is the distinction between having better senses, and using those senses more effectively. The account of the blind cyclists demonstrates the extraordinary degree to which this can be taken. Taking the criticisms of hearing, the spatial hearing of blind and sighted individuals were examined to test how well participants were able to tell the direction a sound was coming from. Although the blind participants did perform better than the sighted ones, the difference was only marginal. So this would seem to suggest that the blind participants were making better use of their hearing, and not that their hearing had become somehow improved.

Vicky herself was subjected to the phenomenon directly as part of her physiotherapy to recover from a knee injury sustained through running. Part of the final stage of the physiotherapy was to build core muscle strength, as well as to build the muscles in the knee itself. An effective way of doing this is to balance on the damaged leg to make the muscles and ligaments work harder to make a stable core. A further extension of this exercise is to balance on the damaged leg with your eyes closed. This is harder than it sounds. Her first attempt at this was barely 10 seconds. It is surprising just how much effect sight (or the loss of sight) can affect your balance. After practising for a week, Vicky was eventually able to balance on the one leg with her eyes closed for a full 60 seconds without wobbling. In effect, she had re-trained her brain to compensate for her temporary loss of sight. This is exactly what the studies by Lawrence Roseblum concluded.

In my mind there is little doubt that the body is capable of adapting to new circumstances. This is exactly what is explained by Darwinian natural selection. So although the newly acquired behaviours may not be inheritable, they exist nonetheless. The body is capable of all manner of amazing feats of self preservation. This is another example of just how amazing our bodies are, and how they can adapt to ensure we have the richest interaction with our environment.