Talent Talk: Q&A with Stephen Collins, Founder, Acidlabs


One cannot talk about the Australian social media landscape and miss the name of Stephen Collins, founder of Acidlabs, a Canberra based consulting firm. A thought leader on everything social media, Stephen is a sought-after speaker, business strategist and writer. An ardent proponent of ‘openness’ and the ‘need to humanise business’, Stephen’s views are refreshing, and at times confronting. I caught up with Stephen to find out more about his latest project JobCAMP, and also discussed employee engagement and recruitment in the bold new world of social media.

Q. How did JobCAMP originated? What’s the rationale behind it and what can attendees expect to learn or achieve?
JobCAMP originated out of a series of unrelated discussions between the founders – me, Luke Harvey-Palmer , Raz Chorev , Tim Reid and Iggy Pintado. All of us are involved in businesses where creativity and big thinking are at the heart of what we do. We’d seen a lot of people around us and in our extended networks lose their jobs as a consequence of the financial crisis and our discussions, which were originally about creativity and building our own businesses turned to how we might help those who’d lost their jobs. Essentially it was Luke who came up with the idea, but we’re all helping out.

In terms of who should come, we want employers, HR people, recruiters, job seekers, people who want to improve their personal brand and networks. Essentially anyone who might benefit from new and creative thinking around the employment market. Hopefully people will connect at JobCAMP – someone will find a job, or an employer will meet a bunch of great candidates, or people will simply build strength and richness in their networks.

As for take aways from the event – we have speakers on a number of topics – innovation, personal brand, networking, recruitment best practice and the like. The tag line we’re using – Get Australia Working – is what it’s all about. We want people to come away with a job, a lead or ideas on getting that next job.

Q.  A recent Gallup poll found 82% of Australians are not actively engaged at work.  You spoke of the need for ‘collaborating more openly and encourage broad and diverse input from staff’ within companies; is this approach a likely solution to the problem of disengagement?
Engagement is *everything* in my view. So many jobs are process focussed, or routine because employers haven’t really looked for meaning in the role, or for a way to provide their employees deep context to what they do. When this is the case, it’s no wonder people struggle sometimes to be engaged.

The work I do that encourages businesses to open the network of interaction and involvement is targeted specifically at making that context float to the surface. With deep context around your job – what each piece of work means, where it’s come from, where it’s going and why – I really believe that building a work force that’s strongly engaged, deeply loyal and working their best is possible.

Of course, it’s not the whole story, which is much bigger and more complex. But it’s a great start.

Q. You recently attended TED 2009, and spoke at the HR future Conference. Can you offer some insights on what the future holds for the recruitment of staff and the HR profession?
TED was an amazing experience, as you might imagine. My HR Futures keynote was about my TED learnings and what they meant in the context of business today. I think what business needs to do in general terms is smarten up and mature. So much of what we face in business today is unnecessarily complex or bureaucratic. That has the potential to hurt people – physically and intellectually. It also stops us doing our best work.

We need to humanize business and introduce a new moral framework that regard people first – our employees and our clients.

In terms of HR, most of the HR people I know are really good and want to make a difference. But they get bound up in the complexity of just doing their jobs. The new approach I got from TED, and in particular, Barry Schwartz’s talk, can go some way to undoing that.

As for recruitment, again, it’s an issue of breaking down the complexity and the bureaucracy. Just hire great people! The recruiting industry, to my mind, has a lot to answer for. Much of the industry remains stuck in a place where candidates aren’t known personally – their needs, desires and skills aren’t known by the recruiters and they are simply churning out sausages. It’s such bad practice.

Q. CEO of Zappos, commenting on the wide use of Twitter within the company, mentioned “like it or not, companies are becoming more transparent”.  Is the fear, that staff will get poached or remain unproductive if they are given access to social media tools at work, unfounded? Should employees be allowed to blog and twitter about their workplaces? Is there a healthy balance?
Tony Hsieh is a smart cookie! As is almost all of his company – from top to bottom. And Zappos is a particularly open example. They’re very different to most organisations.

I encourage all my clients to open their businesses and practices as much as they can. I believe it offers a great deal of benefit. That said, it must be done at a pace the business can handle. What it’s about is corporate cultural maturity – many businesses aren’t there yet.

I think the poaching and time wasting view shows a distinct lack of maturity in a company’s culture. The benefits to be gained by having an engaged work force that can and do talk about the business openly are manifold. The research and the case studies are in. Building personal and corporate brand in parallel actually makes for more engaged people. It also potentially attracts better staff to your business if you already employ well-known industry leaders.

I think staff should absolutely be allowed to blog and tweet about work. But there needs to be a level of governance. Rules of engagement must be in place to ensure that your staff know the bounds and that management also have a framework that means they too know what is and isn’t okay so that slip-ups can be dealt with appropriately.

The recent case at Telstra with Leslie Nassar, who was tweeting as Fake Stephen Conroy is a case in point. Telstra’s guidelines were (as far as I know) incomplete. So, while initially, Leslie was asked to be more judicious, he decided instead to continue and get (arguably), more strident in his criticism of Telstra’s reaction. I’d suggest he showed a lack of maturity – which ultimately seems to have led to him leaving Telstra.

As much as some of us, not least of all me, all desire total openness and deep corporate maturity from our employers, there really are lines you don’t cross. Those lines need to be well defined when you allow staff to discuss work publicly online.

Q. It can be argued that a whole industry exist (say the recruitment industry or job boards) largely because companies fail or do not have the tools to converse, communicate and build communities with job seekers. Do you think the emergence of social media will eliminate the need for middle men in the conversation between employers and their future staff?
Smart recruiters are starting to use social media well as a tool to better understand markets and to engage in a conversation with candidates. But employers themselves could be doing the same and I’d encourage them to do so. Of course, this takes a significant investment of time, which is why employers turn to recruiters and job boards.

What needs to happen is a growth in recruitment industry maturity. A move away from churning through lists and making calls to really understanding candidates and building a long term relationship with them. Whether that’s through using social media or just making a phone call makes no difference. I can’t count the number of times recruiters have called me simply because I was on a list from their database that matched a keyword. That’s bad practice.

Why didn’t they Google me? Or look at my LinkedIn profile? Or my blog?

If they’d taken five minutes to do any of those, they’d have had a much better picture of what I was interested in instead or ringing me for something I wasn’t interested in or that was irrelevant to me.

That’s where the smart recruiters are going – prequalification, candidate research, candidate and client relationship management. It’s smart uses there that will improve recruitment and candidate identification.

2 replies
  1. Kathi May
    Kathi May says:

    Really enjoyed reading Stephen’s comments. Having recently seen him at the HR Futures Conference I think his ideas and thoughts are on the mark. Engagement is crucial, particularly given what is happening in most businesses at the moment. And now that the market has changed so considerably we may start to see a move away from the current transactional focused model in Recruitment? Finally, we might see a move to a more personalised one of getting to know a candidate via online channels and building a more personalised relationship? Who knows what the future brings.


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  1. […] Phillip Tusing added an interesting post on Talent Talk: Q&A with Stephen Collins, Founder, Acidlabs …Here’s a small excerptA move away from churning through lists and making calls to really understanding candidates and building a long term relationship with them. Whether that’s through using social media or just making a phone call makes no difference. I can’t count the number of times recruiters have called me simply because I was on a list from their database that matched a keyword. That’s bad practice. Why didn’t they Google me? Or look at my LinkedIn profile? Or my blog? … […]

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