At a tech conference in San Francisco Monday, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner dropped tantalizing hints about the future direction of his company.
He dismissed the notion that the professional network, once known primarily as a site for recruiters and jobseekers, would challenge Microsoft and Salesforce head-on in the market for collaboration tools.
Weiner did say, though, that LinkedIn would show "a greater emphasis on professional identity" and noted that his company is "building tools that let us"—LinkedIn's own employees—"get more value from our own platform."
A Détente With Microsoft And Salesforce
Today, LinkedIn is designed for public sharing, and the network has grown enormously by emphasizing the sharing of work-related content.
But Weiner has been talking about the potential for LinkedIn to build tools for internal collaboration since at least 2011. Last year, he revealed that LinkedIn had built such tools—broadly similar to Microsoft's Yammer or Salesforce's Chatter, from the way he described them—for its own employees' use.
So let's assume those tools will be slow to come—or may simply be armaments held in reserve, to keep Microsoft and Salesforce from trying to venture onto LinkedIn's turf of public professional identity. (It's easy to imagine parts of a workforce's Yammer or Chatter activity getting intentionally published to users outside a company, and thus becoming public representations of an employee's work persona, in competition with LinkedIn's profiles.)
A Security Badge For The Web
Barring that, what could LinkedIn do?
As Weiner said at Disrupt, LinkedIn already has the pieces he's describing. The technological piece that carries LinkedIn's professional identities across the Internet is a product called Sign In With LinkedIn. Not unlike Facebook Login, this piece of software lets users sign in with a LinkedIn account, rather than create a new account for every website that comes along.
While far less visible than Facebook or Google's identity efforts, Sign In With LinkedIn has been gaining traction, particularly with recruiting sites, where it's a natural fit, and business-to-business sites. More mainstream media sites like Business Insider have also included it in their login options.
But it would be far more interesting if LinkedIn started courting the burgeoning sector of Web-based productivity tools.
One big flaw of Yammer and Chatter is that they are designed around company domain names. Inviting anyone who doesn't have an email that looks like @yourcompany.com is awkward at best in Yammer and impossible in Chatter.
That doesn't match the new world of work. As Weiner noted, "Jobs are increasingly fragmented." Some are full-time, some are part-time, some are contract or freelance work. LinkedIn, which maps professional connections inside and outside the walls of a company, could be particularly well suited for authenticating workers in this post-Coase-ian world.
A Host Of Apps For A New World Of Work
It's not even necessary for LinkedIn to build these apps itself. It could simply be the identity layer that undergirds them. For private sharing, it could identify users—badge them in, as it were, to the virtual buildings where most work happens these days. For public sharing, it could pipe relevant updates to LinkedIn users' feeds, as apps do on Facebook and Twitter.
To be clear, these are the merest hints we've gleaned from Weiner's comments at Disrupt and over the years. But it's clear that he's thinking about what to do with the enormous asset of some 250 million members' professional identities. The biggest opportunity isn't in LinkedIn's app. It's in an army of LinkedIn apps.
Photo by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite