We all watched from the sidelines this week as Microsoft made the biggest acquisition in its history, paying $26.2bn for LinkedIn. The question is: what sort of landscape will we be in when the world’s largest business software company teams up with its most powerful professional networking and engagement brand?
It’s easy to see why this made the City prick up its ears. Partly because it could be the first spark in another tech M&A boom (Twitter shares certainly enjoyed a welcome fillip when the deal was announced, having been bouncing around near all-time lows), but also because both Microsoft and LinkedIn are nestled comfortably at the top of their respective trees. It promises to be a fascinating thing to watch.
To my mind, there’s something of the double-edged sword to this acquisition. Even if it was made at a premium, it’s certainly a smart move on paper. For starters, there’s a lot more to LinkedIn than a contact database. For some years now, the account and contact management aspect of CRM has looked gradually more irrelevant. Like a big old filing cabinet, the information it promises to gather is so often publicly available that it has rather outgrown its usefulness. But LinkedIn offers more.
For a lot of people, as well as being the go-to service for job searches and promotion among peers, LinkedIn is a terrifically useful engagement and social platform. Businesses can use it not only to gain insights into their market, but also to get feedback from customers. And now Microsoft, with its ubiquitous office suite and its comfortable monopoly of almost every email chain, owns it.
The anatomy of what this creates is fascinating. Take what Microsoft’s new virtual assistant Cortana can potentially track about you: how much you work, when you work, where you work, what you do in your spare time, what websites you visit, what you read, who you know, how often you talk to them, what games you play on Xbox (or, if you use Kinect to exercise, how that’s going for you), what you watch, where you holiday, who you Skype, how good you are with money and so on.
Now combine that richness of data with the sort of questions a potential employer might ask through LinkedIn – or indeed what a company might want to know about its current employees – and you get some pretty juicy insights. Whether the fact that this is even possible creeps you out a bit or is instead the most exciting advance in analytics and HR you’ve heard of, is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
To be honest, I’m not sure how willing the Microsoft’s technology support rivals will be to build a listening platform on something that’s owned by a competitor. It’s one thing being a consumer and sharing your data, but that changes once it’s your own business information on the line. If only for due diligence, we have to consider all scenarios.
To some commentators the LinkedIn brand, once a powerfully independent platform, now looks somewhat compromised. This is the other edge of the sword. Microsoft’s agenda could end up driving both the platform and its narrative – what people see and don’t see. In a world where Google has been accused of controlling what we see about both Hillary Clinton and Britain’s ruling party, onlookers are quick to see what they expect rather than the less exciting truth – and it’s hard to change their minds once they’re fixed on a certain view.
We all know the old saying “with great power comes great responsibility”. If anything it is something of a cliché, but this is precisely because there is more than a kernel of truth in it. Microsoft will have to work hard in coming months to allay fears and stop people leaving LinkedIn for another independent service. Its history of acquisitions has not always been plain sailing. It’s also worth remembering that there’s something about the big kids muscling their way into the party – we’ve seen with MySpace and FriendsReunited that it can be a bit of a buzzkill.