In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point examined the phenomena that often causes products, ideas and behaviours to go from obscurity to ubiquity virtually overnight. Gladwell pointed to the "connectors" and "mavens" among us whose networking is as viral as a flu pandemic. Some of today's new recruiting methods and tools aim to tap into this kind of power -- the power of weak ties -- for sourcing top candidates.

According to a recent Mercer survey, more than 70% of HR professionals and recruiters believe that employee referral is the most effective method of recruiting. Ninety-six percent of HR professionals rank employee referral as the best way to find highly skilled candidates. Pundits advise organizations to boost referrals to 50%, even 60% of hires. But employee referral is among the oldest and most widely used methods of recruiting. So why has there been so much buzz of late around Internet referral networks, social networking and targeting "passive" candidates? Aren't we talking about a good, but old practice?

Sort of. The difference today is more the medium than the method. Prior to the Web, about 10 years ago, most employers relied on newspaper advertising for the bulk of their day-to-day recruitment. Staffing agencies and referrals made up the rest. In 2002, the newspaper recruitment advertising industry peaked at almost $9 billion in North America before plummeting to under $4 billion in 2004. Along the way, online job boards grabbed the momentum in recruitment advertising, going from virtually nothing in 1997 to over $2 billion today.

But the job board industry may already be losing some steam. The candidate quality advantage gained by early Internet adopters has disappeared. Today, recruiters' chief complaint is about the volume of unqualified candidates they receive from their postings. Millions of people use job boards and many apply to dozens or even hundreds of jobs per day. The result can be overwhelming, making it more difficult than ever to find the qualified candidates among the flood of thoughtless applications.

No wonder then that recruiters are keenly interested in anything that can reduce unqualified applicants and help source good ones. Third-party recruiters can make this promise, but the expense is prohibitive for most companies. That leaves us with employee referral. There is nothing wrong with the way many organizations manage referral programs, but some new approaches may make those programs easier, less expensive and more productive.

Jason Goldberg, is CEO and Founder of Jobster, Inc., a Seattle based software and services provider that helps organizations source job candidates through a combination of enhanced referral and social networking. Jobster is less than a year old but already serves more than 100 customers, including Nordstrom, Cisco and Starbucks. When asked whether Jobster and companies like it are creating a brand new category in recruiting, Goldberg demurs. "It's not a revolution, it's an evolution," Goldberg says. "Everyone brought their jobs on-line but that didn't solve the problem. How do you get better at targeting the right people in the first place?"

Tools like Linked-In, Spoke and others earned our attention a few years ago because they brought the concept of "six degrees of separation" into a medium that truly could exploit the weak ties that connect all of us. Today, as many of these companies add recruiting to their features, there is a great deal of speculation as to what advantage early adopters might gain by using them.

Goldberg believes his company is unique among the others, in that it was designed from the ground up as a recruiting tool and remains focused on candidate sourcing. Asked how it can improve an organization's already solid employee referral plan, he responds that organizations can better enable more employees to assist in filling positions of relevance to them and to leverage networks of people beyond those in their immediate circles. In other words, Goldberg believes that Internet powered networking solutions can extend employees' networks and allow them to tap people several degrees out from those directly in their own Rolodexes. Further, Goldberg encourages recruiters to go beyond referrals and into new media like weblogs. (He points to Microsoft's recent use of company blogs to identify top talent as an example.)

But Goldberg is cautious. "Part of the beauty of social networking is that there is a rarity to it. If it were easy for any of us to connect with anyone else, we would remove the scarcity and erode the value of networks. We don't want to go overboard; we want to help employers find great people through trusted referrals. Our goal isn't to bring strangers together."

The jury may still be out on social networking and enhanced referral tools for recruiting, but the premise is sound. According to a 2005 HCI/ExecuNet survey, 62% of recruiters listed networking as their most effective means of finding senior managers, and more than two-thirds of managers and executives listed networking as their best method of finding jobs. A startling 76% of managers said they plan to leave their positions within the next six months. Indeed, workers are more mobile and, coming off a lengthy buyers' market for labor, more disgruntled than ever. While they may not be looking for work on job boards or in newspapers, you can bet the smart ones are nurturing their networks.

So today, for recruiters or job seekers, tools that extend our networks may be making it less about whom we know, and more about the people we know.