Are We Getting Any Smarter?

In the last few weeks I’ve been contacted by a number of people looking to hire recruiters, and apparently having little luck. I’m also seeing big increases in bonuses offered for employee referrals, and signs of frustration (and desperation) among HR professionals in charge of recruitment. Some of my friends who run search firms are turning away business. If any further proof was needed that for recruiters happy days are here again, then look no further than the ERE conference this past spring. That was the most well-attended one that I can remember and for once no one handed me a resume or described their current situation as being “in transition.” Let the good times roll.

There’s something familiar about this. We have been here before. The late ’90s and all the way up until 2001 was a virtually identical period. Then as now, unemployment was low and recruiters were as popular as Paris Hilton’s video (though for entirely different reasons). But having experienced all this before, are we any smarter now in how we approach recruiting and talent acquisition?

I would expect recruiting to have matured and for there to be recognition that business as usual could not continue when the labor market tightens as is happening now. What the ’90s showed us was that recruiting is a strategic function. That has two major implications ? the first is that for recruiting to be truly effective it should be part of a larger talent management function. The second is that recruiting tools need to mature ? providing better information to users and integrating the various ancillary functions and services that recruiters need.

Recruiting and Talent Management

Let’s take these two items in turn. First, it should be apparent that recruiting is very much a strategic function. Being strategic means that something is important or essential to a plan of action. Recruiting is essential to an organization achieving its goals, by delivering the necessary talent. But for recruiting to fully realize its potential, the function needs to be driven by workforce planning and be supported by and supportive of internal recruitment and talent development. That is, not just exist in a silo charged with staffing open positions.

A truly strategic recruiting function should be able to create a recruiting strategy based on what makes the most sense and produces the highest ROI for the effort. That can mean making decisions about whether to develop internal talent to fill a job or look outside. This may seem obvious, but little in the literature or industry suggests this is happening. There have been several articles on ERE advocating the need for recruiting to widen its scope and footprint in organizations, but it’s far from clear that the message has widely sunk in.

The second implication concerns recruiting tools and technology. The picture is more encouraging here. There have been a lot of improvements in functionality and quite a few new products have emerged. A lot of vendors have implicitly admitted what was long-known to all ? that on its own the level of success in filling jobs by relying on an ATS is likely to be about the same as that of an attempt to breed a pair of mules. Sourcing appears to finally be recognized as a necessary and critical component of recruiting, judging by the success of products like Jobster, H3, and several others. But a key aspect of sourcing is not getting the attention it deserves ? no system does a good job of effectively bringing together multiple sourcing tools in a manner that allows for a recruiter to properly monitor the effectiveness of each.

Every recruiter uses whatever tools work and attempts to determine what works best in what situation, since no single tool is a solution to all staffing needs. Many keep track of the effectiveness of sourcing tools and channels using spreadsheets or home-grown databases, but all can benefit from a standard approach to evaluating the effectiveness of sourcing tools. Given the abundance of dashboard tools available today one would think this should not be a challenge. There have been a few attempts ? eQuest and Hodes have products that measure the traffic from job boards, and Virtual Edge has a sourcing module.

Article Continues Below

Workforce Planning

These are good first efforts, but what’s also needed is functionality that supports workforce planning. The principles behind workforce planning are nothing new. Originally called manpower planning (the name obviously could not survive), the discipline was created in the late ’60s, but has never been widely used in recruiting. Whatever the name, the goal is to create a staffing strategy based on an understanding of the criticality of various parts of the workforce. More specifically, workforce planning involves:

  1. Evaluating the impact of each role in the organization. Which roles have the greatest value in helping the organization achieve its objectives?
  2. Analyzing vulnerabilities that may arise because of attrition, retirement, performance, and other factors.
  3. Focusing recruitment efforts on closing the gaps that have the greatest impact on the organization.

Workforce planning allows an organization to manage attrition and determine how to best grow or reduce headcount and consequently manage its investment in the workforce. This allows an organization to reduce over- and understaffing and continuously refine its recruitment strategies based on changing market conditions and business needs. The SAS Institute has developed a methodology for analyzing a workforce to identify the key employees most likely to leave. This is not really a product, but more of a theoretical basis for knowing where an organization is most vulnerable.

True products for full workforce planning are very new ? two vendors (Vemo and Sibson) are the first to have created tools that can truly impact recruiting strategies. Of course, these are not integrated with any ATS and for them to work requires being able to combine data from multiple sources like an HRIS, performance management system, etc. The results that come from the data being analyzed must then be used to determine which jobs to focus recruiting on and how best to spend available dollars.

A big improvement would be for all the necessary parts to be fully integrated ? recruiting, performance evaluation, learning, and compensation. Then an organization can accurately evaluate the value of its talent pool and make decisions on how to meet its talent needs. Then recruiting expands to include choices such as filling a job temporarily or redeploying existing employees from elsewhere. But this does not seem to be happening. I don’t hear or read much about integrating workforce planning into talent management.

That brings us back to the need for recruiting to be part of a larger talent-management function. Then, and only then, can recruiting become truly strategic in its impact on an organization. Even a recruiting function that’s good at filling jobs is not strategic without workforce planning. It’s the equivalent of a low handicap player in mini-golf. (Think about that.) No matter the results, it can never be taken seriously.

So are we getting smarter? I’d like to think that our response to the challenges we face is based on a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t. There’s some evidence that we’ll do better this time around ? but not much. Both our tools and our approach to recruitment need to mature a lot more to conclude that we are really getting smarter.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.

Topics