The Final Countdown

Jun 2, 2008

On the last day of the ERE Spring Expo, over drinks in the Sheraton San Diego lobby, someone mentioned that we’re a few years away from a time when everyone will have access to all the candidates who exist.

This is not a stretch by any means. Subscriptions to the major boards and sites like Zoom and Jigsaw already guarantee that a recruiter has access to the most active candidates and the names of millions of others.

Companies like Acxiom claim to have details on 97% of the U.S. population. Today, few can use all these, but it’s not hard to envision a time when all that data will be available through some combination of tools to anyone willing to pay for it.

What Then?

Candidates have always been only fodder for recruiting processes. Having access does not mean getting hires. Until now, many recruiters have been able to exploit imperfections in the availability of information to get an edge. It used to be that search firms and recruiters kept databases (file drawers) with details on candidates they largely had exclusive access to.

Job boards and resume databases started to erode that advantage. We’re almost to the point where there is almost no exclusivity of information. What little gap is remaining will close soon.

Now it becomes a game of being able to leverage that information. When there is no advantage to be gained from information, those who will succeed are the ones who can execute the best.

Recruiting is a combination of art and science. Successful execution requires knowing how to combine the two.

This is best illustrated by the stock market, where there is near-perfect information available to everyone. Yet there are winners and losers. Size, experience, and resources are no guarantee of success. Just ask the people at Bear Stearns!

Similarly, for recruiting, the winners will be those who can best combine the artistic and scientific elements.

Define Your Process

The first, and perhaps most critical, factor for employers will be their staffing processes. I recently dealt with a company that was struggling to fill jobs, despite having lots of qualified candidates. The problem was that they have no process, relying almost entirely on their corporate brand’s drawing power to find candidates. While that may work in terms of generating volume, the lack of process effectively neutralizes any advantage the brand provides.

A good process means having a rigorously defined and managed supply chain that segments sourcing, assessment, and selection. The first stage, sourcing, should provide a reliable, repeatable mechanism for delivering candidates who meet the most well-defined requirements, in volumes that the next stage can handle.

Sourcing consists primarily of lead generation and screening, in numbers adequate to fill the initial pipeline in a hiring process. It includes targeted research (lead generation), phone calls (screening), and continuous feedback on the quality and quantity of candidates fed into the pipeline.

It is highly repetitive work, with efficiency gained from ongoing feedback further refining the research, and reducing the number of phone calls needed in the screening process. This feedback-refinement loop creates a higher percentage of acceptable candidates presented for interviewing.

Sourcing efficiency improves proportionally to the quality and timeliness of feedback. The key here is feedback. Quality control without feedback is not possible. Delayed feedback wastes time, but inaccurate feedback (or no feedback at all) dooms the effort entirely.

In particular, feedback fills the gap between the initial spec and what the hiring managers really want in a hire. As the spec changes, each bit of new information is detailed and added to research or screening criteria and shared across teams. This feedback-adjustment loop continues until a high percentage of candidates are acceptable to hiring managers. This codification is also critical if a process is expected to scale. This is neither art nor science, but the ordinary activity of constructing reliable, repeatable processes.

Getting Realistic

In their book Execution, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan write that strategic plans need to reflect the real world and link to operational plans. They also need to be tested for feasibility in the context of the organization’s capabilities. The point the book makes, unfortunately buried under a mountain of gibberish, is that organizations need to make plans that can be realistically supported with available resources.

“Realism is the heart of execution, but many organizations are full of people who are trying to avoid or shade reality.”

How many recruiting efforts fail because of unrealistic assessments of the capabilities of recruiters, access to talent, and the employer’s ability to manage the process in a time frame consistent with hiring needs? The recruiting infrastructure should support the strategy. The combination of recruiters, ATS, agency relationships, and boards should emerge from an evaluation of the organization’s goals.

All too often, decisions related to infrastructure are made piecemeal, using criteria unrelated to the needs of recruiting. A common example is selecting an ATS because of the vendor relationships in IT, not because of functionality.

Charan and Bossidy also advise striving “for simplicity in general.” Recruiters and recruiting organizations have a tendency to overly rely on technology and jump on every new fad that comes along because of the hype rather than any known or likely value.

For example, social networking and blogging may work for some people on some occasions, but many have little appreciation of how much effort is required or if the likely payoff justifies it. With blogging, most people don’t have enough interesting things to say on a regular basis to make writing a blog worthwhile, one that candidates would be interested in reading.

For most recruiters, the effort does not justify the value gained, except as an ego-stroking exercise. If the purpose of the blog is to provide candidates a realistic view into the workplace, then it would be the rare organization that has the courage to allow it to be written. Otherwise it would just be the usual drivel put out by most organizations that fools no one. Blogging makes for an interesting conversation and conference topic (how many sessions on employee referral programs and ATS implementations can you attend?) but it’s hardly a solution.

Keeping it simple means knowing what works or is likely to work and using that to maximum benefit. Recruiting success is not a function of how many tools are in use, but of using the right ones appropriately. Using something new just because it’s new is often a distraction that drains energy from other efforts, especially if it has not been preceded by an assessment of the likely benefits.

Putting the Recruit Back in Recruiting

The supply-chain analogy works up to a point for recruiting. Unlike a production process best managed with a just-in-time approach to raw materials, recruiters taking such an approach can only hope for the dregs left over in the talent pool.

With no information advantage, some recruiters are going to have to learn to recruit, perhaps for the first time. That means not expecting much from boards and getting more active. It also requires having a reliable supply. That means maintaining good metrics on sources of talent so you know what will work.

Joel Cheesman and a few other authors have recently written about the struggle that most employers have with leveraging even rudimentary Web functionality, let alone Web 2.0.

The tools and functionality will improve to make this all much easier, but these are just enablers. Without an understanding of what would make them useful (as opposed to just interesting) for candidates the impact they will have on recruiting will be little.

In a blog posting, Kari Quaas discusses the need to simplify processes, communicate with candidates, and use the golden rule: treat your applicants as you would like to be treated.

This is good advice, and it was true long before anyone heard the terms job board or ATS.

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