Your Corporate Employment Technology: Build or Buy?

Apr 18, 2001

In talking with different companies about their staffing needs, I often come across companies who are considering building their own employment technology. This can include anything from a corporate employment website to a back-end enterprise solution such as Peoplesoft or SAP. I think we can all agree that, on top of almost anything you can buy today, you are going to have to do some customization to meet your business rules, track results and metrics, and create some of the cool interfacing you will want. The biggest challenge might be mapping (and therefore understanding) your processes and business rules to ensure you even need to automate. The age-old question is, “Does the technology follow your business rules or do you have to change your business rules to adopt new technology?” Regardless of your side of the argument, building technology is just like building a house – it will cost you far more than you budgeted and take twice as long to build, even if you know what you’re doing. For those of you who think this article is biased to what I currently do (see my bio below) – you’re right! But I’m writing this article because I want to share what I’ve learned. The title of this article could have been, “What I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me Before I Started Building Staffing Tools: A Staffing Practitioner’s Guide.” Hopefully, you’ll find the information useful. This article would be hideously long if I detailed out what it would take to buy versus build every type of employment technology. Although I’ve consulted (and still do) on HR technology across the board, I can obviously speak in detail about the development of a corporate employment site. So for sake of simplicity and also because it’s my passion, this is the example I’ll use in this article (to a certain degree you can extrapolate this information out and apply it to any type of technology solution). I also honestly think that it should be the first place you start. Why do companies build their own employment websites? In the past, companies (mostly the ones who had the money and resources to do it) spent a great deal of money building and designing their employment websites. The reason for this was that they thought they had very specific needs, only expected a certain type of candidate to apply online, and there were limited available solutions on the market. It was also becoming obvious to most candidates that the process was broken. Searching a company’s job opportunities was non-existent and candidates were satisfied with dumping their info (resume) into a bucket. Today there are solutions available, and each one of them built a little differently. Chances are, you can find one that suits your needs. However, if you are considering building your own, you should know what you might be taking on. Keep in mind that in this example I’m not referring to an applicant tracking system – for an overview of the difference see my previous article. It?s in the database! The easy part of designing an employment site is the static pages. A simple site will include job listings, and the ability to apply (attach a resume by email or cut and paste a resume). If that’s all you need from your corporate employment site, it’s not too difficult to build even if you’re a small company. However, this is not the heart and soul of what good employment website technology really is. In fact, there’s a lot more that goes into designing this technology than meets the eye. The difficult and time-consuming part of building technology for employment websites is in the design of the database upon which the application lies. You don’t have to use database technology to save candidate’s resumes, but you will need a well-designed database if you want to perform analysis and comb for trends in the data. In fact, you’ll need a database if you want to do anything with the information you receive apart from simply printing it out or forwarding it on, such as:

  • Store and search against your data. Example: the ability for recruiters to search against their talent pool (including questionnaire and profiling information), and for candidates to search against open positions … quickly and accurately.
  • Secure your data. Example: restrict access to view a subset of candidates (some recruiters or managers may not be able to review executive candidates), and ensure the candidate that their data is private.
  • Share your data. Example: providing candidate self-service such as the ability for candidates to update the information profiled in your talent pool at any time and create a living resume.
  • Analyze your data. Example: running reports on where the best candidates are coming from and what types of candidates are applying for certain jobs.
  • Manage your data. Example: stay in touch with candidates with stored letters and automatic notifications.

There is, of course, a difference between a database and a well-designed database – the latter being a huge benefit and the former being a liability. A well-designed database enables you to be flexible (so, for example, you can add enhancements without grossly affecting the existing system) and have better performance (so, for example, candidates won’t see a spinning hour glass when they search for jobs). What most practitioners don’t realize is this is where the bulk of the time and money is usually spent in designing solutions for employment websites. It’s like a good foundation for a tall building. Without a solid foundation – you can’t have many floors. Think about your needs for today and tomorrow. You need to clearly think about the kinds of features you want your employment website to have now, and also in the future. Let me give you an example. At my previous company we built a “profiler” tool for our employment page. This profiler asked a listed of questions specific to each open position and enabled the recruiters to target the most qualified candidates, based on the responses. Unfortunately, we hard-coded the job titles in the profiler. I’m not kidding; if someone had hit me over the head with a 2×4 I would have experienced less pain. We had to go to our IT team every time we wanted to make a change to a job title or add another one. Our mistake was: we weren’t thinking about the future of that particular feature (some could say we weren’t thinking at all). You don’t want to build yourself a “customized” solution for the sake of having a unique employment website. It should be designed to be “customizable” so that you can add, tweak or customize certain functionality as your company changes and as your staffing needs change without the need for heavy lifting from IS support or changes to the way you trap and search data. Don’t forget that one of the ultimate goals of a great employment site is to get as much information from each candidate as possible. At the same time, you need to let these visitors experience what it might be like to work at your company. I know I have said this a million times, but send the candidate on a journey through your company and site. Yet while it’s extremely important to provide features for the potential candidates who visit your Web site, there also has to be another side to the technology so that you can get the data out. Data collected from candidates must be entered into the system in a way that recruiters and hiring managers (all) can analyze it and search against it. It must be entered in a way so you can pull measures and metrics from it. One of the biggest challenges is tracking multiple sources. If you can think of ways to ensure you have trapped the source or sources of your candidates – you win! But remember that if the interface is difficult to use – it will not get used. Benefits of buying a solution:

  • Economies of scale occur when mass-producing a product results in lower average cost for that product. The cost that vendors have spent on building their products ranges, but it’s often in the millions or many millions of dollars. They can spread this cost out among many customers, whereas if you build a site yourself you bear the sole burden of the cost.
  • Time to market. Think about how much time and resources you are able to spend on such a project. Just as important, understand what your allocation will be for maintenance of the site. Will these resources be readily available to you when you need them?
  • What happens when that resource leaves the company?
  • A hosted solution will provide you with regular updates and enhancements. Software vendors are in the business of building software and technology solutions and work continuously to upgrade their products. I bet if you asked the president of your company what business you are in, I bet he or she wouldn’t say it’s in building employment technology…
  • No additional hardware costs.
  • Less technology experts you have to hire

Benefits of building a solution:

  • You get to design it any way you’d like! You have a clear slate to build what you want, and are not constrained by someone else’s idea of what a good front-end solution is or business rules.
  • If all you feel you need are your jobs listed on your Web site with an e-mail address for where resumes can be sent, you can keep the process gateway simple
  • You get to control your data the way you want and you have the option of using products your company makes or those you have partnered with.
  • You can justify a larger staff.
  • (OK, you can tell by these answers this is hard for me. Let me know, what did I miss?)

Think about what you are trying to achieve. But don’t stop there – ask yourself why. You might find the most enlightenment when you do this. Whether you decide to build or buy, take the time and map out a plan. If you’ve got a lot of areas you want to cover in your overall workforce plan it’s important to plan them out and implement or build solutions one at a time. Too often I’ve seen companies bite off more than they can chew in terms of implementing technology (whether they’ve built it or bought multiple solutions at once) and never end up fully using the solution (and then blame the technology itself). Start the process like you want to build it yourself. It will give you a better understanding of what you truly need to meet your goals. Conclusion Think about the reasons why you have entered into this project of building (or buying) a solution: you want to be more efficient, get a higher return on investment, and get higher quality candidates. You can map out a system that mirrors your internal processes and end up with the sleekest, most imaginative corporate process and technology but if it doesn’t give you the results then it just doesn’t matter. Your boss (or your boss’ boss) doesn’t care whether you build or buy technology solutions (or what kind of internal process you have for that matter) as long as it fulfills these business objectives. My goal in writing this article is to help educate you the practitioner, so that either way you go (build or buy) you end up with a better solution. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>