Digital reinvents recruitment - for the third time!

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 20, 2016
The evolution of connected digital technologies is about to reinvent the recruitment process for a third time, sending all your preconceptions down the pan

Harver stand at HR Tech London 370px
I always seem to encounter some unexpected insight into enterprise technology adoption whenever I visit HR Tech Congress, and last week's London event was no exception. The HR department is often seen as a technology laggard but I discovered some revealing examples of HR as an early adopter of engagement, collaboration and machine learning technologies. By applying these technologies, vendors are completely redefining the recruitment process — literally flushing everything you ever believed down the pan, if Dutch company Harver is to be believed.

It shouldn't be such a surprise to find HR at the forefront of technology adoption. As Thomas Otter, group VP of product management at SAP SuccessFactors, reminded me when we caught up at the show, that's always been the case:

If you look at it historically, HR's actually led the way in many waves of technology adoption. The first use of a computer in a commercial context was the use of LEO [in 1951 at the British catering and food manufacturer J Lyons & Co] for payroll type scenarios.

What was the first successful use of the Internet in a commercial context? It was Monster and the job board — long before we had e-commerce, recruitment was revolutionized.

The first extensive use of a browser in an intranet context was the first wave of employee self-service. The first adoptions of client-server applications were in HR rather than in finance.

If you look today, the biggest impact of social software is not in sales but it's in recruitment again, with LinkedIn. Go forward today, if you look at the growth of cloud back-end systems, again in terms of adoption, HR's way ahead of its administrative peers.

I can add to those data points. ADP was the first example of a computerized business process delivered as a service. Benefits administration provider Employease was the first commercially successful SaaS vendor (founded in 1996 and acquired by ADP a decade later).

Recruitment leading the way again

So there's plenty of historical precedent. But that's all by the by. What did I see at last week's show that tells me HR — and recruitment specifically — is leading the way yet again in enterprise technology adoption trends?

I'll leave Harver till last, since the meaningful application of AI is the newest trend and builds on all that's gone before. Look back over Otter's brief history of HR's involvement in computing and you'll see a progression in what's being automated. The earliest computing was purely a matter of automating calculations, which made payroll an excellent fit.

What the Internet added was a platform for exchanging information — it made us all connected. Now in the latest wave of computing, we have smart connections that enable much richer engagement, because we all carry around extremely powerful mobile devices that connect us to an increasingly potent cloud.

Those technology foundations enable three core ingredients of digital process innovation: convergence, collaboration and context. People with different roles start working together, with all the necessary information and resources at hand. We're not merely connected, we're engaged and empowered by our digital tools.

That's why recruitment has already gone through two separate reinventions since the advent of the Internet. The first reinvention came through digitizing the existing process of advertising vacancies and receiving CVs, and putting both into the public network of the Internet. At a stroke, it became much easier for applicants to discover vacancies and to apply for them.

Adding collaborative engagement

The second reinvention of recruitment came when smartphones brought new mobile collaboration capabilities, while social networks added much more context. Instead of merely automating the old process, these new technologies have turned recruitment into more of a collaborative engagement between recruiters and applicants. This has introduced a new breed of recruitment applications, several of which were represented at last week's show.

For example, Alan Gregg, head of recruitment at optical retailer SpecSavers, discussed the company's replacement for its previous applicant tracking system (ATS). He says the company didn't want to operate an inflexible process that was oriented around processing applications rather than finding the people the company needed to recruit. "We wanted to build relationships" with potential recruits over time, he explains, and therefore chose the Avature CRM platform, which applies prospect nurturing processes to recruitment.

I also ran into Jerome Ternynck, CEO of SmartRecruiters, another vendor that applies modern sales and marketing engagement to the recruitment process. He says the company has three key differences from old-school ATS products:

  • Marketing — connecting into social networks, job boards and other recruitment marketing platforms to attract and engage the best candidates.
  • Collaboration — keeping hiring managers engaged throughout the process with simple workflow they can follow on their smartphones.
  • Integration — making sure all the relevant data is available in the app and connected into other systems.

Data science and the CV

These are big changes already, but still the CV looms large. The other week, I wrote about recruitment group SThree, which boasts of its searchable database of several million CVs as a key part of its secret sauce. The company is probably thinking of how to apply new data science algorithms to help it search those CVs with even more accuracy. But the next iteration of recruitment may overturn all of that and dispense with the CV altogether, if Harver is to be believed.

In fact, with the down-to-earth candor you expect from a Dutch company, Harver's marketing pitch is that "CVs aren't worth the toilet paper they're written on" — and to drive the point home, as pictured at the top of this story, it features a toilet pan on its stand to help flush them all away.

Instead of relying on the contents of a CV, Harver is helping large-scale recruiters evaluate candidates using an AI-powered gamification approach. Currently in use by employers recruiting for call centers, Harver offers an online game in which applicants have to deal with three simulated customer calls. This not only introduces the applicant to the kind of work they are applying for, thus helping to set proper expectations, it also uses IBM Watson's machine learning to evaluate their performance and measure suitability.

The gamification approach builds on Harver's earlier development of an online preselection process in which candidates have to complete details and take an intelligence and personality test, before being asked to upload a CV only if they meet the selection criteria. Harver's customers include, Randstad, Swisscom and Vodafone.

So after starting by digitizing the CV and then following by adding engagement, collaboration and context around it, it looks like the third reinvention of recruitment will get rid of the CV altogether and just leave it to the machines to gather the necessary context.

My take

Recruitment's become a handy example of a process that has already been changed beyond recognition by the advent of connected digital technology. When I think of how I applied for jobs when I left college four decades ago, the process is unrecognizable today.

And yet, the advent of AI may mean today's process will have become unrecognizable all over again by the time another decade has passed. This is a sobering reflection of the still-accelerating pace of technology change today. It reinforces the importance of throwing out every preconceived notion when considering how the latest technology can help you achieve business outcomes. How you used to do it may be ancient history in a few years' time, so there's no value in replicating those processes if there's a faster, better way to get the results you want using all the connected power of today's technologies.

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