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Wednesday 30th July 2014

System down

Gareth Jones looks at Applicant Tracking Systems and asks: what went wrong?

‘Our Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is awesome. Killer features, seamless integration with our career site and a great user experience for the candidates.’

Said no-one, ever.

I talk to people on a weekly basis about their resourcing process and when it comes to the ubiquitous ATS, it’s always a resounding thumbs down.

‘Clunky. Complicated. Not intuitive. Poor candidate/recruiter/hiring manager experience. Crap reporting. Expensive.’ The list goes on.

Only yesterday, I was with one of the largest employers in the UK, discussing their future plans. These included devising and launching a new Employer Value Proposition (EVP) to engage high priority talent groups, and reinventing the wider processes that underpin their recruitment.

The goal? Revised careers sites that integrate seamlessly, creating a slick, compelling, mobile-ready candidate experience. Streaming applicants by brand and potential with integrated, brand-sensitive applicant screening.

Guess what came up as the central stumbling block? Yep, the ATS.

Headfirst smack

The ATS, which sits at the core, just isn’t up to the job. At some point in time, the candidates will slip from an engaging, branded experience and smack headfirst into the poor experience that is the ATS.

And let’s be clear, this isn’t an isolated case.

‘Hang on, it’s not all our fault,’ I hear the ATS vendors cry. Well, maybe not. Certainly, the way a lot of organisations have implemented the technology is partly to blame.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a fully cloud-based world yet, and older and more inflexible technologies still account for the lion’s share of the HR systems landscape. Add to that the serial addiction to ‘customisation/configuration’ and it’s no wonder these solutions end up being expensive and cumbersome.

The net result is that the experience for the individual on the receiving end of this technological mess – the applicant – is far from satisfactory.

This contrasts wildly with the vision of your average talent acquisition strategy and EVP.  For example, I increasingly hear statements like “We want to treat our candidates as customers,” and “Customers and applicants are one and the same.”

Come on, folks. Really?

Clicks not slick

Compare the experiences of both. Go to an online retailer, for example, and try to buy something. I bet you the money will be out of your pocket in three or four clicks.

Now try to apply for a job with the same company. Oh. Best add a zero (or maybe even two) to the numbers of clicks you’ll need.

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What’s the difference? Look at the origins of both systems.

We like customers. We value them. We know we can’t live without them. Technology that supports the customer – Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technology, e-commerce platforms etc. – was built with that understanding in mind.

Recruitment technology, on the other hand – specifically the ATS – was driven largely by the introduction of the internet and the job application process going online. This one shift single handedly raised the volume of job ads and candidate applications by 10,000% (whilst simultaneously decreasing the quality of both).

It’s like satisfying your thirst one day by sipping from a dripping tap, and having your face six inches away from an open fire hose the next.

Giant haystacks

We thought we needed to capture every applicant. We thought it wouldn’t matter if we didn’t respond to them, or provide them with a half decent way of showcasing their talent.

We thought process. Efficiency. Cost. We put functionality above agility. We put complexity above simplicity. We put numbers above quality.

In other words, we created giant haystacks and then complained we couldn’t find any needles. The holy grail of talent insight never arrived.

The ATS, like many enterprise technology solutions, was borne out of the era of the mighty corporate CTO, when complex RFPs rather than genuine user experience requirements determined functionality.

But times are a-changing. The IT department no longer has a strong hold on technology. Once upon a time, every piece of hardware and software I used was supplied and controlled by the corporation. Not any more.

Upstart tech companies are getting their tools into the organisation via the user, not the IT function, by giving us stuff that actually works.

Not in resourcing, though. Or at least, not until the buying population – yes, that’s you – changes its mind-set.

So if any of this rings true, or you’re currently thinking of swapping out your ATS/reviewing your resourcing process, consider these tips.

Stop complaining. No, seriously. If you were the head of online sales you wouldn’t sit around the office complaining about your customer dropout rate of 70%. No, you wouldn’t. If you really mean to treat your candidate like a customer, do something about it.

Make it fit for purpose. We all know that the purpose of crafting a CV is to get you the interview, not the job. The same should apply to your applicant management and screening process. Design it to find you qualified candidates, not the next hire.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Just finished that 100 page RFI? Great, pat yourself on the back and toss it in the bin. That one document will generate a level of activity equal to the GDP of a small country without delivering any value. Don’t believe me? Did you do one for the last ATS you bought? Thought so.

Remember the 80/20 rule. Review the whole process and challenge yourself at every step. In terms of functionality, focus on the top 10 killer features you need, not the 90 you don’t. In terms of data, try a “just in time” approach to capturing data. Capture only what you really need, only when you need it, not all at once.

Quality not quantity. The difference between your CRM system and your ATS is that one’s full of people you want, the other is full of people you don’t. Your ATS should contain only qualified candidates, determined by some form of objective measure. If someone isn’t right for your business tell them so, and don’t clog up your system with their soon-to-be out of date details.

About the author

Gareth Jones

Gareth is Partner and Chief Solutions Architect at The Chemistry Group. A corporate freedom fighter with low conformity issues, his passions are people, technology and the future of work. You can find more opinions from Gareth on corporate life in general at