The History of Recruiting Technology and Some Thoughts On How it is Evolving

Do Are you confused by all the recruiting technology that is pitched at you by eager salespeople? Do you have a clear idea of where technology is going and what it can potentially do for you? Do you have a technology road map to guide you? I imagine that most of you are totally confused and that you have no real road map or vision of where technology can take you. That’s a normal occurrence when any new technology is introduced. The history of the automobile is an example. In the 1920s there were hundreds of brands, many different drive systems, and two power sources – gasoline and steam. The technologists competed among themselves and the public was left to vote with their pocketbooks. Henry Ford understood that and built a cheap car that met the needs of the ordinary person. He automated the horse and buggy and the rest, as they say, is history. But technology is often not even understood by its inventors. The radio was originally planned and sold as a point-to-point or person-to-person technology much like CB radio is today. No one envisioned it as a broadcast medium. On the other hand, the telephone was proposed as a broadcast medium. Many suppliers thought that they could make money by “broadcasting” symphonies to thousands of people – each of them holding a handset to their ear! And, even television was miscast. Most producers thought that it would be the perfect replacement for classrooms, newspapers and even books and early commercial ventures were educational ones. Obviously none of the originators of these tools had any idea how their invention would eventually be used. And with recruiting technologies exploding around us everyday, neither do we. Take Applicant Tracking Systems as an example. We all scramble to buy one – mainly because we are deluged with resumes and think we need some way to store and retrieve them. Yet I am pretty sure that the tools that mainly just store and allow us to retrieve resumes are a dying breed. Tracking applicants is important – but tracking resumes is not. There is a huge difference, and it is largely a difference of mindset. If the relationship between the organization and the candidate is the important thing, then communicating with the candidate, developing a marketing strategy to targeted candidates and having the ability to screen candidates for skills, cultural fit and general abilities become the key. Most applicant tracking systems don’t do any of this. In trying to understand this, I have developed a road map that helps me, at least, see how these tools may be evolving. Once we understand this better, it is easier to assess the products and technologies we are bombarded with every day.

Tools that duplicated what we did with paper characterize are the first level of my hierarchy. These are the classic applicant-tracking tools – Restrac and Resumix were among the first. These tools added the ability to store a resume electronically and use keyword searches to retrieve them. They essentially duplicated our paper processes by replacing the file cabinet. But in my conversations with recruiters who adopted these tools, it is clear they never really made life easier. They actually added work, because after the systems were installed someone had to scan the resumes, code for key words, and maintain the computer systems. None of this was needed to be a good recruiter and costs did not go down. In many cases costs rose because of the need to add staff to operate the system. So these tools took technology and in many ways made our lives more complex with very little added value. But the inventors were trailblazers and began a process of re-examining what recruiting is all about. They opened the eyes of technology developers and within a decade we began to get tools that had moved into level two of the hierarchy. I liken these visionaries to the early experimenters with automobiles. The work involved in driving an early car was greater than that of dealing with a horse and buggy and, in many cases, you could get where you were going faster with the horse. Yet, many adopted the automobile who saw the possibilities and knew that eventually it would be better than the horse. Without these people we would not have the cars of today. In the second level, which we are well into today, tools evolve into much more complex and useful entities. Tools at this level allow us to do things we could not do with paper. This is the key to level two. If a technology duplicates a current manual process, it falls into level one. If it gives us a reach, a skill or a competency that we did not have manually, it becomes a level two technology. For example, email and web communication between a recruiter and a candidate are clearly not possible in any other way. They are fundamentally different from snail mail and allow almost instant communication to happen. E-marketing lets us reach out to targeted candidates with great speed and with very customized messages. This is not possible with mail or other media. Tools that allow us to test candidates in real time and provide instant feedback are level two, as well. There are a handful of tools in this arena with many of the applicant tracking companies taking a lead as they add enhancements to their older products. However, many are retaining features like resume scanning because you, the recruiters, are asking for these features. This is a bit like keeping the buggy whip holders on the dashboards of the early cars. It’s a “just in case” security blanket that will, hopefully, soon disappear. Level three remains a few years away and may take a different form than I portray. But technology in this area will be remarkably unique. Most of the features of the older systems will be gone or will have evolved into something very different. The resume will be gone, replaced with tools that gather small bits of candidate data over time and continuously assess candidates and market to them in real time. I predict that these tools will make the entire Internet our “database” and enable us to draw in candidates on a just-in-time basis. These tools will use wireless technologies and enlarge the circle of communication. And, this is just the tip of what will be possible as broadband, streaming video, and voice-over-Internet all become common. So, when you are choosing a technology or deciding on an ATS, try to choose for the future and go with the bold, the tools that offer enhancements and possibilities that may seem strange or unnecessary today. And remember that most of these tools will not survive the long term (only a handful of automobile companies are still around). It is not our place to try and pick long term winners but to buy those tools and services that enable us to do things that give us a competitive edge and that make our work easier, not more burdensome. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

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Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


1 Comment on “The History of Recruiting Technology and Some Thoughts On How it is Evolving

  1. This is a great article! Companies have the choice of being rule-takers, rule-makers or rule-breakers. Kevin has done a great job of articulating the strategies of automation, evolution, and revolution.

    The revolutionary plateau is a great place to be. There is no doubt that the risks are great but book stores, travel agents, stock brokers and newspapers all wish they had been the rule breakers five years ago.

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