Why Applicant Tracking Systems Cause So Much Trouble

It often seems as if recruiters and technology are like oil and water: almost impossible to mix. I am rarely with a client for very long before the issue of technology comes up. Usually, it’s in the form of a complaint. Something like, “Our ATS system can’t do X?” or, “I wish I could get better metrics, but my ATS can’t create the reports I need,” or, “The recruiters here never bother to enter the right data or don’t use the system at all.” But when I talk with finance groups or engineering departments, technology is never an issue. They seem to live together in harmony, albeit with a few blips here and there. While a few people I know have said that they feel computers are just too impersonal for people-oriented recruiters to be comfortable with, I know many very warm and successful recruiters who are advocates and users of very sophisticated systems. There are several reasons why these systems are hard to sell, poorly utilized, and rarely praised. Poor Understanding of Current Processes No system can do what you want if you don’t know what you want. Many recruiters cannot tell me the entire process of getting a new employee hired. When I ask them to pretend they are a candidate or a job requisition and then take me through the various steps to get to a hire, they can only get through those steps they take part in. Many pieces of the recruiting process are vague or ill-defined, even to those who do them. Often many people do a small part of a process and no one really knows it all. Recommendation: Before even thinking about an applicant tracking system, you have to write down or draw a diagram of every process step the requisition, the hiring manager, the recruiter, and the candidate have to go through for a hire to take place. If you are really wise, you’ll take the opportunity to streamline the processes and eliminate any steps that are unnecessary. Then you will be able to compare what you need to get done with the capabilities of whatever system you are evaluating. It is the first and most important step in creating the RFP or even talking to a vendor. Undefined or Unclear Goals for Your System I find that recruiting departments rarely define clearly what they expect the system to do for them. Do you expect it to reduce cost per hire? Maybe you expect it to speed up the time to offer? Or the time to hire? Perhaps candidate quality will improve? Maybe all of these? Recommendation: Have a realistic and clear view of what you can expect. Ask other organizations what their experience has been. Ask the vendor of the applicant tracking system what you should expect ó they can often provide you with examples from other customers. Typically, users find that for the first year or so costs may not go down very much, as there is a learning curve when the manual systems have to be maintained. That is why having a realistic picture is so important. If you have sold the idea of the applicant tracking system as a way to significantly reduce costs, your boss may be very unhappy when those savings don’t show up. A Lengthy and Bureaucratic Vendor Selection Process I am always amazed at the RFPs for applicant tracking systems I see from many very large and well-known organizations. They are sometimes pages in length and cover so much detail that that the forest is entirely missed for the trees. Recommendation: There are, in my experience, four critical things to know about the vendor and his product. Everything else is nice to know, but not critical. In theory your RFP could be one or two pages long.

1. Can the system do at least 80% of the things that you want it to do? Can it produce the reports you need? Obviously, you have to have completed my first recommendation above and know your processes and what you need very thoroughly. You also have to realize and accept that no system will be likely to do 100% of what you want without great expense and customization. Be realistic and work with the vendor you choose over time to evolve the missing elements. 2. Has the vendor installed the system in another organization of a similar size to yours? Can you call up some of those customers and talk to their recruiters? If not, forget the vendor. If some of my clients had followed this advice, they would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars on poor implementations by vendors who were often highly regarded in the press and had innovative concepts but who lacked the ability to execute. Features are of no values without execution. 3. What is the vision and growth strategy of the vendor? Do they have the leadership and foresight to remain a market leader? You want to go with a vendor who has been around for a while and has weathered this economic downturn successfully. 4. Partner with your internal IT group, but don’t let them lead. Internal IT groups are trying to juggle many priorities and you are just one of them. They are always going to be focused on the technical, not the functional, side of the product. This focus is helpful, because you need to understand the issues they have. But that doesn’t mean they should control the selection process. Increasingly, as applicant tracking systems mature, the technical issues are disappearing. There may be concerns on the part of your IT group, but the vendor can often answer those easily.

Having No Change Management Process Implementing a technology solution in a people-oriented culture is going to create some serious change issues. Recruiters will have to learn new skills. Hiring managers will have to be made aware of new requirements and may even have to learn to use some part of the system. Candidates will be going through new steps, especially if you are also using the Internet more effectively as part of your new process. An applicant tracking system cannot simply be dropped into place without extensive internal marketing and communication to everyone who will be touched by the system, even if only slightly. The HRIS people, the hiring managers, obviously the recruiters, and even the candidates may need some kind of explanation, training, or help in adapting to the system. It is also important to remove, perhaps over a period of time, all the other ways of doing recruiting. Smart recruiting departments no longer accept paper requisition or paper applications and don’t allow anyone to circumvent the system. Human nature is such that, when given the opportunity, most of us will avoid changing and continue to do it the old way. I hope this will help you think through the process of acquiring any system. I will follow up with a article on how to work more effectively with your internal IT department.

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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 ERE.net, 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 kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


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