Why it’s time for the recruitment industry to think big

In an era of ever more sophisticated data analysis, it’s possible to gain important insights into business performance. Tim Gibson explores the implications for the recruitment industry.

In the Steven Spielberg sci-fi movie Minority Report (2002), advertising is personalised. As characters travel from A to B, iris scanners identify them, and beam ads aimed at their particular tastes onto screens that only they can see.

When the film came out, this counted as a piece of fantasy. But we’re not a million miles away from such a world just 15 years later – and it’s all thanks to the power of big data.

Think about what happens when you surf the internet. If you pay attention to the adverts that flash up on-screen, you’ll notice that many of them have a particular allure for you. They correlate to your search habits, to the sites you’ve visited, and to the things you write about in emails.

In other words, these ads are personalised for you. Advertisers use analytics that are derived from your online activity, as well as demographic identifiers and data about the sorts of things people like you buy. By putting all that information in the mix, they can pinpoint what will have you reaching for your credit card to make a purchase.

If that illustrates the power of big data to illumine business activity, it also demonstrates the wealth of information that is available in a digital age. Even the most cautious internet user leaves a trail of breadcrumbs in their wake, with every transaction, every search and every browse of a website revealing a huge amount about them.

Whenever a wealth of information is recorded, whether online or offline by sensors, say, or surveying techniques, it can be manipulated in all sorts of ways to sharpen practice and improve performance. That’s precisely how big data is being used to improve healthcare, for example, or to help the emergency services respond to crisis situations. It’s even informing town planning.    

So it is no surprise that recruiters are coming to recognise the power of big data to improve staffing procedures and personnel management. With the right information at your fingertips, you can significantly enhance your HR activity, giving you a valuable edge over your rivals.

“One of the most obvious ways to use big data in recruitment is identifying potential candidates for a vacancy,” explains Peter Foy, a Director at Just Recruitment Group Ltd in East Anglia. “If you have a database of roles, and a database of the skills and aptitudes of people who have thrived in them, it’s easy to cross-refer them to a list of current candidates and produce a narrow field of suitable applicants for a given opportunity.”

That sort of matching process is what recruitment consultants like Mr Foy have done throughout the ages, of course. Which means a key part of their traditional work can now be undertaken by machines. 

“That’s true,” he admits. “But even the cleverest computer can’t discern if someone has the right personality to fit in with a particular team dynamic, for example, or the discipline to wear a smart suit to the office every day.”

In other words, there will always be details about a person that no amount of data analysis can spot. But the list of such details seems to shrink by the day, as algorithms grow in sophistication. So will there come a time when recruiters are replaced by computers?

“I don’t think so,” asserts Mr Foy. “This is a people-centred profession. Any agency that relies utterly on the conclusions of analytics, even highly advanced ones, will very soon lose credibility with clients and candidates alike.”

The reason is simple, he continues: “While big data – or ‘human analytics’ as it is sometimes called – makes it easier to draw up a shortlist, the final decision to appoint will always be made by a human.”

Which isn’t to say big data doesn’t have a wider application in the HR space, as Bridie James, also from Just Recruitment, explains: “With the potential to record a wealth of information about, for example, staff behaviours, productivity, profitability, working conditions, management techniques, and the use of incentives, there is the opportunity to crunch data that reveals a huge amount about the workplace.

“Such predictive analytics could help businesses plan staff cover, structure pay rises, decide which bonuses to offer and iron out deficiencies in operating practices. The opportunities to enhance business performance really do seem to be limitless.

To take full advantage of such opportunities, Ms. James says it is necessary to have the right partner to analyse and curate relevant data. And she sees this as a valuable way for recruitment specialists to enhance their offer: “We understand people management and HR. So we know the sorts of questions to ask of data, as well as having a huge amount of aggregated data of our own to draw upon. So we could partner businesses to optimise the performance of their people, as well as finding the very best candidates as vacancies arise.”

All of these signals, a brave new world for the recruitment industry, as well as the businesses it serves. As Spielberg’s dystopian vision in Minority Report illustrated with unnerving foresight, though, machines are merely the means of deriving such insight. “We need to maintain the centrality of human beings in the new order,” concludes Peter. “Sometimes, the best decisions are based on intuition alone. No amount of data analysis can compete with that.”

© 2018 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

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