Computer says: ‘You’re hired’

By JESSICA TWENTYMAN

Edgars Consolidated Stores (Edcon) is something of a national institution in South Africa. Since 1929, the chain of department stores has supplied generations of South Africans with clothing and footwear, from school shoes to funeral suits.

Naturally, keeping a network of more than 1,000 stores in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho fully staffed is a big challenge for the company’s human resources department, which oversees a workforce of 20,000 people – especially in the busy run-up to Christmas, when its headcount doubles.

Widespread unemployment in South Africa, meanwhile, means that for every position the company advertises, it receives approximately 100 applications, according to executive HR manager, Andrea Wiehahin.

“We’re very aware of the need to handle those applications sensitively,” she says. “Our job applicants are our customers as well, and even unsuccessful candidates need to be treated with respect, so that they go away from the experience with a positive feeling about the Edcon brand.”

To compound the issue, she adds, economic and political transformation in South Africa means that the company needs to demonstrate compliance with a complex web of government-mandated employment equity policies.

That is a big challenge, but Edcon is evidently handling it well. In a 2005 survey conducted by management consultancy Deloitte, it was named one of the 15 best companies to work for in South Africa and the best company to work for in the retail market.

Edcon makes sure it has the internet on its side. When a store manager has a vacancy to fill, they enter the details of the position on the company’s new Softscape Apex HR system. It is automatically forwarded to the relevant senior manager for approval, and from there, it is posted on the career section of the company’s website ( www.edcon.co.za  ), as well as online job boards, such as Career Junction (  www.careerjunction.co.za  ).

The e-recruitment process does not end there. Job seekers submit their applications over the internet via the website, and those applications are subsequently held and managed in the Softscape system.Around three-quarters of all applications Edcon receives are now made over the internet, says Leon Vermaak, Edcon’s business integration manager.

The system’s talent acquisition tools, meanwhile, enable managers to search applications, retrieve details for prospective employees, contact them and organise interviews, explains Alex Bart-feld, Softscape’s director for the EMEA region.

Not only that, the system also holds a wealth of information about the company’s recruitment processes, adds Ms Wiehahin, enabling the HR team to report on metrics relating to ethnic diversity in the workforce, as well as calculating the time and cost involved in bringing new hires on board.

Like Edcon, organisations around the world are finding that the internet provides the perfect platform for attracting recruits and streamlining their applications. In fact, it is critical in a world where the job of finding, attracting, selecting and securing top talent
has never been more important, according to Peter Cheese, managing partner of management consultancy firm Accenture’s 3,500-strong Human Performance practice.

“The thing that’s driving attention on recruitment is a general shortfall of skills,” he says. “The demographics of developed countries are against us, and that’s put a great deal of pressure on how companies attract and retain talent,” he says.

Certainly, things have come a long way from the days when job seekers would frequently find that the careers section of a company’s website offered no more information than a generic e-mail address for the HR department. “A whole host of developments are fuelling e-recruitment right now: internet-enabled HR systems, e-mail, online job boards, social networking sites, virtual worlds, and so on. As a term, e-recruitment covers a huge array of tools, but they have one thing in common: the internet,” says Mr Cheese.

Take KPMG, the management consultancy, for example, or the Royal Bank of Scotland, or data storage giant EMC – all three have held careers fairs in Second Life, the online “virtual world”. And in a recent survey of IT recruiters by the Association of Technology
Staffing Companies (ATSCo), 58 per cent said that social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace are more useful for recruitment than print advertisements. Eighty-three per cent, meanwhile, said they used those sites to trawl for potential job candidates.

“Sites such as LinkedIn are an incredibly powerful form of recruitment, as it puts the power in both parties’ hands – the recruiter in identifying the right candidate and the individual in deciding whether or not to engage in an offer,” says Dan Nye, CEO of LinkedIn.

“Some people are connected to hundreds of professionals across industries and borders, which in turn are connected to thousands more. This immediately places a well-connected recruiter in touch with a large number of possible candidates.”

But it is those organizations that have tightly integrated their e-recruitment tools with their back-end HR systems that have achieved the most notable successes – and that is true whether those back-end systems are hosted in-house or by a third party specialist, under the software-as-a-service (Saas) model, according to Colin Tenwick, chief executive of hosted talent management software specialist Stepstone, a company that offers both options.

“An all-encompassing e-recruitment tool won’t just post vacancies to a website and capture applications,” he says. “It will provide a robust framework for all the processes that surround bringing new recruits on board, and then managing their performance for as long as they work for you,” he says.

Such systems need to be capable of doing some pretty heavy lifting. Mobile services operator Orange, for example, uses Stepstone’s i-Grasp system to process about 80 per cent of the 5,000 applications it receives each year and currently holds 50,000 CVs, says David Roberts, Orange’s employer brand manager.

I-Grasp enables Orange’s 200-strong HR team to promote the company culture to applicants from the first contact, he says, primarily the company’s careers portal, www.orange.co.uk/jobs  , as well as a number of retail recruitment microsites.

It also helps to ensure that applicants are kept informed of the progress of their application, via e-mail and text message – and that was certainly welcome to Elly Hallwood, who joined Orange’s in-house legal team as senior counsel in August this year, after applying for the job via the portal.

“I was kept informed all the way down the line,” she says. “Moving from a law firm to an in-house legal department can be quite a transition, but the amount of information that I received from Orange regarding my application made the whole process much less stressful.”

The biggest benefits of effective e-recruitment, however, are encapsulated in two key metrics: time to hire and cost to hire. At Hyatt Hotels, for example, a hosted talent management system from Taleo has cut the process of hiring a front desk employee from four weeks to five days, according to Randy Goldberg, Hyatt’s executive director of
recruiting. And hotels that have moved both managerial and hourly  positions online have reported a 50 per cent reduction in recruitment advertising spending.

But above all, it is quality of candidates that really counts, says Michael Gregoire, CEO of Taleo. “If e-recruitment means you get people on board quickly and at a lower cost, then that’s great, but what companies really need to know is whether they’re hiring the kinds of people that have a material positive impact on their organisation,” he says.

That kind of insight, he adds, can only be achieved with a robust set of HR tools that enable companies to manage their ongoing performance in attracting and retaining talent.

Or as Mr Bartfeld of Softscape puts it: “The story doesn’t end when you click on the ‘hire’ button.”

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