Computer says: ‘You’re hired’

November 14, 2007


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 (  ), as well as online job boards, such as Career Junction (  ).

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,  , 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.”


Tools help staff see the effects of effort

November 14, 2007


Securing the services of the best available candidates is at the heart of e-recruitment systems. But once the new recruits are on board, technology now plays a big part in helping to monitor, incentivise and manage them.

Performance management software tools are maturing, taking advantage of the internet and replacing custom-grown solutions to help managers more effectively monitor and offer incentives to staff.

Also known as business intelligence (BI) or business performance management (BPM), e-performance management is a growing field.

Oracle, through its Peoplesoft and Hyperion acquisitions, SAP, Cognos and Business Objects are some of the big software providers helping managers collect, organise and massage data coming in from across finance, back office, manufacturing, production, sales and compensation business processes.

A growing list of smaller players, too, provides targeted services in a variety of niches. In the sales performance management (SPM) arena, for example, sales personnel and managers need a clear view of objectives and sales plan rules. They also need real-time visibility on their compensation statements and incentive goal sheets as well as
performance comparisons versus prior periods.

A dashboard screen on a desktop, laptop or smartphone allows them to absorb this information by showing up-to-the minute sales and compensation statistics and integrates incentive plan information.

In any sales organisation where the compensation plan drives the business, there is a need for everybody to be connected to central goals and respond quickly.

“You want to turn the business rules into compensation. With a centralized book, you can cascade strategic changes in the call plan,” says Leslie Stretch, senior vice-president of global sales, marketing and on-demand business at Callidus Software. The implications penetrate to the bottom line.

Mr Stretch says integrated software permits incentive compensation to be awarded faster and targeted with precision, while slowness and inaccuracy can demoralise a sales force.

Callidus, for example, is establishing a de facto standard for sales performance it calls the “true performance index”, that a professional can use to monitor the effects of their efforts. They can take this statistic with them – possibly to different employers. For heavily unionised customers, such as telecoms companies, Mr Stretch reports
fewer disputes, due partly, he claims, to trust in the Callidus data.

E-performance management tools are making a difference in operations management, too. A UK software and consulting group, eg Solutions, offers straightforward technology and advice which seeks to identify processes and tasks, assign roles, groups, teams and skills, and match desired outcomes with human activity. The business-intelligence
gathering mechanism is embedded in the process, which means data input is not segregated from the work itself.

Elizabeth Gooch, eg’s chief executive, says: “It’s like driving a car, first in manual and then in automatic.” The key is to make people autonomous optimisers by showing them the results of what they do.

Employees are said to appreciate sharper e-performance management tools and thrive because they feel a greater sense of accomplishment when their efforts are connected with results.


Dispelling the myths of the internet job search

November 14, 2007


Online job searching has evolved from a novelty into an essential career tool in the 10 years since I co-wrote one of the earliest guide books to using the new technology.

At first, internet job searching may seem quick and easy; however, having a strategy for navigating through millions of postings on thousands of sites helps increase the odds of landing a job, or even an interview. It helps to separate the myths that have evolved along withthis multi-million dollar business from the realities that can help both job seekers and recruiters get better results from internet job search tools.

Myth 1: The big boards post the lion’s share of openings.

Reality: Only about 30 per cent of the jobs at major corporations are listed on the big job boards, according to research firm iLogos. Fewer than 25 per cent of internet users worldwide regularly use job boards. There are many more options to include in job research.

Corporate websites and niche sites, such as professional and industry associations, have grown in size and importance. For example, employers use their own sites to avoid the rising cost of job board advertising; they find the high volume of resumes produced by the big  boards does not necessarily translate into actual hires. More often, they rely on industry and professional association sites and job aggregators to get the word out about new positions.

Employment search engines, which aggregate jobs from corporate sites, are invaluable to any job hunt, especially now that jobs are global. Top sites include JobRapido in Europe, in Asia and in the US.

To get specific vacancies in front of candidates with the required skills, corporations will also opt in the future for targeted search services, such as Yahoo Network’s Behavioral Targeting and Google Adword.

Myth 2: Internet technology makes landing a job easier.

Reality: A job search requires persistent, hard work. Seasoned job seekers understand that the internet is a 24/7 research tool, better used to identify pockets of opportunity than as a vehicle to apply for a job.

Employee referrals remain the number one source of new hires for corporations. To find a new job, seekers need to use every strategy at their disposal, including talking with friends and colleagues, tapping into professional networks, and pinpointing specific companies in their industry.

Internet searches are just one of many tactics to use in an overall strategy. Job aggregators can identify companies that are hiring in an appropriate geographic location and career categories – but that information should be used to initiate networking with the aim of securing an interview. Technology does not eliminate the competition for the best jobs, but it can help seekers stay ahead of the pack.

Myth 3: Placing a resume online reaches recruiters.

Reality: Maybe. Just as likely, job-hunters are helping marketers sell their products and services. For example, with 40m US seekers regularly visiting job boards, the temptation to view this huge audience as a marketing bonanza is too great for many vendors. In some countries there is little regulation monitoring the business conduct of the online recruiting industry.

Job seekers need to be cautious about sharing their personal histories with any site that purports to offer interesting opportunities. Research by the DirectEmployers Association shows that nearly 50 per cent of job seekers have privacy concerns with general boards.

Over the next few years, we are likely to see an emergence of recruiting industry standards as a way to assure job seekers that ads genuinely represent job openings, and that information will remain confidential.

Myth 4: Social networks are distinct from professional networks and play only a marginal role in job searches.

Reality: Social and professional networks are more connected than ever thanks to the internet and using all networks effectively is essential in getting a job. Job seekers worldwide are using Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, and MySpace to build contacts, learn about job opportunities and find out what it is like to work at a specific company.

Social networking sites are new tools to help get credentials in front of people who can help with landing a job. A key advantage is that these sites give some control over who is part of the network. By contrast, when someone posts their resume on a job site, they have little control over who sees it, or whether it reaches the people who do the hiring.

Job searches require research and networking in multiple ways. Avoid getting trapped in front of a computer screen. Individuals may one day be able to identify a dream job by going online. Until then, understanding the realities of internet job search help seekers become more successful.


FT: Social Networking: Lessons from a village community

October 2, 2007

Why would a business spend a fortune to achieve something that a village on the Scilly Isles achieves effortlessly – the passing of information efficiently and reliably to people who need to know it but not everyone else?

“Villages and islands are so improbably efficient at getting information to the right people,” explains Charles Armstrong, ethnographer and chief executive of Trampoline Systems. “Some social network has licked this problem that floors really large companies.”

Inspired by the “amazing dysfunction of corporate information systems” that he has seen in large companies, and guided by a hunch that those systems were interfering with instinctive human behaviour, he spent a year on St Agnes, one of the Scilly Isles, off Cornwall in south-west England, observing communication in action.

He describes what he saw as the interaction of five simple mechanisms. “There is an implicit difference between public and private information: if it’s said in the pub or the village shop it’s public information, if it’s said to your workmates, it’s privileged information.

“Next, if you share information with a group, anyone in the group can suggest who to pass it on to and anyone who’s going to see them will say so.

“A group can also be a target for information. People are good at relaying information effectively, even if they don’t know what it’s about. And there are buffering tools: two people who are close share almost everything but two people who are far apart need a close fit to pass something on.”

Mr Amstrong’s company, Trampoline, has products called Sonar and Metascope that mimic these behaviours instead of crippling them the way many enterprise IT systems do. “Humans spent 200,000 years evolving all kinds of social behaviour for accumulating, filtering and passing on information.

“We’re really good at it; so good, we don’t even think about it most of the time. But the way we use e-mail, instant messaging, file sharing and so on disrupts these instincts and stops them doing their job.

“This is why we waste so much time scanning through e-mails we’re not interested in and searching for documents we need. E-mail is a conceptually simple and democratic tool, but in a lot of other ways it’s a disaster, because it was designed for one-to-one communication but it’s mostly used for group collaboration.”

In a large organisation, informal networks fail because it’s hard to know who has the expertise and connections to need or pass on information. “We’re just at the end of the time when the organisational chart reflects reality,” says Mr Amstrong

What Sonar does is to analyse e-mail, customer relationship management (CRM) and document repositories as well as instant messenger communications to map the social networks, collaboration and information flow within the business. “In a sense, there isn’t such a thing as unstructured data, because you have the structure of the human relationships,” he suggests.

“Social networking systems often flounder in the enterprise because people don’t update information they way they would in personal networks,” he adds.

Raytheon, the defence contractor, is a customer. “It already had a CRM system and enterprise portals but they weren’t being updated.”

Sonar automatically calculates relationships in an organisation and displays them as Web 2.0-style tag clouds and diagrams. It identifies experts – and groups that are not sharing information. It means users will soon be able to put information into specific “buckets” to be automatically passed on to the people who need it.

New trends make social networks particularly useful in the enterprise, Mr Armstrong believes. “There’s a cultural shift from an underlying ‘need to know model’ to saying that whatever information is in the enterprise, unless it’s sensitive, should be available to everybody.”

FT: Social Networking: podcasts reach a nouveau niche

October 2, 2007

Do not be fooled by the name: podcasting is a big opportunity for companies. It is often defined as a version of broadcasting, which suggests a certain grandeur of scale. But what is the scale?

Rajar, the official body responsible for measuring radio audiences in the UK, recently issued its latest statistics for the second quarter of 2007. It reported that 28.8 per cent of people said they owned an MP3 player and of those, 18.3 per cent had at some stage used it for listening to podcasts. That means more than 2.6m people use their MP3 players to listen to podcasts. This is steady growth from previous quarterly figures.

The Rajar figures are interesting but only cover podcast use on MP3 players. They can also be played directly from web pages, which constitutes a large proportion of podcast listening. The mobile phone is also likely to become a big conveyor of podcasts as faster connectivity and flat-rate data plans remove current barriers.

Traditional broadcasters, such as the BBC, are producing podcasts, and its efforts may well qualify as broadcasting – general productions aimed at wide audiences. But there is also much niche content being made aimed at specific audiences – for example, the FT’s own stable of podcasts covering topics such as the arts, personal finance, and Digital Business.

There are podcasts on all sorts of specific subjects, aimed at lawyers, affiliate marketers, Arsenal football fans, anglers – even CIOs and CFOs. Podcasting is ideally suited to this “narrowcasting”, and it offers a great opportunity to target narrow interest groups and to reach specific audiences with specific interests.

These niches are interesting because they consitute core target audiences – the best audience, not necessarily the biggest – who are often difficult to reach by conventional means.

Edison Media Research, the market research body, has found that podcast users are 36 per cent more likely than others to have made online purchases, and four times more likely to have purchased songs online; that podcast users spend 50 per cent more time online; and more than 37 per cent of podcast users click on relevant advertising.

The podcast’s appeal to listeners and the businesses making them is that they are portable, easily accessible, can cover almost any topic, and they give business a personal touch and voice which helps the listener feel connected to the business.

For businesses, the number of plays or downloads can be measured; they can be used to engage existing customers and recruit new ones; they can help with brand building by associating a brand with exciting content; and can be used for internal communications and training.

An interesting byproduct of podcasts are theme tunes and music that sum up a brand’s values and are powerful communicators across language, territory and other boundaries.

So companies have a great opportunity to look at ways podcasting can target specific audiences. With the right creative thinking, it can be a powerful way to reach a nouveau niche.

Martin Talks is chief executive of Blue Barracuda, a London-based digital agency and host of

FT: Social Networking: skills that confer a business advantage

October 2, 2007

To get the most value out of social networking within a company, there must be ways of measuring how employees are using the tools and rewards for beneficial interactions.

That is the view of Marc Smith, senior research sociologist at Microsoft Research. Finding experts within the organisation and making sure contributors feel valued is crucial, according to Dr Smith’s research.

Leveraging a business’s social networks creates “architectures of co-operation” avoiding problems of traditional knowledge management (KM), he says. “The biggest asset of any enterprise is what your people know and they keep going home with it.

“Institutional memories are fragile. KM attempts to create the infrastructure for knowledge in the enterprise but its limits are the limits of understanding of institutions. KM assumed everybody would be delighted to give up everything.”

Socially oriented systems such as wikis (collaborative documents that anyone can edit) can overcome that reluctance by identifying who is contributing information and help; measure what that means to the company or to partners and customers; and reward it like any other contribution – which can be a big shift from current attitudes.

“Often, enterprises spend a lot of effort incentivising the wrong behaviour. They don’t see themselves as a group – and a group that doesn’t know itself is not even a group. Software can make businesses visible to themselves; social networks are often the real structure of a company.

“Making all this visible will mean that what should have been rewarded all along gets rewarded – and once you reward the right thing, you probably get more of it.

“In the world of Sarbanes-Oxley, we’re talking about helping people who want to help each other by making their help of one another visible and accountable to their management.”

There is more than one kind of valuable behaviour in a social network. Dr Smith has identified several types of contributor.

The most obvious is “the answer person, the guru, the go-to person, the knowledge fountain, the person who is all about giving to others the short factual piece of information they need to re-vector their task”.

Another type is the “reply magnet”. “They are the person who comes in and says ‘I was reading this article that’s relevant to us’; the person who brings in what’s interesting, what’s topical. They dictate what people talk about but not what they say about it. They are agenda-setters not conversation controllers and they almost never talk about the topic themselves.”

And if there are “vandal hunters” in the organisation, it might not even need to appoint editors or moderators to oversee wikis or other informal knowledge tools. “A vandal hunter does not generate content,” explains Dr Smith. “A vandal hunter undoes damage to content, so you have a content creator and a content massager.”

The tools to analyse social networks are still being developed but Dr Smith’s team works on three.

Netscan was developed for newsgroups but can analyse contributions in other discussion and authoring systems. C#ung (pronounced Chung, and short for “C# universal network/graph system”) displays information from Excel spreadsheets as tree maps, which show hierarchies, such as the most frequent and active participants.

And a future version of Snarf, a Microsoft Outlook add-on that prioritises mail from regular correspondents – for which Dr Smith was responsible – could use C#ung to show where in an organisation’s hierarchy an e-mail comes from, to provide understanding of who is asking for information.

While many organisations are concerned about systems such as Facebook interfering with productivity, Dr Smith claims benefits even from non-work-related social networking. “There are efficiency gains. Knowing how to know people is the number one skill in business; networking is a commercially valuable skill.”

FT: Social Networking: It’s amazing what people will say . . .

October 2, 2007

On Facebook, the social networking site, an employee of a large retailer hits back at comments from appreciative customers: “well im glad u all think its so great, u should try working there, does my head in”.

The employee provides his name, a photo, and more details about his personal life than most people would want to know.

This may be harmless enough, but it is an example of the lack of caution that is causing companies to worry about Facebook and its like. Sometimes the incaution hits the headlines. UK retailer Argos fired an employee who was reported as telling the world on Facebook what he thought of his employer. Similarly, the company that runs the directory service 118 118 spent months trying to get Facebook to remove a page dedicated to insulting its customers.

At a different level, Google was embarrassed when Lauren Turner, who writes a Health Advertising blog for her employer, attacked Michael Moore’s film, Sicko, and suggested that Google’s advertisers take space to counter the damage.

And Dell’s legal counsel demanded that, a blog-based website, remove a piece written by a former Dell employee. said no, and Dell backed down, with its blog Dell2Dell (see main article) saying “we goofed”.

When linked to the (perceived) problem of employees wasting hours on social networking sites, it is not surprising that some companies have come to see them as the enemy. Lawyers often recommend their use be banned, while security software companies suggest – unsurprisingly – that they should be filtered with security software.

This, surely, is missing the point – the real issue is education. Companies need to educate themselves about social network sites, and they need to educate their employees about them.

Telling staff you do not trust them is, of course, an option. But better surely to point out that personal rants could damage them more than you, and that posting personal details puts them at serious risk from hackers. Then tell them how to increase the security settings on Facebook, and use traditional management techniques to keep them productive in the office.

Google’s blogger and Dell’s legal counsel need educating, too. They have to understand that the social network world means they must assume anything they write – online or offline – will be circulated, discussed and possibly ridiculed.

Employees need general guidelines – be careful, don’t be heavyhanded, don’t pretend you are someone else – and specific rules for the major platforms. Then let them use them. In fact, encourage them, because that is how they will most quickly learn the quirks and etiquettes of the different sites and channels.

In the mid-1990s the same arguments raged about whether employees should be allowed to look at the web in the office.