Can you replace a recruiter with an algorithm?

It was interesting to observe the debate that sprung up a few weeks ago when online dating giant eHarmony announced its entry into the recruitment market. A December launch has been mentioned and there is currently a holding page taking email sign ups.

The key to the debate is whether eHarmony’s legendary matching methodologies and algorithms can in some way effectively augment or even usurp the mind of an experienced recruiter. For the most part the sides of the debate fail along predictable lines with some keen technologists saying yes and a lot of experienced recruiters dismissing the whole notion as the kind of ridiculous theoretical hype they’ve been hearing for years.

My own view on this is that the debate isn’t quite as black and white as some pundits seem to think it is.  First of all I do think there is an inevitability that currents trends in big data and machine learning will have a much more dramatic effect on recruitment than a lot of people imagine and I would recommend Erik Brynjofsson and Andrew McAfee’s book “The Second Machine Age” to anyone interested in what the future of work might look like. I’ve also experienced first hand just how effective eHarmony is and recently got married to the beautiful girl it quite rightly predicted was my perfect match! However I remain to be convinced that any change in recruitment will happen quickly.

Online recruitment remains ridiculously unsophisticated in comparison to the rest of the digital world and that makes it a seemingly easy target for disruptive investment. However, over the last ten years, it has proved to be almost impossible to properly disrupt online recruitment and I would argue that only LinkedIn have made any genuinely industry shifting impact in that time.

This is pretty disappointing because if there is one thing our industry is crying out for it is disruptive innovation, particularly round the area of candidate matching. Fifteen or so years ago the online recruitment revolution created a problem with application volumes for many companies that it has never properly solved. It is an issue that is so entrenched that it has actually normalized and having to sort through a large number of inappropriate applications (very often manually) is seen as part of the standard workflow of recruitment. Many established software providers claim to solve the problem but the evidence on the ground does not back this up! Despite being cited as a current big trend, improvements to the candidate experience seem to be mostly failing to take root as many recruiters fear they will be totally swamped if they “make it easier” for people to apply for jobs. The fact that we consider all of this to just be “business as usual” is insane in a world where the continuing advance of digital is changing everything around us.

So where is the innovation coming from? There are obviously a large number of start-ups out there who claim they can solve all of recruitment’s problems but what are the chances of any of them making it out of the often self-congratulatory recruitment tech echo chamber and into the mainstream? History would seem to suggest not very many will. The big players don’t seem to do much better either with somewhat half hearted recruitment initiatives from both Google and Facebook failing to make an impact in recent years.

Ultimately I think the key to change lies within the industry itself. Despite the rapid rise of LinkedIn, for the most part recruitment is still anchored round mechanics that are driven by the CV and haven’t changed in decades. The death of the CV debate is even more polarized than the algorithm debate and unfortunately I think it is holding back some of the evolution that could help make automated matching work much more effectively. No I’m not saying you should scrap formal documents and just use social data but I am saying that in a world of mobile devices the status quo will increasingly not be an option.

Above all I think I’m calling for some sensible discussion here. The “oh no it won’t” versus the “oh yes it will” debate round algorithmic advancement and the future of the CV might be fine for the pantomime season but we are desperately in need of more sophisticated deliberation if the industry is going to move forward.