buzzword innovation


What Does Innovation in Recruiting Mean?


It seems counterintuitive to take a step back and challenge the basics of innovation. All things considered, it seems appropriate to pause and wonder: when did innovation become so, well, stale?

The word ‘innovation’ gets bandied about so much in the HR and recruiting space that it has become a tired cliché.

Just like the word ‘influence’, this is one subjective term that, objectively, really can’t be defined or measured. The term “innovation” seems to be the new ‘transparency’ or ‘community.’ An annoying, meaningless buzzword, for start-ups and established players alike.

No innovative company has to talk about being innovative. The proof is in the product. Except, as I keep learning, when that product is designed specifically for recruiting. This was reinforced recently. I served on the judging panel of a fairly prestigious annual award for the most promising start-up product in HR Tech.

This meant sifting through a whole lot of almost identical product pitches. Almost unilaterally, every single one of those submissions made some reference to how innovation was one of their competitive differentiators. It would be kind of funny if it weren’t so damned sad.


What makes something innovative?

Of course, the familiar tropes about innovation could be because this was one of the five categories on which to judge submissions. I’m guessing that most of these pieces of purple product prose were probably penned by a plodding publicist or pedestrian product marketer, to be fair to the start-ups under consideration.

In reviewing these few dozen entries, I realized that none of them were doing anything that would be considered “innovative” by any objective measure. Adding video capabilities to a SaaS install isn’t innovative. Neither is using APIs to create a “marketplace” (read: channel sales). Visual or non-traditional resumes (why is this still an f-ing thing?). Building an app. Gamification isn’t innovative – it’s not even a word, TBH.

Since I saw nothing even remotely resembling innovation, I had to return to the organizers. I voted for a talk to text plugin for enterprise HCM systems for crying out loud! I asked for clarification on what the hell they meant by “innovation.” It seems we had drastically different definitions for this seemingly simple word.

This was their oh so helpful reply:

Innovation is simply considering how innovative their approach is relative to recruiting.”


That doesn’t help

As any third-grader knows, you can’t define a word by using it in its definition.  But asking for clarification is similarly amorphous, particularly in an industry like HR and recruiting where almost everything is a late market catch up play.  At least not compared to consumer tech.   But as this ballot illustrates, only in this industry are independent outcomes of technology, business value, and viability rather than prerequisites for the existence of innovation.

Many of the start-ups who submitted to this (fairly legit) competition are incredibly well funded. They have gone through several rounds of financing and unsustainable growth of both headcount and hype. So, one has to ask when does a company need to stop starting up and start, you know, actually doing.


Changing the name doesn’t make it innovation, either

Video interviewing was around five years ago.  It was just called Skype.  Enterprises were using it as an established part of the international hiring workflow for one Fortune 50 company in 2007, according to official HR policy and personal experience.

Job applicants were looking for jobs on their smartphones then, too. I have vivid memories of scouring Indeed every day, on my state-of-the-art Blackberry Curve, style sheets, and all. It’s just that at some point, candidates had to go on your career site and apply.  Or, I suppose, have very nimble thumbs and keen eyesight to go through page after page of ATS populated pop-ups and pull-downs.

For some reason, we haven’t fixed this yet. But hey, I’m sure managing those crazy Millennials or figuring out how to increase InMail response rates are way more important. Sigh.


HR Tech can’t deliver on candidate experience

Look, the problem with candidate experience remains fundamental. We find it somehow profound when someone says “candidates are consumers and customers.”  This means, from a software perspective, at least, they’re users, too.

What seems to be missing in a lot of the demos and pitches I’ve seen this year: While the candidate focus is nice, HR Technology can’t deliver on even the most basic experiential expectations. Even the best HR and recruiting systems still suck when compared to what we expect from consumer technology.

If candidates are consumers, they’re going to be disappointed. Even if you do have a killer career site and compelling employer brand. You can polish a turd, but you can’t make Taleo shine, as they say – or work on a mobile device.


Most HR Tech would never pass the consumer test

Of course, the mindset of most end-users of talent acquisition and management has already changed. That change, however, mostly ends at work (or a corporate firewall).  Think of the level of scrutiny taken for a big-ticket electronics purchase. If they were to apply that scrutiny to these expensive enterprise point solutions, then these talent leaders (and even industry analysts) would likely realize how ridiculous and commoditized this space has become.

Imagine walking into, say, an Apple Store or Best Buy. You want to upload videos from a new digital camera into your computer. So you buy software that’s a little pricey. But, the software won’t solve the problem since it’s not what you need. You need a lightning cable instead of micro USB. But that’s fine, since the software will give you professional editing capabilities for the videos trapped on the camera.

Most consumers wouldn’t make that purchase in the first place, or at least until they had solved the initial problem.

What if that same software you just laid down the plastic for not only had no return policy but also locked you into a three-year contract?  And most of those promised cool features and functions were just “on the product roadmap,” and “should be ready by next quarter?”

You’d never make that purchase – no consumer ever would.

That’s precisely the premise so many HR and recruiting technologies flooding the marketplace seem to espouse as a viable go-to-market strategy.  The trade-off, of course, is innovation. No one wants to be a late adopter.  If the fundamental problem is that your operating system – your ATS – is obsolete or cumbersome – then no amount of aftermarket add-ons will make the core user experience any better or more up to date.


Subpar integration and reporting capabilities

Take some of the most “cutting edge” and “innovative” products and technologies in the recruiting space over the past few years. It’s no wonder that the biggest challenge for pretty much every recruiter out there remains systems integration and standardized reporting capabilities. These capabilities aren’t as sexy as, say, “inbound sourcing” or some shit, but probably a pretty good indicator of why maybe, just maybe, innovation isn’t actually all that important in our industry.

The existence of so many disparate systems in the first place suggests that this kind of “innovation” has already been done.  Had any delivered as promised, the integration challenge wouldn’t be a pervasive problem.  Or any problem at all.

But, of course, viability and business value aren’t really independent of innovation. Nor is innovation subject to the terms and conditions of a three-year contract.


Focus on iteration instead

Innovation is a long term goal. In the short term, it’s beyond most of our collective capability gaps. Look, we all want great software. Maybe we need to work on building processes around the foundational stuff that no software in the world can fix. In fact, innovation is a convenient talking point. Especially when trying to get money for tech designed to solve a problem that doesn’t exist outside of analyst reports and product marketing collateral.

So shut up about it already. Innovation is overrated. Worry about iteration, instead.

Because if we keep sweating the small stuff, maybe someday, recruiting will finally be ready for significant changes. But for today, it’s imperative to build recruiting roadmaps around people. Not products. Or else our profession will inevitably stay stuck in the same stagnant status quo. And no one wants that.

Ryan Leary

Ryan Leary helps create the processes, ideas and innovation that drives RecruitingDaily. He’s our in-house expert for anything related to sourcing, tools or technology. A lead generation and brand buzz building machine, he has built superior funnel systems for some of the industries top HR Tech and Recruitment brands. He is a veteran to the online community and a partner here at RecruitingDaily.