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This post was featured in Talent Culture in two parts: Why We Don’t Need to Reinvent the ATS and Talent Acquisition Technology: Reinvention and Innovation

There are a lot of opinions, many conflicting, on how recruiting technology can help us innovate; how we find, attract, engage and nurture candidates in the recruiting process.

One idea I hear a lot is that we need to reinvent the Applicant Tracking System (ATS). Make it more about relationships and less about process flows. Improve all the candidate-facing elements like job search and apply process. Build a better one from the ground up that’s more intuitive, candidate friendly and connects better with all your efforts to attract candidates to apply in the first place. If we can do one thing, this would be it.

But I pose this question: Is this really the best use of our time and energy? And is this where technology can make the greatest impact on talent acquisition?


What I Know About The ATS Today

Hey, don’t get me wrong, a better ATS would solve some problems. But in many cases, the ATS solves many more problems than most give it credit for. The ATS is not a mobile app built to do two or three things really well – it is an enterprise system built to be a full compliance and process flow manager for thousands upon thousands of applications.

Few remember the mess that recruiting was before the ATS, as it’s been a mainstay for a while now. Trust me, it’s helped make talent acquisition way better and more efficient, and it’s a system that recruiting organizations couldn’t live without. Plus, from a legal and compliance standpoint, it’s a savior and necessity.

But there have been a few consistent story lines around the ATS for the past few years.


Everyone Has Issues With Their ATS

Do you hate your ATS? A question asked a little too frequently during conference presentations, but mostly because presenters know they will get a resounding, “Yes!” But why do talent acquisition professionals get annoyed sometimes with it? Here are a few reasons:

  • Feature Creep: The ATS has become an albatross in terms of features. People have a hard time wrapping their minds around everything that an ATS does, even the features they use on a daily basis. Many of these features are sorely needed and were built because organizations requested them, but in the end it makes for a system that feels cumbersome to the average user.
  • Unfair Expectations: As new candidate attraction trends like mobile, social, candidate experience and employer branding entered the talent acquisition fray, many expected the ATS to help provide solutions for these trends. The problem is that the ATS was never built or meant to solve problems on the candidate attraction side. It was meant to provide order to the application and hiring processes and them measurable. In all fairness, it became the center of our recruiting universe over the past 10 years. But now, everyone expects it to remain so, despite a lot of shifting needs in a more interaction-based and data-driven environment.
  • It’s Not “New” Anymore: Let’s face it, the established ATS vendors have lost their luster, and that comes with a more mature market. What felt innovative in the past decade feels less so now. And with more competitors in the space, it feels like every ATS or talent management suite has the same features (even though they don’t … more on this in Part 2).


Switching Your ATS Doesn’t Make You Happier

I’ve spoken with a number of companies that are undergoing ATS switches in order to gain more value from their talent acquisition process. And in many cases, it’s a bad experience.

  • First, it takes a much too long to implement and switch everything over (we’re talking a year if not more). This isn’t a knock on the ATS – it;’s understandable, as these systems are compiling a ton of information and require thoughtful  processes in order to achieve what it’s meant to.
  • Second, many don’t realize the unique differences among solutions. Not every ATS has the same features (although we seem to think they do), and a crucial feature you had before isn’t always available when you switch. It’s left many angry at the sales teams for not being transparent, but really, all the key functions that an ATS helps with aren’t easily replicated.

So people here think: If lots of people have trouble with their ATS and switching to other established vendors doesn’t improve the process, why don’t we reinvent what an ATS is?


Should We Reinvent the ATS?

There have been a number of new ATS companies sprouting up over the past year or two, and many have received positive reviews from early adopters. But I’d suggest that much of the praise is from small- and medium-sized businesses that require less functionality and in many cases have different needs.

The majority of the large organizations I’ve talked to still require established ATS solutions that have built necessary functionality over the past 10 years, especially due to compliance and legal reasons. So I ask these four questions before answering the big one:


1. Can we live without many of the features legacy ATS solutions provide?

Consider the crucial features and functionality that are needed for large organizations to gain supreme value from these solutions. How quickly can we build this functionality (and other new-age features) into a reinvented ATS?

From talking to the people who have actually worked to build these technologies, it will take a years upon years to match what many solutions have today, and a majority of this functionality is integral to meeting the legal demands the government requires from organizations. It would be great to make this process easier, but if we can’t report and remain compliant to the federal government (one of the major benefits of the ATS) then what’s the point? There’s a give and take around what’s inherently needed and what’s not.

2. What would we improve?

Many are looking to reinvent the entire concept of what an ATS is – and that can be a worthy goal. This reinvention is happening mostly on the recruitment marketing, candidate attraction and relationship side of recruiting. How do we better capture candidates as applicants and provide recruiters with ways to better engage these candidates in the ATS?

However, many ATS tools aren’t just for hiring, but flow into talent management with onboarding, training and other modules to facilitate processes downstream in the talent process. Much of the innovation has gone in this direction, and there’s a lot of value to having a system that starts at the application and bridges the gaps to your core HR systems.

So let’s think about what the ATS should truly be and where value is ultimately created. It can’t do everything, but what should it truly do? Where should it fit in our talent acquisition process?

3. What’s the opportunity cost?

By spending time, resources and money reinventing the ATS, what opportunities are we unable to tackle? We can’t do everything, so where can we provide the most value in today’s technology ecosystem? Does the industry need a better mousetrap? Or does it need better bait to ensure the mousetrap works more efficiently and can worry more about disposal vs. attraction?

4. Where are we today?

When I look at the ATS, I see a solution that serves its purpose. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have qualms about the issues inherent in these systems. I just believe that we will never truly be satisfied with the status quo, and we’ll always find ways to try to improve how we do things. But we have to understand the motivations behind this urge.

It’s easy to say, “yes,” of course we should try to reinvent the ATS, given its widespread use and the need for additional solutions in talent acquisition now. But the better question is: “Why do we want to reinvent the ATS?”’


Where Else Can We Focus Our Talent Acquisition Technology Innovation?

You’re right, I haven’t provided an alternative to a better ATS … yet. Hopefully, I’ve provided a good cliffhanger as we look to explore where else we can pour our energy and innovation to improve talent acquisition.

In Part 2, I will tackle how I see the trends in talent acquisition technology and the pros and cons of transforming our thinking on how we use technology to attract, engage, nurture and hire qualified candidates.

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