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August 11, 2021

Pulling Back the Curtain on Digital Transformation in Staffing and Recruiting

Digital transformation. The term can feel abstract, high level, almost disconnected from the real world. To many it doesn’t feel like a particularly practical concept, but one that should instead be attacked only by those with very specialized sets of skills.

It’s for this reason that stakeholders in staffing and recruiting can recoil when the words ‘digital transformation’ are uttered. But if that’s your reaction, you risk compromising the future of your firm.

In 2021 we can confidently say that every staffing and recruiting firm has started its own digital transformation journey, and has more than likely seen this transformation accelerate dramatically during COVID. Any firm that doesn’t acknowledge that fact is simply relinquishing control over their own journey – taking their hands off the proverbial wheel, and seeing where fate takes them.

It’s time to put digital transformation into the spotlight; to show it as the real, attainable and absolutely critical process that it is. But before we get into the nuts and bolts, let’s set the scene.

Cultivating a culture of digital transformation

You can get a sense of an organization by how its leaders talk about it. Some companies are created on the premise of making a lot of money, and that’s absolutely fine. Others, however, are established on a premise that extends beyond money, be it making a difference, disrupting the market, or a desire to do things better than they’re currently done. And often these more purposeful organizations can prove far more profitable in the long run.

Staffing and recruiting is a competitive industry, not just between firms, but within them too. While there can certainly be value in team members pushing one another to be better, it mustn’t be at the cost of cohesion. A dog-eat-dog, every-salesperson-for-themselves culture isn’t one built for transformation.

To achieve transformation you need collaboration, innovation, and integration.

“When we first sat down to write down our core values, innovation was one of the six,” says Adam Sprecher, VP of Strategy and Development at Salo. “It’s one of our hiring criteria – we’re always trying to think in new ways and to challenge the status quo.”

Salo eventually relabelled the value of ‘innovation’ as ‘curiosity’. It’s a subtle yet important difference. ‘Innovation’ doesn’t necessarily mean your team members will play an active role, or even be encouraged to express their thoughts; in fact it almost implies that the organization will take care of things without the help of the larger team. The term ‘curiosity’, however, conjures up images of creative thinking, of contribution, of expressing yourself.

Salo also developed a culture of people over everything – people being internal team members, clients and candidates. Salo then went about asking itself questions about how technology would enable a people-first future:

  • Does a new process or piece of technology create a more meaningful experience for talent?
  • Does a new process or piece of technology help us build stronger relationships with talent?
  • Is this change truly beneficial to talent?

If Salo continually answered ‘yes’ to these sorts of questions, they knew their digital transformation efforts were on the right track. From not even owning laptops in 2017, they have quickly developed into an innovative, technology-first organization.

The forces prompting and delaying technological change.

Identifying limitations, ensuring scalability

Digital transformation is about questioning underlying, foundational, systemic behaviors. Why do we do what we do? If the answer is ‘we’ve always done it that way’, it’s time to check your ego at the door and be open to the fact that there might be a better way.

Long-term goals are important in digital transformation, but for many staffing and recruiting firms, having aspirations and knowing where you’re headed isn’t the issue. More of a problem is understanding how to get there. But there’s a simple question that can help you to form the first steps of digital transformation strategy: what are our limiting factors?

Many of the things that have thus far made you successful, that have got you to where you are today, may not be particularly scalable. Often firms will base their differentiators around manual work that requires multiple sets of hands to be completed. Sure, old processes might work for now, but they’ll eventually hit their limits, which isn’t ideal for businesses that are hoping to scale exponentially.

Scalability is something that many staffing and recruiting organizations approach the wrong way. It can be tempting to skip to the end and imagine how cool having a large, multinational business might be. But that is likely years or decades away.

It’s more important, says Sprecher, to simply take that first step. “Don't get paralyzed asking ‘where do I begin?’ or ‘what's the right technology?’ It doesn't matter what direction you plan to go in, or what you're trying to solve – what matters most is taking that first step and building momentum from there. Over time things will feel far less overwhelming.”

What is the first step (or steps)? Back up your vision with a strategic plan. Set priorities. Tell yourself ‘if we want this outcome in two, five, or ten years, we need this outcome next year, next month, or next week’. This process injects both reality and excitement into digital transformation, while also breaking this grand effort down into more digestible chunks.

It’s also true that, unlike a Netflix that can operate in the red for 20 years straight before enjoying a profitable quarter, staffing businesses generally need to make money immediately. To this end, it’s wise to concentrate your initial digital transformation efforts on the easiest wins – the low effort, high ROI steps that can generate both the money and motivation for what comes next.

Digital transformation is an iterative process that should be attacked in bite-sized pieces, which also allows the process to pay for itself along the way.

Gathering momentum with the three Ws

You’ve instilled a transformative culture within your organization, you’ve identified and addressed possible limitations, you’ve established a more strategic approach, and you’ve set off on your digital transformation journey.

The next challenge is to continually push the process forward. That might sound simple, but maintaining the rage is where many staffing and recruiting firms have fallen down. The reason? Even when you’ve instilled innovation and curiosity into your culture, the fact remains that we humans are inherently change-resistant and risk-averse. Team buy-in is critical to digital transformation success, but it can be a difficult thing to secure.

You need to help people see what you see, and you can do that with the help of three Ws:

1. The whys

“You can’t overcommunicate the whys,” Sprecher says. “Going into 2021 we were looking to expand beyond Minneapolis to Chicago, but it was going to require some shifts in how we do things. There was pushback – ‘I’ve always clicked this in Bullhorn, but now I have to click this?’. It was about explaining to them that the same number of clicks would deliver a better result. It was about breaking down how this change benefits each individual specifically – how it will contribute to their success, and what they will be able to do with it going forward.”

2. The wins

You also can’t overcommunicate the wins. When something works, make a habit of celebrating it. This reinforces the ‘whys’, and makes your team more open to change going forward. If a particular result couldn’t have been achieved if not for the new technology or process, you’ll also begin to develop champions of change, and when the message starts to come from multiple voices within your team, digital transformation become so much quicker and easier.

3. The ‘what else?’

You should be aiming to get more out of a technology than any of your competitor's will. Ask yourself: Am I fulfilling the potential of the tool? What else can be done with it? Work with your technology vendors to capitalize on all possible opportunities, and hold them to account by tracking KPIs.

Digital transformation shouldn’t be an abstract or hard-to-comprehend process. It’s something that is happening within your organization right now, whether you know it or not.

It’s time for the staffing and recruiting industry to change both its mindset and approach to digital transformation. Do it well, and like Salo, you’ll put your firm in a position to succeed.