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Colin Kingsbury

Colin is the President and Co-Founder of ClearCompany. In addition to leading the innovation of the award-winning ClearCompany Talent Management platform, he is also an Alaska-trained seaplane pilot, and writes for several Boston-area publications.
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Recent Posts

Branding As We Knew It

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Jun 15, 2007 2:24:00 AM

describe the imageJohn Sumser's post on branding today makes a great point:
What makes Company X the employer of choice for Unix professionals is unlikely to be the dynamic that attracts candidates in accounting. A brand, as it is commonly understood is a good place to start. But, the focus on being a generic "employer of choice" is an inadequate vision for effective long term labor supply management.
A few days ago I came across the Microsoft video below (HT: Tales from the Digital Divide) which reminded me of why the term "branding" makes me feel like a steer about to be nailed with a red-hot iron.

Perfume and Diesel Fuel
To understand what's wrong with the conventional approach to branding, it's fun to look at old advertising posters and see what has and hasn't changed. A 30s cosmetic ad literally asks, "Who wants to look YOUNG?" Yesterday in the paper I saw an ad for something that I think was a skincare product, though it looked more like an industrial abrasive. Next to the jar was a grinning, Santa Claus-like face of Doctor Andrew Weil, saying, "When Matcha tea is prepared mindfully, it promotes an extraordinary sense of balance and well-being." I remembered it because the phrasing and presentation were so strikingly calculated to evoke a certain tone and sensitivity--think of how different it feels if you replace "mindfully" with "carefully" or "properly." This is about emotional manipulation, plain and simple.

The question branding today needs to face up to is whether it's selling a product or an idea of a product. As I mentioned in a previous post, my father worked in the fragrance industry, so I've been an observer of these things for a long time. When I was a kid, I remember my father being thoroughly amused when one of his fishing buddies asked him for some samples of a new men's cologne his company had just launched calledStetson Preferred Stock. This was the late 80s or so, and the venerable Stetson brand had become a little too red-state, so they came up with something a bit more urban in its sensitivity. The fishing buddy asking for the cologne, however, was a cowboy boot-wearing bulldozer operator, so my dad had to ask why he wanted that particular fragrance.

"Because something about it really covers the smell of diesel oil," he said matter-of-factly. Imagine that: perfume that makes you smell good.

The irony of course is that Microsoft, for its part, has some of the consistently worst branding out there. Seven years and a billion-ish dollars went into Windows Vista, and the slogan they come up with is "The Wow Starts Now?" I'd love to have seen the ideas they rejected. Then there's this. Of course, companies usually look like their leaders. In fact, Apple's branding has beaten Microsoft's silly for as long as anyone can remember, which happens to be the history of both companies.

And yet, what did it get them? A great brand does not equal a great strategy. 
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The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

May 30, 2007 3:57:00 AM

Just when you thought recruiting was safe again, along comes a new (potential) compliance mandate that promises to make the OFCCP rules look like child's play. Whatever your feelings on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act now working its way through the wheels of Congress, the impact on employers could be dramatic.

I started paying close attention to the debate from the sidelines when the issue of increased standards for employer verification of new hires first entered the picture over a year ago. While it's too soon to know the precise shape the final law might take, Elaine Rigoli's ERE article makes the stakes clear:
The pending immigration legislation would do many things, including the hiring of thousands of additional border patrol agents; instituting the new "Z" worker visa; and adopting new deportation provisions. 

Perhaps the most interesting element for the staffing world is Title III, which would create a mandatory employment eligibility verification system to electronically verify the eligibility of every worker in the country. 

Title III touches on document verification requirements; records that must be kept by employers; protections against discrimination; ID theft prevention and privacy protections; information sharing; and other miscellaneous policies.
So, in other words, you'll need to keep complete records, but not too detailed, for long enough, but not too long, and you can't share them with anyone except the people who need them, etc. There, is everybody clear now?

Unlike the OFCCP, this law would cover all employers regardless of size, and if you've ever had a new hire walk away because your background check turned up a "red flag" due to a false match on a name or address, you know how any type of verification process can turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare. On the bright side, at least every employer will be in the same boat!
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On Helicopter Parents

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

May 9, 2007 11:53:00 AM

In a post today on RecruitingBloggers.com , the Recruiting Animal quotes the Brazen Careerist on the notion  that "helicopter parents" are just doing what rich folk have always done  to boost their kids' careers. Ryan Healy suggested that having parents pitch in during compensation negotiations was just like a performer or professional athlete  being represented by an agent.

Ryan and Penelope are both full of interesting insights, but in this case I think they've got it wrong on both counts, and the differences illuminate why employers are correct to despise this new phenomenon.

Unlike a helicopter parent, a talent agent is representing not just a single individual, but themselves as owners of a brand and portfolio. Much like a recruiter, an agent has an interest in getting the best deal for his or her talent, but also in striking a fair deal for the employer. Over-inflation of skills and abilities or harsh negotiating tactics will exact a price on the agent's ability to do business with other clients in the future.

Likewise, when a wealthy individual pulls strings to get their kid a job, it's not a one-way transaction benefiting only the kid, but an act that maintains a potentially (or actually) lucrative business and social relationship. The wealthy parent is likely to be a source of capital or business connection at some point in the future, or may have been one in the past. Giving their son or daughter a job is in that sense an  option premium  or perhaps payment for a similar past favored rendered.

Of course, parents just want the best for their kids, and are likely to believe that they're just trying to get them a fair deal. But parents are hardly known for neutral advocacy, not in public anyway, and there's nothing wrong with that.

And lest it go unsaid, having Daddy get you a job is rarely looked on favorably by superiors, and will often earn the resentment of your peers even if you perform on par with everyone else. It's not for nothing that many self-made millionaires and billionaires have made their kids start out in the mail room and eat at least a little @#$! before inheriting the throne. So while you may be able to spin 'copter moms and dads as "no worse than what's always been done," promoting them as a positive fits the definition of chutzpah as "a kid who kills his parents and then begs the judge for leniency because he's an orphan."

All of this aside, hiring of entry-level employees is a lot more volatile with regards to economic conditions, and I suspect that a lot of the silliness we now see will evaporate like the morning fog with the next downturn in the economic cycle.
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Gen Y and Colin, at the Bat

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Apr 24, 2007 10:24:00 AM

The Recruiting Animal continues his campaign  against Myths of Generation Y over at RecruitingBloggers.com asking whether kids today aren't being raised too soft. The Animal cites a WSJ article which says that today's young workers need constant spoon-feeding of praise for even the smallest achievement lest they "fold up like a cell phone." 

One of my more vivid memories growing up involves an annual father-son softball game my elemetary school held around this time of year. This school was definitely "Old School" in the sense that competition was encouraged and part of that was failure, which received as much public attention as success. Keeping in that spirit, the father-son softball game involved, you guessed it, the fathers  versus the sons.  Bear in mind that this place was grades 5-8, so the competition was hardly fair to begin with.

As I stood at bat, the pitcher lobbed me an absolute meatball right down the line. I am not going to be humble--I crushed that pitch like Alex Rodriguez and it went sailing off towards the trees at the end of the field. The crowd actually gasped in awe, and most of the fathers just stared up at it as it passed far overhead.

All Except one. Mine.

My father, no less a non-athlete than myself, went running off, faster than I've ever seen him run, before or since. As the ball falls back down from the stratosphere, he leaps--leaps, by God--and makes an over-the-shoulder-backwards catch of the sort that thirty years earlier would have gotten him signed to a double-A baseball team. The crowd, gasps in awe again, and then realizes that it wasn't just an impossible hit topped by an impossible catch, it was my dad who made the catch. Even the opposing team's coach slapped me on the back and says "that's the worst robbery I've ever seen."

To be fair, within about five seconds my dad looked like the cat who ate the canary. He'll never forget it, and I'll never forgive him for it, but what was he supposed to do, drop the ball? 
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Paging Martin...

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Apr 16, 2007 2:56:00 AM

Martin Snyder was nice enough to attempt to leave a comment on my previous post about the OFCCP, but for some reason my blog software is eating it, so I'm reposting it here for discussion. Martin writes,
Colin thanks for the review and I'm glad the post got your attention. Your prose is always worth the read whether I agree or not with whatever it is that you are saying. 

Yes, I'm quite aware of what befalls Ahab, his ship, and crew. There is indeed a chance that I'll end up entangled on the body of the beast after leading our ship on a fruitless campaign- but somebody has to do it, and since I think we have standing and the least to lose of most who would cross the mighty hunter, it falls to me to voice the case against this governmental overreach. 

Might I ask if you are aquatinted with Title IV of SOX, called "Enhanced Financial Disclosures"? or Title XI "Corporate Fraud and Accountability" ? The act is intended to provide better accounting systems- no comedy involved, and your notion about CFO's and their taste for the rule is likely bit obsolete. The Harvard Business Review published an article called "The Unexpected Benefits of Sarbanes-Oxley" noting that:

"The areas of improvement go well beyond technical statutory compliance. They include a strengthened control environment; more reliable documentation; increased audit committee involvement; better, less burdensome compliance with other statutory regimes; more standardized processes for IT and other functions; reduced complexity of organizational processes; better internal controls within partner companies; and more effective use of both automated and manual controls. The result is not only shareholder protection, the official purpose of the act, but also enhanced shareholder value..."

Do you really think anything similar will ever be said about the OFCCP rule, except by hopeful spinners with embedded interests in compliance regimes (especially complex, never-ending and subjective ones)?

Or do you imagine that any inane rule is a good thing, as long as it fosters "process", which apparently can only be a good thing?
To be honest I think there's more here agreeing with my points than not.

Martin may be correct in saying that my understanding of how CFOs and boards feel about SOX is obsolete. Since the law went into effect, there have been tweaks, but nothing wholesale--most of the changes have been in terms of how businesses understand and apply the law. So if CFOs feel different today than they did five years ago, that says more about the CFOs and boards than it does about the law.

Second, while I want to tread carefully lest I put words in Martin's mouth, he seems to continue to operate from the basis that the only goals served by the OFCCP rules are, well, the OFCCP. If you actually look at what the rule ends up requiring contractors to do, what emerges is that you basically need to be able to explain:

1. Who applied to each position
2. If that person met your minimum requirements
3. If so, what happened to them

Really, am I missing something huge here? The search audit requirements are a little kooky, but in practical application I've yet to hear any real horror stories about auditors going on fishing expeditions, least of all in smaller organizations.

In any case, none of these three things strike me as unreasonable questions for a manager to ask a recruiter. If you're unable to say, "here's everyone who applied for the req," then the OFCCP would seem to be the least of your problems. Circling back to the SOX example, are going to see recruiters in 4-5 years saying, "ya know, that OFCCP wasn't really *that bad* after all..." I think the answer is probably yes.

It is of course entirely possible to make the rules mean a lot more than that, and some companies choose for their own reasons to add eight bullets below each of the above items, while others take the opposite approach. We advise clients to follow the simplest approach that answers the necessary questions as they judge them, because the simplest approach is usually the most reliable. That said, if Martin wishes to excoriate vendors for catering to client whims, he's going to need a lot of harpoons.

Last, I can't shake this sense that Martin thinks that the OFCCP is tilting at non-existent windmills here in terms of systematic discrimination. I think it's understandable that we'd all like to say "yes, that's gone, don't happen 'round here no more," but as the years go by I become less convinced of my own former certainty. A good place to begin is this post at Assymetrical Information, which has some good comments with additional links. The statistics I've seen are neither good enough to prove the case beyond a shadow of a doubt, nor shoddy enough to be dismissed out of hand.
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Of Resumes and RFPs

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Apr 12, 2007 10:35:00 AM

About a month ago I posted why the typical software-vendor ROI story should be filed under "fiction" and signed off by threatening to go after the RFP process next.

Along the way to writing this I experienced one of those moments of clarity where all the complex and overlapping ideas I'd started out with just sort of fell away, leaving behind a single explanation, elegant in its simplicity:
RFPs are like job descriptions, and RFP responses are like resumes
Every day HR departments terminate employees whose resumes met every stated requirement on the job description. In many cases, the job description and the resumes it attracts all deserve to be filed under "Fiction."

As a buyer, the purpose of an RFP process is to allow you to differentiate between a selection of products to solve a particular need. By giving everyone a list of standardized questions, you're able to make decisions on a more objective basis.  (If you work for one of our competitors, you can stop laughing now and just email me a copy of your resume--it'sckingsbury@hrmdirect.com.)  Problem is, that's just not how it works. 

The typical RFP either asks the vendor to respond to a series of "can your product do X" questions, or, in some cases, asks them to rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 or some such. About a year ago in  When Bad Features Feel Good  I wrote, "Successful vendors are successful because they build products that people buy. That's obvious but what's more often ignored is that people often don't buy the 'best' product objectively speaking." So let's add another item to the list:
Successful vendors are successful because they're better than everyone else at convincing people to buy their product.
Just as a person putting "Java" on their resume serves as no guarantee that they are any good at programming in it, a vendor giving a positive answer on an RFP serves as no assurance that you'll actually like the product. You might think your RFP is so cleverly-written that we'll actually be forced into giving candid, clear responses--but remember, two can play at this game, and vendors get a lot more practice. After all, 80% of people think they're in the top 30%  in terms of driving ability.

My advice is to look at the RFP for what it is: a prenuptial agreement that should be taken seriously by no one except the purchasing department. It will not help you to differentiate in terms of vendors' abilities to deliver a satisfactory solution. It will help to differentiate between those vendors who have large sales departments and/or teams of proposal writers to respond to every RFP that hits their inbox and pass that cost along to you. Salesforce.com is illustrative in this regard: their most recent  annual report shows that in 2006, they spent 5 times as much on marketing and sales as they did on research and development. This represents an improvement actually, considering that the gap in 2005 was a factor of ten.

Just as requiring a Master's degree for a job which doesn't require one can have an adverse impact on your applicant pool, sending an unqualified, 30-page RFP out to two dozen vendors pretty much ensures that the responses you get will be composed mostly of the costly and the desperate.
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Thar blows the OFCCP!

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Apr 3, 2007 3:51:00 AM

Martin Snyder has never made any secret of his distaste for the OFCCP Internet Applicant rules, and in his  most recent blog  , he lays into a BusinessWeek article  which basically says, "Don't hate the OFCCP, hate your lack of process discipline." Martin writes,
I agree, but I remain hopeful that at some point soon, enforcement action will commence and this matter will end up in federal court, where right thinking jurists will see it for what it really is; a constitutional affront, a violation of Executive Order 12866, and a costly mandate that neither meets its goals nor creates better processes.
How do you feel, really? Later in a comment, Martin adds,
This meme that the rule is somehow like SOX is bad spin. 

Don't worry about me giving up beating on the rule- its my white whale!
Moby Dick  happens to be my favorite book, one of the few I've read repeatedly over the years, and Martin, I hate to break this to you, but the whale wins.

CFOs aren't widely known for their acute sense of wit, but if there was such a thing as the annual CFO comedy awards, Martin's line that the OFCCP regs are not comparable to Sarbanes-Oxley because  "SOX is designed to give quantitatively better accounting"  would bring the house down. Many would, I suspect, say that SOX served mostly the same purpose as the tails on senators' tuxedo jackets. Martin is welcome and may well be right to say that the OFCCP rules are attacking forms of discrimination which are so imperceptibly small as to effectively not exist, but that's really a different argument altogether. 

Chad Sowash of Direct Employers (one of the more important organizations out there today, IMHO), has in my mind a better response in his post,  which mostly echoes the central point of the BusinessWeek article: consider the Internet Applicant rules as an opportunity to do a lot of things better. 

In my experience, HR and recruiting departments, particularly in smaller companies, are often led by people with good intentions but who are gasping for organizational resources and attention. For many of them, the necessity of the OFCCP rules provide a convenient anvil not just to achieve compliance, but to optimize actual recruiting results. 
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Assessment and its Discontents

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Mar 21, 2007 4:24:00 AM

Double Dubs at Systematic HR has post today asking whether Google's much-ballyhooed algorithm for recruitment is really old fish wrapped in new paper. I've studied a lot more statistics than most people, and they've made me more skeptical than anything else of these types of tools.

Statistical analyses are kind of like recipes: the more variables you put in the mix, the more opportunities there are to mess things up. If you show me a regression with more than 2 or 3 variables and can't explain what heteroskedasticity* (for instance) means, I'm going to start getting skeptical about your forecasting technique. Howard's comment on the post linked above with its example of "hundreds of variables" makes me wince. Especially if this was in the 80s, when computing time was much dearer--today you can do in a few minutes what might have taken hours, so you're more likely to try lots of scenarios and models before accepting the conclusions.

The real problem, as always in this game, is the choice of variables. A successful retail cashier, for instance, can probably be defined very well in terms of integrity, accuracy, diligence, and attitude. If you generally show up on time, don't steal, treat customers nicely when you're haing a bad day, and count change carefully, then you're doing great. With a population of hundreds of thousands of workers to survey, a good predictive assessment is very attainable.

As jobs become more specialized in terms of skills and knowledge, it becomes harder to build a representative sample pool from which reliable assumptions can be drawn. While large companies theoretically have an advantage here, my experience has been that organizational opacity increases with size, and determining what and who generates value becomes harder.

Evidence for this comes from the widely-shared sense of futility around the traditional performance review process. Forget about recruiting--many companies still have a very hard time quantifying the value of an employee just crossing her one-year anniversary, and where she will be in 12, 24, or 36 months. Perhaps once a company has that part down reasonably well they can start thinking about predicting success among people they barely know.

* Can't help yourself? Here goes: Heteroskedasticity is actually more complicated to spell than it is to understand at a basic level. A great example is looking at education versus income, as seen on this chart. Going from a HS diploma to a 4-year degree is huge, but the incremental improvement at each step beyond is less obvious (especially relative to the time/money investment). Most notable is that a Ph.D. (which takes 4-8 years) is worth less than a professional degree which requires between 2 and 4.

The reason for this is that as you move farther up the education ladder, the effects on career become more complicated. While a Bachelor's degree opens up a world of opportunities, most of which are better-paying, many of the people earning higher degrees are doing so not to make more money, but in order to access jobs (like a university professorship) which are rewarding in completely different terms, and in many cases actually worse-paying. This is "heteroskedastic error" in a nutshell.

In order to accurately assess the effect of years of education on income, we need to control for this variation either by focusing on one type of job, or by using a more sophisticated modeling approach that controls for this type of variation. As it happens, the solution to this problem earned the economist Robert Engle a Nobel about five years ago.
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Like a Broken Req-ord

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Mar 15, 2007 2:43:00 PM

It is thoughtful of Jeff Hunter to begin titling his recent post "Reqs are a Reality," because there's no shortage of recruit-o-pundits writing "why you must get rid of (insert buzzword here) or perish!" screeds. The pattern is so consistent that they're like a bunch of students who all bought the same term paper for the same class.

Jeff's post is important because nearly all the consultants, thought leaders, and arm-wavers, he's starting to put money and mouth together in his company. People who dismiss him as a starry-eyed theoretician will be disappointed, and if anyone is going to trailblaze a new model for talent over the next 5 years, Jeff's the man I'd bet on.

That said, I remain broadly skeptical. Jeff writes,
Regardless of any of that, reqs are guilty of all the sins I have enumerated so many times before: the are a risk control document that means more to the CFO than the talent, they lead you to measure yourselves by speed instead of value, and they drive clients to see you as a cost / risk problem in the organization instead of a critical business value add. None of that is in dispute. I still haven’t had anyone give me a rejoinder that would make me believe that I had any of my facts wrong.
This is, like everything else Jeff writes, a sparkling polemic. He also to my mind risks giving the game away in the first sentence.

Mommy, where do baby reqs come from?
Saying that "reqs are a risk control document that means more to the CFO than the talent" suggests that the CFO is some kind of green-eyeshaded troll blocking the bridge to a halcyon future of good cheer and profit. Until talent (not to mention landlords and suppliers) are willing to accept payment in "talent" rather than "cash," it is the organization's consolidated financials which determine possibility.

At a more atomic level, reqs represent the overall direction and plan of the company. Where I am most sympathetic to Jeff's position is that many companies approach this so reactively that even within the strictures of "we can afford to spend $500k hiring people in this department in 2007" there is no doubt room for improvement. But, I think talking about this primarily from a recruiting or even HR perspective is problematic to say the least. We've all seen, known, or been one of those people hired to "change the dynamic" in a department or company, and in the absence of a much larger directional transformation, such people rarely succeed.

Jeff's uncompromising vision does not demand a better kind of recruiting; it demands an entirely different kind of business. In that I wish him good luck, and godspeed.
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When the ROI on Software Equals BS

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Feb 28, 2007 2:47:00 AM

There's currently a thread on ERE asking how one goes about calculating the ROI on an ATS. You can replace "ATS" with any other business software acronym here and it's the same story pretty much: we can help you shave a nickel off every $5 bill that passes by, and at the end of the year you'll have this jar full of nickels.

Perhaps the best put-down of this I ever received was some years back when I was an SE presenting a knowledge management product to a leading manufacturer of power-generation equipment that would have helped their techs find answers and relavant documentation much faster than they could currently. They had about 8,000 techs, so these were big numbers we could work with. We ran tests that showed techs spent an hour or so looking things up each day, and with our system, they could find the same info in 30 minutes or less. Multiple .5 hours times 8000 people times $50 per hour cost and we could show a positive ROI in one day.

The decision-maker never argued with our basic assumptions. He just said, "So they save 20 or 30 minutes? They'll just take an extra cigarette break." Far from being flippant, the VP was making a really important point. You can definitely get the pennies and nickels out of the process, but they have a habit of disappearing on their way to the jar.

ROI analyses work well when the dynamics of the system are very well known. For instance, the ROI on replacing a dirt-cheap inkjet printer with even a moderately-expensive laser printer is a no-brainer if you do much printing, because the laser doesn't guzzle ink that costs more than first-growth Burgundy by volume. You can easily plot a graph that shows that after X pages, the laser will be putting money back in your pocket. The variables are easily identified and quantified.

Looking at the ATS business, there is a major gap between cost and value. We charge $1200 per year per recruiter using our product, and we know from our clients that the vast majority of users spend nearly their entire working day staring at our system. Many of those users will cost $100k or more in salary and benefits, and they use our system because it makes them vastly more productive. How do we know? Because not a single client whose subscription was up for renewal has ever cancelled because "we realized we really don't need an ATS after all." A huge chunk of our business comes when a new head of recruiting or HR joins a company that doesn't have an ATS and says, "you gotta be kidding me!"

How do you quantify that value? Time-to-hire may not be good because the time saved by the ATS may accrue to recruiters spending more time sourcing or screening, to give just one example. There are a lot of moving parts, but I think it's safe to say that if ATS's were as anti-productive as they are often made out to be, there wouldn't be such a strong market for them that a company like HRMDirect could add 70 clients in the past 12 months without spending Jobsterbucks on marketing. But because we can't pin the numbers down the way we can an inkjet-vs-laser, we end up charging what the buyers are able to pay. CRM systems, which in many cases provide a similar set of functionality to our ATS, often sell for much more. Why? Because they're often bought by sales departments, which have far better access to budget.

In my experience, the sort of ROI analysis attached to most software buying decisions is made after the vendor has been selected, which is to say after it really matters. More often than not, the analytical model used to calculate the ROI was provided by said vendor, and is about as objective as asking a Red Sox fan what she thinks of this year's Yankees. But then, most buyers are by this point in cahoots with the vendor, and care about the ROI case only to the degree that it provides posterior insurance should the decision prove unwise*.

And to be entirely fair to all involved, often this is just a case of the buyer complying with internal bureaucracy. I wonder sometimes whether the finance departments that ask for this stuff really look over it carefully each year, or whether everyone except the shareholders is in on the joke.

All of this isn't by any means to say that thinking about things in terms of ROI is fundamentally misguided. But the systems by which we approach this today are for the most part barely nicking the surface of what's really going on. What I do know is that once a recruiter starts using a tool likeResume Direct, it becomes an indispensable if unglamorous part of their job, for less than most of them spend at Starbucks on their way into the office. Maybe our applicant tracking system is really that much better, or maybe people just like to complain, but I don't think I'm hallucinating.

If there's any good news in all this, it's that I'm being asked to provide these sorts of ROI studies far less often than 2 or 5 years ago. The once-ubiquitous "ROI calculators" (which are about as serious a forecasting tool as a magic 8-ball) no longer occupy prime billing on vendor websites. I'll take progress where I can get it.

* And therein lies my next post, which will be about ROI's evil degenerate twin, the dreaded RFI.
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