The subject of “recruiters being replaced by algorithms” is a hot topic of debate, and hype, in our industry right now. Check out this article by Matt Jeffery from SAP on ERE. The comment stream alone shows you the level of passion on both sides of the debate.

Those pro the technology suggest that the recruiters job wont disappear, more that it will re orient as technology removes the “mundane elements of their work”, allowing them to focus on other more value adding aspects such as guiding candidates into and through the funnel and improving the quality of the touch points that form the “candidate experience.”

Others question how technology can ever “understand the culture of the organisation” or make appropriate judgments around “fit”. And then, there’s the issue of gathering data. Candidates wont tolerate processes that require them to enter more and more data items simply to apply for your job.

Suffice to say that those who fall under the spotlight will always respond with caution when considering the implications for their own future.

Before we can answer the essential question – can a recruiter be replaced by and algorithm? – it’s worth trying to separate the facts from the fiction and consider the issue objectively.

In order to cut through the hype of algorithms, data science and AI, (In themselves, three very separate but overlapping elements) it’s important to distinguish between the two key implications of this technology in our context. That is the difference between using technology to:

  1. Improve, streamline or remove processes
  2. Replace a human judgement or decision

1. Improving, streamlining and removing processes

Fact: Technology and automation have removed the need for recruiters to screen applications.

Applicant Tracking and Search technology has been streamlining the screening process for years. Typically, these technologies ‘sift’ based on relatively rudimentary structured data points, usually against a framework based on skills, experience etc. In some cases this has removed recruiter heads from the team, reducing overall headcount. In others, it has allowed recruiters to be re allocated to other more value added activity.

More recently, online assessments have grown in popularity, and have had a similar impact. Which brings me onto the second point:

2. Replace a human judgement or decision

Fact: Online assessments have made ‘decisions’ or ‘judgements’ on applicants at the screening level, removing the need for the recruiters own decision making or judgement.

Online assessments are growing in popularity and are shifting the emphasis of screening from skills and experience to values, motivations and behaviours, or a blend of all three. In HR and resourcing parlance, this is often, but not exclusively, referred to as ‘Cultural fit’. These assessments are widely available today and deployed in many large organisations, especially where there are large applicant volumes involved.

Again, recruiters have been removed from the screening decision making process as a result of this technology and either removed from the process altogether or re assigned to more value added activity.

So the fact is, it’s already happening. The question is, what will happen next? The truth is we are still in the very early stages of technology development in this area. Data science and our ability to derive useful interventions from is still maturing. Whilst significant things are happening outside of our industry, the HR/Resourcing landscape generally, is usually one of the last to adopt and benefit from such advances in technology. But it will come, make no mistake about that.

Top put it into context, I will refer to a comment made by industry veteran John Sumser back in December 2011 when discussing the development of social technology and its impact:

“We are in the Compuserve-Prodigy-AOL stage of social media evolution.  It’s after Netscape and before Google in equivalent internet time.”

In data science terms, we are still very much in the equivalent Compuserve/AOL time, possibly even earlier, hence our inability to see exactly how this will impact our industry. Whilst technology is getting smarter, the majority of solutions are still using skills, experience, location etc. to identify individuals and position them as good for a role, or at the very least, “rank” them in order of suitability.

The emerging technology may look at this too, but the game changing stuff is also looking at a different set of data – your digital “footprint” data – in the form of what you do, how you do it, what you have said, your comments, Facebook likes, status updates, LinkedIn updates and so on.

In fact, all the data that is needed to predict, with a significant degree of accuracy, your potential and your propensity to behave in a certain way, is pretty much already out there. And it’s already being traded and used in order to make decisions about you. Whether that be your qualification for a loan, your likelihood to buy something or your insurance risk. It is only a matter of time before the capability finds its way into our industry.

Essentially it means taking what assessments currently do – assessing you via questionnaires – and instead assessing you “frictionlessly” (You heard it hear first folks!). That means assessing your values, motivations and behaviours without you having to enter any data, or complete a questionnaire.

The sceptics among us throw up many arguments to justify why “it will never happen” including some I found below from recent articles:

“How can an algorithm gauge the non-skill related qualities a candidate needs to succeed in the role such as passion, dedication, likeability, EQ, potential, and learning agility?”

“Is there a program out there that will capture what the corporate culture is? How will these tools measure that?

“No matter how automated it is, someone (candidate) still needs to input a load of data / information, and the more the algorithm wants to assess, the more information will need to be inputted.”

All of these points may seem valid now, but they miss the fundamental shift that is happening in technology. Take the last one for example – frictionless assessment doesn’t require any data input at all. The only thing it requires from the candidate is permission.

Think about it. Elsewhere fundamental and commercially very important considerations and decisions are being supplemented and in some cases taken, by technology. Are we really saying that this sophistication will never reach our industry?

So for me, the question is NOT will this approach replace the recruiter. It’s how much MORE of the process, and judgement of the hiring person can be augmented and or replaced by the technology.

Methinks, quite a lot.


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Business leader with in depth experience and passion for People and Technology.

Gareth has worked in global organisations through to start ups, across a variety of functions including HR, Marketing, Business Development and Technology.

His focus is in the HR and Resourcing space architecting and developing new technology and solutions in enterprise performance prediction and talent analytics for The Chemistry Group.

As a result he spends quite a bit of his time researching the market around technology/Big Data trends and sharing those insights through social media, including blogging and also speaking at conferences on the future of work and the impact of technology.