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JulieTowers, Managing Director and Board Director, Penna PLC

With Tristam Moakes

21st November 2017


Report by Richard Taylor


After years of interviewing, assessing and selecting based on old fashioned rigour, the market has changed and there is now much more emphasis on the use of technology and assessment based on suitability or alignment with the Employer Brand, observed Julie Towers, Managing Director of Penna at the November London meeting of the ABP, held at the University of Westminster.


 What has changed?

Basic activities have not changed

*          There is still a focus on selection: this is what the company is paid to deliver

*          Assessment is based as far as possible on rigour

*          It is the job of recruiters to find great people to fill positions.  The expectation is therefore that organisations such as Penna will still use their network to trawl and gather a list of candidates.

*          It is then their job to assess why candidates have applied and why they have engaged and then recommend candidates to their clients.

*          Motivate suitable passive candidates to apply and attract them by tapping into a suitable story to make them empathise with the organisation undertaking the search.

*          Align the culture and values of the organisation with the genuine aspiration of the candidates.


What has changed is

*          that there is much more digital and this is increasing.  The challenge is how to use the technology to assist with the process and if possible reduce overall costs.

*          the employer brand is much more important.  An entire cohort of candidates can be turned away by adverse comments and feedback on social media

*          a huge increase in the number of candidates applying as a result of mobile and the need for an additional layer of screening


How Penna has needed to adapt:

*          there is a need to work harder to undertake marketing to passive candidates and project a positive message to build the employer brand

*          with digital technology there is the opportunity to influence behaviour but this needs to be done with great care

*          Maintaining robust selection techniques requires a different methodology and more has to be done to persuade clients that their preferred process may not be sufficiently robust to deliver results.


However, clients do expect results and still look at relevant experience, even if this may include apparently mundane work.  It is the job of recruiters to extract the most out of the assessment process, add value and help to navigate clients who might otherwise get it very wrong as well as very right.


Technology is with us and 75% of millennials use mobile phones to search for jobs and make applications.  The challenge for recruiters is that technology now makes it so easy for people to apply that the number of applications for each job has mushroomed.  At the other side of the process technology is now used to facilitate additional screening to cope with these increased candidate numbers.


Another challenge for recruiters is to attract talent and technology is used to do this.  Talent acquisition includes the obvious activities such as:

*          Use of social media

*          Identifying relevant candidate data

*          Gaining an insight into a candidate perspective of the organisation, and

*          where possible, relate to or even talk to the most suitable candidates identified through social media and careers fairs.


Key trends

However, other activities are being increasingly used and now have the potential to provide more accurate data.  Tristam Moakes who has responsibility for the application of technology at Penna then presented the key trends in these areas of assessment.


1.         Gamification.

While clearly people have been playing electronic games for several years, gamification as we know it has only been in use as a recruitment process for 7-8 years.  Its origin can be traced back to Windows Solitaire as part of the first version of windows in 1980s and the use of an interactive interface and being able to drag across the screen was revolutionary in terms of functionality.  It is easy to apply now and is used particularly in initial screening and managing reducing burgeoning candidate numbers, for example halving initial range of applicants.  Unlike personality assessments there are no results relating to defined answers, thereby usefully addressing issues of background or diversity and  social inclusion issues.  Gaming is increasingly popular with young people with the huge popularity of games such as “Candy Crush” and “Angry Birds”.


It is nevertheless challenging for the recruiter to identify from gamification how “good” can be identified in a candidate and there is considerable scepticism and resistance about its use by employers:

*   huge amounts of data can be obtained but objective data is challenging to sift.

*   some employers feel that forcing candidates, for example,  to shoot others can not reflect the world of work.  It might identify killer competitors but might not show up team skills

*   knowledge and experience of some games can put some candidates at an advantage

*   the games have not been tested for long enough to the results to be meaningful, especially amongst sceptical majors in the retail sector

*   it might be age discriminatory, favouring younger applicants.


It can however

*          provide excellent insight as to how people behave especially under pressure

*          provide crucial data which enable comparisons to be made with high profile performers in specific situations.

*          facilitate observance of the development and use of strategy within a game which can be particularly insightful, where there are no “good” or “bad” answers

*          Provide an insight into the propensity for risk taking.  There is little evidence that maturer candidates are at a disadvantage and curiously the largest growth of gamers is in the over 50s sector.

*          introduce a fun element into the application process


It is not generally suitable for scientific area type recruitment and high end graduate recruiters such as KPMG will only use a very specialised form of it to assess team building where they find it effective with, for example history and language students.  Recruiters however agree that a combination of gamification, historical data about candidates and psychological tools represent huge progress from the traditional blunt instrument of the 2:1 requirement which excluded many excellent candidates.  And it is particularly suitable as an initial screening tool for large scale recruitment.


2.         Artificial Intelligence

Recruiters have had high hopes for AI.  A milestone was reached in 2015 when a programmed machine for the first time beat a human at the game GO.  This is significant because, unlike chess, the number of possible moves exceed the number of atoms in the universe.  AI continues to develop and there are no bounds.  However, so far it has interestingly not lived up to expectations in recruitment.


There have been some interesting areas of use, such as SGT Star which has been used with some success in the US military and “Tay Tweets” aimed at interpreting tweets between GenZ females.  However, it is rarely used properly, it requires a large level of investment which deters some organisations especially as the technology is advancing so quickly, and, at least in recruitment, the available algorithms are of low quality and usability.


One of the more noteworthy areas is covered by work done by MYA, which has developed an analytical pre-screening tool.   It can save time by undertaking the “crunching” and making recommendations: it reviews what happened to candidates in the past and collates it for the recruiter, and it overcomes human flaws in areas such as unconscious bias.


3.         Virtual Reality

The final trend is the huge progress made in the use of VR.   One feature of the use of VR is the huge polarisation and range of options available,  Tele Eye glasses are available for £5 from Google and at the other end there are sophisticated headsets which cost thousands of pounds.


VR has proved to be effective for specific activities where candidates have to demonstrate practical skills, their reactions to situations and their leadership skills.

*          The British Army uses an assessment while driving a Challenger Tank

*          A central London emergency services organisation have an assessment exercise where candidates work in pairs, one in a VR headset and the other on tablet with maps of the VR world, displaying sublte differences –  they have to work together to establish what has happened, collate information l and assimilate it when it is not clear where the information has come from and then issue appropriate instructions.  They can also conduct a multiple choice test on the same tablet.  This is particularly useful for assessing people with little or no experience of police work but who may have good leadership skills.

*          Any job which includes field work, such as environmental management, is also suitable for candidate assessment using VR


Inevitably there may be a mix of video and VR and the use of video can be a daunting experience for those not used to it.  Some recruiters, such as Aldi, recognise the importance of being relaxed for a fair assessment and adapt their use of video appropriately and others are beginning to follow suit.    Waitrose are also developing their own approach.


One issue with VR which has yet to be properly addressed is that some people can be affected by nausea when in a confined environment, using headsets or close up screens with fast moving images.  Practical issues such as cleaning of headsets can be a cost and inconvenience and these have yet to be properly addressed.


4.         Video

Video interviewing provides a good opportunity for a pitching story.  Travelling time is saved and is proviing a cost effective tool for recruiters.  There are also unanticipated benefits: it provides time and space for recruiters to expand their net to include people returning to work after a break or people wanting a career change.


In summary, appropriate use of technology can facilitate a better candidate experience.  Crucially, it can assist with better targeting and reduce the risk in hiring and the costs associated with wrong hires.  It can also be used by employers to build their brands and attract a larger number of better qualified candidates.


However, recruiters limit themselves in the process by the paucity of data on hiring and paucity of candidate information.  Obtaining, collating and managing data can be an expensive process.  Some employers such as KPMG are making a real effort to provide appropriate data but consultancies such as Penna are constrained by the lack of available data held by employers who have not allocated the resources to gather it.  As technology advances, the chief constraint to good hiring will be the shortage of good data and the unwillingness of organisations to share this data.  This is the challenge for the future; as psychologists perhaps we can help to search for appropriate ways forward?



21 November 2017

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