The trouble with talent spotting

EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT BUSINESS IS WRONG: Don't rely on flashy, new recruitment tools - it's more important to identify the candidate that's right for your organisation.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 01 Mar 2016

I recently saw a flashy presentation on the rise of big data in employee selection. Amazing what you can find out from someone's Facebook page. The frequency of certain words indicates neuroticism. A liking for Leonard Cohen maps to a high IQ. This stuff left old-school techniques like interviews and references choking in the dust.

But be careful - the candidate is only half the story when you're hiring. It's equally important to understand the organisation into which they are being recruited. All firms are not the same and someone who thrives in one might very well wilt in another.

I worry that, carried away by their enthusiasm for new toys, many users of these tools will miss this vital point. So rather than trying to identify those most likely to do well in their particular organisations, instead I have a horrible vision of hundreds of HR managers all converging on the same small pool of stereotypical 'talent'.

Systems based on such narrow 'person specifications' assume you know exactly what you want. Often you do not. Consider, for example, Station X, the government code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park during WWII. This seems to have been one of the biggest collections of oddballs, misfits and lunatics ever assembled. Its recruitment methods - crosswords, contacts, or pure chance - would give any modern HR boss the collywobbles. Yet they broke the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code and shortened the war by two years. They started with no idea of how they were going to do it, or who they might need to do so. If they had a more formal recruitment process, I doubt they would have achieved anything like as much.

So before you pick up these new recruitment tools, remember this. Either have a carefully worked out idea of who you need (a picture that had better be different from your competitors', or you will all be fighting over the same people). Or, if you are after something genuinely new and different, scrap the person specification and trust in an open mind.

Alastair Dryburgh is a strategist who works with organisations who believe that there is no recipe for success. More at

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