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The Ins and Outs of Applicant Tracking

A newly hired HR professional makes a brand-new system operational.

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0513cover.gifHow does an organization founded in the 19th century implement a 21st century talent acquisition system in a timely and cost-effective manner? What has to happen to quickly move from having no formal applicant tracking software to a Web-based, process-driven solution?

These questions demanded immediate attention when I became the first national director of talent acquisition and development at the Sierra Club, a 120-year-old organization dedicated to a simple mission: “Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.”

The Sierra Club has a grand tradition of conservation and, under Executive Director Michael Brune, a strong vision for transformation and innovation. These days, that vision includes modernizing many HR systems, including applicant tracking.

In mid-2011, I joined the staff after being a Sierra Club member for several years. I previously served nonprofit and for-profit organizations in HR functions as diverse as staffing agency management and volunteer recruiting.

I had been told about the plan to start using an applicant tracking system during my interviews and had planned on becoming a subject-matter expert in how the system worked so I would be an immediate resource to the seven-person HR team. The day I started, I was introduced to Dave Simon, head of information technology. He told me that the Sierra Club had just signed a contract to implement Oracle Taleo Business Edition, a software-as-a-service product.

Later, I learned that my role in implementation would be much bigger than I had expected: Instead of simply learning a system and working out best practices, I realized during our first meeting with Sara Bragg, Taleo’s implementation consultant, that much of the work to map our existing processes had not been done and that the team was looking to me to assume nearly full ownership for implementation.

I learned there would be no test system allowing a small pool of jobs to go through the process to identify kinks. On go-live day—only about 10 weeks away—the processes had to be perfect.

The primary team consisted of me; Director of Employee Relations Paul Luhmann, SPHR; Simon; and Programmer Supervisor Susan Golden. We knew the group would have to work fast, work smart and work together to get the project done.

During the transition, our team learned several lessons that are useful to any HR professional involved in software implementation, especially those in medium-sized organizations with informal project management. We used simple tools, focused on finding solutions rather than fighting turf battles, and made sure to identify and make improvements along the way.


Services: National grassroots environmental organization.

Ownership: Nonprofit.

Top executives:

Executive Director: Michael Brune,

Director of Human Resources: Sue De La Rosa.

Employees: 600.

2013 budget: $100 million.

U.S. locations: 80, with headquarters in San Francisco.

Process Mappin​g

Until the day I started my job, all resumes for all vacancies were sent to a “careers@” e-mail account with the position name in the subject line. The e-mails were then manually forwarded to the appropriate hiring managers. The routing rules were complex, requiring significant review of each application by a short-staffed HR team, and the potential for error was high. These steps needed to be untangled and clarified to be encoded in an applicant tracking system.

We needed a solid understanding of:

What processes to keep.

What processes had evolved as work-arounds that should be untangled.

What processes could be massaged to meet policy and contractual guidelines.

I spent nearly a week interviewing my HR peers about the workflow, talking with hiring managers about how hiring had been going from their end and identifying differences in opinion. I put together a process map of the workflow as it was, then added what we wanted the system to do in the future, such as sending candidates automatic e-mail notifications when their applications were received or a position was filled.

Using a simple whiteboard plus pencil and paper worked great for mapping and allowed for erasing and reconfiguring. I used basic MS Word AutoShapes to make the process map formal and legible.

Our new applicant tracking processes had to be robust enough to handle more than the normal volume of applications. At the time, the Sierra Club was making 75 to 100 hires per year to maintain its current national staff of 500 and was expecting nearly double that to support new positions in one of our key campaigns, Beyond Coal. We were planning on 1,000 to 1,500 applications per month in the new system.

Once I had drafted the process map, I invited Luhmann, Golden and Benefits Manager Deidre Brill (who had been handling many recruiting activities before I joined) to tear up my map.

We spent most of an entire day, with a pizza lunch, sequestered in a conference room going over the workflow, making sure the system would capture the processes we wanted, eliminating redundancy and extra work, and adding functions. This was not easy.

For instance, opinions differed on what needed a technical solution instead of a human action: Should a manager send a thank-you note to each applicant, or should that step be automated? High-touch or high-tech? The technicians successfully argued that automating this type of communication was one point of having an automated system.

On another matter, there was a difference in department representatives’ points of view about who had the overriding say in marginally related issues: Was the system the perfect excuse to lobby for changes in requisition approval? The HR professionals stood firm: That was a discussion for another day.

This meeting of the minds was critical. As Golden explains, “What made this implementation go smoothly from the IT perspective was that the requirements and business processes were clearly defined at the onset. As the project went along, the HR team was able to keep it on track by quickly making decisions on issues as they arose and keeping us focused.”

At the end of that session, we had a process map for the configuration consultant.


In addition to process mapping, we invited some managers to be testers early on. As a medium-sized organization, we enjoyed fairly open lines of communication among departments and invited people by just asking for their assistance and rewarding them with chocolate and appreciation.

Because of their feedback, we added categories to the candidate-review function and now allow more collaboration between managers, among other improvements. During these conversations, we started learning how to provide training on the software—another facet of my job that I had not planned on.

Many hiring managers were only peripherally aware, and some didn’t even realize, that filling all positions would soon require use of the applicant tracking system. Given that Sept. 2, 2012, our original go-live date, was looming, we had to let them know right away what would be expected of them and how the system would affect recruiting.


We elected to communicate on broad, specific and imperative levels, along the lines of “You will need to have this information. ... You MUST register for training!” The messages went out numerous times.

We prioritized. Managers with open positions would get trained first on a planned schedule; we would then run ad hoc training for managers with requisitions after the system went live. Even before we had training scripts, we enrolled managers in sessions set for the week before the go-live date. We let managers know that the recruiting team would continue working with them as they learned the system, and we were honest about the fact that a new system would bring unanticipated questions. We reiterated that we wanted to make the implementation collaborative and expected it to be evolutionary.

Road to Improvement

Plenty of questions arose within days of the launch. In some cases, the concerns were reflexive reactions to automation; in others, the situations brought to light the need for immediate solutions.

For example, candidates applying for more than one job were submitting multiple cover letters. We solved this problem by including instructions in the online application asking candidates to add other letters as attachments.

Another issue we faced was the unexpectedly large number of automatic e-mails being sent to our hiring managers each time an applicant made a change to his or her online profile. The solution required showing managers how to shut that function off.

The hiring managers’ contributions were critical to improving the system, and the teamwork we had developed in the implementation team enabled us to make these changes quickly.

After the two-month mark, users had a better grasp of the applicant tracking system and could provide informed insight. Using Survey Monkey, we posed questions to an anonymous pool of 54 managers who were using the system. About 17 responded.

Via these responses, we identified specific ideas for improvements and themes about the user experience. Because we waited a little while to conduct the survey, we were confident that the issues raised were not just the result of unfamiliarity. Based on these findings, we created a more user-friendly set of viewing filters, made short podcast-style training videos for our intranet around the most requested training topics, and developed enhancements. We also put in place items that had been identified as “wants” during our process mapping.

Some respondents provided the team with validation of our hard work. Not every result was positive, but 93 percent of the respondents found the system “helpful” or “very helpful.” They voiced supportive feedback through comments such as “So much more efficient than before. Great job—thanks!” and “The combination of new recruiters and [the system] is a vast improvement over the [Sierra] Club’s previous hiring system.”

Demonstration of Agility

Of course, glitches remain. For instance, the go-live date was shifted by two weeks, and there are still issues—such as the treatment of those multiple cover letters once they’re submitted—that users have to accept as part of a system that can’t be changed at the moment.

However, in a fairly short period, an organization that has sometimes been considered slow to adapt demonstrated surprising agility in implementing HR technology. To date, more than 200 employees have been hired via the new system. With the lessons we’ve learned, we’re confident that the Sierra Club can rapidly implement other HR systems to support our mission. HR and IT staff members have established a strong partnership through communication.

We are now evaluating human resource information systems to update payroll, timekeeping, performance management and employee record-keeping, and we will probably implement a software-as-a-service model in the second quarter of 2013. Because it touches so many more processes and employees, the HRIS will have much more impact on our organization than our Taleo implementation. And I’m sure we’ll learn new lessons along the way.

The author is director of talent acquisition and development at the Sierra Club in San Francisco.


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