ATSs: Moving Beyond Applicant Tracking

Systems of record becoming systems of engagement

By Roy Maurer May 25, 2016

Applicant tracking systems (ATSs) have outgrown their initial function and are rapidly evolving into a recruiting resource, according to a panel of talent acquisition experts speaking at Lever’s recent inaugural Talent Innovation Summit.

The legacy ATS is commonly criticized as being inefficient, frustrating both recruiters and candidates.  

“Somewhere along the way, 'ATS' became like a swear word—it’s almost a reviled term in the industry,” said Leela Srinivasan, chief marketing officer for San Francisco-based Lever and moderator of the panel on the future of acquisition technology.  Lever is part of the new generation of applicant tracking systems with the goal of improving the experience for recruiters, hiring managers and candidates.

The panelists agreed that the ATS does well what it’s supposed to do—track applicants—but that to be successful as recruiters, the technology needs to encompass the profession’s current demands, such as online sourcing, candidate engagement, content creation and analytical reporting.   

“It’s a 35-year-old category. Only time and attendance is older,” said William Tincup, an HR technology analyst and CEO of Tincup & Co, based in Dallas, speaking about human resources technologies.

ATSs must still function as workflow and compliance tools, noted Kyle Lagunas, principal analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory, a research firm based in Austin, Texas. “But they were not built for recruiting,” he said.

Elaine Orler, founder and CEO of Talent Function, a consulting firm based in San Diego, added that recruiting has evolved faster than the technology.

“The code base and functionality of these systems has not changed with the Internet,” agreed Matt Charney, Dallas-based executive editor and head of content at media company Recruiting Daily. “What we need is a system of engagement and not just a system of record. Going from Google and a beautiful landing page to an ugly .net ATS interface is like taking a DeLorean at 88 miles per hour.”

Lagunas noted the “disproportionate amount of effort and money that goes into recruiting before the application comes in,” so it makes sense to broaden the scope of ATS technology beyond tracking applicants. “There are endless opportunities to apply candidate relationship management tools to engage with past clients, silver and bronze candidates that didn’t make the cut, and alumni networks,” he said.

Looking to Upgrade

The panelists advised employers considering upgrading or changing their ATS to do their due diligence. “Don’t let the solutions tell you what you need,” Orler said. “Know which problems you are trying to solve and don’t cave.”

Charney said employers should ask vendors:

  • How the product will make their job easier.
  • How the vendors make money. Have them share their revenue model.
  • To present a live demo. “Don’t buy from any vendor who is selling to you from a PowerPoint deck. If they can’t run a live, robust demo, it’s probably vaporware [not yet manufactured] and won’t deliver as promised.”
  • To show them what the candidate will see. “As a rule you’re generally being shown the back end of a system,” Charney said. “You’re seeing what the recruiter sees. Often there is a huge disparity between what the candidate sees and what the recruiter sees.”

Lagunas urged employers to consider whether they are looking to simply automate practices, or trying to evolve and looking for a certain solution. A good ATS can offer plugins for referral, sourcing and recruitment marketing solutions. There are others that “bake best practices in, so they will focus on candidate experience and offer a built-in metrics package that generates reports and provides feedback.”

Charney weighed in on the debate over platform plugins vs. end-to-end solution suites. “Some systems value process and workflow while others value flexibility, scalability and ability to offer point solutions. I prefer the latter. No vendor will have best-in-class solutions for everything you need.”

Implementation Requires Honesty

The implementation stage is critical for optimal results. And the odds are against success, according to Tincup. “When you switch from one ATS to another, you have about a 17 percent chance to be successful in that change.” But don’t just blame the vendor, he said.

“With implementation, it’s not the solution provider that holds us back,” Orler said. “It’s our ability to clearly articulate what we really need and hold the business up to it.”

Tincup added that “you’ve got to check your ego and be vulnerable with a vendor. It’s not easy, because you think they will take advantage of you. But when they ask how your process is, be honest. Have them do a stress test and an audit, to find out where your process can be improved.”

Orler expanded on the idea: “It’s not process over technology or vice versa. If you have a beautiful process and the technology can’t do it, you fail. If you have a technology with great enhancements that require modifications in your process and you refuse to change your process, you fail.”

Future Forecast

Tincup foresees talent acquisition technology getting more reflective and predictive. “Tell me what just happened and tell me what will happen,” he said. “What has up until now been dumb databases will start telling us things. ‘Tuesday is your best interview day.’ ‘This is your best interview question.’ ‘Sally is your best interviewer.’ That’s the future.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMRoy


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect