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4 Critical Steps to Ensure a Successful ATS Upgrade

Most ATS upgrades fail. But yours doesn't have to.

An image of a bottle of champagne and a woman holding a bottle of champagne.
Illustration by ​Stuart Bradford for HR Magazine.

How employers go about upgrading their applicant tracking system (ATS) will likely determine whether the decision is a success or a failure.

Forty percent of 300 organizations surveyed by Aptitude Research Partners for a 2016 report said they were unsatisfied with their ATS.

"Many times the dissatisfaction is the result of the company's lack of understanding of its own internal needs, and or looking solely at price or product capabilities to find the right provider," said Madeline Laurano, co-founder of Aptitude Research Partners, an HR technology research firm based in Boston. "These companies get so easily distracted by the complexity and bells and whistles of these systems that they forget the basic challenges they are trying to solve."

Only 3 percent of surveyed companies were using the full functionality of their ATS.

Another driving force of dissatisfaction for talent acquisition professionals is that the traditional ATS—a basic workflow tracking tool—is no longer relevant or useful.

The ATS function is simply the first step of a larger talent acquisition (TA) system, said Mike Webster, senior vice president of technology and operations consulting for the Americas at Talent Collective, a talent acquisition consultancy under the Alexander Mann Solutions brand.

"The idea of moving paper online is not seen as a fix anymore, and the fact that the ATS continues on this path is probably the biggest reason that TA system disruption will continue to transform the marketplace."  

Organizations need scalability, sustainability and flexibility in the hiring context, he added.

"As the marketplace shifts, the process and how-tos have to shift with it," Webster said. "The traditional ATS does not integrate well, it doesn't adapt to the fast technology leaps being made in mobile and social recruiting. That forces your recruiters to seek out loopholes and workarounds and you have a very large investment not paying dividends for you." 

The next generation talent acquisition (TA) system goes well beyond simple reporting and can be used as a strategic tool, from sourcing to onboarding. It provides end-to-end recruitment management, including increasingly popular features that help recruiters attract and engage talent not just right now, but for future roles, such as a recruitment marketing platform or a candidate relationship management (CRM) function.

"The number of options available to recruiters is greater than ever," said Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer for Matawan, N.J.-based recruitment software provider iCIMS. She added that buyers should look for financial stability, longevity in the market, customer reviews and references, and scalability when considering whether to upgrade an existing product or implement a new talent acquisition system.

Visit SHRM's Guide to Applicant Tracking Systems for a side-by-side comparison.

Step 1: Know Your Needs

Start the process of overhauling your ATS by going back to square one and defining what you ultimately want from it.

"To start, step back from the situation to consider why it's time to replace your talent acquisition platform," said Leela Srinivasan, chief marketing officer at Lever, a talent acquisition platform based in San Francisco. "What's actually working in today's process? What's not working? What parts of the process do you like? What would you like to change? If your processes are fundamentally flawed, bringing in the most advanced technology won't result in the change that sent you scrambling for a new system in the first place."

When determining what you need from a new system, try to avoid a "feature-focused" conversation, said Katherine Maughan, product marketing manager for Greenhouse, a recruitment software company based in New York City. "Instead, identify where your recruiting function feels the greatest opportunities are, or what they feel is most limiting in their work, and go from there."  

It's also critical to get input from stakeholders outside of talent acquisition. "Recruiting is an inherently collaborative process, so sit down with the teams your recruiters are working with regularly," Maughan said. "Learn what frustrates them about your current system, and what they hope to see in the future. You'll see greater buy-in for the new system, and can select an ATS that most effectively addresses the wider business needs."

The problem is that HR typically lacks insight into the organization's purchasing priorities, said Kyle Lagunas, research manager for emerging trends in talent acquisition and staffing at IDC, a global market intelligence company based in Framingham, Mass. "HR buyers want everything. They want a modern architecture, they want better functionality, better integrations, a better user experience," he said. "The challenge is that they tend not to know where the business is in terms of procurement planning. For that reason it's more important for HR to prioritize needs than identify a laundry list of wants."

IT tends to run the show, but that is changing, he continued. "We're seeing more best-in-class organizations are trusting HR to lead the recruitment technology selection process."

To be successful, HR needs to translate pain points and frustrations with the current system into actual business impact to make a case for change. "An ATS or TA system is a serious investment, Lagunas said. It needs to support better business. Highlight the time-to-source with the system you have and compare it to case studies from different vendors to get the buy-in you need."

Step 2: Determine Fit and Functionality

Make sure that the new TA system you choose will fit in with your current recruiting, reporting and communication processes.    

"Consider functionality through the eyes of all stakeholders, not just your recruiting and HR team," Srinivasan said. "Even the best companies come unstuck when they choose technology that their counterparts on the business side—hiring managers, interviewers and so on—will never take the time to figure out."

She added that at a minimum "functionality [should be] seamless, intuitive, straightforward and accessible for all users whether they're on desktop or mobile."

As part of the vetting process, ask vendors for their client success metrics and query references about their implementation experience.

Feature and functionality should follow hiring need. If the company's primary hiring need is filling hard-to-fill roles, a TA system should allow for easy, active sourcing and integration of preferred sourcing tools, said Bruce Richards, a sales engineer for SmartRecruiters, a TA system based in San Francisco.

In addition, the application process should be accessible and easy to complete. Be sure to evaluate and demo TA systems from the perspective of applicants and candidates. "These individuals won't stand for a lengthy process. Ensure that your ATS isn't creating a barrier," Richards said.

An application process that takes 30 minutes or longer in 2017 is simply not good enough, Srinivasan added.

If the company is driven by high-volume hiring, it will be critical to assess the system's capability to post jobs and collect applicants without having to open a requisition folder. 

"You'll want a system that ensures you maximum exposure for opportunities, allowing for easy distribution of your requisitions across as many free channels as possible as well as paid channels," Richards said. "You'll need robust sourcing analytics to understand where the best candidates are coming from, and recruiter efficiency is a must."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Recruiting Internally and Externally]

Step 3: Explore Integration 

Any new TA system must fully integrate with HR software to provide the most benefit.

"Employers often purchase several solutions for their HR needs—to source candidates, conduct background checks, perform assessments, collect references—so without a system of record to provide strong integrations between these solutions, it can be a disjointed experience," Vitale said.

Make sure to fully vet vendors' spiel on integration. "Not all integrations are created equal," Srinivasan said. "An integration shouldn't just check the box. Where possible it should enhance speed, transparency and collaboration."

Ask specific questions about integration, Lagunas said. "Ask vendors to set up a demo if they have an integration with one of your preferred vendors. Ask them to show that integration. Get your own eyes on it, don't just take their word for it. Everyone can say we have an integration with so and so, but some of them are pure interface and some are full-blown data share integration. It's an opportunity in general to vet the willingness of the vendor to win your business."

Lagunas recommended involving recruiters and hiring managers who will be using the system to join the conversation and sit in on demos if possible. "If you know that there are point solutions in your TA tech stack that are make-or-break capabilities for your team, talk to those vendors to ask how well they integrate with the system you're considering." 

Evaluating Solutions

HR should query vendors about basic features and functionalities when looking to upgrade an applicant tracking system (ATS) or deploy a whole new talent acquisition system, according to Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer for recruitment software provider iCIMS. This includes asking about:

Automation. A good system will eliminate redundant manual data entry, which can help to drastically reduce time spent filling open positions and allow HR to manage its time more efficiently. 

Configuration. The system of record should be versatile enough to fit users’ needs and preferences, such as changing workflows and generating customized reports. 

Robust search and reporting. Your ATS should enable you to keep a pulse on the metrics that are most meaningful to your organization, in real time. 

User experience. Your vendor should provide ready customer support, ranging from implementation and help desk support to project management. 

Strong integration. The system should make it easy for HR to manage and oversee recruiting, hiring and analytics. 

Recruitment marketing. Many products have candidate relationship management tools that can maintain a talent pipeline for future hiring.

Step 4: Ace Implementation

If the new TA system is not implemented well, the whole exercise could be a waste of time and money. Making changes after implementation can be very expensive.

As part of the vetting process, ask vendors for their client success metrics and query references about the implementation experience. Ask other users of the system about the difficulties encountered during implementation and how helpful the provider was during the process.

"Make sure your talent acquisition system provider sets you up with your own implementation specialist," Srinivasan said.

A strong partnership between HR, IT and procurement will also improve the chances of a smoother implementation process.

"You'll also want to identify key factors that may influence your implementation timeline," said Maugham. "Things like your legacy system's contract end date, and major recruiting events on the horizon like campus recruiting season, or a major headcount expansion, may impact your team's bandwidth for implementation of a new system."

The amount of data that needs to be migrated from one system to another often impacts the length of the implementation process. "Find out how painful it's going to be to transition one system to the other," Lagunas said. "How much data cleansing needs to be done? How much will be migrated over? We're talking about all your data. You want to make sure that the existing database you've spent tens of thousands of dollars to build will still be usable in this new environment." 

Roy Maurer is an online writer/editor for SHRM who focuses on talent acquisition.

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