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Today's ATS Solutions Go Well Beyond Resume Storage

Ensure you understand what features you need before upgrading your system

A group of people working on computers in an office.


Legacy applicant tracking system (ATS) platforms have long been the targets of scorn by recruiters for their inflexibility, cumbersome functions and disregard for the candidate experience. But modern solutions are changing all of that, morphing from archaic resume repositories into intuitive, end-to-end recruitment management tools that are more friend than foe in helping recruiters achieve their goals.

"Historically, the ATS was a resume storage and search tool designed more for warehousing and compliance purposes than to help execute on recruiting strategy," said Kyle Lagunas, research manager of emerging trends and technologies in talent acquisition at IDC, a market research and advisory services firm in Framingham, Mass. "But that has very much changed."

Visit SHRM's Guide to Applicant Tracking Systems for a side-by-side comparison.
Spurred by an influx of innovative new vendors, today's ATS goes beyond resume tracking to include sourcing, marketing, interviewing, candidate relationship management, analytics and onboarding functions—a complete toolkit of tasks that recruiters require for success. Once built only for recruiters or hiring managers, now these systems are designed with extended hiring teams in mind, with welcoming interfaces, automated functions and collaborative tools that require minimal technical support.

"Calling these platforms applicant tracking systems almost has become a misnomer," said Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, a research and advisory consulting firm in Oakland, Calif. "They have evolved into full-service recruitment management systems."

Recruiters are expecting more out of their ATS, Lagunas said. "I'm seeing best-of-breed ATS providers gain growing market share because more top recruiting organizations find their platforms can actually support a modern recruiting function.".

Despite evolution in the technology, much still separates top solutions from their less-proficient counterparts, recruiting experts say. For that reason, it pays to choose the right criteria and conduct thorough due diligence when selecting a new ATS provider.

User Experience Drives Change

One of the biggest differentiators among systems is user experience. When Lagunas conducted research in 2016 looking at factors that cause talent acquisition technology buyers to purchase new systems, the biggest driver was an improved user experience for recruiters, hiring managers and job candidates. 

"That's partly because more people than ever are using these systems now," he said. "Collaborative hiring has become a best practice and more people outside of HR are using the ATS. If recruiting leaders already have made a strong business case for buying a best-in-class system, they're going to go with the one that's easiest to use." Human resource information system (HRIS) leaders also are more prone to change platforms in today's software-as-a-service (SAAS) environment, he said, since these solutions are less "sticky" than on-premise software models.

Since users are essentially "renting" software with SAAS models, it's less trouble for them to move to new providers than with installed software. The latter brings into play more onsite IT configuration issues. SAAS vendors also include frequent software updates as part of their contracts.

Jerome Ternynck, founder and CEO of ATS vendor SmartRecruiters, said recruiting leaders comparing ATS solutions should ask their most hard-to-please hiring managers to participate in system demos. "You need to make sure your hiring managers will use the ATS," he said. "You can't be successful as a recruiting organization if your hiring managers aren't engaged. If the system isn't easy for them to use in creating requisitions or providing feedback on candidate interviews, they'll just go back to using e-mail and spreadsheets."

Job candidates, too, need better user interfaces, said Ternynck, because candidates have grown accustomed to fast, hassle-free experiences in the consumer world and now expect the same from corporate technology equivalents. That translates to mobile-friendly job application forms, candidate portals and automated tools that keep candidates up to date on their hiring status.

"The ATS of the past largely failed on these fronts," Ternynck said. "A modern system should not only help you source but also engage great candidates."

The top reason that large-company respondents in Lagunas' research were considering changing providers was the candidate experience. "When you see companies making substantial investment decisions based on the candidate experience, you know it has become a higher priority," he said.

Providers are delivering on promises to enhance the candidate experience by introducing features like applicant portals. "Candidates can log in to pick their preferred interview times, see where they stand in the application process, see who the hiring manager is or even get information on what the team they might be working with is like," Lagunas said.

CRM Rises

In a move to broaden their appeal, many ATS vendors have added candidate relationship management (CRM) functions to their offerings. These tools give recruiters a single platform for importing and managing candidate data from all sourcing channels, enabling easier search and "nurturing" of segmented candidate pools including past candidates, current applicants or active interviews.

A CRM's automated tools can perform tasks like sending personalized e-mail to candidates in talent communities when relevant openings arise or allowing recruiters to review e-mail opens or clicks from all candidate touch points to see what strategies are working and determine the right times to take action.

"It's another sign the ATS is moving beyond post-and-pray approaches to attract-and-engage models," Lagunas said. "Recruiters need tools dedicated to engaging and nurturing all of their candidate pipelines, rather than simply offloading all of their resumes into a dead zone."

A primary reason that Alex Lebovic, director of recruiting for Grand Rounds, a health technology company in San Francisco, is a fan of her ATS provider Lever is the system's built-in CRM capabilities.

"We take a long-term view of our relationships with candidates," Lebovic said. "The timing may or may not be right for them to take a job today, but we want to ensure they have a context and are engaged next time they come through the process."

The platform allows Lebovic to tag candidates with easily searched terms so she can revisit them six months or a year down the road if needed. She also uses a stand-alone CRM from Lever called Nurture to target candidates who've proven to be highly engaged. "It allows us to avoid spamming and identify which candidates are most interested in us so we can double down our efforts on them," she said. 

For example, one prospect opened one e-mail from Lebovic 31 times but never responded. Such candidates often are presented with low-pressure opportunities to learn more about Grand Rounds. "We might send them an invite to a future open house, for example, rather than barrage them with messaging," she said.

CRM functions also are built into Workday's recruiting platform, said Karen Minicozzi, Workday's vice president of human capital management product strategy. "We believe it allows our clients to identify and market to job candidates faster than a bolt-on [separate] system would," she said.

Minicozzi also said ATS solutions too often ignore one of the best sources of candidates—current employees. "Employers need greater insight into their complete talent pipeline, including existing employees, to create internal mobility opportunities so employees can continue to grow their careers in the organization," she said, suggesting that one way to improve that visibility is to tightly integrate an ATS with an HRIS.

Artificial Intelligence Arrives

Forward-thinking ATS providers also are introducing artificial intelligence (AI) tools to their platforms to automate tasks like sourcing and candidate communication. Newton Software is using AI for stage-specific, automated thank-you letters sent to candidates, said Joel Passen, Newton's head of marketing, and the company also uses bots (automated conversation agents) to gather feedback from interview scorecards. SmartRecruiters recently acquired the German company Jobspotting, which uses AI and big data to match candidates to open jobs.

Such tools allow recruiters to go beyond traditional keyword searches and use machine learning algorithms to dig through piles of resumes to identify the best candidates for jobs.

"What many of these tools do is find and assess candidates against job descriptions or, if they're more sophisticated, assess candidates against profiles of employees in the company who've proven successful in the role," Bersin said. "Of all those who apply, AI isolates those most similar to individuals who have already succeeded."

Question-and-answer chat bots also are becoming commonplace, saving recruiters time and elevating the candidate experience. "Information that candidates routinely seek about specific jobs has been automated through these bots," Bersin said, including common questions about work hours, benefits, company culture or policies.

Automation Boosts Productivity

ATS vendors have made recruiters' lives easier by adding other automated tools and e-mail templates that alleviate manual tasks and bring new efficiencies to the hiring process. Recruiting teams can now collaborate on interview feedback in one place, use scheduling wizards and calendar integrations to manage the jigsaw of candidate interviews, and use two-way e-mail sync to avoid having to log on to multiple systems to conduct recruiting business.

Many systems also create consolidated candidate profiles and employ "visual pipeline" tools with drag-and-drop interfaces that reorder job field values, review candidate progress or move applicants from one stage to the next. Most platforms now automatically post new openings to free job boards connected to the ATS and tie in to corporate careers sites; recruiters can use built-in tools to construct those sites with no need for IT help. Users can post jobs to social sites like Linkedin, Facebook or Twitter, also.

Anna Ratanawan, director of human resources at, an online boutique marketplace with 100 employees that sells women's fashion items and home decor, said her company chose BambooHR's recruiting system in part because of such automated functions.

"The ease of being able to post job openings to our careers page was one big draw," she said. "I no longer have to do any coding since it's automated."

The system also can be configured for's unique recruiting needs. "Some of our hiring managers prefer to review all candidates from the start and others want to get engaged later in the process, after initial screenings," Ratanawan said. "We can customize the system and settings for each manager so they can decide when they want to receive interview notes or candidate rankings."

Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer for the Brandon Hall Group in Delray Beach, Fla., said many platforms also can be configured to handle different job categories or roles.

"You can create different 'swim lanes' and manage candidates better than ever today," Rochelle said. "Whether you're hiring hourly workers or doing retained search for a senior vice president, the technology is designed to handle applicants differently because they're coming from different recruitment pools or parts of the world and you're following different protocols."

Another selection criteria should be how well an ATS integrates with preferred third-party providers offering services like sourcing, pre-hire assessment, video interviewing or background checks. Platforms should have open, flexible application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow for seamless integration and transfer of data between systems, Rochelle said.

Onboarding Joins the Party

A function that hasn't historically been part of recruiting—onboarding—is being added to more ATS solutions. In the past, a new hire's information had to be manually pulled from one system and transferred to another for onboarding, said Rochelle, but with today's cloud-based systems and open APIs, that data can move seamlessly between recruiting and onboarding software.

"Once candidates accept a job, all their basic data and completed electronic forms like W-4s, I-9s or direct deposit can be transferred with no need for data re-entry," Rochelle said. That new efficiency is a boon for companies in high-turnover industries. "Organizations that do high-volume or frequent hiring welcome an ability to cut onboarding cycle times and reduce what can be huge transactional costs," he added.

Analytics Evolve

HR buyers should carefully weigh the variety of analytics options offered by providers. Many have added highly visual, intuitive dashboards and interactive reports that track key metrics like conversion rates, sourcing channel performance or the effectiveness of recruitment marketing campaigns. These tools allow recruiters to slice and dice data for executive overviews or frequent operational reports, with an ability to import those metrics into other business intelligence tools.

Hiring managers at Grand Rounds are embracing analytics dashboards, Lebovic said, which has eliminated her need to use spreadsheets to track key measures. "We now have to do a lot less pulling of individual data for hiring managers to view their candidate pipelines," she said.

Recruiters using Workday's solution can embed a "fly-in analytic" tool before posting new job openings to see where top performers in similar roles have been sourced in the past. If recruiters are posting a job for a software developer, for example, they might find that the best prior source has been employee referrals, allowing them to create a new bonus to incent referrals and spend less on external postings.

"With this real-time, active intelligence, recruiters get the information they need at the time they need it, not in a separate report or dashboard," Minicozzi said.

Developing a thorough understanding of what today's modern systems can provide and a laser focus on "must have" features will go a long way toward helping you avoid buyer's remorse following your next ATS purchase.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis who specializes in HR technology and talent acquisition topics.

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