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Companies are seeking more innovative ways of using the internet as a recruitment tool. Meg Carter reports

It may be the latest buzz word, but too many HR departments are still struggling with whether to call it e-cruitment or e-recruitment let alone to understand how best to do it. But behind the scenes, attention is starting to shift from whether or not to advertise a job on the web to understanding how best to maximise its true potential. This, of course, is to develop deeper relationships between employer and prospective employee and simply not to promote vacancies.

Its become a huge issue, not least because the internet has generated so many mixed messages and so much hype, says Mark Jones, head of digital strategy at the recruitment specialists, Bernard Hodes Global Network. Not so long ago talk was of how internet recruitment advertising would replace paper. Now people are asking, Wheres the added value?

For many companies, the first step in e-recruitment has been to place job opportunities on their own website. It is a step, however, that has caused many to stumble.

Unless prospective candidates know about that company as a business, they wont come, says Maurice Duffy, chief executive of the executive search firm, MKWorldwide. Strategically, you must ensure a sophisticated presence in the right environment. When it comes to a companys own website, this depends on providing more than an online notice board and developing mechanisms to drive the (web) traffic in.

Recent US research listed the top three complaints among jobseekers using the internet to be: difficulty in locating jobs on an employers website; difficulty in moving from the home page to the jobs section; and finding only IT-related jobs rather than a range of management positions advertised.

An exception to this rule is LOral, one of Europes leading e-recruiters. It set up its website, www.loreal.com, three years ago not as a marketing exercise but to meet a number of specific HR goals. The internet is truly global and we hoped it would help LOral become known internation-ally as a recruiter, not just a brand, says Mate Cristiani, internet recruitment manager for LOral in Paris. The first major recruiter to set up a website to recruit management and graduate trainees back in 1997, it uses its umbrella site to describe opportunities in the company and national sites and third-party job boards to advertise specific vacancies.

Last year, national offices in 20 countries used the internet to recruit, she says. We received 33,000 applications (out of a total of 128,000) via the internet. We recruited 200 people in total representing 31 different nationalities. The internet has helped us increase our visibility as a recruiter, and create a truly multicultural team an important part of our HR strategy.

Earlier this year LOral relaunched its central website with the addition of an editorial portal. From April, the site has had continuously updated content providing information about the business, its brands, latest news coverage of the business job opportunities and career prospects. The aim is to further consolidate LOrals global online recruitment strategy, Cristiani explains. Later in the year LOral will unveil further investment in its internet recruitment when it develops 15 new country sites.

It was just such benefits that persuaded professional services firm KPMG to switch all UK recruitment online from May 2001. Originally we received cvs and applications in every way by fax, email, personal delivery to our Blackfriars HQ and via recruitment agents who, in turn, we dealt with in a number of different ways too, KPMGs e-recruitment project manager, Dominic Parker, explains.

The goal is for our HR staff to spend more time on fewer applications as a smaller number of higher calibre candidates apply currently, the HR department deals with 35,000 applications each year. This will ultimately impact on the time it takes to hire and ensure HR staff add more value to the business.

The new e-recruitment strategy has devolved responsibility for drawing up job specifications from the HR department to line managers. Ensur-ing more detail is carried in online job ads helps potential candidates self-select before they reply.

You dont have to have your own website to become an e-recruiter, however. An alternative route is to use internet job boards. Today, there are hundreds to choose from the best known of which include Monster, Stepstone and Workthing. Yet five years after the first launched, most still offer only the opportunity to match a candidate either to a specific job or set of skills.

Although employers using job boards to recruit can benefit from the large volume of traffic the best known can deliver, there are a number of pitfalls. For the candidate, using a job board can involve scanning hundreds of job ads a disincentive, critics claim. For the employer, meanwhile, job boards offer little more than an electronic version of any news-papers recruitment section.

At one leading electronics manufacturer, e-recruitment has only been introduced to keep up with the companys competitors. For a company like us there is no point going to a Monster or a Stepstone as we do not seek high-volume, less specialised personnel in the same way a retailer or bank might do, an HR executive explains. We do have vacancies on our corporate internet site and I do receive one or two applications because of that but because the bulk of jobs we are seeking to fill are quite specialised, a more targeted and personal approach is far preferable.

Picking the best job board to use is the real art as there are now so many, says Diane Bright, head of resourcing and development for Bass. There are one or two that we are testing now, she says. But it could well be the case that there are so many that different candidates favour just one or two. Choosing the most appropriate to use is difficult.

Bass has used the internet to recruit both by posting jobs on boards and by advertising vacancies using its own site. Our online recruitment with external websites has had mixed success, Bright says. It has depended on the roles involved. We have had most success with general managers and deputy managers for our leisure retail division. Otherwise, responses can be slow and the calibre of applicants inconsistent.

Its hardly surprising, then, that many HR professionals believe not only that the number of job boards should reduce but that they should evolve. Canny players are now looking at the advantages of being a candidates career management adviser rather than simply existing as a job board, says Jones. Its a move towards long-term ownership of prospective candidates by being a trusted adviser which is surely the smart way to go.

GoJobsite.co.uk is adopting just this approach. While the job-board model remains very profitable, we are now looking to deepen our relationship with clients to move into managing the whole recruitment process rather than simply offering an online version of The Times job section, says marketing director Chris Newson. The aim is to handle everything from advertising a job through processing applications and selecting candidates for interview all from one screen.

The biggest problem job boards and people using them face is that they are truly global, says Newson. People outside the EU, for example, with completely unrelated skills can apply and the recruiter still has to process them. We can set up simple filters and manage the whole process to act like a clearing house, he adds.

The executive search firm, Spencer Stuart, meanwhile, is developing Spencer Stuart Talent Network (SSTN), its recently-launched online personal development service aimed at middle managers to senior executives. The focus is on enabling candidates to develop themselves, SSTNs CEO, James Gray, explains. It is a career development and leadership tool that can be used for self-improvement by candidates whether they are about to start looking for a new job or not.

Much of the SSTN site is available without having to register. In this way prospective candidates do not have to show their hand until they choose to, he adds. When the time is right, however, visitors to the site who have made use of its information, advice and chat-room features can register for more tailored advice. Personal networks are more trusted and confidential than most of the (recruitment) industry can be, says Gray. This is an attempt to re-create the personal network using technology.

Using electronic media to deepen the relationship between employer and prospective employer has to be the way ahead for all e-recruiters, Jones believes. A number of specialists have already identified the value in holding on to rather than discarding unsuccessful short-listed candidates to compile a database of talent for future reference, he says. A good mailing list can be a godsend, and with carefully planned permission-based marketing to potential candidates, using the technology to develop a truly personalised career management approach has to be the way ahead.

Also ripe for exploitation is the potential to use the internet more proactively to track down the best prospective candidates. According to Duffy, many e-recruiters barely skim the surface of the technologys potential. Recruitment is becoming more about lead-generation than resum generation, he says. So we go out onto the net to search news groups and home pages, monitor conference papers and newspaper interviews to identify the best talent. We use spiders [a sophisticated, automated internet search programme] to search out individuals cvs.

At LOral, details of students who may become candidates in the future have been gathered as part of an online management game in which 2,000 participants competed to see who could best manage a business over a two-month period.

LOral launched its global strategy game L'Oral e-strat challenge last December. Business students from around the world were invited to form teams to set up and run a virtual cosmetics company. Over the ensuing two months they were assessed on how they met the same kind of business challenges LOral faces on a daily basis, such as marketing spend and allocation, investment, borrowing and staff deployment.

The game was designed with future strategists in mind, Cristiani says. It is a way of encouraging interest in LOral, and making contacts. The winning team, from the US, was announced in early May. As well as a trophy, top teams won a holiday and laptop computer.

The information we have on these students so far is not sufficient to decide whether or not to invite them for interview, but its a starting point for us to find out more about them, Cristiani readily admits. But it is an original way to use the internet for long-term recruitment. LOral plans to repeat the e-strat challenge initiative next year, she adds.

Oracle, meanwhile, is using the internet to build a database of people who have registered an interest in the company and plans to use this to fill future vacancies. We have 35,000 people on our database of profiles, 5,348 of which are live applicants with whom we have begun dialogue, Oracles HR director, Richard Lowther, says. I can get extremely up-to-date and accurate information not just about who has applied, but how they came to us, and why. The internet is enabling us to build relationships with future employees.

Fully capitalising on e-recruitments potential also depends on a proper understanding of the respective strengths of different electronic platforms and how to exploit them. And there is significant scope for e-recruitment strategies to exploit other electronic channels, believes Angus Drever, chief executive of MultiMedia TV, which owns the online jobs database, The Job Channel.

Jobseekers are increasingly aware that if you use PCs at work someone is likely to be monitoring it, Drever says. Because of that, and because it is remote-control not keyboard-based, digital TV has mass appeal.

Jobchannel.tv is a recruitment service available via digital TV, WAP, interactive kiosks and the internet. It recently launched a new service enabling job-seekers to have contact details for vacancies sent by text message to their mobile phone. Digital TV users, meanwhile, search for jobs using different criteria and respond to ads using their TV remote control.

Digital TV reaches a complementary audience to the net, says Drever, which is why HR professionals should understand its potential and that of all other electronic platforms.

To date, however, the development of e-recruitment has been restricted by a number of basic concerns. Gray believes one problem faced by online job boards and recruitment sites has been lack of confidence among potential candidates, despite efforts by the recruitment industry through the Association of Online Recruiters, now a division of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, to champion best practice. No one has yet captured the essence of the net and effectively applied it to the recruitment market, he says. The focus has been on cost savings rather than new technologys potential in sourcing higher quality candidates. All Monster.com and sites like it have really achieved has been to drive volume of interest. But quantity is no measure of success, he adds.

Jones also points to HR department ignorance of what new technologies can offer. A lot of the HR community are technophobic and nervous about e-recruitment. There is certainly a lot of confusion about how to do it, he says. And given that it takes proper investment to make e-recruitment work its hardly surprising if HR departments have found board commitment to new budgets difficult.

Despite the reservations, e-recruitment is undoubtedly here to stay. Harder to predict is how it will be used and used most effectively in the future. But one thing is sure, as HR professionals get to grips with electronic platforms, recruitment can look forward to as big a revolution as when the first job ads went online.