Has the AI revolution been postponed?

20 Mar 2019 By Matthew Pitt

Talent leaders are reluctant to implement AI into their hiring processes – Matthew Pitt shares his research into the reasons why

"AI is the future of recruitment." Try out this statement in most talent acquisition circles and you’re unlikely to spark an argument. The majority of people would agree that technology is transforming most areas of our lives and hiring is certainly one of them. But research by Wilbury Stratton suggests this received wisdom requires a little more scrutiny.

It’s not that the opening statement is untrue. It’s more that it’s too true. AI may be the future, but it’s certainly not the present. We spoke to dozens of hiring managers across a range of sectors. While we certainly came across people who are doing innovative stuff with AI and other technologies, most of our respondents were still using more traditional methods.

To some extent, this is a reflection of cost. Technology is expensive and talent managers are frequently working on restricted budgets. But, the overwhelming reason we found for people not using AI was a suspicion about its effectiveness. As a senior director of talent acquisition at a global pharmaceuticals business told us: “If I have 100 roles advertised, 99 of them might be different and it’s difficult to train a machine to learn nuance.”

Another source, a VP for global acquisition at a multinational tech firm, was concerned about candidates being disadvantaged. “AI requires people to write CVs in a uniform manner. If they don’t, the likelihood of rejection increases,” they said.

A related concern, expressed by a senior hiring manager at a top 10 investment bank, touches upon issues of brand. “It’s important we don’t lose the human touch. We want all candidates – successful or otherwise – to feel they have been dealt with fairly and compassionately,” they said. “I’m not sure a robot can do that.”

These reservations were, it seems, dramatically endorsed late last year when Amazon announced that it was scrapping a proprietary AI recruitment tool because it effectively taught itself that male candidates were preferable.

Of course, history shows us that new technology is often met with suspicion. Our lives revolve around machinery – sat navs, mobile phones and the like – which was initially written off as faddy or frivolous. Few of our sources suggested that AI was going to go away and several of them spoke warmly about both its immediate and knock-on benefits. The head of experienced hires at an investment bank told us: “We are using bots in a number of areas. It’s not the technology itself which excites me, more how it frees up my team to work on other, more strategic stuff.”

Other people emphasised that AI’s advantages do not just benefit the employer. The head of talent at a software design company insisted: “Candidates want immediate responses and you can’t leave people waiting for a week.”

These – and other sources who reported successful application of AI – offered up some interesting recommendations to those of their industry peers who are yet to embrace the technology. First, the best machine in the world will only be of use if it is fit for purpose and properly integrated, so ensure you have an engaged and effective project team who have the capacity to deliver

Secondly, training must be thorough and systematic; technology is only as good as the people who use it – if you provide low-effort training, you’ll get low-effort usage.

Finally, don’t lose the human touch. The more technology you have, the more, not less, you should be engaging with stakeholders, colleagues and candidates. 

Interestingly, such advice seems to address the very concerns that our more circumspect sources shared with us. It therefore seems only a matter of time before AI is placed at the very heart of every firm’s recruitment process. But exactly how much time is another question. For the moment, the revolution is postponed. Yes, AI is almost certainly the future of hiring – just not yet.

Matthew Pitt is head of research at Wilbury Stratton

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