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Shortlist’s balancing act between tech and touch

Nov 9, 2021 | Lessons Learned (the Hard Way) | 1 comment

Author: Paul Breloff

Shortlist is a Nairobi-based executive search and talent tech company building great teams across Africa, India, and 20+ countries.

In this article, Shortlist’s CEO shares his experience building a jobmatching platform across Africa and India, and his increasing recognition of the importance of human touch. Successful jobtech, he argues, is about finding the right balance between online and offline, software and service.

When we started Shortlist, we had the ambition to transform hiring. (Of course we did, we were a startup!) My co-founders and I were relative novices to the recruitment game, having primarily dealt with hiring while operating and investing in startups around the world — but that didn’t stop us from quitting our jobs and going for it. At the time in 2015, we looked at the recruitment world and saw a sector that hadn’t changed much in 50 years: sure, online job boards displaced newspaper classifieds, but the world still relied on job postings, CV reviews, and interviews to get the job done. Software was eating the world; why not hiring too?

I had spent many years investing into fintech and the digitalization of financial services as the founder of Accion Venture Lab, exploring ways we might improve on the microfinance model with less human intensive models. And no doubt we saw many ways that tech revolutionized financial services (and still is!), often making them faster, better, and cheaper. Could we do the same in HR and recruiting?

We initially started building a suite of products to solve the twin challenges of automating the manual intensive stuff (collecting CVs and candidate data, screening on hard filters, using AI for basic prioritization) and, critically, collecting data beyond the CV. We believed hiring was broken in part because employers were looking at the wrong thing when hiring — specifically backward-looking CVs — and they were looking at CVs because they didn’t have better, forward-looking data to look at! So in addition to chatbots and algorithms we also got to work building an assessment platform that asked candidates to show us what they can do, with work samples and skills tests, rather than just telling us. We hoped this new data would make it easier for companies to make better hiring decisions, particularly in high volume recruiting contexts. (And if you’ve got time to kill, you can see some of our early thinking here, here, and here.)

And we were right… partly. We built great product and software, and got rave reviews from clients and candidates alike. Clients liked the assessments, got the story, and appreciated how tools like the “audio interview” helped them avoid wasting time on dead-end interviews. Candidates felt Shortlist was a breath of fresh air: a process that went deeper than the resume, an actual job try-out, and of course no “black holes”, that miserable experience of lobbing your application into the unknown never to hear about it again.

But we quickly started to see something else… No matter how great and intuitive and simple our product was (and it really is all of those things!), employers would almost always prefer hands-on support over self-serve, even if that meant paying quite a bit more. In the early days, we supported KPMG East Africa to drastically streamline their graduate recruitment process, shifting the initial screening of tens of thousands of annual applicants from human-review to automated data collection and screening. This could have been a great instance of software saving the day. But KPMG also wanted us to manage the process, build a team to do the initial screening and candidate engagement, and just solve their whole problem. 

Even when we launched our all-in-one hiring tool “Shortlist Connect” in early 2020, we saw that having a “whole product” wasn’t enough to change behavior. Connect let employers do all the normal “applicant tracking system” things like posting jobs, reviewing candidates, and managing your database. But it also enabled easy add-ons like chatbot customization and assessments, as well as access to a robust community of jobseekers (1.5M+ and counting) who were more engaged and data-rich than people you’d find on a typical job board. We signed up 150 companies in the first month (before COVID changed everything) and were getting good reviews. But clients would still beg us to just manage the platform for them, run the whole process, and pay 20x+ as much, even if the self-serve tech could get them 75% of the way there for most junior and mid-level hires. (Granted, the timing of this launch was pretty bad and the pandemic cut short our Connect ambitions, so we’ll never completely know how this would have played out.)

All this time, in the backdrop, we were finding increasing success with a very low-tech, high-touch executive search business. Turns out there was still space for another “traditional” executive search offering, in our case one obsessed with client service and focused on our passion areas of startups and social impact. We also saw the role for tech and “beyond the CV” data when packaged into larger scale recruitment and jobs programs. KPMG was an early example, but we’ve since powered graduate recruitment programs for a range of enterprises, internship programs for folks like LGT Venture Philanthropy and Microsoft, team scale-ups like customer service at M-Kopa and Greenlight Planet, and increasingly big employability and jobs programs in sectors like clean energy and cloud work. It’s not that the automation and unique competency data wasn’t useful, it’s just that it was most useful when we could bring it to bear with well-designed and well-executed initiatives rather than just a software license.

So we still think we can make a dent on hiring, but we’ve learned a lot, particularly about the role of tech in driving “jobtech”. I now believe there is a lot that tech can do, but there are limits, and we can achieve the biggest impact and success when we figure out the right balance of tech and human touch. Even if it isn’t always as sexy or VC-ready, we jobtech-ers should strive to let software do what software does best, and let humans do what humans do best. The magic will be in getting that balance just right.

For us, using tech now means building competitive differentiation with our “candidate intelligence” database, and powering large-scale talent programs using our chatbots, assessments, screening tools, and matching algorithms to get to know 100,000s of African youth and sort them into better opportunities based on aptitude and interest. But everything would fall apart if we forgot about our amazing team of recruiters and project managers, who make the magic happen by creatively marketing to and finding candidates, working with employers to understand their needs, talking to candidates to assess soft skills like communication and problem-solving, and actually making matches happen.

I’m now instantly suspicious of anyone who thinks they’ll solve something as complex as hiring with tech alone. Ultimately, recruiting is “human, all too human” (thanks Nietzsche). I think we’ll continue to see that many of the winners in jobtech will succeed only when, and not until, they get the tech vs. touch balance just right.

1 Comment

  1. Sandrine Chetail-Armour

    This is such a great story – we have seen again and again that behavior change is an extraordinary science, and while tech provides the tools we need to be more efficient, effecting behavior change requires more than just efficiency! The human touch is here to last!

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