Recruiting’s Missed Strategic Opportunity — Competitive Intelligence Gathering

This “think piece” is designed to stimulate your thinking about activities that recruiting should be doing, but most do not.

During a job interview with a competitor’s employee, they mention working on a brand-new product. Would this fact be reported to your product managers? Unfortunately, probably not. Despite the fact that during normal activities, recruiters routinely discover valuable business information about their firm’s competitors. Few TA functions have a formal process for gathering or reporting this information to their own managers that could put this information to immediate use. Not having a competitive intelligence (a.k.a. CI) gathering process is a missed opportunity for recruiting to increase its strategic contribution and its direct business impacts.

A Firm’s Hiring Is a Direct Indicator of Its Business Direction

Corporate executives are continually striving to learn about what’s happening at their competitors, including product direction and which business units are growing or struggling. They can use this information to directly counter or to act ahead of their competitors.

Now you may initially be wondering, “How can recruiting identify competitive business information?” But, once you realize that a firm can’t move into a new area without first hiring highly specialized talent, it quickly becomes obvious that the type, the volume, and the skill sets of the talent that a firm is hiring is a direct indicator of its business and product direction.

Fortunately, the recruiting function can get insight into a competitor’s business direction without much additional effort. The best recruiters already track what type of talent and skills that each competitor is targeting during hiring. In addition, because they regularly interview many of each competitor’s employees, they have the opportunity to probe for other valuable business information. And, with a more formal CI process in place, recruiting could proactively seek out the most desired types of information and then more effectively report to those on the business side who can put it to good use.

For some reason, with few exceptions, corporate recruiting leaders have shown no interest in gathering and providing competitive intelligence to its executive team. But information on competitors could easily be gathered by recruiters.

The Many Benefits of Adding a Competitive Intelligence Capability to Recruiting

As a first step, recruiting leaders should understand the many benefits of gathering CI. They include:

  • A unique opportunity — literally no other function in the firm has the opportunity to interview and ask probing questions to your competitor’s employees about their leading-edge work. Because of this unique access, recruiting can serve a dual purpose of both hiring and gathering competitive intelligence.
  • Added business impact — recruiting leaders are always striving to be more strategic. And clearly providing information about a competitor’s new products and growth areas would positively impact their own firm’s strategic plan.
  • Additional executive visibility — by gathering and sharing information that has strategic business value, recruiting becomes more visible to executives. At the same time, it builds its image as a function with a complete understanding of business needs. Adding this unexpected value may also increase the amount of executive support for the recruiting function.
  • Few added costs — recruiting gets a chance to use its existing resources and capabilities to provide added value with few or no added costs.

Recruiting Can Provide Valuable Information Across Multiple Business Areas

If you’re not familiar with the term, competitive intelligence is one component of business-intelligence gathering. It is a formalized process for proactively seeking out a range of external information about your competitor’s current and planned business actions. Fortunately, during its normal operations, recruiting professionals have multiple opportunities to learn about many aspects of the business operations at their competitors. Some of the important business and recruiting areas where competitive information or CI could be provided include:

CI can gather important business information

  • Product development directions at your competitors — perhaps the most significant area of CI contribution relates to product development. A competitor firm simply can’t move into a new product area without a significant amount of targeted hiring. A recruiting function that identifies new areas where a competitor is hiring can add a great deal of value. Leading indicators of new product directions can include the volume of jobs, their titles, and the required skills for new hires in the product area. Professionals in each technical field would be able to accurately determine likely new product developments simply by the skills in the job descriptions.

In addition, when your recruiters are scanning resumes from key people working at your competitors, they will likely find mention of new products, processes, and tools. During job interviews with current and former employees from a competitor (especially in sales and product jobs), recruiters could probe about new product trends. When checking references, you may find that they also know about the candidate’s work on new initiatives. And during onboarding, when asked, you can expect new hires to be more forthcoming about what is happening at their former firm.

Finally, become cognizant of the possibility that your own firm’s job descriptions may inadvertently be revealing too much about your own product direction (Apple excels at hiding its product intentions within its job descriptions).

  • Future skill sets that your competitors are building — the “future skills” that your competitors are building can reveal a great deal about the future direction of their firms. By looking at the skills that a competitor requires across all of its new job openings, recruiting can determine what “future skills” that the firm has determined to be critical. In order to remain competitive, this skill set information can also be used to guide your own firm’s skill acquisition and development areas.
  • Growth business units at your competitors — externally recruiters can help executives understand which business units at a competitor are growing by the volume of posted open positions. The number of internal transfers into a business unit can also reveal growth. And these transfers can be identified on LinkedIn.
  • Competitor business units that are struggling — the number and quality of applicants from a competitor for your own jobs can reveal which of their business units are struggling. LinkedIn can also be used effectively to identify business units with high turnover rates. Job interviews with employees from struggling business units can also be revealing. Recruiters regularly scour employer comment sites like Glassdoor and other social media. They can use this information to help executives understand which competitor business units are experiencing management, retention, and employer-branding issues.
  • Geographic expansion areas at your competitors — the easiest growth area to identify is geographic expansion. The regions where a competitor posts new jobs and the geographic locations mentioned in job descriptions will be a good indicator of regions where the firm is growing and investing.
  • Increasing the retention of your own employees — when you lose one of your own top employees, use your exit interview process to identify the firm they are going to, and which specific recruiter was successful in landing them. Knowing which recruiters are effective at poaching your employees can help your firm buildup its own recruiter-blocking efforts. And if you’re really aggressive, consider hiring away their best recruiters both for their talent and for their knowledge of how your competitors poach.

CI can also gather important information that can aid in recruiting

Some of the competitive intelligence information can aid your own firm’s recruiting.

  • Where your competitors are recruiting their new talent — knowing which firms a competitor targets when they recruit talent can be valuable to your own recruiting leaders and executives. It can help you identify which firms have the most desirable talent and which firms may be in trouble because top talent is leaving. Fortunately, LinkedIn can tell you where each your competitor’s new hires came from. Asking candidates from your competitors during your hiring process where else they applied can also provide an indication of the firms that the candidate considers to be on par with your firm.
  • Learn what your competitors are offering recruits — depending on your firm’s policies, it is also possible to purposely encourage a few of your loyal employees to interview at a competitor. This can give you a heads up about your competitor’s growth areas and what they are offering, compared to your firm. You can also gather valuable information by having your recruiters call their recruiters and pretend to be an applicant.
  • The effectiveness of recruiting efforts — some hiring managers at your firm make poor hiring decisions and reject top talent that would have done extremely well. In order to identify the performance of “missed talent,” over time your recruiters can use LinkedIn to track what happened to the top finalists that you rejected. See if any turned out to be wildly successful at other firms. You can also get an indication of the effectiveness of a competitor’s recruiting efforts by tracking how long their jobs are open. And you can get an indication of the quality of the candidates that they hire using LinkedIn profiles. Finally, a key component of your competitive intelligence gathering should also be a yearly competitive analysis comparing how your firm’s own recruiting capability stacks up against your chief talent competitors.

Final Thoughts

Businesses operate in a highly competitive environment. To increase their chances of success, a firm need “heads up” information covering what its competitors are planning. This advanced warning allows agile firms to counter or get ahead of those emerging business initiatives. Fortunately, the TA function can easily provide valuable information on a competitor’s product direction, hiring, retention, and management problems. As a result of providing this valuable information to executives, recruiting can enhance its status and its overall business contribution. This added contribution may even provide a degree of added job security for your in-house recruiters. Competitive intelligence information is even more critical during low-growth business periods when there is little actual hiring going on.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s Recruiting Conference in October in Washington, D.C.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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