No Place Like Home

A new wave of tech innovations promises to make it easier for companies to find internal talent.
By: | November 7, 2017 • 10 min read
internal candidates

When a new millennium arrived and the Internet became pervasive in the modern workplace, it didn’t take long for online entrepreneurs to realize there was a huge and lucrative potential market in tempting the employee of the 21st century with greener pastures at a different job.

Beginning with online job boards and progressing quickly to the all-encompassing LinkedIn — which, following its launch in early 2002, evolved into a kind of online dating service for restless executives who posted their resumes and connected instantly with outside recruiters — the Internet has surely helped spur a sharp decline in workers’ loyalty to one company.

That’s why it’s surprising that top corporations waited so long to realize they needed to build their own social networks — promoting career pathways and outside-the-box yet enticing job opportunities in-house, and not at some competitor down the road.

“We were looking at the HR landscape and we realized that — especially in a world dominated by LinkedIn and Indeed and CareerBuilder and all these external job-hunting sites — your employees are finding it really easy to step out the door tomorrow, and yet companies aren’t being competitive with their own internal resources,” says Joseph Quan, founder of a New York-based start-up called Twine Labs, which produces a tool designed to help HR executives widen their pool of internal job applicants.

Quan and Twine Labs are part of a new, if belated, movement to bring the allure of LinkedIn to the company intranet, to excite workers about internal job openings or help human resource executives identify promising candidates to entice for those jobs — with the broader goal of helping to convince ambitious and restless millennials that when it comes to career advancement, there’s no place like home.

An “Unsolved Problem”

Quan — who soured on a promising career in Silicon Valley and left to earn an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — knows his generation’s dilemma first-hand. While still a student at Wharton, he teamed with classmate Nikhil Srivastava to develop an app initially intended to help other students, and possibly workers at large companies, find others with common interests. But when the two entrepreneurs showed their technology to business executives, they learned that what companies really wanted was a tool to help make the internal hiring process better and more dynamic by broadening the pool of candidates for key promotions.

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“People who move around [within a firm] usually stay longer — not just because of the pay bump but they’re more fulfilled and getting more exposure across the company,” says Quan, whose Twine Labs had already connected with top firms such as Nielsen Holdings, the entertainment rating company, even before he and Srivastava earned their MBA degrees this spring.

It’s not hard to understand why there’s sudden demand for any solution that would improve the internal mobility process — the trend of young executive company-hopping talent not only drains the pool of future C-suite leaders but costs countless millions in recruiting and training costs for replacements.

Most experts believe today’s high-potential employees are more prone to hop between companies in the search for career fulfillment, especially at the dawn of their career. One recent study — ironically, by LinkedIn — found that while people who graduated high school between 1986 and 1990 worked for an average of 1.6 companies in the five years after they graduated, that number had doubled to 2.85 firms for those who graduated between 2006 and 2010. Few believe that Internet job sites are completely to blame, but most agree it’s a factor.

Even as most companies eagerly lure rising talent from the outside, there’s a growing awareness of the benefits of grooming future leaders from within. Money is a big part of that — some experts suggest it costs as much as $40,000 to bring in a new executive and train her in her new environs — but there are other intangibles, not least of which is a growing awareness that rising executives who feel they’re doing exciting things and learning new skills en route to the C-suite are happier and more productive than those who spend their afternoons job hunting on their laptop.

“This is an unsolved problem where we didn’t have the right technology,” says Josh Bersin, the founder of Deloitte Consulting LLC’s Bersin by Deloitte unit, based in Oakland, Calif. Bersin tells the story of one client, a large U.S. health insurer, that recently complained about losing the head of one of its largest business units to a rival across the street after the competitor dangled the same job he would have earned, albeit in two or three years, had he stayed. The goal now, Bersin says, is finding ways to make rising business leaders feel they have more control over mapping a career path.

That sounds relatively easy, but Bersin and other experts note there are deep institutional barriers to making internal hiring more open and democratic. The idea of using Big Data and technology to identify internal jobs candidates — sometimes from unlikely units of the company, or even overseas — is highly disruptive to the so-called “old boy networks” that historically held sway. Conversely, managers may be reluctant to easily let their top performers leave for a different department.

Big Blue Promotes Mobility

Officials at tech giant IBM acknowledge facing steep cultural resistance when they laid the groundwork for the 2015 launch of its computer-based internal-mobility effort called Blue Matching, a play on the firm’s long-time nickname of “Big Blue.” They say they convinced managers that it’s better to lose a valued employee to another IBM unit than to an outside competitor, and that they’d be gaining some desirable transfers from inside the company, not just losing their favored underlings.

Anshul Sheopuri, an IBM Distinguished Engineer and director of people analytics and cognitive offerings, says that the key goal in designing Blue Matching was to develop a function that would empower employees and use state-of-the-art data about workers’ resume, passions and abilities to recommend job openings, which occur frequently in an international behemoth that employs 380,000 people.

“Often, they may not know whether a job is the right fit,” says Sheopuri, so the algorithm aims to encourage employees to take more risks, to possibly pursue choices in other areas of Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM. The program is something of a logical step for the pioneering computer firm, since Blue Matching is a kind of a calling card for Watson, its cognitive computing system that combines Big Data with advanced reasoning to make informed recommendations, even intuiting skills that a worker might not have listed on his or her initial job application.

IBM officials say that despite the initial resistance, Blue Matching has been a success in its two-year run, with more than 1,000 employees finding jobs through the program and its participants three times more likely to apply for an internal position than non-participants. Nevertheless, Sheopuri says, the operators of Blue Matching are constantly striving to make the program more employee-friendly — surveying participants, for example, to learn if they want to receive job listings monthly, or weekly, or even more frequently. “A lot of people wanted more functionality,” Sheopuri says.

Hungry for Transparency

Much of the new wave of HR technology targeting internal mobility — whether from big corporations such as IBM or a small handful of boutique start-ups — focuses on one of two approaches: Either helping employees chart their career course or aiding HR leaders by generating lists of candidates from across the firm when an opening arises.

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