Research comes of age

Research has become more than just providing names to fill immediate needs. As Colin Cottell found out, anticipating talent skills and building pipelines for the future are key for companies

February 2014 | By Colin Cottell


Research has become more than just providing names to fill immediate needs. As Colin Cottell found out, anticipating talent skills and building pipelines for the future are key for companies

When Simon Stephenson, joint chairman of the Executive Research Association (ERA), a global forum for talent intelligence and insight professionals, remarked to members at a recent meeting that “research used to be 25 ladies on bikes going around London having good lunches”, there was laughter around the room. 

However, Stephenson, also director of research firm Corporate Executive Research (CER), was making a serious point: that the nature of research has changed, and continues to do so at a rapid rate making it virtually unrecognisable from this dated vision of its past.

Grant Weinberg, director of talent acquisition Europe, Asia and Middle East at Gilead Sciences, neatly lays out the choices for in-house resourcers, who traditionally buy in research, either from individuals, search firms or specialist research firms. “You have to be clear: do you want somebody to just map the market and pass the list to your in-house recruiters, or do you want somebody who can also provide some information on the performance of those people? For Weinberg, the latter is the Gold Standard. “That is where I would like it to go,” he says.

While Gilead takes the view that research hasn’t yet reached this exalted state, he and Stephenson are in agreement on the direction of travel for a service traditionally associated with ‘the little black book’ of personal contacts, and filling specific role gaps on demand.  

Stephenson agrees that increasingly research is much more than the purely “transactional piece” of providing a list of names to fill an immediate need.

“It is also about anticipating future recruitment needs, building databases of future candidates, understanding what other companies are doing and how they are structured,” he says. Increasingly, Stephenson says that clients ask his members to carry out such tasks. “This is often followed up by being asked to do a proper recruitment project,” he adds.

Matthew Mellor, managing director of research-led headhunting and information company Armstrong Craven, says there is a link between the increasing focus on talent within client organisations and the types of services companies such as his provide. “We are increasingly providing insights and helping clients make better decisions about talent, to locate talent, what does it look like, what are their skills and aspirations.” 

Another increasingly common assignment is to compare clients’ employer brand against the market, he adds.

“Armstrong Craven is now involved in the talent planning cycle much, much earlier,” says Mellor. For instance, before deciding whether or not to put a shared service centre in Barcelona, he explains that a client might ask his firm to find out whether “they are going to able to find the skills there”. “It’s more of a consultative service. We would consider ourselves as leading a much more consulting-led service,” he says.

Asked to put a figure on how the role of his company has changed, he says, “50% of our work is helping clients at the point at which they have a role they need to fill. Five years ago, it was probably closer to 70%”.

Weinberg, whose company Gilead Sciences employs two or three researchers as part of its in-house resourcing function in the US, says that researchers can be used to improve decision making, including creating the optimum organisational structure.  

He explains that in specific countries, research projects can uncover a trend of unfilled roles within competitors, indicating a shortage of skills in the market. “We need to use this data to our advantage when considering our organisational design and not default to potentially chasing an empty talent pool,” says Weinberg.

Stephenson notes the rise of in-house researchers, as part of in-house resourcing function within large corporates, citing Centrica as an example, although he says this trend is “still not widely supported”. “A lot of companies are still uncomfortable about ringing up their competitors and asking their staff to come and join them,” he says.

Weinberg says that having an in-house research team can be useful in keeping “alive” lists of talent provided by external research. “My research team could add to it and delete from it, and continue to validate it, making for cost effective research tailored to our business needs. This avoids using the recruiter’s time inefficiently,” he says.  

In-house researchers are also expected to “build some sort of talent pipeline capability”. For instance, the researchers should be networking with the new hires building up new and fresh talent pools capturing data that might not be in the public domain.  

David Steel, client director at talent acquisition & insight solutions company Write Research, says that many of the changes to research in recent years are linked to the rise of the in-house recruiter, and their increasing focus on talent and talent management. With this, he says, has come a trend for workforce planning and for the development of talent pipelines. Clients now look up to 18 months ahead, and as a result the role of the researcher has changed. 

While, say, five years ago his role at Write Research was largely reactive, “now it is longer term, not just we have a hole to fill in our business”.

Steel adds that these days, working with clients is “a lot more collaborative”. In part, he explains this is made easier because the person on the client side is now more likely to have had recruitment experience than in the past. This has fostered the development of longer term-relationships with clients, often on a retained basis.

Indeed, Neil Purcell, global chief executive officer of talent sourcing, recruitment intelligence and employer branding solutions firm Talent Works International, says that for many clients, his company has “almost become an extension of those corporate organisations”. In doing so, the company has diversified into new services well beyond the usual definition of research, such as helping clients to target specific candidate groups. “Attracting candidates is high up on everybody’s agenda,” he says, with more emphasis on the passive candidate market, he adds. 

Jamie Newman, senior managing director at executive search firm Page Executive, agrees that client expectations of what a researcher should be expected to do are changing. Not only are they expected to identify people for a specific role, now they are involved in the preparation and information for client pitches, he says.  

Clients also often want to see the researcher’s list of candidates before the researcher makes any approaches. “A lot of clients are as equally networked” [as the researchers], says Newman, adding that clients “may want to preclude and include people themselves”. Clients are also much keener for researchers to keep them in the loop, he says. “Before it was ‘come back with a list in two or three months time’; now they want pretty high quality reports on a weekly or fortnightly basis.”

Just as client demands are driving what research provides, the economics of research is also a factor driving change. As Weinberg points out, using research firm or an individual freelance researcher to provide a list of candidates can work out far cheaper than engaging a traditional search firm.   

Where a search firm might charge £15k for its services, a research firm might only charge £5k, he says. And if the client hires two people from the list, the savings go “right to their bottom line”. However, Chris Molloy, CEO of niche pharmaceutical and life sciences executive search firm RSA, doesn’t see it this way, and extols the value of research within retained executive search. “There is still an absolute requirement for high quality human interaction to make the knowledge that you have up to date, relevant and ultimately useful,” he says. 

Another significant development is that researchers now use the internet, particularly LinkedIn, as a matter of routine. Techniques such as Boolean search, more usually associated with sourcers, are also becoming a feature, says Molloy. 

However, Sheana Dudley, MD of Research Direct International, says that despite the increasing use of technology, the human factor remains vital within research. “You can spend an awful lot of time on LinkedIn,” she says. “You might get 20 names for a role, but you need to talk to them to really know if they are right for the role.”

The ERA’s Stephenson agrees that despite the increasingly complex and varied demands being placed on researchers, the role of the researcher “is all based on the ability to have a conversation with someone”. That at least is unlikely to change.

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