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Recruitment management system + alien life doesn't equal intelligent hiring

What's a smaller needle in the haystack, finding the best job candidate or discovering what planet hosts intelligent life? A theory on the use of data is argued and debunked.

Space, the final frontier -- even for an HR recruitment management system?

Well, there may be a connection if you believe the odds of finding that perfect job candidate are about the same as discovering intelligent life on other planets.

Let me step off the warp-drive pedal and tell you a story. Not so long ago, I struck up a conversation with a stranger and asked him what he was up to that day. He said he's heading to a bar near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and it wasn't just to have a drink.

"A bunch of us are getting together to discuss why the Drake Equation didn't work," the fella told me. "You know the Drake Equation, right?"

"No," I replied.

You may wonder what Drake's equation has to do with hiring practices in HR departments.

For those of you who are at a loss like me, the Drake Equation -- contrived by astronomer Frank Drake -- attempts to determine how many planets can support intelligent life based on factors such as water, suitable environments and the transmission of radio signals into space. The website of the SETI Institute -- a nonprofit organization whose investigators search for life in the universe -- provided a quick lesson about the concept.

Here's the actual Drake Equation, according to SETI:

N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L

N is the number of civilizations in the galaxy whose electromagnetic transmissions can be detected. The other letters represent a variety of factors, including the number of planets on which intelligent life could evolve.

Searching for distant signals

Now, you may wonder what Drake's equation has to do with hiring practices in human resources departments.

This formulaic exercise might seem light years away from the idea of a recruitment management system, except -- in my mind -- both the Drake Equation and HR technologies are using data to pinpoint something or someone "out there." So I floated my idea of a Drake-like approach to HR hiring past SETI's public relations department to see if any of the institute's researchers might have any thoughts -- and maybe even agree with me. A very pleasant communications person kindly passed along some responses from unnamed scientists who generally scoffed at my idea.

One researcher wrote of my, ahem, theorem that the Drake Equation and HR recruitment software "fall under the very general field of data science. [He's] trying to make a clever analogy, but it's a bit of a stretch."

Another SETI investigator offered me a little more hope: "The Drake Equation analogy is more like finding whether viable job candidates exist anywhere, rather than identifying specific candidates."

Let's bring it closer to home

There are plenty of companies not ready to debate the finer points of extraterrestrials or HR data.

I, personally, don't log into a recruitment management system when I need to hire an editor here at our publisher, TechTarget. I might get my hands on some of HR's phone-screening notes, check a candidate's story clips and come armed to the interview with a lot of questions. But in the end, I primarily rely on gut instinct to decide whether to give the interviewee a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

The idea of employing intuition didn't sit well with researcher Emilio J. Castilla, Nanyang Technological University professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and head of the Work and Organization Studies Group. "Many business leaders still make key decisions about their workforce based on intuition. ... But today's leaders can strengthen their people decision-making processes using people analytics," Castilla had said in an interview earlier this year on

He further stated that an important first step in hiring employees is determining what business factors a company hopes to improve -- e.g., bring more innovation to the business. From there, companies can use data to assess how well candidates meet those goals.

Based on all this gathered information, perhaps I should propose the "Wallask Equation," you guessed it, named after me. It would be something like the following:

NE = R x F

Here, hiring the perfect new employee (NE) equals the research (R) data about the candidate times the business factors (F) that need improvement. It's not quite E = MC2, but then again, it's all relative.

I suspect that my search to hire the perfect employee using the Wallask formula will produce the same result as the Drake Equation's near-60-year quest for extraterrestrial life -- so far.

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