Evolution of an Ecosystem: Talent Tech Then & Now

This month, host Bruce Morton welcomes Brian Delle Donne, president and cofounder of Talent Tech Labs, a research and advisory firm committed to fostering innovation, diversity, passion and opportunity through elevating state-of-the-art recruitment and talent technology. Together, they discuss the release of the Talent Tech Labs’ 10th Talent Acquisition Ecosystem. The conversation runs the gamut – from emerging areas, such as campus recruiting, talent intelligence and labor market intelligence, to macro-trends like platformization, consumerization of technology and talent management technologies to address the hire-to-retire continuum.
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Bruce Morton: Welcome to Subject to Talent brought to you by Allegis Global Solutions. Similar to you, we're always trying to learn more. On this podcast we speak to workforce and talent experts from around the world covering market trends, technology, and our ever-evolving dynamic industry.

Hi, I'm Bruce Morton, the host of Allegis Global Solutions' Subject to Talent podcast. Today I'm joined by my very good friend and foremost thought leader in emerging talent acquisition technology, Brian Delle Donna. Brian Is president of Talent Tech Labs. Welcome Brian.

Brian Delle Donne: Hey, really happy to be here, Bruce.

Bruce: Good. Thank you. So let's dive straight in. We like to kick off our podcast by getting to know our guest a bit. So if you don't mind, could you please just share your journey within the workforce solutions industry, how you got to where you are now?

Brian: Sure. So after an early career as an operating executive working in a global power generation company and then running an environmental services business, I was interested in the way work was being distributed on a flexible basis and that whole phenomenon got my interest. And so I looked into what that meant, and it actually led me to some staffing companies. And so a couple letters to CEOs, and I ended up landing in a publicly traded staffing company that was very inquisitive, this is back in 1998, and acquired a lot of companies, grew the business, had IT, engineering, healthcare, light industrial, and actually had the opportunity to try and move away from the commoditization that was going on around just T&M staffing and tried to move those businesses in the direction of project based services, allowed us to increase our margins and to grow the business and be higher on the food chain in terms of knowledge provided to our clients.

So after a good run there, moved to another staffing company that actually had built an early version of the VMS. And so a really early adopter of that sort of disruptive technology. And from there, actually sold that business, part of that business to Allegis back in the day, and then eventually ended up in a more boutique-y staffing company as an interim CTO, where I was being asked to sort of digitize the way that some of the more mundane parts of the workflows were occurring. And it was then that we decided to start Talent Tech Labs.

Bruce: Great, great, great. Well, quite the journey. So thanks for sharing that. Now we've been lucky enough to have Talent Tech Labs join on the podcast a while ago now, but for those newer listeners, can you just tell us about Talent Tech Labs and its journey since you co-founded the organization back in 2014?

Brian: Well, we were born out of a bit of frustration that the technologies that we were trying to apply to making a better candidate experience and a better recruiter experience just weren't panning out as promised, and so we pushed the pause button and started to look into what was going on with these emerging technologies. And we were just overwhelmed to find so many players coming into the market, many with names no one had ever heard of. And so we made it our mission to try and demystify and clarify the space by drilling into what these startups and early-stage companies were providing in the way of innovation, trying to vet to see what was really behind the screen, see if it worked as promised. And we made it our mission to try and bring clarity to the business. And so we've been on that same mission ever since.

In our earliest transition, we were vetting these companies with an incubation mindset. So we were actually incubating early-stage companies, but when we were getting calls from clients, the buy side, people that were buying these technologies, they didn't really want to hear about four guys in the garage. So we moved our incubator to being an accelerator. So we were actually then working with companies that had a little bit more funding, more established, more capabilities that could possibly scale to respond to the large enterprise or to staffing companies that were interested in solutions. Over time, we published stuff freely and sort of got this reputation as a thought leader, sort of being very focused on just talent acquisition technologies from sourcing to the point of hire.

Bruce: Right, yeah. Okay. So interesting how you shifted the business model there, so that incubation, as you say, four guys in the garage, or probably in your office in New York, but anyway, do you think there's still a need for that out there in the market? Did somebody else come in and take your place on that? Or did you think it wasn't a sustainable model in that way?

Brian: Well, we were competing at the time with other well-established incubators, Y Combinator, Techstars, had very progressive programs for bringing in entrepreneurs to help grow their businesses. We took a unique take on that. We stayed narrowly focused just on TA. And so that differentiated us because we had really deep domain knowledge that could help founders very quickly accelerate their product market fit and triangulate, save a bunch of development cycles to see if they really had a solution that could make a difference. I think what ended up happening though, is the other incubators started to get more focused. And so there are incubators today for just FinTech, and for healthcare tech, and now probably work tech more generally. So I think others have taken the space, but in this country, there's always been a very well-oiled infrastructure for promoting innovation and providing the funding mechanisms to help founders come up with good ideas to bring to market.

Bruce: Got it. Thank you. So, as that strategy pivoted there to more about giving advice to the corporates on the tech landscape, obviously the thing that you are very well known for is the Ecosystem taxonomy, which has been a massive value to the industry for many years now. But I think you're now on the 10th edition of that. Could you just share what the Ecosystem is and how its evolution over time actually reflected the changes in the industry?

Brian: Well, you're exactly right. We just released Ecosystem version 10, which is kind of a watershed moment for us. It started out by just on a whiteboard, actually in our lab with a bunch of sticky tabs as we were identifying these companies that had solutions in the space from source to hire, we just stuck tabs on the board, moved them around to arrange them, tried to figure out what the functionality they were bringing to market and what it could do. And first and foremost, the most important thing about establishing this Ecosystem is the taxonomy that it provided. It's a framework for understanding. And so by creating pretty clear definitions around what functional capabilities these tools bring and grouping them, we were able to bring clarity to what the vendors would claim that their silver bullet solved many, many things across the hiring continuum. We tried to drill in and figure out just exactly what they were making the impact on, dismissing a lot of the other bluster and just helping people understand the core functionalities that existed across this Ecosystem.

Unfortunately, this is a podcast. We don't have a visual to show, but it's easy to see on our website and we'll direct you to that later in the program. But it is basically a illustration of all the technologies that start across the hiring stages from source, engage, select, and hire. And they're broken down into sub-verticals, which are clusters of capabilities that companies would want to consider in building a tech stack of the future. To be able to recruit and to attract and develop candidates in today's environment. It's held up really well. The basic infrastructure of the Ecosystem itself looks largely the way it did when we started, but there's been a lot of additions and I'm sure that could be a whole discussion as to what came and went and what trends have actually been identified through that whole period of time. But it's been fascinating to observe and to call out.

Bruce: Great. So as we look at the- So the 10th edition out soon, as you said. At the end of the podcast, we'll that people know where they can go check that out. So how many companies are in there now and how many of these bubbles as you call them are there?

Brian: So right now, I think we're up to 39 sub-verticals, those that are bubbles. There's about 525 or 30 companies on it, but in Ecosystem 10, we actually took out 97 companies, but we added 84. So, the idea that it's slowing down is a misnomer. It's actually continuing at the same pace, maybe even more rapidly. As you well know, there's quite a availability of capital. And so people with good ideas are pretty easy to get funded. And in fact, that's part of the value we bring to the market, because it is so easy to stand up a company and to make claims that the noise that's created for the buyers, the people trying to construct strategy on how they want to recruit in the future really need to get some clarity around what are they trying to accomplish, and so we try to do that through this Ecosystem. In this version, there's been a couple of very material changes. And if you'd like, we can get into a couple of those.

Bruce: Yes, please do.

Brian: So all along for those versions one through nine, campus recruiting never really popped out on its own. It was just one of those things that was spread across almost all aspects of the hiring process, but COVID accelerated the need for employers to reevaluate the way that they were engaging with that population. And also the college students walking around campus didn't have a resume on paper that they could drop with the interview team. So, there's a big disconnect in the way that population was interested in engaging and the way companies had to adapt to be able to engage with them. And so we added a new bubble this time around that's called campus and early careers. And we don't draw a hard line between campus and early careers because it's really those kind of candidates that don't have deep resumes, where you're more interested in, will they have the propensity to learn? Will they be a good team player? And so you need to have some technologies or some way to assess if these candidates would be good workers, even though they don't have any work experience to base it on.

Bruce: So I guess measuring potential over experience in a way.

Brian: That's correct.

Bruce: Yeah.

Brian: Another new vertical, which is a whole new color code, is one that we include now called talent intelligence. And so this new vertical is made up of the sub-verticals social search, matching systems, resume parsing, and one that we call labor market intelligence. And so as you can tell from the names of these sub-verticals, these are places where you need intellectual systems to capture that data. And so you're seeing machine learning and you're seeing some artificial intelligence show up in this space in particular, because it is being used to be able to discern what we call talent intelligence. Finding people in the social networks, creating matches between their profiles and opportunities. Resume parsing has advanced from simply being able to parse a resume to now, most of those vendors have a more robust, actual matching capability.

And the labor market intelligence, there's always been those broad indices that people could cite pure labor and statistics and things like that. But today there's so many sources of data on the candidates, on the jobs that are available. And these new-age systems are scraping that, and not just presenting it back as a tabular bit of information, but actually drawing insights. And so companies now can use labor market intelligence to be much more well informed about where the candidates are, what the cost of those candidates might be, what the career trajectory to those people have been that led them to that place where they are today. So deep, deep insight can be gathered now, which before were just really not obvious.

Bruce: Yeah, that's a really, really exciting space. And as you're talking now, I'm thinking that you... Because you mentioned earlier that you started as talent acquisition, but I'm assuming now with things like talent intelligence, you're getting more into talent management as well. So you're going beyond the start date, if you like, beyond the hire.

Brian: Well, that's exactly right, Bruce. Not necessarily just because of talent intelligence. We did foresee that people would be looking at talent more holistically from the candidate stage to then an employee stage, and trying to figure out what do we need to do to advance and develop our workers. And so we saw talent as more of a continuum. And as a result of that, we basically initiated coverage of the talent management Ecosystem, if you will, at the beginning of last year. And we're about to go public with that in about a week's time, but you're going to see another Ecosystem system made up of bubbles similar to the ones that we have, but in the TM space, we call it the hire to retire continuum.

We have the segments of engage, evaluate, and develop. Those are the core principles that are happening within the employee life cycle. And so we see a number of the tool vendors that have been providing intelligence and insights in the talent acquisition space, moving upstream to providing that insight now on the workforce, people that are inside the enterprise already trying to bring out what are their skills? What do they want to do next? Are they mobile? How do they want to be upskilled? And so some of the solution providers that have existed in or started in TA are migrating into talent management.

Bruce: Yeah, we quite often say to organizations, take a look in the mirror and if it's easier for your worker, your employees to apply for a position outside your organization than it is internally, you've got something wrong. So I think there's probably some talent management tech that can help with that challenge. So, as we're talking, I'm thinking the audience are probably assuming that we are just talking about full-time employees here. How do you see Ecosystems stretching or merging into the non-employee extended workforce space?

Brian: Well, that's a great question. And in fact, one of the earliest things that was on our radar when we started Talent Tech Labs inside of a staffing company was this notion of these temporary labor marketplaces. These two-sided marketplaces that talent would come to and people with work would come to and there'd be matches made. And one of the things that was at the heart of why we started Talent Tech Labs is we didn't want the staffing industry to be caught out. And if these two-sided marketplaces turned out to be a disruptive entrance into the marketplace allowing enterprises to hire people around their agency relationships, we thought that would be really disruptive and something that we should call out. So we've for a very long time, have been focused on what some people refer to as the gig economy.

We think that's a pretty broad term, but it does technically include people that work just on particular gig. Maybe they work flexibly where they're part-timers that can come through a platform, all the way up to the people that you would hire on a contingent basis to come in and work through an agency, to full-time hires. And so we are seeing the work getting broken down, the job getting broken down into the work quotients, and now with the tools available and the way people are demonstrating they prefer to work, you can much more surgically go in and find an exact skill that you need just in time, match that with your need and not have to worry about all the baggage that went with the career that led you to the place to have that skill in the first place. And so it's allowing for much more fluidity between the people with the capabilities and the people that have needs to deploy those.

Bruce: Great. And as I think of Talent Tech Labs being sort of the fount of all knowledge in this space and is where you go if you want to know what the latest and greatest tech is and the trends that are coming out of that, but when your phone rings or your phone pings, what are the common challenges that organizations are reaching out to you for support and advice, I guess, beyond the bubbles, beyond the beautiful-looking Ecosystem?

Brian: Well, just the vast amount of choices of technology has tended to be one of the first things that they're calling us for. They're just overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of solutions that are in the space. Just trying to get a hand on where do I look, where do I even start? So that's a really primary driver, but when you start to listen to some of the challenges that we're hearing, they do come about recurrently. You hear them over and over again, but I'll never forget the very first one, it came from a very, very large social network, probably the largest social network and said, "Brian, we're about to push the button on another $5 million dollars of job advertising spend to get more candidates in, but I have 300,000 unopened resumes in our applicant tracking system (ATS). What's wrong with this picture?"

And it's a challenge like that when you start thinking about the compliance issues that are involved with reviewing a candidate as an applicant compared to, can you vet them before they're actually a candidate? I mean, so much has come to light when you start to really break down the functionality that you're able to accomplish with some of these technologies, but other common challenges are things like we don't have enough diverse candidates coming through our pipeline. We have a lousy candidate experience we're trying to solve for. We're sourcing hard to find talent. Where do we find it? There's not enough sources that we can tap into. Job advertising costs are off the charts. We're spending more, we're getting less yield. What do we do about that? People are dropping off pre-apply. What's wrong with my website? The whole area of high-volume recruiting is a really hard nut to crack right now where people are able to, in some cases, get a job on their phone with a few clicks and other employers are scratching their heads saying, "I can't recruit fast enough to come compete with that."

So this whole high-volume space is a huge challenge. And then a lot of clients are still stuck with their legacy tech stacks, and so it's an impediment to them moving forward and they just want to understand, do I scrap it? Can I use it? What can I bolt onto it to make it a better experience and more effective? So those are common challenges that we hear over and over again. And we're starting to see patterns in how we can respond and bring these companies along.

Bruce: Yeah, I want to get into that in a second in terms of what are those questions and challenges and the tech that's being created? What future is that painting? But just short of that, we've talking to all of our clients now, heck of a lot around talent anywhere. The concepts of, COVID has made us realize people can work from home more, the job doesn't have to be in Palo Alto, it can be anywhere. So are you seeing an emergence of tech in that taking advantage of that space or helping organizations navigate that concept?

Brian: It's a little early, but certainly the tools that have come into play that have facilitated work to happen from any place are getting really well funded. They're not particularly talent acquisition or talent management tools. They're more productivity and distributing work tools. Collaborative tools like a Slack or Teams or Zoom platform for being able to have face-to-face meetings when you're not in the same room. Many of these have use cases that have evolved to address how you recruit in a remote environment and also how you put people at work in a remote environment. We don't follow those tools specifically because we'd consider them to be more, like I said, productivity or facilitation-based, but they absolutely are in the market, and they're sort of the grease that's making this work.

Bruce: Right. And on a similar vein, back in the day, pre-COVID when I don't know, 20 years, organizations have been thinking about bringing in video interviewing and it never really took off. I think that all of us thought it would. And then all of a sudden everybody's video interviewing, but did organizations jump onto those platforms that have been trying to sell to them for 20 years? Or did they just use Teams and Zoom?

Brian: That's really funny. Video interviewing, when we started our Ecosystem, you could name two or three companies, but there were actually 66 or 68 companies that had video interviewing solutions. So it's actually a pretty mature area, but on the client side – the people that were doing the hiring manager interviews – they just never of really bought into the flexibility that this asynchronous capability presented them. And so even though the tools were quite mature and capable of not only creating an asynchronous environment, but asking knockout questions, having some software that ran behind doing assessments, it's never really caught on like those company developers had hoped. And so when COVID happened, the easy-to-use tools like Zoom and Teams became commonplace and they almost leapfrogged the sort of standard video interviewing tools.

I mean, they work in a pinch, but it's really more like a face-to-face interview, so they're not labor saving, and you don't have documentation from the interview. So how do you put it into an ATS? So the purpose builds video platforms had a real value, but I think it was largely overlooked. And now we're in a video world, but we sort of skipped over what those earlier platforms can provide.

Interesting though that you touch on that, because the video interviewing platforms as they matured, they were here early, they started to span out and capture more talent intelligence. And so if you look at some of the bigger video interviewing platforms, they've either acquired a bot to help with candidate experience and doing scheduling. Some of them have acquired or partnered with behavioral interview capabilities, behavioral assessment capabilities. And so now they're capturing not only the video and the oral communication that's going on, being able to rate that, but they have assessment tools that are bolted-on, built-in, and so they've actually spanned into much more of a talent intelligence play than just a simple video exchange.

Bruce: Yeah, that's a great point. Great point. Thanks for that. So thinking about the trends that you are seeing based on those new organizations that are popping up, the ones that are getting funded, what is the Ecosystem telling you from a future TA tech trend perspective?

Brian: I would say there's a macro-trend that we've identified that we're calling the platformization of talent acquisition. Right now like I said, there's 38, some odd bubbles, these sub-verticals, a lot of point solutions addressing very, very narrow use cases. It's almost impossible for a company or a recruiting team to swivel chair between that many of these applications. By the way, enterprises on average, large scale enterprises have about 14 and a half tools that they're running in their talent acquisition tech stack. That's on average. And so the idea that point solutions are going to go away is probably not a near reality, but we are seeing what we call platformization, which is sort of the aggregation of certain bits of functionality into what we would perhaps predict as maybe five pillars in the tech stack of the future. And so, just as an example, one of those pillars would be tracking systems.

So instead of just having your applicant tracking system, you'd also have your freelance management system. You'd also have, if there were a gig platform in your stack. So the tracking systems are an aggregation of functionality that's being accomplished now with many different point solutions. We also see then a system that's a system of engagement. And so this is where CRMs today, candidate relation management tools are, most present, but it involves the ability to then communicate and cultivate these talent pools.

So the system of engagement will be a different system, sort of a pre-apply where you're having ability to communicate with individuals, whether you know them by name or by IP address, but you have enough information that you can cultivate them and make them hopefully good candidates for you in the future. Marketing systems are all about the content that goes into cultivating those communities. And then we see a platform at the bottom that we call talent intelligence, and we have like the roof on the house, we call automation and analytics. So we see these five pillars, if you will, being the next generation of these 30 some odd point solution sub-verticals that we have illustrated today.

Bruce: It's really interesting because you and I haven't had that exact conversation before, but I'm just thinking that that's QuantumWork that we've been building in the last couple years, those five pillars describe it really well. So I'll definitely use that model in the future, thanks for that. So coming to wrapping up here, and we could talk about this all day and I hope people that listen to this just jump on your website and look at Ecosystem, because there's so much knowledge out there that I think is just incredibly valuable what you're doing for the industry and for organizations, but I'll come up with the tricky one here, the crystal ball. So you can pick a year in the future yourself, could be three, five, ten, whatever, but where do you think the industry will be as a whole? And what do you think the tech landscape, how will that differ in the future to what it is today?

Brian: Well, today we're still dealing with pretty big systems that are developed for a reason – oftentimes compliance-based – like your HRIS or your ATS are really systems that are not delivering the charm or the candidate experience or the user experience that people need and have become accustomed to through sort of the commercial consumerized technologies we have at our disposal. And so we see this evolving mostly through these innovative startups, either because they're going to span and grow themselves, or they're going to be acquired by those large platforms. But we do see a future that is candidate friendly, recruiter efficient, and data driven. On top of that, I would suggest that we're going to see a much wider acceptance of talent being viewed on an end-to-end basis from source, to hire, to retire.

And if you finally can embrace that concept, we do see that then there'll be an optimization play around how you create the relationships with that talent so that it doesn't have to fit in the boxes that we know today, a full-time contingent gig and flex. It'll be much more fluid and dynamic, and it'll give companies and individuals the opportunity to optimize how they work and how the companies deploy those capabilities.

Bruce: Great. Well, exciting times with you, Brian. Continue to enjoy our partnership, couldn’t be more valuable. So for those folks that are listening today, where can they go to find out about Talent Tech Lab and your Ecosystem itself?

Brian: Well, talenttechlabs.com is the website. Right there on the front page, if a popup doesn't hit you, you can look for the Ecosystem and download it, but I'd encourage you to download a supporting report. It's called the Explainer report. And I think we're offering it as a bundle. So you can download for free the Ecosystem itself, the infographic, but you get a 15- or 20-page report, which explains the latest trends in developments that made up Ecosystem 10. So we'd encourage you to have a look at that. And I think it's a good read, it's tremendous insight, and it's out there for anyone that has an interest. So hopefully you'll check it out.

Bruce: Fantastic. Thanks you Brian. Thanks again, really enjoyed the conversation.

Brian: Really enjoyed it, Bruce. Thanks for having me.

Bruce: Cheers.

Brian: Bye now.

Bruce: To learn more about AGS, please check us out at allegisglobalsolutions.com. You can also send questions for me or our guests just tweet us here at allegisglobal with a hashtag subjecttotalent or email us at subjecttotalent@allegisglobalsolutions.com. And if you enjoyed our podcast today, please subscribe, rate us and leave a review. Until next time, cheers.