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Try a New Hiring Framework to Attract Knowledge Stars

Traditional HR practices won’t suffice when firms seek to attract the sometimes quirky, and always necessary, idea people.

Bottom Line: Traditional HR practices won’t suffice when firms seek to attract the sometimes quirky, and always necessary, idea people.

In an era when change is constant and innovation prized, idea people are key drivers of modern business. These workers accumulate knowledge in a tacit fashion wherever and whenever they can, gleaning it from on-the-job and personal experiences, brainstorming sessions, and sometimes long hours in the office.

Accordingly, the skills of these prized “knowledge stars” aren’t readily transferable, replaceable, or easy to acquire on the open market. And although they don’t work in upper management — they are more likely to occupy positions such as data scientist, search engine optimization expert, or factory robotics specialist — they possess critical knowledge of how the firm works and regularly outperform their colleagues. They can be a quirky bunch, typically out-of-the-box thinkers who might be motivated more by the opportunity to express their creativity or the workplace culture than by a paycheck. They might work long or irregular hours, and their impact is more difficult to quantify than that of, say, a salesperson.

As specialized knowledge becomes more valuable, the ability to identify and hire knowledge stars will be game changing for many companies. But most HR departments are still using yesterday’s methods of searching for and screening potential employees for the jobs of today and tomorrow, a new study argues. And, according to the authors, that’s leaving companies at a disadvantage.

The authors undertook a review of the latest literature on the topic, and they suggest that several aspects of traditional hiring processes fail to account for the unique, often quirky nature of knowledge stars. For example, job ads that emphasize minimum qualifications or use too many specific keywords are likely to deter potential knowledge stars, who have a “particular set of skills” that can’t always be described fully in a brief posting. Similarly, the conventional practice of offering the lowest possible salary could turn knowledge stars away.

With this in mind, the authors propose a new hiring framework — one that is more dynamic and reciprocal than jumping through the current HR hoops — to aid firms in their search for knowledge stars.

The first step is identifying where knowledge stars provide the most impact along the firm’s value chain. This will be both firm- and industry-specific; some might need brilliant designers, others logistics experts.

As specialized knowledge becomes more valuable, the ability to identify and hire knowledge stars will be game changing.

The search process must begin not at the moment of placing a job ad for a certain open position, but months before that opening even occurs, especially in these high-value areas. Recruitment for these skilled workers must be a long-term, evolving process. This will mean that the time it takes to fill specific job openings will be shorter, a reversal of the traditional approach.

To find knowledge stars, companies need to get creative. HR should be involved in early action, using social media to build the firm’s credibility and appeal in the eyes of knowledge stars before any specific opening is announced. Executives must start to solicit feedback on possible future employees and referrals from key stakeholders — for example, important clients, colleagues at suppliers, or distributors who understand the firm’s challenges. Line managers need to become an integral part of the hiring process as well. For instance, a conversation at a trade show between a manager and a potential knowledge star could lead to that prospect talking up the firm to colleagues. This could both boost the firm’s reputation with a competitor’s workforce and help the potential star feel more comfortable joining the firm him- or herself.

As the authors note, Cisco recruited at unlikely places such as art fairs, home-and-garden shows, and microbrew festivals because the company realized that its employees went to those events, and that’s where it could find like-minded people. Facebook has used puzzles to discover innovative engineers, and firms as diverse as Google, Marriott, and McDonald’s all recruit return customers who might lack formal credentials but who are familiar with the company’s mind-set.

The authors write: “Recruiting outside of traditional venues or applicant pools represents architectural innovation that views recruiting as a bigger picture of ‘What kind of skills are we recruiting for the long term?’ rather than ‘Where can we find people who want to apply for an opening right now?’”

Once a position does become open, it’s important for line managers to work closely with HR to craft job descriptions that clearly lay out the skills that are most needed.

Adopting a short hiring time frame doesn’t mean abandoning commitments to diversity and seeking out the best candidates, and the authors stress that managers and HR departments should develop relationships with universities, minority advocacy groups, and trade organizations.

Finally, firms need to hang on to the knowledge stars they already have and further tap into their skills by creating internal systems in which workers share their best practices. Decentralizing decision making and emphasizing the importance of knowledge stars’ contributions have additional benefits: Doing so builds trust and makes these prized employees less likely to leave, and if communicated properly, signals to potential hires that their unique talents would be valued at the firm.

Studies indicate that millennials, in particular, want more than a paycheck — they want to feel appreciated and know they’re making a difference to the company. Courting individuals in the long term rather than simply filling slots in the short term is a way to appeal to that mind-set, which is becoming increasingly important — millennials are expected (pdf) to make up 50 percent of the workforce by 2020.

In short, the authors write, “the 21st-century search and screening processes must cease to be a series of linear hurdles to be leaped and instead must become more like pathways to the right positions.”

Source: “The Search for Skills: Knowledge Stars and Innovation in the Hiring Process,” by R.H. Hamilton (University of Mississippi) and H. Kristl Davison (University of Memphis), Business Horizons, June 2018, vol. 61, no. 3

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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