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  • Writer's pictureBen Jackson

Applicant Tracking Systems – the lost art of system administration

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

I’ve spent years working with applicant tracking systems, first as a recruiter, then as a buyer and now as consultant. I’ve always been struck by just how few recruiters and TA Directors love their ATS. But it seems to me that, at least in more complex organisations, there’s an issue related to the success (or otherwise) of every ATS that no one seems to be keen to discuss: system administration.

I appreciate this may not be the most exciting choice of topic for a blog post, but here’s how I see it working at the moment. Employer needs new system. Employer scours market for something suitable, but – let’s be honest – they all claim to do broadly the same thing. So often it comes down to recommendations from peers or trusting a particular sales person / pre-sales team.

The system is bought and the employer goes into implementation. An internal project manager is assigned, who is usually a member of the recruitment or recruitment operations team, but may be a non-HR project management resource or even an external consultant (like us, for example).

System is implemented. Project is closed down. Project manager returns to day job. And at some point over the next months / years, the system goes from hero to villain. And so the cycle repeats.

So what’s the problem? Well, folks, this might be an unpopular opinion but I don’t think it’s the systems themselves. Far from it, in fact. Each has its own idiosyncrasies and I’ve not yet come across an application that was perfect, but most systems designed post-2010 (ish) are pretty well thought through bits of technology.

No, the issue, as I see it, is a lack of systems administrators and / or understanding of the role of a systems administrator.

Obviously some larger recruitment teams have recruitment operations functions with stand alone systems administrators within them. Which is great. But many don’t, and the role of systems administrators becomes a side-of-the-desk job for a recruiter. Now I have all of the respect for recruiters, who do a very challenging job with great skill, but people don’t typically get into recruitment to spend their time managing recruitment systems.

If you are fortunate enough to have a dedicated systems administrator, do you actually know what they do? And be honest, now: do you care?

Let me give you a bit of insight here. Here’s a situation that came up a couple of days ago. The systems administrator at one of our clients was asked to add a data field into the system we have just implemented. The field sits at the offer stage and asks “Is this person an existing employee of X?” It’s a Yes / No answer.

From a system perspective, simples. A five-minute job, if that. But then we have to:

  • Communicate the change to the users (in this case HR Shared Services) so that they know a) that the field now exists and b) that they need to complete it in all cases

  • Put together a short how-to guide that can be used by any new / future users

  • Update the process flow diagrams that depict all elements of the current, agreed process

  • Update project trackers to show that we have made the change, who did it, who requested it and when

  • Test that the field works and that the associated integration into the client’s ERP system is drawing through the data from the field

And so on. None of this is difficult, but if it’s not done, then you can see how easily things could go awry.

Someone has to do all this stuff. That someone is a systems administrator. The fact is that if this kind of work doesn’t get done, and done thoroughly, then slowly but surely your teams will lose engagement with the system and the blame thrower will once again be dusted off and pointed at the ATS.

It may not be a sexy job, but the role of systems admin is so, so important for the long-term health of your ATS and – by extension – your entire recruitment function. Can you afford to overlook it?

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