Nicholas Barton
over 6 years ago by Nicholas Barton


In this age of ever-accelerating competition, all organisations are under pressure to be ‘mean and lean’, to be as efficient as possible and to keep costs down to an absolute minimum. So, of course, the promise of advances in technology relating to talent sourcing to help achieve this are highly attractive. Why, for example, engage an obviously over-priced recruitment consultancy when an online platform powered by increasingly intelligent algorithms can do the same job at a much lower price?

So, as the head of an international recruitment firm specialising in the strategy consulting arena, both external and in-house, it’s logical to assume that I must be experiencing more than a few sleepless nights as I face being consigned to the dustbin of history by the rise of the robots.

Except I’m not.

Not because I am one that fears technology, far from it, instead it’s because I’m convinced that, at least for the foreseeable future, the most effective approach to senior level recruitment will remain one that’s continues to require that human touch.

But I would say that wouldn’t I? So, let me back it up with a little more robust argument.


First of all, can I perhaps surprise you by saying that I believe online selection platforms have a major part to play in the recruitment sector and can deliver real value for their users? There are perhaps, because the barriers to entry are so low, still too many based on optimism rather than hard science, but the best with their genuinely rigorous algorithms are already showing a potential to revolutionise the way that organisations hire people. However, where the value is being delivered is in high-volume areas where the machine can automate a process which otherwise can be enormously time consuming (and monotonous) for the hirer and which, if not handled properly, has the potential to damage, not only the organisation’s employer brand, but even its overall brand offering. Automation, particularly if it is underpinned by genuine AI, or at least effective machine learning, can also help to minimise any unconscious bias on the part of hirer by breaking the role and the candidate’s CV into a set of skills and capabilities and then carrying out an objective match.

But while this sort of automation can work well at the more junior and consequently less business-critical level, does it really have a place in the sourcing of senior talent, particularly in an area like strategic consulting where the potential effects of getting the wrong person on board could be serious for the business, if not downright catastrophic? Despite the understandable enthusiasm of the technologists, we are still a long way off developing any form of robot that truly understands the human psyche as effectively as another human. We are equally as far distant from being able to field a robot that can immerse itself in the culture of a hiring organisation and grasp what sort of new hire will gel, not just from a purely technical point of view, but in that always elusive emotional intelligent way with the existing team. In this context surely the optimum approach, at least for the foreseeable future of senior talent sourcing, must be a partnership of human and machine, a combination of science and art.

In fact, a recent McKinsey study found that while there is no doubt that automation is growing, just pushing technology to its fullest extent because we can is not always the most desirable approach. “How automation affects employment will not be decided simply by what is technically feasible which is what technologists tend to focus on,” says the report.  I wholeheartedly agree - just because driverless cars are a possibility doesn’t mean that everyone wants to drive them!  And in a more sinister example, recent research by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics has found that programmes designed to preselect candidates for university places are inherently sexist and racist. Extrapolate that to the hiring process and the ramifications are unthinkable!

It’s why, for example, that we at The Barton Partnership are always keen to embrace new sourcing technology, but at the same time still make our greatest investment in the people that we hire for ourselves – a mix of highly experienced strategy recruitment professionals with extremely credible track records and former Tier One strategy consultants with front-line experience of firms, such as Bain, BCG and McKinsey. Practicing, if you like, exactly what we preach.


The other reason why I believe the ‘human touch’ will remain vital in the hiring process comes from our day-to-day experience of dealing with many of the most talented, ambitious and successful professionals in the strategy consulting arena.

Until we can develop a robot that can genuinely pass the Turing test and be indistinguishable from a ‘real’ person then dealing with a technological interface is likely to feel in some way second best. If you are at the top of your game and your services are in high demand, then why would you settle for this?

It’s a simple fact that the people we work with rightly expect more than just some algorithmical match to a career move or a new assignment. They want to interface with something that will take the time and trouble to try to understand them as a person rather than as a set of capabilities and restrictions. They want to be able to discuss their immediate requirements and long-term aspirations, the context of their family or social lives, the nature of the environment that suits them best, the type of challenge that gets them out of bed in the morning, what is realistic and achievable in the consulting marketplace both domestically and internationally. And, at least for now, the kind of machine that does that particular job best is still made up of flesh and blood.

And, consequently, if you don’t make use of that particular machine, then the very best talent in strategy consulting, the talent that can make all the difference between success, stagnation or failure, will quite simply pass you by.