In Search of
by Ian Ashworth
Managing Director, Ian Ashworth
Demand for top-level computer people with all-round
business acumen has never been higher, and with
commercially oriented data-processing (DP) specialists now
in the vanguard of key marketing developments, such as
cash-points and electronic point-of-sale, many firms are
resorting to executive search—head-hunting—to find "the
man or woman in a thousand".
A Head for Marketing
What has created this demand for the business-oriented DP
specialist? One reason is the shift in the role and status of
the DP department. Many such departments have moved
from their traditional administrative function to become an
integral element of the company's marketing strategy.
This has been most obviously manifested in the financial
services sector. As well as improving internal com-
munications systems, information technology has enabled
banks, building societies and insurance companies to
market entirely new financial services such as automatic
teller machines (ATMS), electronic funds transfer at point
of sale (EFTPOS) and, more recently, home banking.
As a result, there has been an unprecedented demand for
telecommunication and data-processing specialists who
also have a good head for marketing. Firms realise that these
people are essential to ensure that, once developed, the new
services made possible by technology are also successfully
marketed to the public. And it is computing and
telecommunications companies, not financial institutions,
that are proving to be the most fruitful source for such
In fact, this trend to bring the management information
services and DP expert "in from the
throughout industry. For the first time, companies are
asking—even expecting—their senior "computing people"
to contribute much more to decisions concerning business
strategy—and this may even mean board representation.
But high-calibre computing professionals with the business
acumen to contribute to such strategies are still exceedingly
scarce. Moreover, where their talents have already been
recognised, they are probably quite content and well paid
in their existing positions. So tempting such managers to
make a career move is no mean feat. US companies have
long since realised this and for a while have been using
alternative recruitment solutions, such as executive search,
to help them find senior management. The UK is now
beginning to follow suit.
But what is search and why should it be more effective than
conventional methods of recruitment? To answer this we
need to look at the alternatives. The "grapevine" or "old boy
network" approach, for example, is used by the company
itself, from what it thinks it knows of the availability of such
executives—a quick telephone
followed by lunch and
your man or woman is appointed. But it is impossible for
such a "hunch-based" method to give an objective view
of the real market.
Advertising, on the other hand, would appear to be more
It is certainly lengthier—applications have to be
carefully processed—and therefore more costly on
management time than the "grapevine" method, but, in
theory at least, it should be more effective.
However, whilst advertising may be suitable for filling easily
defined vacancies, it is far less suitable for the more complex
positions which cannot be described properly in a few
paragraphs of advertising copy. This is likely to be the case
for senior or unusual appointments. Moreover, advertising
only tends to reach those who are active job seekers and
thus either unhappy or unemployed—not perhaps the best
people for your company.
Much the same applies to "contingency agencies"—so called
because the fee payable is contingent upon placement
(typically ten to 15 per cent of salary). This method, like
advertising, does at least spread a wider net, and is clearly
more objective than hiring simply from one's own range of
contacts. And because these agencies tend to specialise in
certain industries, for example, electronics, computing,
advertising, they do build up extensive registers of personnel.
But whilst such agencies try to assess their candidates face
to face, their commitment is essentially passive. Unlike
they do not actively go out and look around the
market, but instead, wait until people present themselves
at their door. Consequently, their candidates, as with
advertising, tend to come either from the ranks of the
dissatisfied or the unemployed. Nor, as a rule, do such
agencies have the imagination or the skill to assess senior
managerial candidates outside narrow specialist fields.
Moreover, such agencies often rely on responses to other
vacancies to swell their list of candidates. Thus clients tend
to get only a minimal filtering of applicants.
IMDS • JANUARY/FEBRUARY • 1987 17