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Ep 539: Building TA Technology Strategies


The amount of technology available to TA teams has exploded, and innovation is moving so rapidly that it is almost impossible to keep up. In a world driven by shiny objects syndrome taking a long-term strategic view when it comes to TA technologies is crucial. However, the challenges around this are considerable and are not just about the amount of choice. TA leaders need access to specialist skills to help them make the right decisions and, simultaneously, need to ensure their voice is heard within the business around tech procurement.

My guest this week is Rob Cohen, TA Ecosystem Manager at Philip Morris International. Rob has the kind of role I can see becoming more common in TA Teams in the future. He is a genuine technology expert who sits outside the IT function and is responsible for all the technology that touches candidates and helps recruiters do their job. Rob has some fascinating insights on technology strategy, TA tech stacks and the AI-driven future, making this an absolute must-listen interview.

In the interview, we discuss:

• The importance of Talent Acquisition, owning its own tech

• Skills and stakeholders

• Translating business needs into tech requirements.

• Being strategic with technology, not tactical

• Dealing knowledgeably with vendors

• Open AIs

• Using systems for what they are designed for

• Platforms versus point solutions

• The complexities of operating globally

• Is there such a thing as a perfect TA tech stack?

• The current and future role of AI

• Personalized recruiting automation

• The future role of the TA team

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.


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Recruiting Future
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Matt Alder (Intro)
Hi there. this is Matt Alder Welcome to Episode 539 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. The amount of technology available to TA teams has exploded, and innovation is moving so rapidly that it is almost impossible to keep up. In a world driven by shiny objects syndrome taking a long-term strategic view when it comes to TA technologies is crucial. However, the challenges around this are considerable and are not just about the amount of choice. TA leaders need access to specialist skills to help them make the right decisions and, simultaneously, need to ensure their voice is heard within the business around tech procurement.
Matt Alder (Intro)
My guest this week is Rob Cohen, TA Ecosystem Manager at Philip Morris International. Rob has the kind of role I can see becoming more common in TA Teams in the future. He is a genuine technology expert who sits outside the IT function and is responsible for all the technology that touches candidates and helps recruiters do their job. Rob has some fascinating insights on technology strategy, TA tech stacks, and the AI-driven future, making this an absolute must-listen interview.
Matt Alder
Hi Rob and welcome to the podcast.
Rob Cohen
Good afternoon.
Matt Alder
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Rob Cohen
Thank you for having me, Matt. I’m Rob. I work for Philip Morris International and my job title is TA Ecosystem Manager. And essentially what that means is I own from a business point of view, all technology that recruiters and candidates interact with in order to do their job.
Matt Alder
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone with a job title like that before. Give us a — how did that come about? How did you end up in that kind of role? Give us a bit of background to it.
Rob Cohen
So I guess I’ve kind of fallen into this role. And you are right in that. I think I’m a rarity and certainly a luxury for organizations to have. Essentially, I am a deeply technical person. I come from a computer science background, but I have a passion for all things candidate and talent acquisition and I have done for the best part of 12 years. And essentially it’s about bringing my lens of subject matter expert and technical knowledge to the business table. So I sit within the business. I don’t sit within our IT function or anything like that. I’m very much a business stakeholder and my responsibility is to give my stakeholders i.e.
Rob Cohen
Talent acquisition, HR, and candidates the best experience that we can offer globally whilst remaining legal and all of that other kind of good stuff.
Matt Alder
That’s really interesting because I’m sure this is a role that many people listening will think that they might need in their organization or their planning to have in all in their organization. How important is it for TA to sort of own their own technology? I mean, what you mentioned, your sort of computer science background. What skills are needed, and how do you kind of manage the other stakeholders in the business, the other departments that have a interest in the technology you’re using?
Rob Cohen
I think that whilst my role title and kind of that description is pretty rare. I think organizations do have equivalence of me in some shape, form, or size. They’re often the most experienced recruiters or they’re someone that’s played with different systems and understands how process works. I think it’s unusual to have someone that’s solely responsible for a process and experience point of view and alongside technology. And for me, the business owning the technology is absolutely critical. I think we see too many times where IT make decisions on behalf of talent acquisition or HR, and you end up with this, well it chose that product.
Rob Cohen
So that’s why we have it and it hasn’t gone through the business lens. I’m really keen that the recruitment voice is heard on the technology kind of landscape. I have ownership and responsibility to make sure my stakeholders get heard by our IT teams, our InfoSec teams. I work with our legal teams across the business to ensure that actually what recruiters want to do is possible within our landscape and that we are legal and allowed to do it. and I think in terms of skills that are needed, I often joke that I’m kind of, I’m a technologist with personality.
Rob Cohen
I don’t sit in a dark basement coding away. I’ve never been paid to write a line of code. But as I said, I am a deeply technical person. So I’m very comfortable interacting with vendors, technical integration teams, whatever that may be. Alongside my own kind of single sign-on or other integration teams that may be working together to try and bridge that gap between technology and business. So I think, the core skill I have is being able to translate business requirements into technical specifications and equally vice versa. Explain to my business stakeholders that something may not be possible because the technology is limiting, but actually explain it in terms of language that they’ll understand rather than kind of say the algorithm won’t let it happen type thing.
Matt Alder
Absolutely. So very complex time in terms of available technology on the market adaptations, the evolution of the recruitment process, there’s a huge amount going on. How do TA leaders ensure that what they’re doing, they’re implementing and optimizing strategically rather than just acting in a tactical way?
Rob Cohen
I think up until recently most talent acquisition leaders didn’t or don’t have a me or don’t have someone that remains relevant and up to date with how technology is going. And they’re often sold products by vendors that say, “We are the greatest XYZ doer. And we’ll fast-track your process and we’ll bring efficiency and cost savings.” And while a lot of these things are true, you end up with a platform that is as you’ve said, kind of gap-filling. You are not strategically implementing anything. You are not looking at the bigger picture but you are often solving for a problem that doesn’t necessarily exist.
Rob Cohen
And I think it takes someone like me or someone that can step back from the process. And as I said, I’ve never written code but equally I’ve never been a recruiter either. To look at the process and say, “Hold on from an end-to-end point of view, what is it that we are trying to achieve? Is it that we are trying to cut down time to hire? Is it that we’re trying to increase our quality of hire?” And understand what metrics we’re chasing and holistically look at that from an end-to-end point of view and don’t try and get, I don’t know, someone that’s really good at generating documents to do contracts because it may not talk to your main system in the way you want to. And you end up kind of with a hodgepodge of different solutions.
Rob Cohen
And I appreciate that’s possibly a little bit misleading because I’m also a big believer in letting the best technology provider play its part. And I think over the last few years actually with the insert of open APIs coming into our space and systems being much more adaptable to talk to each other does mean you can have a bit of a hot-swappable environment where you can take the best of breed for each different part of the process. But actually, I think, if you look at it end to end, there are some suppliers out there. In fact, there are a lot of suppliers out there that are extremely good at a lot of things and that means you have less gaps to fill rather than having this big monster of systems that you need to manage with multiple integrations.
Matt Alder
So I guess it’s kind of having that deep understanding of the functionality that’s available in the systems that you have and how that can help you achieve your objectives?
Rob Cohen
Correct. And I’m a big believer in using systems for what they were designed for rather than trying to bend them to fit your process. And I think again, a lot of large enterprises will buy an ATS or they’ll buy a CRM that suddenly becomes this all things of everything. And it’s actually, it’s a great product to start with, but because of the way you’ve bent and customized it, it actually turns into a, again, a bit of a monster that’s difficult to manage. So, if you end up looking at your processes and what you really want to achieve. If you can achieve 80 to 90% of everything from a one-box solution and just dial into those really key strategic pieces from other platforms, I think you are really onto winning and that’s when you can be strategic because you’re thinking from a long-term point of view.
Rob Cohen
You’ve got a core platform that kind of hub and spoke, everything else comes off it. But actually, you are much more empowered to make smaller tweaks and changes that can have real great results rather than having to change in three or four different downstream systems.
Matt Alder
And how does operating in a global organization increase the complexity of what you do?
Rob Cohen
There are a lot of mornings that I get up and I think, I wish I just had stakeholders in a single geography. Being global, introduce some real complications. And unfortunately, a lot of the time what it actually means is you have to take a minimum baseline level. And if we’re talking about things like data privacy, countries like Germany set the tone on that, then actually I’m not allowed to store candidate data for longer than six months after an action has been taken. And a lot of smaller suppliers don’t tend to give me the customization of being able to do that on a per-country basis.
Rob Cohen
So six months becomes the baseline. And then I have recruiters coming to me saying, “Well, in the US we’re allowed to hold data for two years. So, I’d really like to do that.” We equally have rules and legislation coming in about the use of artificial intelligence and how we can manage that cross border and cross geographies is posing some real challenges. And I guess even small things like introducing SMS text messaging to candidates, which a lot of companies can do relatively easily. It’s a great tool. We know open rates are seriously high on SMS. But actually what phone number do you choose to use? Do you choose to use a Swiss phone number because that’s where we’re headquartered knowing that most of your candidates are likely to ignore that based on the fact that they’re not in Switzerland?
Rob Cohen
And it poses a lot of kind of minute complexities that added up together really kind of bring down process, as I say, to a minimum baseline of what you are able to do. And geographies often suffer because one country has disallowed it. We take the stance that we will go with the harshest and apply that globally. And whilst that’s not necessarily the perfect solution, it is a solution that makes sure we stay legal.
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Matt Alder
Going back to what you were saying about hubs and spokes and using technology strategically, the whole notion of a tech stack, it really sort of started to be talked about in TA possibly three or four years ago. But kind of based on what I’m seeing and also based on what you just said there, I think very often it’s less of a tech stack and more of a list of software that we are using. Is there such a thing as a perfect tech stack? How’d you get all these things kind of working together? What’s your sort of view on that?
Rob Cohen
It’s interesting as you say, I think it’s probably a phenomenon of the last couple of years. It hasn’t been around forever. I think historically in large enterprises people had an applicant tracking system and they posted jobs and candidates applied and that was that. And I think about 10 years ago or so, the advent of C R M came along and changed a lot of things. And incidentally, that was very business driven. I don’t think there was technology drivers behind that. A lot of head of recruitments went to their stakeholders and said, “We need a CRM because we need to start maintaining relationship.” And then that CRM became an onboarding platform and then recruitment had involvement for exit management and various other HR processes because these CRMs were so good at doing what they were doing.
Rob Cohen
And I think in terms of a perfect tech stack, I like the analogy you just mentioned and I think, I’d rather call it kind of a toolbox than a tech stack. Because generally enterprises still have a need for an applicant tracking system. We are never going to get away from that. We need to process candidates along a workflow of some sort. And I think if you have that at the core of your thinking, you are essentially bolting in tools with other vendors. For example, reasoning tests, or video interviews, or coding challenges. And those are tools that are part of that candidate process along their workflow journey.
Rob Cohen
Is there such a thing as a perfect tech stack? Absolutely not. Every single company and industry is vastly different. I operate in what we call a or what PMI calls a five-segment industry. So we have early careers manufacturing operations, normal hires, management hires, and executive hires. And I’ve gotta have a solution that meets all five of those segment needs. And to have that come out of a single stack I think is asking a lot for any vendor.
Matt Alder
No, absolutely, absolutely. But what about, you mentioned sort of artificial intelligence in terms of, in the context of legislation earlier. How does AI change the game when it comes to TA technology? What’s gonna happen? What is happening?
Rob Cohen
This is fascinating and we’re seeing it a lot with a lot of vendors that are coming to the table with some amazing stuff. I remember even in 2014 talking to vendors about things like match scores and how likely people were to stay in the role they currently have. We now have this concept of AI. And unfortunately, I think to the detriment of some vendors, they’re throwing it round as AI and any technologist does know that it is artificial intelligence. But actually, a lot of it is on the natural language processing side of things. So it’s digesting information that a candidate is, it is providing. And converting that into usable data.
Rob Cohen
So it’s extracting things like skills, experience, knowledge, how long someone’s been in the workplace for? And coming up with a match skill against a candidate to suggest that actually, a candidate is a right fit for a job. Ultimately, it’s not really AI that’s coming up with that scoring, but it is AI that’s responsible for the extraction of that information and that data. And this is going to be phenomenal because the AI is as powerful as the kind of metrics behind the matching score. But if you have a high degree of control over saying what you think a good candidate looks like you can now search a database pretty quickly to get those match scores out.
Rob Cohen
So, that’s kind of the first piece is understanding how good a potential candidate is to a match versus an existing job. But equally, we have generative AI coming along, which I appreciate. No one had heard of ChatGPT before about September last year. And now that’s changing massively. We are seeing AI being used for writing of job adverts and getting those grammatically and the tone of voice absolutely correct. We’re also seeing AI being used for translations of those. So we can now attract candidates in countries particularly we’d never been able to before because we didn’t know how to write an IT project management job advert in say Korean for example.
Rob Cohen
And I can output that very simply and retain the tone of voice with generative AI within a matter of mouse clicks now. I think this is where it’s getting exciting is with content production and with how we align candidates to the right job.
Matt Alder
So as I mentioned before, huge amounts of change going on in terms of both process and technology. How does the innovation in these two areas, how does that change the role of the TA team?
Rob Cohen
I ultimately see it as my responsibility to keep myself relevant. I’m often analyzing the market or speaking to colleagues and counterparts to understand kind of what’s hot and looking at it in a two to three-year window of innovation. The innovation recently and particularly driven by COVID has been huge. The way organizations are recruiting it has changed drastically in terms of we are not looking for the same type of profiles we were looking at for in 2019. And actually, the role of the TA team has had to adapt somewhat in terms of what they’re looking for. But I’ve kind of always traded on, my thing has always been that technology should allow recruiters to recruit.
Rob Cohen
And for me, that’s about building relationships with their business partners and becoming that point of contact and real kind of client management of their stakeholders. And should be able to not have to do the admin and there shouldn’t be 35 mouse clicks to get a job published and we shouldn’t need to have to go through ridiculous hoops in a system to organize an interview. And I think if technology is the enabler then the role of the recruitment team is very much to build and maintain the relationships with their hiring managers. And they can recruit, they don’t need to be system experts.
Matt Alder
So final question and maybe a kind of a summary of what we’ve been talking about. Where is this all going? You know, looking out those sort of two to three years, what can we expect to see from, what do you hope we can see from talent acquisition in the future?
Rob Cohen
I’d like to hope that we end up with real personalized automation. So, again, recruiters aren’t clicking through to get a candidate from screening to offer and there should be some real personalized automation going on. I spoke not so long ago at a conference about how actually with early careers and high-volume applications, we can almost get a candidate to offer within 48 hours. And the first time they interact with a human being is when they walk in for an assessment center with us. Everything else prior to that has been automated and it’s been fair and it’s been recognized and it’s the right thing to do.
Rob Cohen
And rather than rejecting candidates that didn’t meet our required standard. We’re actually fast-tracking those who exceed our standards. And that’s the way to look at it from a legal point of view and from a candidate experience point of view. I’d love to see a lot more automation IT removal of ghosting and I don’t want to be reading stuff on LinkedIn and Reddit about how candidates have applied for 600 jobs and haven’t heard back in three months. I think tho those kind of things are detrimental to both the industry and to people who do my role to make sure that actually candidates are contacted. And it is fair, it is compliant and it gives them a great experience.
Rob Cohen
So personalized automation for me is my key thing that I think is going to be seen more prevalently in future.
Matt Alder
I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s one of my favorite topics when it comes to the future of the industry. And I absolutely agree that’s the way that we need to go with all of this. Rob, thank you very much for talking to me.
Rob Cohen
Thank you for having me, Matt. It’s been a pleasure talking to you today.
Matt Alder
My thanks to Rob. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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