Against Experience

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

I've interviewed a large number of people over the last year or so for entry- and intermediate-level retail analyst positions. One of the most frustrating challenges is how to effectively screen applicants at the pre-interview stage. With only a resume to go on (usually with one of those bland and pointless "objective statements"), along with a cover letter and horribly formatted extended online profile courtesy of Monster.com, you inevitably fall back on experience: has this applicant performed a comparable role in a comparable institution in the past? If yes, bring them in for an interview. If no, move on. It's the only way to get through a large quantity of applications, not to mention the ungovernable ocean of prose that comes with them.

The trouble is that experience can be an incredibly poor predictor of performance. This is especially true for positions where the accumulation of 'soft skills' or a full Rolodex of professional contacts -- managerial positions, negotiating roles -- is not a prerequisite.

In fact, investing your labour resources in experience can carry a high degree of risk. The acceptable level of professional analytics in most businesses is incredibly low, and retraining somebody against a new set of expectations can be time-consuming and alienating for the employee ("this wasn't the job I signed up for"). Indeed, sometimes an apparently "underqualified" person who can vault through the initial screening process via a personal recommendation can be brought up to speed much faster and develop a much stronger voice in the business as a result.

So why, when we all rely on online screening services for our hiring processes, do we fall back on this mainstay of a paper-based economy? Why don't more companies take the opportunity to attach problems or assignments to their job postings, to encourage applicants to show their skills, approaches, and processes?

In fact, given everything I've had to say about social media of late, maybe I'd be better off just checking out their Twitter feed.