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Operational Excellence

Catch 22 – specialization in the recruitment practice


I’ve been asked several times, “how can we specialize when we are (5, 10, 15) people in the company?” It’s a catch 22 situation.

In recent days, specialization is no longer an accessory in marketing communication of recruitment firms. It has become a harsh reality. Let’s face it, if a company is willing to pay anything from 10k – 30k to recruit a talent, what would make them choose a generalist recruiter over a specialist recruiter? The answer is probably only price and even that price advantage is eroding as the market readjusts in the crisis.

On the other hand, the risks of sustainability is a real concern for small to medium size recruitment firms. If the company has 10 people, that just about covers all the different sectors and/or functions to specialize in. A sudden change in demand or loss of a key recruiter could mean its death.

That is not to mean that big companies have profit with their size too. Many are unable to make a psychological leap of “one-stop shop” to “multi-specialization under 1 roof”. Large companies are hampered by internal politics, fear of change and commitment to change, while small companies are paralyzed by fear. Having said that, there are successful cases and proof that it can be done, to the profit of those who dared.

Some considerations I had shared:

It doesn’t have to be a case of either or
Many companies think that to specialize means they have to name and cover all the different areas from a-z. Unless the company employs 500 employees, it can hardly cover all the different sectors and functions in recruitment. It doesn’t have to be this or a generalist.

If we compare the financial times, the european listings of sectors / functions and any other listings, we can quickly observe that there is no 1 standard list. The lack of common standards in this case is a clear advantage. A company can draw on its strength and find large groupings beneficial to them.

Eg, IT&T is largely accepted as a common grouping for information technology and telecommunications. Healthcare & Pharmaceutics is another broad group that can include hospital care, medical devices, biotechnology, medical drugs development and sales.

Keep it broad, keep it separated
The reality of small businesses is that they cannot afford to turn down good business just because they have committed to specialization and they don’t have too.

Choosing to specialize has 2 obvious benefits: marketing on strengths and building internal strength. For a small to medium size company, it is important to name the specializations so broad that it can just about cover everything. A paradox? No, a clever mask perhaps.

Eg: Technical and Non-technical skills. This works for small firms of 3-5 consultants. It doesn’t have to be publicized widely on the website or company collaterals but can be used for client presentations and during sales pitch. The 2 teams should be separated and built for further specialization as the company grows.

Evolve and multiply
Like cells, a growing team often need division to create further growth in their own right. In today’s market, more and more companies are focusing on short to mid-term planning as long term planning can quickly be obsolete. Equally for recruitment firms, specialization can evolve over time.

While the core marketing, communication and external materials can retain general information, companies can make use of easy to produce 1 page appendixes or add-ons for their specialization. This can be replace quickly when the teams evolve. For a small company, size and agility is a competitive edge.

Eg: In the above example, when the team reaches a size of 5 members per team, it can be split. In the “Technical” group, this can be split into broad base of “Engineering & Technical” and “IT & digital”. Core marketing materials can still say “Technical” with an additional paragraph for each.

Commercial positioning need not mean organizational structure
For many companies, there is a confusion of external and internal view. External communication and representation of the company is usually used to speak to clients and potential stakeholders. Internal structures relates to management and operational effectiveness. Potentially, it is beneficial to mirror each other but it is not a necessity.

Advocating a company’s strengths in specialization is a strategic sales decision. This does not have to be mirrored if it does not serve operational strengths. Where teams are small, it can continue to operate as a single team with the same manager.

Eg: A large size recruitment firm may have varying strengths in the different teams of specialization. They could group a small team of recruiters in digital marketing under a broad group of marketing, communications & public relations for ease of management and cross over business. Externally, they list the specializations separately to create an impression of strength.

Specialization does not have to be a catch 22 situation if it is managed thoughtfully. Internally, it is a core benefit for people development. When a recruiter starts to focus, their knowledge base for a particular area and their contact base is built up. Not only does it sell easier, it will also help in operational efficiency in delivery. I’d say, it is a “catch all” situation, no pun intended.

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About Jas Chong

Organisation change and transformation.

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