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A Tale of an ATS implementation gone right – lessons learned



‘Applicant Tracking System (ATS) implementation’.


It is a phrase that is not often said with excitement or enthusiasm (unless by an ATS provider). Implementation stories are commonly haunted by never-ending projects, swelling costs, and adoption struggles that all culminate in a hodge-podge of concessions and less-then-ideal design that results in a ‘good enough’ solution that is anything but ‘good enough’.


Is this common painful experience the fault of the ATS or ATS vendor? Sometimes.

Many times, though, it is not.


So why is it that implementation stories sound better suited for ‘everything-gone-wrong’ comedies or Dilbert cartoons? The project isn’t set up for success.


Of course, this begs the question for all those who would rather not have an experience out of a Dilbert cartoon: how do you run a successful ATS implementation project?

Good question!


And to answer, I’m going to tell you a true story about a successful implementation and how the leader behind it set his project up for success.


In the beginning


It all started in the spring of 2021 when Tony Sawyers joined a well-known consumer product review organization as the new head of Talent Acquisition. Within a few days of his tenure, he noticed a problem. The organization had an inefficient, inconsistent, broken manual hiring process. Even more, they were paying for an iCIMS ATS implementation that was largely unused. Sound familiar to anyone?


And so Tony set to work, determined to give his organization the hiring process they deserved.


Step 1: Know the process


Tony started the journey by finding the answers to two questions: ‘What exactly is our hiring process?’ and ‘Why aren’t we using the ATS we are paying for?’


“You need the right tools for the job, but if you don’t know anything about the job or the tools, how can you know when you’ve got the right one?”


He did this by identifying and interviewing as many stakeholders across the organization as he could get on the phone or video call. He spoke to recruiters, HR managers, hiring managers, hiring influencers, leadership, recently hired, and candidates. He asked them each to describe their part in hiring someone (or being hired), walking through step-by-step their experience of the process.


With each interview, he mapped out what they did and for what purpose so that when he was done, he had mapped the full hiring process along with variations, exceptions, and workarounds.


“We were only using iCIMS for about 20% of our process. It was little more than a place to post a req and tag a hire. There were no workflows or standards within the design. Everything else was done through email or workaround. Not only was it a waste of the tool, but it also made gathering data and/or reporting on the hiring process a massive effort.”


Step 2: Analyze with the experts


With the process neatly mapped out in a flow chart, full of colors and annotations to account for every detail, Tony contacted iCIMS. He sent the workflow to their account rep and requested help to automate and improve this process.


iCIMS assigned him a specialist who moved everything into a statement of work (SOW) with a list of items to configure in iCIMS. After some basic cleanup they were ready to go.


“It was easy because I knew exactly what I wanted. I gave a clear map to iCIMS and they were able to turn it around into a clear SOW.”


Nine weeks, one dedicated iCIMS specialist, and a punch list.


Step 3: Iterative execution through teamwork


Tony jumped into the 9-week process with a simple, yet impactful cadence. He started by forming his ‘tiger team’ – a cross-functional team of hiring process stakeholders that would engage throughout the 9-week program. They consisted of recruiters, HRIS analysts, onboarding specialists, hiring managers, and subject matter experts.


With the tiger team in place, they used the following weekly schedule:

  • Monday: iCIMS expert and tiger team meet for 2 hours to configure iCIMS ATS. The first 30 minutes to an hour was review, the second was new items.

  • Tuesday - Wednesday: Tiger team uses the changes in the system.

  • Thursday: Tiger team meets for 1 hour to discuss observations and feedback.

  • Friday: Tony updates the Monday agenda with any change requests from the tiger team.


Every week, the changes were made as a group, tested as a group, and adjusted as a group. And every week they continued down the punch list of changes until they reached the bottom.


“Because we had a dedicated team, project plan, and dedicated iCIMS specialist, we were able to work fast. We identified challenges before they were a problem, tested configurations with real use within hours of going live, and solved any issues before they became problems.”


And, when they found things they hadn’t expected or roadblocks to requests they couldn’t get around, Steven, their iCIMS expert was on it.


“We found some things we weren’t expecting, but we didn’t have to wait days or weeks to get answers. We would just ask Steven and he would usually have an answer within hours. He was a great partner. He knew who in iCIMS to ask and what our real options were and what they cost. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but because we didn’t have to wait for an answer, we didn’t lose time. And when we didn’t get what we wanted, we documented it for a future opportunity then found a work-around or alternative.”


Lessons from an implementation gone right


9 weeks from start to finish to fully implement and test a new ATS configuration. System upgrade, workflow steps, automation, process structure and enforcement, new features added – all in 9 weeks. How often does the implementation story sound like that?


Tony’s success was driven by three key points – important lessons for any technology implementation.

  1. Know what you have and know what you need: Before starting a project, requesting an SOW, or drafting a proposal, know how you do things today and how it needs to change. Map out the steps of the current process (including variations of those steps), who’s doing it, and where the information is being stored. Then focus your efforts on what you want to change and how. Vendors can be great partners in this exercise – providing insight into what their technology does and doesn’t do and for what costs.

  2. Actively engage stakeholders. At every stage of a project, engage the stakeholders. Mapping the current process, prioritizing the change, designing and evaluating the solution, all should include stakeholders. The more you include the stakeholder thoughts, ideas, feedback, and desires, the more likely they will become part of the solution rather than a barrier to adoption.

  3. Use an agile iterative process. For larger projects, rather than spending weeks or months changing everything, conduct bursts of work in a single area followed by review and feedback. This will give two major benefits. First, doing small pieces will be easier for stakeholders (such as users and managers) to evaluate the change without being overwhelmed or lost in too much change. Second, if something isn’t quite right, it can be corrected without much impact. Unraveling months of work is far more difficult than making a quick adjustment before moving forward.


Bringing it all together – TA technology success


So whether you are implementing or updating your ATS, adopting the career.place anonymous screening solution, or adding a new onboarding tool – don’t fall into the unpleasant experience of your own personal ‘everything-gone-wrong’ comedy. Apply these wisdoms alongside techniques such as leveraging free trials, evaluating vendors as a good partner for your organization, and adoption through centers of excellence to set you and your technology up for success.


As for Tony and the new iCIMS configuration – the story is just beginning. He is now deep into large scale adoption and standardizing systems for increased efficiency (i.e. getting the ATS and HRIS aligned to the same nomenclature and processes).

Perhaps there is another great story in the future.


Thank you, Tony, for sharing your story and showing us all the path to success.

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