Way back in 1997, an American journalist wrote a book called Data Smog. He argued that the sheer quantity of data available, while beneficial in many ways, also had the power to cloud our judgement and slow us down—as professionals, as people, even as a society.

Well, over 20 years have now passed. It’s time to ask ourselves: Was he right?

The term he coined, data smog, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004—and the data hasn’t stopped piling up since then. In 2019 we connect faster and with greater numbers of people than ever before. It seems like virtually anything can be done with a click or a tap—applying for jobs, or recruiting to fill an open position, buying groceries and clothes; the list goes on.

But can something like job recruitment—a sophisticated task with so many variables—really be carried out with a click or a tap? The honest answer is no, and it will almost certainly stay that way. A study published in the Harvard Business Review is one example of a growing body of evidence: Data on its own is not enough to drive quality decisions—even with sophisticated programs that filter and present that data new and interesting ways.

Data and data organisation are fantastic as tools in the hands of knowledgeable professionals, but as standalone solutions, they leave much to be desired. If this is true for things like financial data and merchandising, then it’s especially true for a task as sensitive as job recruitment.

And the reason is simple: Data isn’t knowledge.

In fact, data is two steps away from knowledge. Data is made up of facts, figures, numbers, dates, names, places, keywords and so on. In order to become knowledge, data needs a person with sufficient skill and insight to come along and see the implications, the questions it raises. This opens the door to meaningful information, which in turn leads to knowledge.

First data, then information, and finally knowledge. A quality recruiter knows one from the next, and understands how to use them all. Today’s most sophisticated recruitment sites and software programs, impressive as they are, have been engineered by people who are experts in programming and algorithms. As a result, their creations organise data based on cold numbers and hard averages. But what about that seasoned, warm-blooded understanding of recruitment and assessment? What about those industry connections? Without those qualities, can algorithms alone really land the perfect Sales Director on your doorstep?

I’ll go so far as to make a prediction. Moving forward into the future, the best recruitment decisions will come from two things: 1) Effective use of data and technology, and 2) Human, professional, meaningful insight. After all, recruiting decisions are fundamentally human in nature. They involve one-to-one interactions, career goals, various motivations, and unique sets of experiences. That’s a code no algorithm can crack.

Who knows what our lives will look like in 10, 20 or even 30 years? The way we find, record and assess data may be unrecognisable by today’s standards, just as today’s methods were unrecognisable in 1995. What hasn’t changed—and is unlikely to change in the field of job recruitment—is the need for expertise that goes beyond numbers and averages. The human touch, the interpersonal skill, and the face-to-face assessment will continue to play an important role.

In fact, they’ll be more important than ever, because the data smog is only getting worse. For businesses, this means finding more effective ways to cut through it. Technology is one part of the solution. Living, breathing expertise is the other.

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