Big data, which refers to the analysis of massive amounts of data in order to speed-up business decision-making, seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment.

In George Osborne’s Budget statement last week (March 19th), for instance, the chancellor announced how the government would be spending an impressive £45 million over five years to set up the so-called Alan Turing Institute for Data Science – a big data research centre he said would help Britain “out-compete, outsmart and outdo” the rest of the world in the new technology arms race.

Around the same time, Neelie Kroes – the European Commission vice president responsible for Digital Agenda – addressed the European Data Forum in Athens with a call for the 28-nation bloc to make haste in getting involved with the big data “gold rush”.

According to Ms Kroes, the field is “not just some niche product for tech-lovers”. Like dozens of others before her, the commissioner pointed out that big data will impact just about every aspect of modern life, from healthcare to public transport, manufacturing to agriculture.

But what about recruitment? Some would say that technology and talent acquisition are uneasy bedfellows – surely finding the right candidate for a job requires a kind of human insight no number of ones and zeroes can replace? Others, of course, would argue this is exactly what differentiates big data from old school business intelligence and analytics.

So what does the oncoming data-driven revolution hold for you?

What is big data?

First things first – what is big data, exactly?

To answer that, it’s important to point out we’re living in an age of rapid technological advancement. The rise of cloud computing – which Ms Kroes called the engine to big data’s fuel – means storage space is cheap and plentiful, while mobile and fibre-optic networks mean the world is more interconnected than ever.

This means businesses can harvest more process-related data than ever before – and they’ve got enough computing power at their fingertips to analyse it in real-time.

In a recent article for Undercover Recruiter, eQuest’s David Bernstein described how one Chicago-based company had used big data to improve its recruitment programme. Bosses harnessed data from multiple internal systems, as well as external sources such as social media, and found staff attrition was closely related to commute distance and public transportation. It managed to lower turnover from 50 to 27 per cent based on this information.

“By leveraging Big Data, recruiters can transform their image from reactive – responding to the just-in-time talent needs of the business – to a proactive business partner that has the foresight to make better and faster talent acquisition-related decisions,” Mr Bernstein argued.

Why is this important?

It’s easy to counter case studies such as this one by pointing out that a competent recruiter would have been able to supply much the same insight.

However, there’s evidence even the best headhunter could actually be weighed down by biases – sometimes ugly ones – that stand in the way of impartial hiring. According to the Atlantic, a recent CEB survey of 500 hiring managers found 74 per cent of respondents’ most recent hire had a personality they described as “similar to mine”.

If your rival recruiters switch to big data-based talent acquisition programmes, there’s a good chance their more objective, performance-oriented strategies could end up giving them a new competitive advantage over the last generation.

Looking to the future

There’s no doubt, then, that big data brings about both challenges and opportunities for the recruitment sector. One of the obvious obstacles for the agency market is that access to information on clients’ employees can be hard to come by, so intermediaries have less performance data at their fingertips than in-house HR teams.

Fortunately, though, they’re not making much progress in the field. According to a recent Deloitte survey, a slim 14 per cent of HR departments have adopted analytics in the hiring process, two-thirds (67 per cent) of whom admit these efforts aren’t really up to speed.

All in all, there’s a ripe opportunity here for a few fearless innovators to blaze a trail. Will your recruitment business be using big data to find tomorrow’s top talent?