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Eliyon Steps Up the Search

January 5, 2005
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Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article, Staffing Management
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Silicon Valley-based human resources consultant and author John Sullivan says it’s the most important truth in corporate recruiting: At any given time, 20 percent of workers are looking for a job, but the most desirable candidates are found among the other 80 percent who seem happy where they are.

    That’s why Sullivan calls Eliyon Technologies "the wave of the future"--and why the 5-year-old Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm’s client list already includes a quarter of the Fortune 100 companies. Eliyon has developed sophisticated software that combs the Web for information on companies and their personnel, analyzes it for relevance and compiles it into a searchable database of corporate executives and upper-level managers that has grown to 23 million dossiers.

    The Eliyon search engine enables its corporate-recruiter subscribers--who pay about $12,000 apiece annually for individual access--to accomplish searches that can be strikingly broad or startlingly arcane.

Need potential candidates for a chief information officer position at a major bank? A few mouse clicks will generate a screen’s worth of executives already in comparable posts across the country. A few more clicks will produce a list of CIOs who, say, earned doctorates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and presently work in California.

    A few more clicks can produce at least a partial rundown of a candidate’s past positions and professional achievements as well as a list of colleagues and peers--with their phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

    "When I was an old-school recruiter, you’d have to go to other companies and bribe the secretary to give you their in-house phone directory and then make a lot of cold calls to get this sort of information," Sullivan says. "This is definitely a far better way."

    Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however. Eliyon’s critics include privacy advocates who see its trolling for data about unsuspecting subjects as a bit Orwellian and who warn that information from Web sites can be of dubious reliability.

    Eliyon is undeterred. The company already is looking at other ways in which its search technology might transform human resources functions, from succession planning to competitive intelligence.

    "Recruiting was just the low-hanging fruit," company spokesman Brian Payea says. "When we started out, that’s what companies were willing to pay for. But there’s a whole lot else this technology can do."

How it works
    Eliyon is a cross between conventional search engines such as Google, which amass data-bases of Web pages and automatically search them for keywords, and services like Hoover’s that use human editors to compile, extract and analyze relevant information on companies and individuals.

    Despite a tough economy, the company has shown a profit the past two years. In the third quarter of 2004, its sales increased more than 200 percent from a year earlier, and the firm added 130 new corporate customers, including giant multinationals such as Pfizer, Samsung and DaimlerChrysler. Vulcan Capital, the investment firm of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, recently took a stake of an undisclosed amount in Eliyon--as good a sign as any about the company’s prospects.


"When I was an old-school recruiter, you’d have to go to other companies and bribe the secretary to give you their in-house phone directory and then make a lot of cold calls to get this sort of information. This is definitely a far better way."


    From 2003 to 2004, Eliyon had an alliance with global online careers network Monster.com to package together their industry-leading recruiting databases for recruiters.

    Eliyon’s service is based on software that continually combs the Internet for information, scanning about 100,000 Web pages a day--federal securities filings, press releases, corporate Web sites, articles in business publications and even blogs. It then utilizes sophisticated algorithms to analyze how the words are used.

    "It’s a next-generation search engine, one that can recognize, for example, that a string of words is a person’s name and job title," Payea says. "And it can identify things and put them in context--for example, that John Deere is the name of a company, and not an animal."

    Eliyon’s software is using that enormous amount of information to compile what probably is the largest database of corporate managers and executives on the planet--23 million upper-level staff from more than 1.5 million companies. Each month, about 450,000 new profiles are added and another 3 million to 5 million are updated with current information.

    "We have listings for 10,000 people from Microsoft alone," Payea says. "That’s the advantage of automation. There’s no way you could do that with human editors, even if you outsourced the work to Bangalore."

    At 23 million individual records, Eliyon’s database is 53 percent of the 43 million résumés that job seekers have submitted to Monster.com. But as human resources consultant and former recruiter Sullivan notes, it’s more significant to look at who is in Eliyon’s database. Web sites that solicit résumés invariably attract "a lot of people who are desperate to make a move, or unemployed," he says. "When you’re reaching out to find passive candidates instead of just active ones, you’re going to get superior quality."

    Payea notes that the company’s search technology also excels at pulling in higher-level executive candidates, the sort who’d be unlikely to post a résumé online at all.

    Pick an individual executive from one of those lists, and Eliyon will generate a more detailed profile of that person, containing whatever information it can cull from its online sources. That may include a list of present and past positions, education, professional association memberships, links to professional journal articles or conference presentations by the subject, and often a phone number and e-mail address.

    But that’s just the start. Eliyon also can generate a list of other people who may know the subject from college, the workplace or outside activities--along with their phone numbers and e-mail addresses, if available.

    Because Eliyon searches readily generate lists of prospects in different geographic regions, recruiters based in corporate headquarters can use it to assist far-flung subsidiaries, says Eliyon human relations director Susan Fitzgerald. "There’s less of a need to hire outside regional recruiters, who may not really understand the company’s particular needs as well," she says.

Additionally, the lists of passive leads that Eliyon generates enable companies to use a softer sell and market themselves over time to prospects--by sending them e-mails touting company achievements, for example.

Other applications
    Besides recruiting, Eliyon’s search technology has other potential uses in human resources planning. The ability to look inside other companies and study their personnel moves over time, for example, may give companies a way to develop benchmarks for functions such as talent development and succession planning.

    "You can go on Eliyon and find tangible examples of people and roles, and whether they fit into someone else’s organizational profile," Fitzgerald says. "That can help you see what roles you need to add, or what you need to do, so that if somebody is hit by the bus, you have that next level of talent to draw upon."


"They don’t have people’s permission to reprint this information. Not only that, but most people don’t even know that these profiles exist."


    The search engine can also help a company to cultivate its external relationships, Payea says. One customer, for example, uses the search engine to study the staff at other companies who are business partners and clients. "When he sends his C-level folks over there for meetings, they’ve got dossiers on all the people that they’re likely to encounter."

    Eliyon searches also can be used to develop an informal network of other companies that human resources managers can contact for advice or benchmarking information. "Most of the human resources people whom I know, they need experts and information more than they need job candidates," Sullivan says.

    Eliyon clients can use the search software to get a glimpse inside competitors’ operations--what Eliyon president Gary Halliwell calls "trend intelligence."

    "We can take a midmarket company in any sector and build both the present and the past organizational chart," Halliwell says. "Once you understand the structure of a company and the level of the people--well, that’s a very useful bit of competitive information if you’re trying to plan from an HR perspective how to keep up with them."

    Payea offers an example of how it works. "Say that you’re an IBM competitor and you’re trying to figure out what they’re doing with natural-language processing," he says. "You can see how many people are working on it, and then watch them over a period of months to see if there’s a trend developing, whether they’re marshaling resources in a certain direction. Also, they have their scientific community speaking at conferences, giving interviews in trade journals and doing other things. We’re continually crawling all that and taking it in."

Bugs in the system
    For all its powerful features, Eliyon’s search technology has its shortcomings. It sometimes makes errant connections--for example, it mistakenly identified the author of this article as a senior editor at the Los Angeles Times, apparently because he co-wrote a book with a person who has that job at the newspaper.

    And searches on famous people sometimes lead to amusing results. As BusinessWeek reported in May, Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, was surprised to discover that according to Eliyon, he had been a co-founder of rival Microsoft.

    Payea readily acknowledges that glitches do occur because the software still has imperfections and Web content is uneven in quality and reliability. "We’re 100 percent reliant on what information is out there," Payea says. "And computers are not yet very good at understanding sarcasm or irony. The more famous a person is, for example, the information is less likely to be straightforward because the opinions about them tend to be pretty strong. If a blogger writes that Bill Gates is Satan, we’re probably going to pull up that link."

    Eliyon continues to tinker with its algorithms in an effort to filter out such noise, and it avoids content from some sites, such as the satirical online newspaper the Onion. In the meantime, it tries to protect users against bad information by including links to the pages from which it was gleaned, so users can evaluate for themselves the source’s credibility. (In 2003, Eliyon also patented software that automatically identifies the owners of Web sites that it searches, so the sources of information can be traced.)

    Some privacy activists have criticized Eliyon, suggesting that its relentless data-digging on individuals without their consent compromises their privacy.

    "They don’t have people’s permission to reprint this information," says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit advocacy group in Denver, and author of a 2003 report critical of Eliyon and other online employment database sites. "Not only that, but most people don’t even know that these profiles exist."

Paradoxically, one of Eliyon’s strengths--it copies Web pages permanently to its database, so that, unlike Google, no link goes dead--might also mean that negative information about a subject will live forever.

    Payea says that Eliyon tries to head off privacy issues by avoiding sources that might contain sensitive personal information, such as lawsuits or credit reports, and relies heavily on unambiguously public sources of information such as corporate annual reports, press releases and scientific articles written by search subjects.

    Patricia Werhane, executive director of the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University, thinks there’s already so much information available on the Web that people should expect companies to conduct searches on them.

    "Ten years ago, I might have been worried about this," she says. "But the cat’s out of the bag."

    Another, more difficult to question to answer: Since Eliyon’s technology makes it temptingly easy to glean information from the Web, is there a danger that companies will become too dependent upon it in hiring decisions? Eliyon critic Dixon fears that job candidates may be screened out on the basis of their Eliyon profiles without ever realizing what has happened. In contrast, ethics expert Werhane thinks such databases might actually help some people’s career prospects.

    "Instead of just hiring the usual suspects, a company may find someone outside its normal contacts," Werhane says. "So that person gets a job offer that he or she wouldn’t have received. That’s a good thing."

    Sullivan thinks Eliyon’s biggest challenge eventually may come from Google and its ever-expanding search engine empire. "This sort of searching for passive candidates is such a great idea that it’s hard for me to imagine them not wanting to get into it."

    Payea also sees Google as the biggest competition. He says other search engines, such as Ask Jeeves, have tried in the past to develop natural-language capabilities that are roughly similar to Eliyon’s algorithms, but with much less success.

    And as Eliyon’s prominence grows, the candidates may not remain quite as passive.

    Payea notes that improvements to the Eliyon Web site now make it possible for business people in Eliyon’s databases to go in and update or add to their profiles. That, he says, also gives executives a subtle way to let it be known that they’re looking for opportunities, while being able to assure their companies that they’re just trying to make sure the information about them is correct.

Corporate Elite
Eliyon's computers continuously crawl the Internet, automatically extracting information from more than 15 million Web sites. Eliyon "reads" news articles, press releases, company Web pages and SEC fillings, recognizing company and business professional data. In seconds, users can search the 20 million Eliyon profiles and locate top-echelon people in the U.S. corporate workforce, including more than 11 million scientists, engineers and other professionals.
Titles Number in Eliyon database
Board members 1.98 million
Chairmen 639,000
Presidents 1.27 million
CEOs 326,000
CFOs 73,000
Vice presidents 956,000
Directors 2.31 million
Managers 1.75 million
Source: Eliyon Technologies

Workforce Management, January 2005, pp. 41-44 --Subscribe Now!

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