Chris Johnson, VP Of Professional Services for Avionté, Explores Digital Transformation and Staffing – and What Agency Leaders Need to Know

In this new age of automated talent platforms, staffing technology, and AI, recruiting firms are scrambling to find the most impactful ways to digitally transform their agencies to future-proof their businesses. Yet, despite millions of dollars spent on technology investment, many agencies are starting to realize that digital investment does NOT always equal digital transformation. So how do firms unlock the riddle of digital transformation for staffing?

In this episode of Avionté: Digital Edge, Chris Johnson, Avionté’s VP of Professional Services, talks with our Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer, Christopher Ryan, about what staffing leaders and professionals should know to successfully transform their businesses in today’s digital landscape.

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This is a partial transcript of the full conversation. Listen to the podcast episode for the complete discussion.

Chris Ryan: We’ve heard it all before. There’s a technology revolution taking place in the staffing industry. Digital transformation is here! But, despite millions of dollars in new technology investment, staffing agencies and their frontline recruiters still struggle with the same challenges: scarce talent, demanding clients, and advanced technology that doesn’t really help at crunch time. We keep automating the same old processes. So how do we unlock the riddle of digital transformation for staffing?

My name is Chris Ryan, and I’m the Chief Strategy and Marketing officer for Avionté. With me today to explore the digital transformation of staffing is Chris Johnson, the Vice President of Professional Services for Avionté.

Chris has an interesting and unusual background. He was designing consumer websites back when web- based online marketing was in its infancy. He spent time at IBM, Accenture, Adecco, and Checkr, and he brings together an unusual skill set. He’s a staffing expert. He’s a technology expert. And he also understands online consumer marketing. So, when we talk about the consumerization of staffing or digital transformation, Chris is someone you want to listen to very carefully.

So, Chris, I wanted to start by asking you something you said to me a while back. You said digital investment does NOT equal digital transformation. What did you mean by that?

Chris Johnson: We can invest in something, but you have to do something with it. You can buy all the tech in the world: the shiniest piece of code, the new application, the new piece of SaaS. That’s the easy part.

But then you actually need to do something with it if you’re going to get that ROI. I’ve been in this industry over two decades now, and we hear shelfware a lot, especially if you’re buying a bunch of stuff off-the-shelf. You never know what happens in the sales process, and you get things that you don’t understand. You don’t know how to use them, or you’re only using five or ten percent of the features of the piece of code that you bought.

So that’s really where that’s coming from. You want to buy, but then you actually want to transform the business around the technology.

Chris Ryan: I’ve noticed it with staffing technology. We see this often: they’re enamored by the technology, but then they never end up using it. Why do you think it is?

Chris Johnson: I think it’s easy to walk on a conference room floor or go to a trade show and find something really cool, or to watch a webinar or hear a podcast and say, “Oh, that sounds great! I want to be a cool kid as well.”

But then you have to bring it back to your business, and you have to do something with it. Where it falls down is somewhere around, “Oh, you mean I actually have to change my processes to actually do the digital transformation? I’m too busy for that.”

Chris Ryan: So, essentially, the technology is great as long as I don’t have to change my business, or I don’t have to change what I do day-to-day, and people find that a lot harder. Is that fair?

Chris Johnson: It’s less about, “I don’t want to do anything” than it’s, “I only want to do a little bit.” That’s where we get into this conversation around maximizing ROI, making sure we’re getting full return on the investment that you made because you fully transformed around the digital solution.

Chris Ryan: The other thing that I’ve noticed: Sometimes agency owners, they want to bring change to their organization, but there isn’t a strong push within the organization itself to actually drive the change through or to make it work. Is it that people only have so many hours in the day to get something done?

Chris Johnson: Well, it’s so many hours in the day. Then, as a consultant, it’s our job to sit down with the customers – not just the CIO or CEO or the head of talent. You start answering, “So what?” And that’s a really important piece in digital transformation. What does it mean for the CIO? What does it mean for the CEO, the board, but also down to that recruiter sitting in a branch somewhere in rural South Carolina? What is this transformation going to mean for them? And if you can answer that, it usually greases the skids for any sort of adoption exercise.

Chris Ryan: For the past thirty years, staffing has been continuously automating. We’ve automated portions of the front office and the ATS. We’ve automated a lot of the back office.

What’s fundamentally different about digital transformation of staffing today? Is it just more automation or are we at an inflection point?

Chris Johnson: Inflection point. 110 percent. If we look at what’s been happening since the late 90s, it’s always been about automating process. Now we actually need to start reimagining what we’re doing. You have to really embrace the art of the possible and then figure out what that actually means for your firm, for your customers, for staffing in general. And a lot of times that means taking risks. And more importantly, just trusting in the technology.

There’s a trust chasm that we need to get into now, and what that means is, if the technology can do algorithmic matching, let it! And what that’s going to require is reimagining how you actually deliver talent to your customers. It may mean flipping workflows on their heads and doing something later in the funnel that you traditionally did earlier. By doing that, you now allow the technology to live and breathe.

Chris Ryan: So, when we talk about digital transformation, one thing that I find fascinating is this trend around the consumerization of the employment experience. Historically HR was often seen as a gatekeeper for talent. Today, it seems that HR is in a different place. We have created a new era of expectations around what an employment experience should look like. And so now we often talk about talent engagement, talent loyalty.

How do you use technology to build employee loyalty? Comment a little on what that has done for digital transformation of staffing and how it’s changing things.

Chris Johnson: Now we’re having conversations that sound a whole lot like marketing conversations. It’s more e-commerce style: Do you have the proper supply and demand? Are you aligning to the things that are important to the candidates that you’re working with? And are you meeting them where they’re at?

It’s also generational. I love talking about my son who’s a proper Gen Z kid. He’s twenty years old. I like looking at him as compared to other folks that are out in the workforce. How do you answer the call to each of those personas? How do you create stickiness with each of them?

As you said, it used to not really be important. Staffing used to be kind of an arms and legs game. Now it’s about the quality of the people. And the people that you’re putting in place are actually interviewing you as hard as you’re interviewing them.

Chris Ryan: I often hear people in the staffing industry complain that simply getting people to show up for work is a real chore. Yet, when I look at the practices that we have in place around employment, frankly, we often are disrespecting the time of talent, or we make it really hard for people to actually show up.

Chris Johnson: Yeah, everyone’s busy. I’ll look at my son who’s in the light industrial workforce. He’s busy too, and he doesn’t have the time to drive around to different branches and fill out a bunch of paperwork.

You’re solving so many things by digitizing that top of the funnel. And none of its rocket science. I think the gig economy cracked it open. I’ll also look at LinkedIn and Amazon as what good looks like. They’re bringing that decision-making process to my couch. I think that same mantra is really hitting home in HR now.

Chris Ryan: So, speaking of bringing it home to the couch, with the advent of mobile talent platforms, how does that impact the frontline staffing jobs like recruiting?

Chris Johnson: As we begin to digitize that sourcing and selecting through the funnel that recruiters classically did, they have a bunch of time on their hands to do really more human things. With all of the technology that’s out there, recruiters can now really begin to be more human-centric. Instead of pushing paper and handling callouts, let the technology handle the call out.

So, then you can be reaching back out to that candidate and say, “Hey, Chris, you called out. Is everything okay? Did you not like the assignment? Is there something you’d rather do?”

“Hey, customer! Sorry about that. Here’s what we’re going to do to remediate.”

It allows the folks that are in a branch and in the field to do more human things because they’re just not having to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.

Chris Ryan: Most HR departments think that if it’s on the web, their job is done. Certainly, a few years ago, every employer thought that simply having a website was sufficient.

Why would you want a mobile app instead? I mean isn’t it the same thing.

Chris Johnson: It’s really not. That experience is never going to be as rich as one that’s with a bespoke mobile app that’s developed and installed on the phone.

For that real estate on that person’s phone, the app will always win every single time because it’s a very immersive experience. You have the real estate, it’s locked in. Getting in there and seeing pay, and W2, and tax information, and the self-schedule – these are things that would take forever through a browser. And an app just does it super slick.

Text will never be as good as a push notifications. I can’t tell you how many texts I don’t read and I forget. But push notifications, those things don’t go away.

Chris Ryan: Let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about the concept of a digital talent marketplace. What’s a digital talent marketplace and how does it differ from traditional staffing?

Chris Johnson: So, how is Netflix different than Blockbuster? The digital talent marketplace puts the talent in the driver seat. It allows them to windows shop. They can look at opportunities and at the job descriptions. Potentially there’s even some rich content in there that’s explaining a day in the life. Why do you want to join staffing firm X and do job Y?

Maybe even seeing ratings as we start getting into the redeployment scenarios. We’ve got 5-star ratings that sit in a lot of talent marketplaces – was this one good? Is this one bad? I can window shop and look. That classically is a lot of back and forth between a candidate and a recruiter via email, or it’s hours sitting in a branch.

So that concept of just-in-time info, letting me get further down the decision making process alone, on my own time, at my own pace. That’s really the talent marketplace.

Chris Ryan: So, It sounds like the talent is actually active at the top of the funnel?

Chris Johnson: One hundred percent! They’re active from the top to the mid. This gets really cool once we’ve onboarded them, credentialed them, and they’ve gone out on assignment and they’re coming off. And now we can start looking at where’s my next assignment.  

I had a teacher, and he always talked about roving eyes. No roving eyes on test day. Well, don’t give candidates the opportunity to have roving eyes. Keep them in your own gig economy. Keep them in your own four walls. And the best way to do that is to ensure them that there’s another gig so that they don’t start looking at other staffing firms or other talent marketplaces.

And, again, bringing it back to the recruiter: I think recruiters generally want to do that, but the truth of the matter is, sometimes it doesn’t happen. And the candidates that we’ve just spent the time and money to acquire fall out and they go do something else. So, let the technology keep them engaged.

Chris Ryan: We often talk about the importance of a recruiter being a salesperson to the talent. But in a talent marketplace, the goal is to get the talent to show up at the top of the funnel on their own. And then to stay in the funnel with or without the recruiter encouraging them.

Marketing and branding becomes a lot more important than the upfront selling process. It sounds like it’s starting to change the kinds of skills you want to bring into a staffing agency.

Chris Johnson: Absolutely! Marketing campaigns and Facebook ads and Instagram and Tiktok – these are all new ways to market. And again, speak to the candidates where they’re at.  Where are they really at? They’re on Tiktok and on Instagram. So yeah, you got to meet them where they’re at.

But something you said about letting the candidates engage without the recruiter. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and I do say that. But that outreach, that engagement…looking at the data and saying, “Hey Chris, you’ve been in the app for two weeks. You’re looking around. You haven’t applied for anything or expressed interest in anything.” Being able to reach out to that passive candidate and convert them to an active candidate that you can generate revenue on, that is important stuff.

So, there is still some recruiter play in there. It’s like having a really big lever or multiple pulleys. Use the technical advantage and let it do the things you don’t want to do, or let it make certain things easier, so you can focus on the hard stuff. 

Chris Ryan: Let’s say they start to build a marketplace. They have a place where people can come to view jobs on a mobile app; they encourage people to download the mobile app; they’re able to onboard them remotely.

But what are some of the other ways that a digital talent marketplace can actually change the way a staffing company operates in terms of roles and responsibilities and KPIs? Does this change the way we think about daily staffing operations?

Chris Johnson: I think it shifts everything down in the funnel.

It may change the types of conversations we’re having. Are we winning the hearts and the minds of the candidates? Are we ensuring that we’re creating stickiness? Are we doing all the things that we need to do to make sure that they feel loved and are part of something great and amazing?

We’re saying, “Hey! Now you can spend more time talking to customers, and how do you expand that business? How do we do upscaling of the candidates that we have? How do we go from picker packer to driving a forklift so that we get more return on investment out of our cost to acquire?

So, I think people get scared because it sounds super scary. And we go to this world of zero touch staffing – sort of the uber model for staffing – but the truth of the matter is, that’s exotic and aspirational for the majority of the staffing businesses out there. What we really want to do is shift the conversations down funnel a bit.

Chris Ryan: So, speaking of aspirational, if I’m running a staffing company today, I’m worried about my cash flow for the next two weeks. I’m worried about taking care of the needs of some customer that called me up at eleven o’clock last night with changes to their shift requirements. I have a business to run. So how do I, as an agency owner or manager, incorporate the concept of a digital talent marketplace into my current operations?

Chris Johnson: There certainly is a strategy around let’s just make incremental changes in my existing supply chain. So basically, piece by piece, digitize what’s already working today.

But that’s complicated for all the reasons you just said. So, I have a concept of a digital twin. What do I mean by that? We build the digital twin, or the technically enabled, next to the offline process.

Chris Ryan: What do you mean by digital twin? Are you essentially saying it’s a digital copy of your brick and mortar business?

Chris Johnson: Yeah, at least from a process standpoint. You may have really deep DNA processes and back-office things that are difficult to unwind and break apart. So, we can build that digital twin over to the side of that.

And let’s think about those processes. Let’s think about the credentialing in onboarding. Let’s think about recruitment. Let’s think about job descriptions, and how will they be searched and indexed by an algorithm that could be very different than how they’re being used today.

We now need to think about all of those things in a way that technology and the algorithms can work with them. So, we talk about a digital twin. It’s looking at everything on the left, reconciling it, and saying: “Hey, what’s good? What’s required? Let’s change what’s not good, and let’s keep what’s required. And let’s tune it up in a way that the technology can actually flourish, and then build the digital twin.”

Then, once you have that working, you start converting that traditional business over to the digital twin as is appropriate and as you can.

Chris Ryan: So how long does it take? What kind of expectations should I have around effort and timing?

Chris Johnson: So, I think it takes a deliberate investment in brain power to sit down and do that. But if we go into it with eyes wide open and invest the right folks in the room from tech, the right folks from ops and recruitment, and everyone has their eyes wide open, it goes very quickly.

And we can move super fast and start making really big, meaningful changes. We start getting the ROI, because now we’ve made the investment, and we’re actually making the transition to the digital twin very rapidly.

This is scary, and it’s different, and we’re going to blaze new paths. But as long as everybody’s willing to partner, and there’s trust in that room, we can make it happen fast.

Chris Ryan: So, really technology is not the barrier as much as leadership and having an organization that is prepared and willing to tackle the challenges.

Chris Johnson: I would say really start looking at your business, and think about: Is there a world where I could start looking towards lower touch, higher margin business, and how can I capitalize on the technology that’s out there? What sort of solutions are out there? Are there some that are bundled together with an easy button, and should we try them out and get on top of that super fast? So, hopefully, I just leave everyone with a couple of question marks.

Chris Johnson, VP Professional Services at Avionté


Chris Johnson
VP, Professional Services at Avionté

Chris brings 23 years of SaaS delivery, HR Tech Consulting, and Staffing Operations leadership at companies like Accenture, IBM, The Adecco Group, and most recently Checkr where he led the HR Outsourcing Industry Strategy practice.  Chris is a recognized thought leader and has a passion for driving change that is aligned to industry trends, but delivered with a process that aligns to your business and culture.  

Christopher Ryan


Christopher Ryan
Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer at Avionté

Christopher Ryan leads the Strategy and Marketing functions for Avionté. He brings more than three decades of consulting, thought leadership, and corporate experience in Human Capital Management.

About Avionté Digital Edge

Modern technology has revolutionized the way we live, work, and play. It’s also what’s fueling the gig economy which has dramatically changed employment practices. So, what does that mean for staffing and contingent work? In our Avionté Digital Edge podcast series, we will speak directly with industry experts to explore topics and trends related to the digital transformation of staffing and temporary employment in the US workforce.

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