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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY TV talent shows teach recruiting lessons

My stony heart melted when Susan Boyle got a spontaneous, thunderous standing ovation from the skeptical crowd at “Britain’s Got Talent,” the latest United Kingdom contribution to the TV talent show genre. If you haven’t seen that heartwarming YouTube video, I suggest you do so before you read further. Search for “Susan Boyle.”

Susan is a stocky, squarish woman from Scotland who won’t be mistaken for a runway model anytime soon, in direct contradiction to the usual willowy shape of female singers who expect to win talent contests. She’s 47 years old, unemployed, and lives in a small village with her cat. When she lumbered onto the stage and declared that her intention was to become one of her nation’s most famous and beloved singers, the camera caught eye rolls and impolitely loud snickering from every corner of the auditorium, and even from those backstage. If you’ve seen the video, you know what happened next.

Susan opened her mouth, and within four bars the audience was in a frenzy of excitement. And for good reason; her voice is nothing shy of remarkable. She chose a particularly difficult song, “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables,” and nailed it. The judges seemed unable to believe what they were hearing. The crowd seemed to be alternating between bewilderment and awe.

So what if it was staged for our benefit? According to a Time magazine article from April 23, the show’s staff wasn’t the least bit surprised when Boyle sang those opening bars. They had scouted her, you see. Boyle hadn’t been entirely idle in her career. She’d auditioned for another TV show but hadn’t been chosen. She cut a charity CD in 1999 and sang regularly in church. After her mother died, she was talked into trying out for “Britain’s Got Talent” by a couple of the show’s talent scouts. So Simon Cowell’s pleasure at hearing her may have been genuine, and her voice may be her own, but nothing else in that video is really true. It was created for us, the viewing audience.

So I’m disappointed and jaded. But I’m also pondering a lesson here. In this age of YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter and ubiquitous digital cameras and videos, it’s hard to imagine that spectacular talent could remain hidden away for long without being thrust upon us. There are dozens of ways for it to reach us, so many that it seems inconceivable that we could overlook great singers anywhere in the Western world.

Today, the globe really does beat a path to our door, whether we’ve earned it or not. We find ourselves buried daily by an avalanche of resumes, vendor brochures, offers, information, e-mails, and phone calls and texts. Yet we get so little out of all of it, sometimes because we don’t have time to sort through it, but also because most of it is just background broadcast hiss, simple noise. It’s not meant just for us, so it feels somehow misshapen. We pick it over when we want something, expecting that the best will rise to the top, but often it doesn’t.

We get used to being passive receivers of this dreck, rather than active hunters for what will truly suit our needs. We sit on the porch and watch the parade go by, expecting naively that we can recognize what we want from the parade and snatch it up before someone else does. And so we settle, rather than celebrate great discoveries. We take it for granted that we have to carefully inspect every crack and crevice to find our good customers, but we often neglect to be so meticulous about finding deals, people, ideas and material. We wait for others to find us, and today’s technologies encourage us to do just that.

Actually, I’m somewhat inspired by the “Britain’s Got Talent” charade. It shows once again that, even with all the worldgirdling gadgetry available, you have to get out and spend your time and money finding what you need. Nothing beats shoe leather, not even in the age of Web 2.0 and its social networking and friend sites. “Britain’s Got Talent” didn’t wait around for Susan Boyle to come calling-the show went out to find her.

The lesson I take away is the same one I learned long before the Internet lashed us all together in its high-speed embrace: To find something extraordinary, we must go where the extraordinary lurks, no matter how obscure the corner. You find extraordinary employees at conferences, community affairs and through word-ofmouth-on the street, not on your desk. They rarely come to you unbidden. It’s why we hire recruiters, to beat those bushes for us. But nothing beats doing the beating ourselves. The online world wants us to wait around, but in a modern world, can we afford to wait?


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at He can be reached at Find his blog at

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