Hauling Talent By Truckload

Crossing division lanes to staff new unit quickly.

When officials at Toyota Motor Corp.s San Francisco-based Motor Sales division opted to create an Office of the Web to handle e-business one and a half years ago, they wanted to hit the pavement with all cylinders firing.

Optimally, the department would be up in a matter of weeks. Business to Consumer National Manager Keith St. Clair considered looking outside the company for recruits, but he decided it would take too long to organize a headhunter to coordinate the search. Instead, St. Clair drove recruiting efforts straight across department lines to pluck people from every division of the enterprises IT organization. After hauling his recruits back to the Web Office, he retrained them and instructed them to start the division.

The results, St. Clair says, were astounding. The new department was up and running in one month. Whats more, Toyota eliminated redundancies in its IT department, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars and improving efficiency across the board. "We didnt want to waste any time," St. Clair said.

Toyotas not alone. Experts say that last year, dozens of companies engineered rapid staffing efforts in attempts to rush e-business products or services to market. Some used headhunters. Others followed in the footsteps of The Limited Inc.—the Columbus, Ohio, parent of Victorias Secret—which in 1998 enacted an all-out recruitment blitz to find programmers who could engineer the lingerie vendors first online fashion show. Still others, such as iPhrase Technologies Inc., an artificial intelligence development company in Cambridge, Mass., masked recruitment efforts in the form of industry events.

But the strategy is not flawless. Art Hutchinson, an analyst at NerveWire Inc., in Newton, Mass., said the approach is "risky at best," adding that an industrywide dearth of programming talent means that most accelerated recruitment strategies yield mediocrity.

"Just because you are on an abbreviated timetable doesnt mean your standards should suffer," Hutchinson said. "If youre a recruiter, the last thing you want to do is hire the first body you see."

An inside job

St. Clair said he understands sentiments like Hutchinsons perfectly; this is precisely why he targeted Toyotas blitzkrieg staffing strategy at a pool of potential recruits whom company officials had known for years. As soon as executives resolved to create the Office of the Web, he set out to drum up interest. For two weeks, he spent hours with programmers, selling them on making the change.

Of course, poaching rankles. But resentment and political fallout were negligible because the winnowing of the 200-strong IT department was necessary. "We gathered the cream of the crop and told everyone they were working on a special project," St. Clair said. "If there was any hostility among those who werent chosen, we didnt see it."

St. Clair touted how the new department would be more focused on strategy and planning. Next, he promised that employees who made the switch would be more involved in engineering the new e-business initiatives. Finally, he outlined the new departments specific agenda—a revamped Toyota.com that would more closely link front- and back-end systems, a wireless communication system to link factories with product management and inventory systems, and a Web-based extranet designed to enable Toyota dealers to more easily communicate with headquarters and one another. "When most of these [people] heard about our plans, their eyes lit up," St. Clair said.

Garnering support, however, was only half the battle. Once he persuaded about 20 programmers to make the switch, St. Clair organized them into teams to help put his initiatives into practice. Next, he sponsored retraining programs, teaching employees programming skills such as Extensible Markup Language and dynamic HTML.

But even with the training, employees were overwhelmed by the new workload. To help ease the demands, St. Clair hired contractors from ProxiCom Inc., based in Reston, Va., to chip in. Though most of the 30 employees in Toyotas Office of the Web are home-groomed, many of the free-lancers still contribute today. St. Clair touts employees who accepted the reassignment but admits that without these contractors, he wouldnt have been able to pull it off.

"There was so much to do at first that the hired help contributed in ways we couldnt even estimate," St. Clair said. "Once we get things under control, well probably let them go." And if Toyotas speed at recruiting is anything to go by, getting things under control probably wont take much longer than, say, shifting into overdrive.