Basically, instead of waiting for a particular vacancy to arise, and then needing to find a particular individual who might fit (as in traditional head hunting), search firms and employers can work out who it is they want, establish relationships with these people, and then wait for the right opportunity (based upon particular business needs - but also the career needs of the individuals concerned) for the person to join the organisation.
The approach is about moving from a reactive to a proactive approach that will provide the very best talent rather than simply the pretty good (the very best is unlikely to be available in the market at the time a particular vacancy occurs).
It's also a good example of seeing people as providers of human capital, rather than as human resources, and is very much a modern equivalent of the original movement in pre-history from hunting to farming, which brought in major changes in the way societies were able to work. This is about a major change in the way that businesses work too.
There's also an interesting article on this (in a search firm context), showing how the approach is supported by social media (and therefore, referred to as 'Recruitment 2.0'), in this month's Talent Management magazine:
"Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles is developing a private, invitation-only social networking site for high-level job candidates. The company hopes the ability to communicate electronically and share videos, photos and other media with candidates all around the world will speed up the recruitment process and enhance its traditional face-to-face business.
"The original impetus for us was that what we are, at heart, a relationship business," said Tashi Lassalle, vice president of strategic development at Heidrick & Struggles. "We're seeing more and more ways that individuals connect with one another, and we wanted to be on the front foot of that, rather than on the back foot."
"For us, this isn't about a numbers game any more than it is when we do our classic executive search," Lassalle said. "What it really is about is handpicking individuals in the markets we feel have most relevance to our clients, and then taking that exclusivity and bringing it online."
Users on the site are anonymous to each other but communicate directly and openly with their personal Heidrick & Struggles recruiters. Users can, however, converse with each other in the site's discussion forums, and if they choose to do so, they can mutually disclose their identities, Lassalle said.
"Something we've tried very hard to balance is the privacy element because, of course, in executive search you're talking to people who wouldn't normally talk to people, and you're basically working on jobs that wouldn't be advertised," she said. "So we want to try to keep that discretion, that really personal part, but we also know that individuals like to connect with one another."
That said, Heidrick & Struggles recognizes the concept of a private social networking site for executives is new and might take some getting used to, Lassalle said.
"It's like [Alexander] Graham Bell inventing the telephone and nobody being quite sure what it was going to be used for," she said. "We're still in the exploring phase. It's about what the [candidate] community chooses to do, and we'll respond to that and accommodate it. At this moment it's very much a supplement to our core business, which is brick-and-mortar and face-to-face."