Good questions, S. Let's start with some basic info about the hiring practices of firms right now. While the economy is recovering slowly, there are still way more applicants than there are positions. This means that firms that advertise for one or two positions can get as many as a hundred resumes in a week for those two spots. There is someone (or a couple of someones) that are reviewing resumes and are responsible for hiring, but chances are good that those people are also architects working on billable work. They're already way more-than-40-hours-a-week busy, and they're having a hard time getting back to all the emails and voicemails regarding their one or more projects. That's why everyone is instructed to send their resumes to a generic address--so they don't fill up some poor schmuck's (or schmuckette's) inbox. An official name isn't given out because the firm also doesn't want this person's voicemail full of calls (cold or otherwise) from the influx of job applicants. It's nothing personal, it's just that the person in charge of hiring wouldn't be able to humanly return all of these calls and emails in a timely fashion. And because they don't give out a name, they won't be offended if your cover letter starts, "To whom it may concern."
That being said, you'll see applicant tracking software especially at really big firms or firms with multiple offices. This is because they, being a big firm, get even more applicants than a smaller or privately held firm with fewer than 50 people. But that being said, every firm has some process of weeding out candidates. The first round of weeding resumes is spelling and grammar problems as well as resumes that are hard to read. The next round is about skills and experience--some firms may be looking for someone with only a couple of years, and some may be looking for someone with several years of experience. This round might also involve factors as random as where an applicant went to school or what project types they've done or where they've worked before or....the list is endless.
Of course, knowing someone is always a big help, and not just in architecture. The problem is that so many candidates are equally excellent--everyone's been to college and grad school and can use various types of software and has work experience here or there, so how do you choose? If you know someone already in the business--whatever field that may be--it helps to include that on your resume. Personal knowledge of a candidate allows a firm to know just a little more about you, whether you're going into law, medicine, architecture, marketing, teaching, or whatever.
Cold calling at this point in the economy is a double-edged sword. If you know a name to ask for when you call, that's in your favor. If you're blindly calling just to speak to "someone involved in hiring interns", your cold call may be met with a cold shoulder. Of course, you could call in the hopes that you catch a company's temp receptionist while the usual one is on vacation, in which case you might inadvertently get somewhere.
If you have a topic you'd like to see discussed here, let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar. And don't forget to take the intern quiz here, and have any friends or colleagues who are licensed take the architect survey here. Thanks!