Saturday, December 8, 2007

Of Ghosts, Blogs and Undigested karma

This month, 'Simplicity at the other side of complexity' is completing one year. When I started this blog, I wasn't sure about how it was going to evolve. One year and forty posts later, the situation remains more or less the same, though some patterns have emerged.

The nature of posts in this blog has become more focused - on Human Resources, Organization Development and Personal Effectiveness (as opposed to being scattered in the broader domains of 'life and work'). The posts have also become more 'experience driven' - with the concept/ theory part limited mainly to concepts/inferences that emerge from the situations/experiences. I got to know a quite a few great people through this blog and I have greatly benefited from the interactions with them. Of late ,I have noticed that the comments/ discussions around many of the posts are longer (and more interesting !) than the posts themselves ! (see 'Career Planning and the myth of Sisyphus')

It is interesting to note that this 'evolution' mirrors (to some extent) the basic theme of this blog - 'Simplicity @ the other side of Complexity'. By the way, I have kept the name of blog as 'Simplicity at the other side of Complexity' (as opposed to 'simplicity on the other side of complexity'), to stress the point that this simplicity is something that one 'arrives at' (with a significant amount of effort) after working through/wrestling with the complexity. This blog also gave me the opportunity to explore the paradoxes and opportunities in the people management domain. I am sure that the process of grappling with these paradoxes and dilemmas has helped a lot in enriching my understanding of the HR/OD domain in particular and life in general!

There is a concept in 'Tantric philosophy' that ghosts get created because of 'undigested karma'. I feel that 'ghosts' could get created in the domain of thoughts also - because of 'undigested incidents' (i.e. the undigested thoughts arising from the incidents). The ideal way to exorcise these ghosts is to listen to them, revisit those incidents/thoughts and deal with them properly to ensure that the thoughts/ideas are digested/absorbed/integrated. In a way, it is very similar to the regurgitation/'chewing the cud' behavior of some animals (called 'ruminants'). This blog has given me an opportunity to exorcise quite a few of such ghosts (see 'Competencies and Carbohydrates' for an example).

Many of my posts contain stories (fables, legends, anecdotes and myths). I feel that it is mainly because of the nature of the thoughts discussed in those posts. Many of these thoughts/ideas deal with things like 'reality', 'essential nature', 'meaning', 'wisdom' etc. that are very difficult to express in words.

Stories have the capability to 'capture' complex meanings , though these 'meanings' are not contained in the words/text of the story. Actually, the role of the words/text of the story is to 'trigger' the 'meaning' in the mind of the reader. Thus, stories can be very useful in capturing and communicating thoughts/ideas/ meanings that are difficult to verbalize. The other option is to use complex (unusual) combination of words and symbols to try to communicate the thoughts/ideas/meanings that we are talking about. This could come across as 'using big words' and often it fails to meet the objective. Hence I feel that stories present a much more elegant solution. Of course, my favorites are myths - as myths allow us to transcend even the 'limitations' imposed by reality! (see 'So true that it can't be real').

I find the process of generating an idea, letting it evolve & crystallize in the mind and capturing it in a blog post is highly rewarding intrinsically. Blogging is also a form of self expression that is aligned to my 'INTJ' personality type.  These along with the opportunity to exorcise ghosts, to make problems disappear and to interact with wonderful people have made my first year of blogging a deeply enriching experience for me!.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Of deep-specialists and jumping around

This post is on one of my favorite topics : 'deep-specialist' roles in internal HR. Please see here (Specialist roles in internal HR - An endangered species ?) and here (Business alignment of specialists) for previous posts in this domain. The first post explored if these deep-specialist roles are becoming fewer in number. This post is about another related dimension : the average time that these 'deep-specialists' spend in a particular organization.

When we say 'deep-specialist' roles, we are talking about those roles in internal HR that require deep specialist skills/expertise in one of the functional areas in HR (e.g. organization development, reward management, leadership development etc.). It takes many years to develop skills/ expertise to this level. Often, this would also imply that

(A) Very few people can become deep specialists in more than one area

(B) Deep-specialists are high cost resources to hire/ maintain.

If we combine (A) and (B) above; it can lead to some interesting scenarios. (A) would imply that most deep-specialists would find it hard to find another deep-specialist role that they can move into within the organization. (B) would imply that the deep-specialist would have to maintain a very high level of contribution/value addition to justify his/ her cost. For this to happen there has to be a very close match between the the skill/ expertise area of the deep-specialist and the needs of the organization. Now the problem is that in many organizations the 'needs' (that necessitated the hiring of the deep-specialist) change - often quite quickly. This could happen because of many reasons - including those related to the changes in the business and/or those related to the HR strategy/structure/operating model. Now if the the 'original needs' (that necessitated the hiring of the deep-specialist) don't exist any more, that puts our deep-specialist in a peculiar situation : he/she can't maintain the high level of value to justify his/her cost and also he/she can't move into another role in the organization. So this could force the deep-specialist to leave the organization/look for another organization that provides a better fit. However, it could just be a matter of time before the same story gets repeated in the new organization. Again, if we assume that the above changes in business/HR happen frequently, 'logically speaking', this should lead to relatively shorter tenure for deep-specialists.

Since I know that a purely logical approach might not always lead to correct conclusions, I decided to do some sort of a 'reality check'. I spoke to some of my friends (who are deep-specialists) and asked them what is the average tenure they look at when they take up a new job. The answer : about 4-5 years in terms of aspiration and about 2-3 years in terms of the likely result. I feel that these (relatively small) numbers and especially the gap between the 'aspired figure' and the 'likely figure' for tenure, seem to support the inference/line of reasoning regarding the 'relatively short average tenure for deep-specialists'. Of course, this is far from being any sort of conclusive proof ! May be (since I am a 'deep-specialist at heart') I am just looking for excuses to jump around frequently !

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Towards a philosophy of HR

"HR is like gardening", said a senior HR professional when he was completely drunk. "We are not using any functional expertise in this recruitment assignment; our role in this project is similar to that of a pimp", said a Project Manager from a reputed HR consulting firm when he was in a reflective mood. "The HR leadership team is thinking about strategies to build the firm for the next 150 years", said a global HR leader in a 150-year-old MNC. Three senior HR professionals and three interesting perspectives - in three different contexts.

What is the basic 'philosophy' that underlies the domain of Human Resources? Does this (and should this) vary significantly across organizations? Is it a clearly defined and commonly accepted philosophy ? If not, can we derive some sort of 'emergent philosophy' from the way the craft of HR is practiced ? How has this philosophy been evolving? Is it worthwhile for organizations to invest time and effort in formulating and articulating an HR philosophy?

Now that I have been working in the HR domain for a decade, these are some of the questions that I have found myself thinking about quite a bit these days. Of course, I don't claim to have definite answers to these questions. What I do have are some 'thought fragments'. So the objective of this post is to seek comments from the readers so as to have a discussion on the topic.

Since this is a very broad topic, let us make a couple of simplifying assumptions for the propose of this discussion. Here we are taking about HR only in the context of business organizations. We are using the term 'philosophy' in a limited sense, to mean the basic assumptions, premises or tenets that underlies the field of HR.

There are many ways to approach this topic. One of them is to look at the applied behavior science foundations of HR. It can be said that the objective of applied behavior science is to understand human behavior in order to make predictions regarding probable behaviors in various situations so as to be able to influence those behaviors. This 'understand-predict-influence' sequence underlies all applied behavior science including Human Resource Management. From this it can be inferred that one basic assumption in the philosophy of HR is that it is possible to understand and predict human behavior so that it can be influenced to be in line with the organization objectives.

Another 'trick' that is often used is to look at the various terms used for HR and derive inferences from the choice of words. Here we comes across many terms, including Human Resource Management, Human Resource Development, Personnel Management, Human Capital Management, Talent Management etc. Then we could make 'inferences' like

(a) use of the term 'Management' indicates the intention to 'control' (more than what is meant by the term 'influence')
(b) use of the term 'Resources' implies that employees are a factor of production or even that they are essentially costs of production that needs to be minimised to the extent possible
(c) use of the term 'Capital' implies that employees are more like assets than costs and hence they are worth investing on or even that they add significantly to the value of the firm
(d) use of the term talent and avoidance of the term resource implies that employees are like investors who invest their talents in the organization and that they would continue to do only if they see attractive benefits like rapid appreciation in the value of their talent and good revenues in terms of salary.

While some of these 'inferences' do not necessarily follow from the terms, they do give us a flavor of the underlying assumptions.

Now if we look at many of the HR practices (that originated many years ago), we can figure out that they make some assumptions like 'continuity of the employment relationship', 'good amount of predictability regarding the business growth and hence career growth' etc. If we examine what actually happens in organizations these days (especially in highly dynamic industries), we are likely to find that these assumptions no longer hold good. Please see here for an illustration of this point in the context of career planning. Based on this we could argue that some of the basic underlying assumptions and hence the de facto philosophy of HR is evolving - often quite rapidly.

It is interesting to note that to some extent this 'evolution' also gets reflected in the changing names for the various sub-functions in HR. For example the function of 'Compensation' (which can be interpreted to mean that the organization is compensating the employees for some harm done to them) evolved into 'Rewards' and then into 'Total Rewards'. Another example could be the 'Training' function evolving into 'Learning' function. Training sounds like something that is done to the employees (or even forced upon the employees), almost similar to training animals. Learning happens inside the minds of the employees and hence can only be facilitated (and not forced upon the employees) by the 'Learning' function. Of course, the change in the name need not always imply a change in the underlying assumptions/philosophy. But it does show that it is fashionable/desirable (at least from a PR point of view) to have (or at least to create an illusion of) a more progressive philosophy of people management.

Now let us look at the basic issue of why should we be bothered about the 'philosophy of HR'. The 'philosophy of HR'/'basic assumptions in HR' in a particular organization context shapes the way the employees are managed in that organization.

Lack of a clearly articulated and understood 'philosophy of HR' can make the organization susceptible to 'taking up the latest fad in people management and discarding it soon after to take up the next one'. It can also result in highly inconsistent attitudes/practices in managing the employees (e.g. swinging wildly between high empowerment and high control, between large investment in employee development and no investment between 'intense focus on encouraging employees to form emotional bonds with the company and 'downsizing and then scaling up shortly after that' etc. This in turn can cause a lot of avoidable confusion.

More importantly, the 'way the employees are managed' will influence how the employees respond to that/how the employees behave in the organizations. What happens here is similar to the 'Pygmalion effect'. Thus 'wrong/bad' assumptions/philosophy, might result in creating 'wrong/bad' reality. For example, 'Theory X' kind of assumptions/philosophy (i.e. that the employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can) in people management will promote 'Theory X' kind of behavior among the employees. Hence, though the 'initial reality'/'employee behavior' might not be in line with 'Theory X kind of assumptions', after people management based on 'Theory X assumptions' have been practiced for some time, employees might start to behave in a fashion that validates 'Theory X'. This makes people management a very dangerous domain !

We also have to be mindful of the possible conflict between the stated HR philosophy in an organization and the 'actual' HR philosophy practiced in the organization. What really matters is the HR philosophy (basic assumptions about HR) that emerges/can be inferred from (or gets reflected in) in the decisions made by the organization. It will be a tragic-comic situation if an organization says that 'people are our greatest assets/people are our main source of competitive advantage' and at the same time practices 'downsizing' and/or 'cutting employee benefits & training' as the first response (instinctive response!) to any business downturn. There is no better way to create mistrust and cynicism in the organization ! The same holds good at the level of managers also. Managers (especially direct supervisors) represent/symbolize the 'organization' to the employees and the real 'HR philosophy' of the organization (as perceived by the employees) is the one that gets reflected in the behaviors of (or in decisions made by) the managers. So we can't overemphasise the need for congruence between the 'articulated HR philosophy' and the 'HR philosophy in practice' ! It is interesting to note that discussion mirrors the discussion on the need for congruence between the 'espoused values' and the 'enacted values' in an organization. Logically speaking, HR philosophy of an organization should be closely linked to (or even derived from) the core values of the organization. Thus, the issues at the level of core values are likely to get reflected at the level of HR philosophy also!

So, these are some of my preliminary thoughts. Now over to you for your comments.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Paradox of 'potential assessment'

Most organizations have some sort a process for assessing the 'potential' of its employees. This is very much required as the 'fallacy of promoting an employee to a new job based on high performance in the current job' is well known. There won't be many HR professionals (or even business managers) who haven't heard about the 'tragic story' of the 'star salesman who was promoted to the sales manager position and failed miserably'. So the business case for 'potential appraisal' is quite strong.

The problem begins when one asks questions like

a. How exactly should organizations go about assessing potential?

b. Can potential assessment be done (within the organizational constraints) in a reasonably valid manner?

c. If there are serious doubts regarding the validity of potential appraisal in a particular organization context, is it worth the trouble and effort to put in place a potential appraisal process in that organization?

There are different points of view when it comes to the answers to these questions and that is what makes potential assessment paradoxical. A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another.

The common methods used for 'potential appraisal' include managerial judgment, 360 degree appraisal, psychometric testing, assessment centres etc. Sometimes, a combination of these methods are also used. In most cases the choice of method(s) is driven mainly by the amount of time and resources that the organization is willing to invest in the process and the 'cultural readiness' of the organization. Sometimes the choice could also be driven by things like 'casual benchmarking', latest seminar attended by the HR Head, pet methodology of the consulting firm hired etc.

I feel that the basic issue in potential assessment (which sometimes does not get enough attention) is 'potential for what?'. Many answers are possible here. They include

1. potential to be effective in a particular position
2. potential to be effective in a particular job family
3. potential to be effective at a particular level
4. potential to take up leadership positions in the company
5. potential to move up the organization ladder/levels in an accelerated timeframe etc.

Logically, the first four answers should lead to the creation of a capability framework that details the requirements to be effective in the job/job family/level/leadership positions that we are taking about. Similarly, the fifth answer should lead to identification of attributes/capabilities that enable an employee to quickly climb up the organization ladder.

It is interesting to note that since these capability requirements can be different for different organizations a person who is rated as 'high potential' in one organization might not necessarily be rated so in another organization (and vice versa) - even if we rule out any errors in measurement. However, the capability frameworks (especially the 'behavioral competency frameworks') tend to be quite similar across organizations (for a variety of reasons including the generic nature of the frameworks, attempt to include all possible 'good' behaviors in the framework, casual benchmarking of competency frameworks, hiring the same consultant to develop the framework etc.). Hence, assuming reasonable consistency of measurement, the potential ratings for the same person might not vary too much across organizations - unless the underlying definitions of potential (i.e. answer to the question - 'potential for what?' mentioned above) are different across the organizations.

The potential assessment has to be done with respect to the requisite capabilities mentioned above. Depending on the nature of the particular capability, the method for assessing it can be chosen keeping in mind the organization constraints/context specific factors. In many cases the employees might not have had an opportunity to demonstrate the requisite capabilities (for the future/target job) in their current/previous jobs. This would call for some sort of simulation, similar to those used in assessment centres. For some aspects of particular capabilities that are close to work styles/ personality attributes some sort of psychometric testing could also be useful. Psychometric testing also becomes useful if the fit between ‘certain dimensions of the organization culture and the employee’s personality’ gets identified as a key factor for potential. Managerial judgment (especially if it is calibrated through an in-depth discussion by a group of managers who have had significant amount work related interaction with the employee) and 360 degree feedback are useful to supplement the data from assessment centres/from other assessment tools - particularly from a data interpretation/'reality testing' point of view.

In the choice of methods/process, it is very important to strike the right balance between accuracy of the assessment (from a validity point of view) and the time/resource investment required (from a sustainability point of view). Some capabilities are easier to develop through training/experience in a short period of time while it is not the case for some other capabilities. So if the time/resource constraints do not allow the potential assessment to cover all the capabilities, the capabilities that are difficult to develop through training/experience in a short period of time should get priority. Of course, we need to look at the relative importance of various capabilities for enabling effectiveness on the job. Thus, to achieve a reasonable amount of validity, 'potential assessment' requires a significant amount effort and if the organization is not willing to use anything other than 'judgment of the immediate manager' for assessing potential, the usefulness of the assessment becomes doubtful.

This brings us to the issue of how would the organization use the results of the potential assessment. Most common practice is to combine the potential assessment with the performance assessment in order to arrive at some sort of 'talent classification' that segments the employees into various categories and to define particular courses of action for each category (e.g. promote, invest, retain, develop, move out etc.). It has to be kept in mind that even if the performance assessment has been done in an objective manner, if the validity of the potential assessment is doubtful, the talent classification and the consequent actions become debatable.

There are also other interesting dimensions here such as whether the organization would disclose the results of the potential assessment and talent classification to the employee in question. Not disclosing this could create issues related to transparency and even those related to data privacy/data protection. Disclosing the information might lead to a situation where the employee questions the results/methods, forcing the manager/organization to explain how exactly were the results arrived at and also the steps taken to ensure the validity of the process/ results.

There is also the issue of employees who were assessed to be 'low potential' feeling discouraged/demotivated. Sometimes, these negative reactions are even worse than those to a 'low' rating on performance. In many organizations, the results of potential assessment for a particular employee tend to remain the same across years (especially for assessment of 'leadership potential'). Thus once employees get a 'low rating' on potential, they might feel that they will never get an opportunity to take up leadership positions. Many employees also feel that they have a better chance of influencing their performance rating as compared to influencing their potential rating, especially when the potential appraisal process is not very transparent.

I have also come across situations where the potential assessment has been misused. Sometimes potential assessment is positioned/communicated to the employees as 'purely for capability development' though the potential ratings get used for making key decisions that impact the employee's career advancement. Of course, there could be much worse scenarios. Many years ago, when I was doing a diagnostic study of the HR systems of a company, I was told that though the performance planning and review system of the company provides an option to the employees to disagree with the manager on the performance rating, no one exercises that option. When I tried to investigate the reason for this, I found that the process provides for a 'potential rating' in addition to the performance rating and that the 'potential rating' is not even shared with the employee. It was common practice among the managers in that company to give a 'low' rating on potential for any employee who disagrees with manager on the performance rating. Since a 'low' rating on potential would have ruined the career of an employee in that company, no one wanted to take the risk of disagreeing with the manager on the performance rating. I hope that this scenario is a rare one. However, the point is that potential assessment can be misused and this could have serious adverse effects on employee engagement and retention.

Thus, the organization needs to think through the entire gamut of issues related to potential assessment in its context (objective, methodology/process, validity, initial investment/effort required to put the process in place, time/effort required for each cycle, sustainability, use of the results, employee communication, cost benefit analysis etc.) before a potential appraisal system is put in place. While perfect solutions may not be feasible/required, it does require thinking though multiple scenarios, options and implications and making informed decisions/trade offs. This would enable the organization to maximize the implementation effectiveness and to minimize/mange the possible adverse side effects of implementation. This is the requirement for being able to give a positive answer to the question that we started off with (Is it worth the trouble and effort to put in place a potential appraisal process in the organization?)!!!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Two slips and a gully (2 EAs and a secretary)

A few years ago, I worked with a very 'interesting' boss. He was the head of our group and he used to have 2 Executive Assistants and 1 Executive Secretary supporting him. Since group size was about 30, this meant that 10 % of the group was in his support staff. I used to wonder if this was really required. While he definitely needed some administrative support, 3 support staff seemed to be a bit too much. I used to suspect that some sort of 'pace bowler mentality' might have something do with this situation. Let me explain. In the game of cricket, if you are a pace bowler, you would feel very good when you see a few fielders in slip and gully positions when you are running in to bowl. In a way, it is an acknowledgement of your skill as a pace bowler. After all, fielders won't be deployed in those positions unless you have a good chance of forcing the batsman to edge the ball. So it makes sense. Now think of a situation where the batsman has been hitting you over midwicket frequently and you still insist on having many fielders in slips/gully. It this case it becomes debatable whether your demand is based mainly on logic/cricketing sense or on your need to maintain your self image as a good pace bowler.

This brings us to the larger issue of the level of admin./secretarial support required for senior managers. In MNCs, the trend these days is to reduce the number of support staff for senior managers to an absolute minimum level. In a high-tech world, many of the traditional administrative/secretarial support activities are not required. Self service is the norm even for senior managers. Some times this (i.e. operating without support staff) is also done as a 'cultural statement'. Anyway, this leads to savings in 'headcount' and it makes sense in most situations. However there are also situations where a significant part of the senior managers time gets wasted in administrative activities that could have been done by a support staff. Considering the very high salaries of many of these senior managers, some times this 'avoidable' wastage of time could prove to be more costly than the cost involved in employing support staff (especially when we consider the 'opportunity cost' of the time wasted by the senior managers). Also I feel that, in general, decisions based on 'total cost of workforce' are often better than those based on 'headcount numbers' though headcount numbers are easier to track and control. Thus it becomes necessary to examine whether the decision to reduce the number of support staff is based entirely on sound business logic (based on a cost benefit analysis).

It would be interesting to examine if the presence of support staff encourages some managers (especially 'old world' managers) to operate in a more hierarchical/less democratic way with the other team members and/or to feel that the other team members are not so important. An extreme example is the case of a senior manager who (when he has questioned by his HR manager about the high attrition rate in his team) claimed that he is not bothered about attrition as he can run the department with only two other staff members. When the curious HR manager tried to find out who these two 'critical resources' are it emerged that the senior manager was referring to his secretary and his driver. May be the presence of support staff increases 'power distance' in some contexts and in those contexts the 'cultural statement' that I was mentioning earlier might not be all that bad an idea !

Monday, October 8, 2007

Of specialists and 'business-alignment'

I have spent most of my career so far in specialist roles. I have also handled HR business partner roles (being part of the business leadership team) where I was the 'internal customer' for specialists roles in HR. This gave me an opportunity to develop a more 'balanced perspective' on specialist roles - their value proposition, their relationship with generalist roles, and their business-alignment.

One of the issues that has interested me a great deal is the 'business-alignment of specialists'. Most of us would agree that specialists should not operate in an 'ivory tower' manner and that their efforts should be aligned to the needs of the business. It would be quite disastrous if a specialist operates with an attitude that 'I need to make some interventions, so let me find a group/unit to be intervened upon' or that 'I have designed a 'perfect' framework/tool/process and my duty is to make the organization implement that - whether they like it not'. So, the solutions that the specialists design should be targeted at the key problems and opportunities for the business. Also, these solutions should be designed in a such a way that they have a good chance of 'working', keeping in mind the organizational constraints and its state of readiness. Otherwise the result would be 'very elegant impractical solutions'.

However, it would also be a mistake to jump to the other end of this spectrum - where the specialist becomes just a pair of hands. Specialists are paid for their expertise and just 'obeying' what their customer asks them to do without questioning would be an abdication of responsibility. As a specialist, I have felt uncomfortable when a business leader or a generalist attempted to tell me 'the solution'. I feel that the customer should describe the need/problem. The customer can also specify some key design considerations and boundary conditions for the solution in their context. But it is the job of the specialist to design the solution. Of course, the solution design process is an interactive one where the customer input/data/feedback is sought at all the appropriate stages. Again, it is for the customer to decide whether the solution meets his/her needs. But none of this takes away from the fact that 'solution design per se ' is the job of the specialist.

Now, this does not mean that specialists should stop listening to the customer the moment the customer starts describing the 'solution'. These 'solutions' described by the customers often provide valuable information regarding the 'real problem'. In many situations, this information might not be part of the initial problem statement. The solutions provide a good starting point for an in-depth discussion with the customer regarding the problem. This is essentially a matter of asking the customer why he/she is proposing the particular solution. The idea is to seek clarifications so as to have a better understanding of 'where the customer is coming from' and not to 'destroy' the 'solution' proposed by the customer. Once we understand the real needs/objectives of the customer, it becomes possible to have a discussion with the customer regarding the possible solutions (and not just the one the customer had initially proposed) and their implications. This gives the specialist an opportunity to bring in his expertise (content and process) and do what the specialist is paid to do. Of course, there could be situations where the customer is not prepared to have such a discussion (i.e. where the customer's position is that of 'just do what I tell you'). If these situations occur frequently in a particular context (or if they become the standard operating procedure), then the specialist should think about whether a specialist role is really needed in that context. Fortunately, these these kind of contexts are relatively rare.

The role of the specialist is a tricky one. Deep technical expertise (in both the 'content' part and in the 'process' part) is often a key part of the 'definition' of a specialist. Thus 'technical perfection' of the solution becomes a key motivating factor for the specialist. However, the survival of the specialists depend on developing and implementing 'pragmatic solutions' that work within the organization constraints. Thus there is always this ('creative'?!) tension between 'correctness of the solution' and the 'feasibility of implementation'. Making the transition from being a 'technical' expert to being a 'solution provider' is a necessary part of the 'journey' of any specialist. The 'trick' is to make the transition without losing the 'soul of the specialist'.

Any comments/thoughts/ideas?

Related Link : Specialist roles in internal HR - An endangered species?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Followership behaviors of leaders

A few years ago, while I was working with one of my previous employers, I got an opportunity to attend a 'global HR leadership team meeting' of that company. This meeting brought together senior HR leaders of the company from various countries and from the corporate office. Though the main purpose of my participation in the meeting was to lead a working session (on an initiative that I was managing at that time), it also gave me a great opportunity to observe the HR leaders of the company for three days.

What struck me the most was the 'followership behaviors' of some of these leaders (i.e. their behavior pattern when they are interacting with leaders who are even more senior than them). In quite a few cases this was very different from their behavior in those situations where they were the senior most person present. The supreme confidence and aggressiveness that were often present in their behavior in the latter case were completely absent when they were in the presence of leaders who are more senior than them. Initially, this difference caused some amount of 'dissonance' in my mind. But it helped me to develop a more realistic/balanced understanding of these people as individuals and also of their degree of power/influence/importance in the organization. This proved to be very helpful in working more effectively with these leaders later.

I do wonder how much difference is there between the 'leadership' and 'followership' behaviors of most people. May be we can say that the difference is there in the case of most people (this is a common phenomena among primates !) and that the difference becomes more 'noticeable' in the case of people who are in leadership positions in organizations (or at least that people who have seen these leaders in action in both the 'leadership' and 'followership' roles tend to notice quite a bit of difference). Of course, this difference is a matter of degree and in the case of some of the leaders there won't be a significant difference in the behavior. It might also be that the difference would be more in the case of more hierarchical organizations (and in the case of more 'authoritarian leaders').

An even more interesting question is whether it is 'OK' to have a difference between one's 'leadership behavior pattern' and 'followership behavior pattern'. I feel that some amount of difference is 'normal' - in the statistical sense of the term (i.e. fitting into a normal distribution). I do feel that a very high degree of difference (resembling 'split personality') is not desirable - especially when the difference in behavior is used to manipulate one's subordinates and/or superiors.

All of us are leaders and followers. It can be argued that 'leadership' and 'followership' are present in all of us and that one of them ('leadership' or 'followership') becomes 'active' in a particular situation. This leads to some interesting questions. To what extent is 'leadership' and 'followership' a choice of the individual concerned? Is this always a conscious choice? To what extent does the situation influence this choice? If we treat leadership as an 'emergent phenomenon' can one do anything to improve one's chances of 'emerging' as a leader?

Any answers/thoughts/comments?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Social capital, restructuring and attrition

Social capital in an organization refers to the collective value of all social networks (connections among the individuals) in that organization. These connections have 'value' for both the organization and the employees.

A significant portion of the 'work' in organizations gets done through these connections (often referred to as the 'informal organization') rather than through the 'formal structure' in the organization. These 'connections' motivate employees to do things for one another beyond what is specified in the job descriptions. Hence social capital has a positive influence on productivity. The importance of social capital in the creation of intellectual capital has also been recognised. Since these 'connections' are difficult to copy, social capital could be a source of sustainable competitive advantage for the organization.

These 'connections' (social capital) could also help in addressing 'relatedness' needs of the employees. So in addition to enabling the employees to get their work done faster/easier/better, these 'connections' contribute in meeting their their social/'connectedness' needs. Thus social capital could add to 'personal effectiveness at work' and the 'total employee deal' as perceived by the employees and hence it could have a positive influence on employee engagement and retention.

Organization restructuring is one of the popular ways of responding to a dynamic business environment. While the business case for restructuring is quite compelling in many contexts, the hidden costs of restructuring in terms of loss of social capital often gets overlooked. Restructuring breaks up the human networks/connections in organizations and dilutes the social capital in the organization. Since (as mentioned above) these connections are valuable for both the organization and the employees, there could be adverse impact on the organization (in the form of reduced productivity, reduction in the rate of intellectual capital creation, increased employee turnover/ attrition etc.) and on the employees (in terms of reduced engagement, work effectiveness, satisfaction etc.). Of course, many of these factors are interrelated and hence the adverse effects could get amplified.

As we have seen above, organization restructuring and the consequent loss of social capital could reduce the 'value' that the employees derive from organization and hence this could lead to employee turnover/attrition. The social networks bind the employees to one another and hence to the organization. It can also be said that one of the reasons that the employees don't want to leave an organization (to join another organization) is the reluctance to 'start all over again' (in terms of having to build new networks/connections). Thus if a restructuring breaks up their existing connections, employees might have less reason to stay on in an organization. Costs of attrition are well known. Apart from these costs attrition also leads to a further erosion in human capital as more social networks/connections get broken when employees leave. When 'key' employees (with a large number of strong connections) leave the impact on social capital would be more. It is also possible that employees might leave in groups if these groups have a large number of strong connections within them (especially if another organization offers an opportunity to maintain these connections).

Thus one of the key hidden cost of restructuring could be in terms of loss of social capital and its ripple effects. Loss of connections/social capital could lead to attrition which in turn leads to a further erosion of social capital. This could lead to a vicious cycle and organizations should be careful about this. When an 'impact assessment' is done for the proposed restructuring exercise, the impact on social networks/connections/social capital should also be factored in. Since these social networks also serve as communication channels, the communication strategy for restructuring requires even more emphasis (as the restructuring could have broken up some of the existing communication channels). The overall change management plan should give specific attention to retain key people (people with a large number of strong connections) so as to reduce the erosion of social capital. The plan should also focus on creating an environment that would facilitate building of new connections to replace the old ones hence to restore and enhance the social capital in the organization.

See a related post here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Career planning and the myth of Sisyphus

Career planning is one of the most interesting rituals in HR. But before we come to career planning let us look at the myth of Sisyphus. We come across Sisyphus in Greek mythology. The myth says that because of his trickery Sisyphus was cursed by the gods. As a result of that he had to repeat a maddening procedure forever. He was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he reached the top of the hill, the rock always escaped him and he had to begin again. Actually, similar stories exists in other cultures also. For example, in my home state (Kerala) there is a similar story about Naranathu Bhranthan. Naranathu Bhranthan was considered to be a 'siddha' (an 'enlightened' or 'realized' being) though some of his behaviors appeared to be rather 'strange'. He used to follow the same procedure as that of Sisyphus (though not on a full time basis!). But he was doing it out of choice. Also in his case the stones would not automatically roll back. So he would manage to get many big stones to the top of the hill. Then he would push them down one by one and he would laugh loudly as they roll down the slope. We will come back to Naranathu Bhranthan later in this post. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, myths are important as they contain eternal truths, though myths might be too true to be real.

Now let us come back to career planning. Organizations in general and HR professionals in particular, invest a lot of time an effort in career planning. There are very good reasons for doing so. A large number of studies have shown that 'opportunity for career development' is one of the most important things that employees look for in an organization. So the organizations (and HR professionals) have to do something about this. The typical response is to map out career paths. Since organizations are keen on approaching this 'strategically'/with a long term perspective, these career paths provide the 'growth paths' extending over many years. Since there are many types of employee profiles, employee preferences, positions and career options, often these lead to a huge amount of detail. This of course implies a large amount of time/resource investment. But there is a paradox here. In many industries (especially in sectors like IT/ITES/BPO in India) the attrition rates are very high. So in many organizations most of the employees would leave before they complete 3 years in the organization. Hence these long term career plans get wasted in the case of most of the employees. This is where Sisyphus comes in. We put in a lot of effort in formulating detailed career paths (like Sisyphus rolling the huge rock up the hill). But before they could make significant progress along these nice career paths most of the employees leave (or 'escape' like the rock in the case of Sisyphus). So does 'career planning' amount to some sort of a 'Sisyphus-like curse' for HR professionals?

May be the situation would improve if we can target career planning efforts to those employees who are likely to stay on with the organization for a long time. While it can be argued that career planning itself would reduce attrition, this does not seem to work very well in many organizations. May be career planning (at least in the traditional form) would have a significant influence only on some employees (who already have a some sort of a long term perspective and also have a good degree of person-organization fit!). Of course there are more innovative approaches to career development that are being experimented.

Another way to look at this situation is to say that the 'career planning ritual' is both 'necessary and beneficial', though the manifestation of the results might not essentially be in terms of employees moving along the prescribed career paths. The ritual itself might help in building positive energy and it might also considered to be a necessary condition (though often not a sufficient condition) for positive organizational outcomes. May be we are more like Naranathu Bhranthan than like Sisyphus. This would imply that we are formulating these career paths knowing that most of the employees won't really follow them. So we are like Naranathu Bhranthan who was following the 'Sisyphus-like' procedure out of choice. By the way, the word 'bhranthan' in Malayalam language means a 'madman'. So we can see that though Naranathu Bhranthan appeared to be 'mad' to many people (and hence he was called a 'bhranthan'), he was the 'master of his madness' and that he was laughing at life itself (remember - he was also considered to be a 'siddha'). Perhaps career planning in rapidly changing high attrition environments would always be a maddening activity. But each one of us can attempt to be a 'master of the madness' rather than being a slave. May be we can also laugh like Naranathu Bhranthan used to do (though not so loudly - lest we might be considered to be 'mad' by the 'masters' in our organizations !) when the employees grow beyond (or even 'jump' out of) the elaborate career paths that we had created with so much effort !

So are you laughing ?

Note: Please see here for another example of the connection between HR and 'madness'.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Research and a three-year-old

The incident that triggered the thought process behind this post happened when my son was about 3 years old. This was the time when he was trying to figure out 'cause and effect' relationships. So he used to say things like "If I shout in the class, my teacher will scold me", "I ran very fast in the park. That is why I fell down" etc. Those days we used to have an evening ritual. I would put my son on my shoulders and go for a walk. This 'sitting on the shoulders' arrangement made conversations easy even when there was a lot of noise all around. So this led to a lot of interesting discussions. There is nothing quite like a conversation with a curious, confident and talkative three-year-old to force one to be aware of and to question one's assumptions!

These walks would take us near a manned railway crossing/gate. Since he likes to see trains, we would stand there for a long time. After a few days he told me about a 'discovery' he has made "The gate has closed. That is why the train is coming"! Now, we all know that the 'causation' (if any) is the other way around. But purely based on his observations this was not so. He sees one thing happening (gate closes). After that something else always happens (train comes). Based on his 'life experience so far' (or his understanding of the 'system'/'universe') it was reasonable for him to think that if something happens and something else always happens after that the first thing might be causing the second thing (this principle had worked for him in the two examples mentioned above - running in the park and shouting in the class).

So, how would I convince him that his conclusion was wrong? The only way that I could think of was to tell him about the larger system (the railway system in this case - that makes the trains run and the gates close). This solution 'worked' only because there was someone around who knew about the larger system. He could not have come to the 'correct conclusion' purely based on his observations and his life experience thus far (i.e. based on his understanding of the 'system' at that point) .

Now, if we look at the research in behavioral science (or may be research in general), often we don't have the luxury of fully knowing the larger system in which the phenomena that we are observing are happening. Also there might not be anyone who has an adequate understanding of the system to 'enlighten' us. Actually, such understanding might not even exist! (as all the 'possible' events/system behaviors might not have been observed or even taken place so far - e.g. unusual/rare events/system behaviors like those that could result from malfunctioning of railway signals, human error, train breakdowns, accidents etc. or events like 'two trains passing through the railway gate at the same time on parallel tracks' that could arise from from a peculiar/uncommon combination of factors - if we stick with our original example). Often, there is no way we can study the 'entire system' (actually it would be very difficult even to determine the exact boundaries of the relevant 'system' in a particular study). We might not be in a position to look at all the data. So have to decide what data we would study and what data we would leave out. This could bring in biases (e.g. selection bias, survivorship bias etc.) and limitations. Thus, there is a significant risk that we might make the wrong inference (since we are limited by our observations and our current level of understanding of the system).

In addition to this, there are the standard problems with spurious correlations, mistaking correlation for causation, determining the direction of causation ('A causes B' or 'B causes A' or 'C causes both A and B' etc.) and assumptions regarding the homogeneity/uniformity of the system (assuming that findings that are valid in one part of the system are equally valid in other parts of the system). Of course, there are ways of expanding both our 'current level of understanding' and our data set/observations (e.g. study of the existing 'research' in the domain- if relevant and available). But, if we examine most of the 'research' that happens within organizations (for diagnosis and decision making - to solve the immediate problems in particular organization contexts), the pressures of time and resources might dilute the efforts to expand the 'understanding and data set'. Again, it is possible that the 'system' might have changed (in subtle but significant ways - without us noticing it) from what it was at the time we studied it/derived inferences on system behavior. Considering the nature and pace of change in many of the human systems that we are taking about, this could pose a big challenge for making available 'valid actionable inferences' to guide our decision making. Keeping all this in mind, can we expect to do always better than what my three-year-old had managed to do?

Note: I am not saying that useful behavioral research can't be conducted in organizations. My point is just that it requires a convergence of 'realistic expectations', 'will' and 'resources' - which, unfortunately, is not very common in most 'real world' organization contexts. If the 'research problem' can be defined narrowly, I would not even rule out the possibility of 'experiments' (though 'experiments' might not be a 'politically correct' term in organization contexts ; 'pilot studies' might be more appropriate). If such experiments can be conducted in the filed of medicine (where - literally - 'life and death' issues are involved), why can't we try them in business organizations (with proper precautions)? Of course, the problems like the ones that I have mentioned above (e.g. too many variables, difficulty in conducting 'controlled experiments', insufficient understanding of the system, biases in selection of data, assumptions about homogeneity and stability of the population/system etc.) still apply. But we might still get some useful information and/or insights.

Any comments/thoughts/ideas?

See somewhat related posts here, here and here.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Paradox of 'hiring good people and letting them decide'

How do we build a high performance organization? There are many 'answers' to this question. There has to be many answers (or at least 'attempted answers'), because, this is the core issue in 'management'. Hence, most of the management literature should be dealing with some aspect of this this question ('quest' !) in some way. So we have many approaches/answers. There is one particular approach that I find to be particularly interesting. It is something like this : "Hire good people and empower them to decide what is to be done and how it is to be done". The basic idea here is that in a complex and rapidly changing environment, it the traditional approach of specifying (to each employee) what exactly has to be done is unlikely to work. So it is better to hire good people and let them figure out what needs to be done.

I am not saying that this approach is 'wrong'. My point is that there is a paradox here. In order to hire 'good' people the organization has to use a definition of 'good' (a 'working definition' of what 'good' means in their context - so that it can be used in the hiring process/ as the selection criteria). After all one can't do hiring without some sort of criteria (implicit or explicit). This leads to an interesting situation. This definition of 'good' (implicit or explicit) is colored by the current thinking in the organization. To put it in another way, the criteria for a good hire gets influenced by the organization's (often implicit) understanding of what is to be done, how it is to be done and hence what sort of a person can do it. So the existing limitations (and prescriptions of what is to be done/how it is to be done) gets built into the hiring criteria at least to some extent.

Let us look at the most common example of this situation. Organization 'A' is in trouble. The organization does not have a clear understanding of what is to be done to get out of this situation. So it decides to hire a 'good' CEO and let him/her figure out what needs to be done. However, when the organization chooses a 'good CEO' that choice is colored by the explicit/implicit definition of 'a good CEO' which in turn is limited by the current thinking/consciousness in the organization. This can be addressed to some extent by looking at 'best practices' (what has worked in CEO selection elsewhere in similar situations) and by using external advisers. But this might not always work as the the uniqueness of that particular organization context might get missed out and also because the external advice/best practice information often goes through one level of processing within the organization (when decision making is done by existing people) which in turn brings in the limitations in the current processing/thinking in the organization.

Hence the approach of 'hiring good people and letting them figure out what needs to be done' might not be as simple as it appears to be. Actually, it can not be simple. Otherwise it would have been very easy to build and sustain high performing organizations.

Any comments?

See a related link here

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Choosing a leader - the 'battle scars' way

There is a huge amount of literature on the characteristics of a good leader. What is not so certain is whether this extensive body of knowledge is leveraged when organizations actually choose leaders. In this context, I remember a story that I had heard a long time ago. It is about an 'ancient method' for choosing leaders. I am not sure if this story is a real one/based on facts. But, as I have mentioned earlier, there can be some things that are too true to be real.

The story says that in some ancient societies, there was an interesting method for choosing the leaders. The procedure was rather simple - count the number of battle scars on the bodies of the candidates. The candidate with the highest number of battle scars gets selected as the leader.

Though this method appears to be rather 'weird', there is an interesting logic behind it. If one has too few battle scars, it means that one hasn't taken enough risks in one's life. Of course, if one took too many risks, he/she would have got killed already, and hence he/she won't even land up for the leader selection process! Hence the candidate with the highest number of battle scars qualifies as the leader.

This makes me wonder if this 'weird' selection principle has any relevance in today's organizations. If we look at the story carefully, we can see that the underlying assumption of the selection process (described in the story) is that 'the ability to take an optimum amount of risk (or the ability to pick and choose one's 'battles')is the key success factor for a leader'. This is true to a large extent even today, though there are many other factors that make an effective leader.

Since the battles in corporate world are no longer 'physical battles' (leaving aside the studies on 'workplace violence' - for the time being !) , 'battle scars on the body' is no longer a valid indicator (even if we assume that there won't be any fudging - say by 'manufacturing' battle scars through cosmetic surgery!). But 'less physical equivalents' of battle scars (say ambitious projects that have failed) can still be found. It can also be argued that if someone takes too many risks and/or 'wild' risks it is likely that it would lead to 'too many too bad failures' in his/her career, which in turn would mean that he/she is unlikely to 'survive long enough'/reach a senior enough position in an organization to be a leadership candidate. So this principle could still have some relevance - at least on the dimension of risk taking!

Actually, if this principle gets widely adopted, it can lead to many interesting situations. For example, job candidates will include a section in their CVs titled 'My key failures' (that list the ambitious moves/projects that have failed, learnings from them & how they have helped in becoming a better leader) in addition to the usual section titled 'my key achievements ' !!!

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Employee engagement and the story of the Sky Maiden

"Employee engagement" is one of the popular concepts in HR these days. Many organizations have launched new initiatives to improve levels of 'employee engagement'. Some of them have dedicated HR staff to 'handle' this important dimension. I fully agree that 'employee engagement' is very important. There is a lot of research that links higher levels of 'employee engagement' with positive outcomes like improved productivity and reduced attrition rates.

What concerns me is the tendency in some organizations to view 'employee engagement' initiatives mainly as a series of employee communication programmes. Here the term 'employee engagement' gets used in the sense of leaders 'engaging with' or 'speaking to' the employees. Now, this is an important part of employee engagement. The problem is that true 'employee engagement' requires much more than this. Another troubling trend is to equate 'employee engagement' with 'fun and games' activities. 'Fun and games' initiatives are also useful. They provide a temporary distraction from work (especially when they are held during office hours, which sadly is not always the case !). They also provide an opportunity to interact with other employees. But all these do not make any significant change in the basic nature of work or in the work context.

The defining feature of employee engagement is 'discretionary effort' put in by the employees. If employees have to get motivated to put in the 'discretionary effort', just speaking to them and telling them what is happening in the organization (and even just listening to them) won't be sufficient. To get discretionary effort, both the hearts and minds of the employees have to be engaged. Often this calls for interventions to improve the person-job fit, the performance management/rewards system and the organization culture. Of course, it is much easier to hold communication meetings than to ensure that employees are in those jobs that leverage and celebrate their key talents/abilities/interests! But if the objective is to have the type of 'employee engagement' that motivates employees to stay on and to put in discretionary effort, peripheral interventions (like communication meetings, 'fun & games HR' etc.) might not be sufficient.

This brings to mind the 'story of the Sky Maiden'. There are many versions of this story. It goes something like this: Once there lived a young farmer. He used to get up early in the morning every day to milk his cows. This went on for quite some time. Then he felt that something strange was happening. The cows seemed to be giving less milk than they used to. He tried many methods to improve this situation. But they did not work. Slowly he became convinced that someone was stealing the milk. So he decided to stay up all night to catch the thief. So he hid behind a bush and waited. For many hours nothing happened and he was feeling very sleepy. Suddenly he noticed something that left him spellbound. A very beautiful woman came down from the sky and started milking the cows. Initially our young farmer was too dazed to react. Then his anger took over and he managed to catch the thief before she could escape. He asked her who she was and why was she stealing the milk. She told him that she was the Sky Maiden, that she belonged to a tribe that lived in the sky, and that the milk was their only food. She pleaded with him to let her go. Our young farmer told her "I will let you go only if you promise to marry me". She said "I will marry you. But you need to give me a few days so that I can go back home and prepare for the marriage". He agreed. So the Sky Maiden left and as promised she returned after a few days. She brought a large box along with her. She said to him "I will be your wife. But you must promise me one thing. You should never open this box. If you open this box, I will have to leave you". He agreed and they got married.

Many months passed. Then one day, while his wife was not in the house, our young farmer could not contain his curiosity anymore and he opened the box. He was surprised to find that he could not see anything in the box. When the Sky Maiden came back she could sense something was wrong. She asked him "Did you open the box?". He said " I am sorry. I opened the box. But there was nothing in it". The Sky Maiden became very sad. She said "I am leaving. I can't live with you any more". He said "Why are you making such a big issue out of this. I told you that the box was empty". She said "I am not leaving you because you opened the box. I knew that you are likely to open it sooner or later. I am leaving you because you said that there was nothing in the box. Actually, the box was not empty. It was full of sky. Before I came to you I had filled the box with sky which is the most precious thing for me. Sky is the core of my real self. It is what makes me special. It is what makes me who I am. How can I stay with you if you can't even see the thing that is the essence of my Self and that makes me special?"

Now there are many important points here. No deep relationship can thrive unless it recognises and celebrates the factors that define the essential nature of the parties involved and that makes them special. Of course, this is more true for personal relationships and the use of this in a work context is an exaggeration to some extent. But I think that the central point remains valid even in a work context.

Any comments?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Personal effectiveness and wisdom

Ravindra requested me to comment on his new book (Give me back my guitar). This book focuses on 'personal energy management' (which is aligned to one of the key themes for this blog - personal effectiveness) and it explains 'why the wise and successful need not struggle'. The book talks about doing the work that one enjoys, avoiding ego traps, making thoughts powerful, importance of right desires and about choosing one's environment carefully. Ravindra presents these concepts through stories. These are well known stories, though he introduces interesting twists to some of them. For example, he narrates the story of the 'hare and the tortoise' and asks the question - 'Would the 'slow and steady' approach of the tortoise have won the race if the hare had not decided to take a break/sleep before he had completed the race?'. Then he goes on to examine 'why did the hare decide to take a break during the race' in order to show that 'the hare should not have chosen to race with the tortoise at all' (as the hare had nothing to gain and everything to lose in that kind of a race).

Overall, I agree with the concepts presented in the book. But it did trigger a couple of thoughts on somewhat related aspects. For example, can we say that 'wise need not struggle'? I can think of at least two kinds of 'struggle' associated with being 'wise'. While we can learn from others and from the 'wisdom of the ages', I feel that true wisdom (as opposed to knowledge) can be gained only though personal experience. This process of gaining wisdom often involves struggling with (and some times even unsuccessfully struggling with) the complexities in life, often for an extended period of time. The second kind of 'struggle' comes out of the paradoxical nature of wisdom. In a way wisdom (as it embodies 'simplicity on the other side of complexity') does make one's life simpler. But often it also increases one's level of awareness and sensitivity [You might have come across this question : "Which one would you like to be - an unhappy Socrates or a happy pig?". This of course is an exaggeration as happiness and wisdom are not necessarily mutually exclusive - but there is some merit in this argument]. The increased awareness brings in more complexities (and hence ' more struggle'), though these are complexities at a 'higher level'. However, the 'wise' seem to handle this (new) struggle more gracefully(and even gladly). Based on the above discussion, we could say that, for a given set (or level) of problems, 'wise need not struggle' as much as people who are not so wise !

In this context, the Zen concept of 'personalization of enlightenment' comes to my mind. This says that your work does not finish once you attain enlightenment (otherwise there is no point in living any longer !). Actually your true work begins only then. The real work is to personalize the enlightenment that you have attained by bringing in your unique gifts/perspective/life context. This also has similarities with what Richard Bolles says on the three stage process for finding your mission.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thought leadership in HR in India

I have been doing some sort of an informal survey. It involved getting in touch with some people (most of them with more than 10 years of experience in HR) and asking them the following question: "In your opinion, who are the thought leaders in HR in India?".

Most of them came up with a list of 3 or 4 names. One interesting thing that came out of this was that there were not too many overlaps between these lists. Apparently, the people surveyed had very different opinions on who are the thought leaders in HR in India. This prompted me to prob a bit deeper by asking them "why did you name these particular individuals?", and that in turn led to discussions on "what is your definition of thought leadership in HR".

From these discussions it emerged that there is a wide variation in the definition of 'thought leadership in HR' among the people surveyed. Many of the names in the lists have contributed in more than one role in HR. Broadly speaking, their primary roles included those of consultants, management professors, OD professionals, senior managers etc. The underlying definitions of thought leadership that influenced the choice of HR thought leaders (depending on the primary roles of the individuals named as thought leaders - to some extent) included one or more of the the following aspects

  • Creating and/or popularising new HR practices/interventions
  • Understanding/predicting trends (sensing trends before they become common knowledge)
  • Possessing insight and vision beyond knowledge/subject matter expertise
  • Conducting research and publishing books/articles on a regular basis
  • Converting insights to a solutions and getting them accepted/ implemented
  • Receiving extensive media coverage (i.e. their comments are widely sought by the media on key HR related issues)
  • Possessing great process facilitation and change management skills
  • Having an extensive knowledge about the HR related research, HR practices and their applicability in particular organization/industry contexts
  • Coming up with new/innovative solutions to key issues/complex problems
  • Enjoying a great amount of influence in the HR community
  • Encouraging others to think about/implement new ideas/solutions
Another interesting aspect here is the primary purpose for which one tries to develop 'thought leadership'. One purpose could be to make a significant contribution to enhancing organization effectiveness and employee engagement by designing and popularising/implementing new and innovative solutions to the key people related issues in organizations. Another could be to bring in new dimensions to the field of HR, enhancing/shaping the field. Depending on the current primary role of the 'thought leader' there could be other possibilities. For example, in the case of a consultant, 'thought leadership' is very useful for obtaining new assignments and for supporting higher charge out rates/fees. For a senior HR manager within an organization, a reputation for thought leadership could provide greater opportunities to try out new things and to take up initiatives that involve large amount of change/resource investment. Of course, for some people thought leadership could just be a spontaneous act of generosity - giving one's ideas, time/effort and wisdom to help fellow professionals.

Now let us come back to the definition of thought leadership in HR. As we have seen, there are a wide range of definitions of thought leadership. It seems that there is room for many types of 'thought leadership' and for may types of thought leaders in HR' ! This also gives many of us a chance to become some type/sort of 'thought leaders' (or at least to 'call ourselves thought leaders' !) in some HR related domain, in some industry, at some point in our careers. This in turn raises interesting philosophical questions like 'Can leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers?'.

Any comments/thoughts?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

If you hang around in HR for too long...

This post is about a question that has been in my mind for the last few years. The issue is something like this: After your MBA in HR (especially if you have graduated from a reputed management institute) you can expect to be the Head of HR of a somewhat large firm in about 15-20 years, assuming a reasonably successful career. Of course, not everyone becomes (or even wants to become) a Head of HR. But in general, this kind of a time frame seems reasonable. Now, the question is 'what would you do after that'. Many people would look forward to working for at least 15 years more. So what are your 'career options' at that stage ? If we define career as 'pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement where one takes up positions of increasing responsibility/complexity/contribution', the challenge is to find such positions/work that would enable the senior HR professional to continue to grow and contribute.

It is interesting to look at this issue from the organization's perspective also. Do organizations have many HR jobs that would require a level of expertise which would take more than 20 years to develop (Quick question : In the last 2 years, how many HR jobs have you come across for which the person specification indicated more than 20 years of experience?)? May be, not too many positions exist within most organizations that require such a level of expertise/such a senior profile.

Now, let us come back to our senior HR professional. We have seen 'solutions' found by particular individuals. They include, inter alia, moving into larger firms, moving into regional/global roles, starting one's own firm, HR consulting, becoming an OD/Leadership Development specialist, teaching and branching into a totally different fields. Some people also become CEOs/Heads of other functions, though they constitute only a very small percentage of the population that we are talking about. Of course, there is always the possibility of 'retirement on the job' where one stagnates, disengages and still continues on the job. If we look at solutions 'within the organizations' (like moving into larger firms, moving into regional/global roles etc.), it would be interesting to examine if they really solve the problem (by providing positions of increasing responsibility/complexity/contribution) as compared to merely changing the context (by providing a different sort of mandate/experience).

Some combinations of the above solutions/options might lead to something very similar to 'portfolio living' that Charles Handy talks about. We also need to differentiate between the solution(s) found by a particular individual (or individuals) and the career options available to bulk of the population that we are talking about. So where does this leave our senior HR professional. In some cases this could lead to some sort of a 'career crisis'. It is interesting to note that this career crisis might also coincide with a larger midlife crisis which brings in additional dimensions.

Any thoughts/comments?


1. The title of this post does not in any way imply that a long stint/career HR would necessarily mean 'hanging around in HR'. There are many possibilities for 'progressive achievement/ contribution' including those hinted at by the 'solutions' mentioned in the post. I have used the term 'hanging around' (though it has a negative connotation) for rhetorical purpose - to highlight the risk of stagnation and to stimulate discussion. It would be interesting to read this post along with the next post on 'Thought leadership in HR in India'. It can be readily inferred that the thought leaders does not hang around in the field as they redefine the boundaries and bring in new perspectives which would in turn mean that they rise above the constraints imposed by the current definition/understanding of the field.

2. It would be interesting to look at the senior HR positions in organizations and examine if the essential requirement for the position is that of a leader or that of a manager. To keep matters simple, let us go by the distinction that 'leaders focus on 'doing the right things' while managers focus on 'doing things right' (i.e. leaders focus mainly on effectiveness while managers focus mainly on efficiency).

If we look the senior HR jobs in MNCs in India (that are headquartered outside India), we might find that in many cases the 'right things' (the deliverable/tasks for the senior HR positions at a country level) gets decided at the global level and the key expectation from the HR position at the country level is to get those 'right things' done right/efficiently. The logic here is that an aggregate of local optima might not lead to a global optimum. So the key expectation from such senior HR positions is to carry out a predefined set of tasks efficiently and to keep customizations to a minimum. Thus the ideal profile would be someone who would 'completely merge into the system' and get things done without asking too many questions.

So the requirement is essentially that of a manager. If a 'leader profile' gets hired into the position, she/he might get frustrated and leave (or she/he might get forced to operate just like a manager). If the senior position is supposed to manage 'deep-specialists' (see an earlier post on 'deep-specialist' positions here) it could result in additional difficulties as 'deep-specialists' tend to respond more favorably to leading as opposed to managing. Mercifully not too many deep-specialist positions seem to exist in those contexts (see here).

3. See a related post here

Monday, May 7, 2007

Of problems, paradoxes, koans and wisdom

This post was triggered by a comment on one of my previous posts (see making problems disappear ). The comment also contained a request that I discuss 'other problem solving methods that I know'. I must admit that while I do have a basic understanding about the problem solving methods (that can be used to solve the problems that can be solved in the usual meaning of the term 'solve'), I don't really have any thing special to say on that matter at this point. So what I am trying to do in this post is to talk about a couple of ideas related to problems and problem solving and link them to the basic theme for this blog - 'simplicity at the other side of complexity'.

A few months ago, I had written a post called U-curve and simplicity at the other side of complexity which mentioned that many phenomena follow a pattern that resembles a 'U' - shaped curve over a period of time. They start in one state (i.e. in a particular manner), then move towards the other end (i.e. the opposite manner/state) and then they come back to the original state at a higher level/plane. I feel that something similar might be involved in the case of many of the complex problems. It works something like this. The first stage is when one does not recognise that a problem exists. Here one does not (have to) do anything/exists in blissful ignorance. In the next stage the pendulum swings to the other side and the existence of the problem is recognised. This is also accompanied by a powerful desire (bordering on compulsion) to find a neat solution to the problem immediately. In the case of complex problems often these attempts to find a neat solution fails and this makes the pendulum swing to the other side. In this phase, the existence of a paradox (and not just a problem) is recognised and the nature of attempts to resolve the problem shifts from traditional problem solving to methods similar to making problems disappear. It is interesting to note that one of the definitions of wisdom is 'the understanding of paradoxes'. This in turn leads to approaches like wisdom-level consulting.

I have always been fascinated by Zen- especially the koans in Zen. Initially, I used to think of koans just as 'impossible problems' that are used to break the logical mind. Only recently I came to know that each koan has a more or less unique solution. The critical point here is that these 'solutions' make sense only at a particular state of awareness, which is reached by working on the koan for a long time. Of course, in this context, what is important is the 'achievement of the particular state of awareness' and not the koan or it solution per se.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Truths stretched too far - Part II : Let them learn all by themselves

This is the second one in the series of blog posts that look at how some very valid research findings ('truths') tend to get misinterpreted/misused when they get 'stretched too far'. As mentioned in the first post in the series, the 'stretching' happens because of many reasons like extrapolation of the validity of the research findings to contexts other than that in which the research was conducted, using 'inferential leaps' between the actual research finding and assumption(s) underlying the HR practice in question, ignoring other factors (other than the factor covered in the research) that have an impact on the current context/ situation etc. There are also situations where these 'stretched truths' are used to rationalize/justify particular HR policies/ practices instead of using research to improve the HR policies/ practices. Sadly, this sounds similar to the saying about the 'drunkard's use of the lamp-post' , that is , 'for support and not for illumination'.

In this post let us look at the popular research finding "Less than 10% of the learning takes place through formal training". I think that this finding is very much true. Most of the learning happens through job experiences and through interactions/relationships. The problem happens when this finding is used as an excuse for 'cutting training budgets without establishing any concrete mechanism for facilitating the learning through job experiences and interactions'. Since 'job experiences and interactions' are outside the traditional domain/mandate of the training function, it is easy (and very convenient for HR) to jump to the conclusion that 'the entire responsibility for ensuring that this type of learning happens lies with the managers and the employees'.

Unfortunately, this type of learning (through job experiences and interactions) does not always happen automatically. Even when the learning does take place, it could be incomplete or too slow. There is a need to put in place a mechanism to structure, facilitate and track this type of learning. This is especially true in situations where there is rapid growth and the workforce consists of relatively inexperienced employees and first-line managers. In these 'high growth - high attrition - large span of control - inexperienced team profile', managers are under too much pressure and hence 'surviving' could take precedence over 'learning and facilitating learning'. Hence we come back to the need for institutionalizing practices that would facilitate and maximise learning through job experience and interactions.

For example, 'the way a job is structured' is a critical factor in deriving learning through on-the-job experience. This calls for an intervention at the job design level to ensure that the jobs have sufficient authority/responsibility and scope/variety. 'Job rotation' and 'special/stretch projects' also offer high learning potential. This would require that the organization puts in place policies/ practices that encourage job rotation and assigning people systematically to special/stretch projects. Similarly, to maximise the learning through interactions/relationships there is a need to institutionalize systems/practices for coaching, mentoring, 360 degree feedback etc. While the learning value of formal training programmes is limited, some times they can serve as a mechanism for creating awareness and to build very specific knowledge/s kills that could facilitate/ maximise learning through job experiences and interactions.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

HRM in partnership firms

If we analyze the role of the HR function in a partnership firm (here we are talking about large multinational partnership firms) some interesting dimensions emerge.

One of the key factors here is that a partner is an owner of the firm in addition to being a manager. Now, if I am an owner, I might feel that it is my privilege to run the firm (or the part of the firm that I am managing) 'my way'. It might also lead to a tendency to make 'sporadic interventions' in people related processes/ decisions. Thus some of the partners might view well defined HR processes as impediments to their 'freedom of operation'. This might pull the firm towards functioning like a 'family owned firm'.

However, most of the global partnership firms have well designed global HR processes. It is essential to have these processes to manage the scale of operations and to attract and retain good talent. Also one of the key attractions for working in a partnership is the opportunity to grow in the firm and become a partner/owner. Well designed HR processes are required to facilitate this and to give the employees the 'comfort feel' that this is possible .

So there are two opposing forces here, one pulling towards a highly 'personality driven' way of making people decisions and the other pulling towards a highly 'process driven' way of making people decisions. The HR function in a partnership firm experiences both these forces and it makes the role of the HR professionals quite tricky. Often only a 'dynamic balance' is possible and the equilibrium point keeps on shifting. Depending on the degree of credibility/respect that the HR professionals in the firm enjoys/develops (in the eyes of the partners) more positive outcomes becomes possible from this dynamic interplay of forces.