Thursday, January 25, 2007

Specialist roles in internal HR : An endangered species?

Let me begin by clarifying what I meant by the term 'specialist roles in internal HR'. Here I am taking about those roles in internal HR that require deep specialist skills in one of the functional areas in HR (e.g. organization development, reward management, leadership development etc.). What I have noticed is that the number of these positions is reducing. There could be many factors influencing this. Many organizations feel that these kind of deep specialist skills are not required on a continuous basis as they come into play mainly in special initiatives (or even only in particular phases of special initiatives) that happen once in a while. Thus this could lead to underutilization these costly expert talent which does not make sense either for the organization or for the specialists involved. Instead of this the organization can hire a reputed vendor/consultant (who has great expertise in this area) as and when these skills/inputs are required. Of course someone will be required internally to identify/articulate the business need and to interface with the vendors. But this calls for a somewhat different skill set.

If we look at the HR departments in the in the Indian operations of MNCs (that are headquartered outside India), this reduction in HR specialist positions is more pronounced. This could be because of additional factors that come into play here. Most MNCs are driving standardization of HR service delivery with a view to achieve cost efficiencies. This would also mean that they don't want separate design work to happen in the different countries. Thus it make sense to do most of the design work (that require deep expertise) out of a central location. This location often turns out to be the location of the organization's headquarters as 'proximity to business leadership' is supposed to be an advantage to ensure business alignment of HR systems/initiatives.

Now, I am not saying that I fully agree with the above line of reasoning. Often significant amount of customization is required to make the global design effective in particular geographies. This calls for deep HR specialists who also have a good understanding of the local context. Similar factors (lower degree of understanding of the client context - especially those pertaining to the 'informal organization'/how things really work in the organization) also reduce the effectiveness of external vendors. My point is just that the reduction in the number of specialist HR positions in India is reducing.

Of course there are other trends that could be relevant here like the move to build specialist skills in HR generalists. For example I feel that OD 'function' is moving towards a more 'distributed structure'. This 'distributed structure' would involve developing OD capability in HR generalists and this structure/model is essential for ensuring that OD can make a significant contribution to the business. In order to make a significant impact on a complex (with a high degree of interlinkages) and rapidly evolving organization, multiple OD initiatives have to be carried out simultaneously. Also, the sensing of the business needs and the planning/ implementation of the OD interventions have to be done quickly. A distributed/ embedded OD structure is in a better position (as compared to a centralized OD structure) to meet these twin requirements of bandwidth and speed of response.

All this leads to interesting implications on the career options available to deep HR specialists in India. The obvious one of course is to move to consulting. Another obvious one is to move to large Indian companies (say in corporate HR). Another one (in the case of MNCs) could be to move to the organization's headquarters. This could get difficult in those contexts where headcount reductions are happening in that country (where the organization is headquartered) and hence HR staff in that country might have a greater chance of moving into the few HR specialist positions available. Yet another option is to move to a broader role (which is more like a generalist role) and leverage the 'specialist' skills (say consulting skills, change management skills etc.) to create a greater business impact. Any comments/ideas?

1 comment:

Gautam Ghosh said...

Hi Prasad

Insightful post.

Specialist roles in MNCs will remain because they are crossing the number of employees which would be a "critical number" to have a business case. Any geographical location like a country with more than 2000 employees should have specialist functions rooted in that country. That would mean larger MNCs like IBM, HP, Dell all fall in this bracket.

As more and more MNCs build up their presence in India, specialist roles will increase in number.