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'.


Astha said...

An incisive analysis as always Prasad.
I'm beginning to think that instead of the static ladder like and overly organized career plans that rarely ever get used-- its worth a shot to shift to guerrilla tactics.
Here are some that occur to me:
- create several development tools that shift the control of development into the hands of the employees and their managers. Facilitated 360 degrees, skill assessment and access to stretch projects come to mind.
- In the short term having an intense focus on learning & skill development would help. Create a basket of learning solutions (workshops, podcasts, forums, etc.) which are demand driven rather than pushed down to the employee based on a grand plan.
- Finally, and more importantly use development techniques that solidify the social entrenchment of the employee within the organization. Recent research by Lee & Mitchel show that social embeddedness plays a critical role in turnover. Using mentoring, internal social networks and learning groups could help here.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this-

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Astha.

I agree that providing 'tools to facilitate career development' would be useful. We need to ensure that the tools are utilized and that they are cost effective 'to develop and maintain' (for the 'current' level of utilization). I feel that the profile & learning preferences of the employees might be an important factor that affects the degree and effectiveness of the utilization of particular tools. For example, while 'e-learning' solutions are 'scalable and cost effective', we need to explore whether they would get used effectively if the target workforce consists of 'relatively junior and inexperienced employees in India'.

quizlab said...

I am indeed laughing. Sounds like a very accurate description of a role I carried out in a BPO myself - I was a Talent Manager in the back office of a global bank. It was short lived (all of 6 months), the role was a failure ( i would like to think) because the rules of engagement were just plain far removed from what was dreamed up at corp. HQ! With attrition in the BPO arm touching the 30s, to aim for single digit attrition for our hi potentials using career management was a challenge, one we failed at. Why? IMHO, I think the answer does not lie in tools, it lies as much in the maturity of those such initiatives are targetted at. Tools are tactics, that need to fall in line with overall philosophy...are we a self development oriented firm? are we skills oriented (almost army like in delivery)?and so on...
its cultural as well, coming from a n IT set up, the expectation is that the firm will provide for career development, yet exit often happens in a large number of cases because of stuff not entirely controllable by firms. Thoughts?

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Anish.

These days, many organizations clearly tell their employees that 'employees should take charge of their own careers'. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this so long as the organizations realize that when the employees start planning their own careers they are unlikely to limit their plans to the opportunities available within their current organizations. Since organizations no longer offer 'guaranteed opportunities' (or even 'guaranteed employment') it would be perfectly rational on the part of the employees not to let their careers get limited by the constraints and uncertainties in their current organizations.

Sanjay Lakhotia said...

This really is a cool analogy. Well HR ends up doing a lot of these things because the books say they are best practices, without really looking at the implications. In a world where the business reality change every year, how can a career plan remain constant for the entire career of an employee.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Sanjay

Bijwish said...

Hi Prasad,

The piece was a powerful one, I really enjoyed reading it.

While I agree this fact, Im left wondering is there a solution? Then I thought, if I have to search for a solution, is it really a problem?

Perhaps yes its a problem but what exactly is the problem. Are HR guys fooling themselves doing all this? I dont think so. For whatever reason, be it because its there in books or because someone else is doing it, I think these tools are initiated because these are roadmaps for people in the organisation and we need to have one. The question is why should we waste time building roadmaps for people who would leave? But isnt everything in life like this.

We know for a fact that lot of things in life are not for posterity but still we go for those things. I have seen people continuously worried about the future (Im sure all of us have this in us). Before the kid is born, we are worried about the education, value system, savings, etc., etc. So many things can go wrong at any point in time. So, should we avoid marriage or kids because of all the potential issues? I guess not.

Similarly, should we stop planning initiatives for people whom we think may not stay. I believe no because we dont know how this could impact various people. I think its a lot like saying "Its fine if love was unsuccessful, be happy it happened".


Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Bijwish.

I agree that though most of the employees are unlikely to follow the career paths that we design, there is still a case for career planning (even for those employees who would eventually leave the organization in a short time). The career planning process (if it is done right) gives the employees the confidence that the organization cares about their career development. We can even speculate that the employees like to see some sort of 'career roadmaps' even if they really don't follow them. May be it is somewhat like the 'user-friendly instruction manuals' that come along with common gadgets. We are unlikely to use them much. But we would still like to have those manuals. We might even feel a bit uncomfortable if the manufacturers don't ‘care’ to supply those instruction manuals/user guides.

Kannan said...

Hi Prasad,
I work for a global MNC, and have worked in a few countries. There was never a career path, atleast to my knowledge, and this is more or less the same as regards my future. However, what keeps me going is the expectation that the possibilities for me with this organization are better than possibilities elsewhere.
Hence, it's perhaps not the formal processes that matter (ie whether or not a career plan exists) but more about what is the expectation of the person from the organization and the perceived receptiveness of the organization to such expectations, as seen from the careers of predecessors.

I fully subscribe to your thoughts that perhaps formalised career pathing is not always worth the effort that is sometimes put in, and is certainly not a bandage to stem attrition.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

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