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'.