Friday, November 14, 2008

In the wonderland of HR Business Partners – Part 1

The posts in this series constitute some sort of 'random' walks in the wonderland of HR Business Partners (HRBPs). Since our objective here is to explore the terrain (and not to reach anywhere in particular), we have the liberty of adopting the amazingly liberating philosophy of "if we take any path and walk long enough on it we are bound to get somewhere".

There are a wide range of HR roles that go by the HR Business Partner (HRBP) title. For the purpose of our discussion, let us focus on ‘pure’ HRBPsHRBPs whose role is that of being a strategic business partner - to the business they are supporting. This would mean that they are supposed to have very little or no transactional/operational HR responsibilities. So these roles (HR roles that don't do usual HR work) are some sort of freaks of evolution- in the evolution of the HR function. Freaks occur in the course of biological evolution also. But they are unlikely to create much of a problem as they usually don't live long enough to reproduce. However since HRBPs can (and do) survive long enough in organizations to create (hire/develop) more HRBPs, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at them and their world.

I must say that I have handled HR Business Partner (HRBP) roles – in the not too distant past. Most of what I say in this series of posts are based on ‘hard experiences’ – mine and those of my fellow HR Business Partners – across organizations. While some of the observations in this post might seem funny, I have absolutely no intention to make fun of HRBPs. I know the challenges and complexities faced by HRBPs a bit too well to attempt something like that. Again, though I am in a specialist role now, I have a great amount of respect for HR generalists (see ‘In praise of HR generalists’), – including HRBPs.

In the wonderland of HR Business Partners – Part 1 : Seven guaranteed ways to make an HR Business Partner fail

A story...

Once upon a time, there was an HR Operations leader who was doing very well in his job - happily implementing HR processes & policies. Then the corporate HR leadership in his company came under the spell of Dave Ulrich’s ideas - or what they thought be Dave Ulrich’s ideas. They also saw other firms in their industry adopting such ideas. They did not want to be left behind. After all what is the fun of being in corporate HR - if you are not considered to be 'progressive' and 'state of the art'. So the inevitable happened - the company changed its HR operating model - worldwide.

Being ‘top talent’, our HR Ops leader was chosen to move into one of the newly created HR Business Partner roles - the roles that were supposed to take the HR function in the company to the next level of excellence and to add immense value to the business.

He understood that he should play a strategic HR role. He knew that he should partner with the business leadership. He knew that he was a high cost resource and hence he should produce good results-that too quickly. He wanted to do a good job – he was a top performer throughout his career.

So he worked very hard. In the spirit of collaboration and to ensure seamless service to the business, he did his best to proactively cooperate with other parts of HR and even with the finance & communications teams of the business he was supporting.

Many months passed. Our HR leader was feeling strangely uneasy. Initially, he could not figure out what was wrong. He was doing a lot of things - including participating in all the Leadership Team meetings of the business. He was in a role that was supposed to be the 'highest form of evolution' among HR roles. But he was not feeling happy. Sometimes he felt that he was like a 'mouse in a maze' - running here and there, feeling extremely busy, but getting nowhere. So he took a week's leave - to think things over. After he was away from the pressures of work for a few days, things started becoming clear in his mind.

He realized
…that playing a strategic role required skills he did not have & that these skills are not easy to develop - especially in a short period of time
…that what the business leaders expected from him was not really strategic
…that they wanted him to ‘manage the HR system’ – to ensure that what they want gets done
…that he was getting involved in issues that he was not supposed to – as per his role
…that he was fighting too much with other parts of HR - leading to too many escalations and that the global HR function was looking less like a 'team' and more like a 'house divided against itself'
…that Finance team was not taking him or his role seriously
…that he couldn't get reliable data to analyze business level patterns & trends on people issues
…that he wouldn't have enough results to show at the end of the year to justify his salary &
…that no one really understood what exactly his role was supposed to deliver

Being an intellectually honest person, he could not help wondering if he himself understood his role correctly & if his role really existed.

7 guaranteed ways to make an HRBP fail

1. Don’t define the scope and responsibilities of the HRBP role clearly

2. Don’t establish the performance measures for the HRBP role

3. Don’t secure the buy-in/agreement from the business leaders for the HR operating model, HRBP role, its deliverables and the choice of the role holder

4. Don’t make the other parts of HR (HR operations, specialist functions etc.) accountable to the HRBPs

5. Ensure that the HRBP does not have the data and analytical/reporting tools to derive the business-level patterns/trends on key people and business related parameters. This will create a situation where the HRBP can't work at the patterns/trends level (as they are supposed to do), prompting them to get involved in 'individual employee- level' issues (after all they have to something) - a great recipe for ensuring 'territory battles' with HR operations.

6. Move HR staff from other parts of HR into HRBP roles without verifying if they have the requisite competencies to be effective in the HRBP role. If you can't find any other role for a senior HR leader, move him/her into an HRBP role. Assume that the vacuum created by the removal of transactional/operational HR responsibilities will get automatically filled up by strategic activities (see 'Nature abhors vacuum' for more details)

7. Change the HRBPs frequently - before they have had the opportunity/time to understand the business or to build relationships and credibility with the business leaders

Now that we have heard the story of an HRBP and also derived some lessons from the story, let us explore what can be done to maximize the chances success in HRBP roles. Some of this can be derived from this post itself – by logical deduction. But some other aspects are not so obvious or easy. Anyway, we will look at some of them in the subsequent posts in this series.

Over to you for your comments/suggestions and experiences!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Crazy HR for crazy times!

It has been argued that insanity is a perfectly sane response to an insane environment. This also implies that ‘abnormal’ situations require ‘abnormal’ responses. While I have often talked about the connection between HR and madness (see ‘HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder' and ‘Career Planning and the Myth of Sisyphus’), here I am using the term ‘abnormal’ in the statistical sense of the term (i.e. not fitting into the normal distribution). So in this context, 'abnormal' just means ‘different from normal’.

The basic point in this post is that normal/usual HR responses (HR strategies/practices) are based on certain assumptions about the situation (context/environment) in which the organization (and hence HR) is operating in and when we are faced with situations where those assumptions are not valid, normal/traditional HR responses will not be effective. It also follows that when situations are radically different from usual/normal, we might need HR responses/practices that look very different from the normal/usual HR responses (i.e. responses that are ‘abnormal’) – and that is where we come to ‘crazy’ HR. Again, with the ‘abnormal’ situations becoming increasing common, effective HR responses/practices might also become increasingly ‘crazy’ – till we redefine (or even reverse the definition of!) what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘abnormal.

Now, let us look at a few typical practices/principles/assumptions in HR and explore the implications for the HR response when we are in contexts where those assumptions are not valid. Please note that these situations (and responses!) are not independent - there are common themes - and even contradictions - among them!

1. From long-term employment relationship to short-term employment relationship

This is a big one. Actually, 'continuity of employment relationship' can be treated as the basic assumption that underlies many of the assumptions in HR. If we look at many of the HR systems (like career planning, training and development, staffing etc.) there is often an assumption that the employees/prospective employees will stay with the organization for a long period of time. Now, if one is in a context (organization/industry) where the most of the employees spend much less than 2 years in a particular organization, these assumptions and hence HR strategies/ practices/ systems based on these assumptions, are obviously not valid/effective. So what makes more sense is to assume that the organization would be involved in 'managing' (planning/ developing) only a limited (often very limited) part of the career in the case of most of the employees and to design HR strategies/systems/processes accordingly.

Now, the idea here is not that the systems/processes should be designed to push most of the employees out in two years or less! The idea is just that the HR strategies/systems/processes should not ignore the ground reality - even if it is unpleasant.

In many contexts the reality is that most of the employees are likely to spend only a very limited time in the organization and that HR strategies/systems/ processes should deliver value to the employees (and enable the employees to create value for the organization) within that time while maximising the return on HR investment for the organization. Of course, if one has a reasonable chance to shape the situation (or to create a new reality that is more favorable), it makes sense to make an earnest attempt. May be the attempts to shape the reality (i.e. increasing the time that the employees spend in the organization) will be more successful-if they are focused mainly on some segments of the employees (we will discuss this further later in this post). But 'deluding oneself' or 'wishing away the reality' don't really help - and this brings us to our next point.

2. From trying to reducing attrition to redesigning HR systems to work well in a high attrition environment

The typical HR response in a high attrition situation is to try to reduce attrition. But after one has repeatedly tried this and has failed consistently, this response no longer makes much sense. A better option may be to re-design the HR policies/processes/systems so that they can work effectively in a high attrition environment.

As an example of re-designing an HR system/policy to suit a high attrition environment, let us look at the Training and Development system. In a high attrition environment, there is a high possibility that employees who have been trained (at a significant cost to the company) may leave the company to join a competitor. Now, there are multiple ways of responding to this. One option is to focus most of the training investment on top talent and on employees in critical roles (i.e. don’t try to follow the approach of providing training to everyone). Since they form only a small percentage of the total employee population, the organization (with even limited resources) will be in a better position to create a compelling value proposition for them. So the organization will have a much higher chance of ensuring good return on training investment. The training needs for the rest of the employee population should be met mainly through a shared training infrastructure that provides e-learning solutions for common learning needs. Of course, there are other approaches like skill-based pay, training bonds etc. that tries to ‘lock in’ the employee. But my preference is for the approach focusing on top talent and on critical roles.

3. From Job enrichment to Job deskilling

Designing/redesigning jobs to increase their motivational potential has been a key principle in HR. This is typically done by improving various dimensions of work like skill variety (the variety of activities required), task identity (the completion of a “whole” and identifiable piece of work), task significance (how substantial an impact the job has) and autonomy (the freedom, independence, and discretion that one has to do the job).

Now there can be situations where the opposite of this response (i.e. job deskilling) might be called for. Examples of this can be found in situations where is a critical need to

(a) Manage process risk - Creating detailed process maps that specify each step in micro-detail (e.g. level 5 or level 6 process maps) and insisting that the employees carry out each step as it is described can be good way to manage process risk/reducing chances of error (though it adversely impacts 'autonomy' and hence job enrichment mentioned above).

(b) Reduce cost - The same approach (detailed procedures - strictly enforced) can also reduce the skill-level required to do the job. This can obviously provide opportunity to reduce salary cost (as employees with lower skill profiles can be hired for the job) and training cost (as not much training is required).

(c) Operate in high attrition environment - Again the same approach (detailed procedures and lower skill profile) can make it easier to find and replace employees (as there is not much need to hunt for specialized skill profiles that can be difficult, time consuming and costly to find) and to minimize the adverse impact of employee turnover on work/deliverables (as the 'learning curve' of new employees can be very short because of the low skill requirement of the job).

But there can be many complications when we try to implement the above (job deskilling) idea. Let us look at a couple of the major ones.

The first one is that in some contexts the nature of the work makes the 'formulating detailed procedures and enforcing them strictly' approach difficult to implement - because there are certain parts of the job that require a high degree of skill/judgment/discretion. Here one can try to re-design the jobs so that the activities that require a high level of skill are grouped into a few jobs and most of the other jobs consist of activities that don’t require high degree of skill (where the above approach will work). Of course, this will work best if there is an opportunity to reengineer some of the processes so that there will be greater opportunities for re-designing jobs/grouping activities into jobs differently. Now, this has other advantages like further saving on salary cost (as we need fewer number of high cost specialist positions) and reducing attrition among the highly skilled jobs (as the specialist jobs get enriched in the process because the lower-skill parts of the job are taken away and as the organization can provide these specialists much better value proposition because they are small in number - making the additional investment required much smaller and manageable).

The second problem arises from the very nature of the job-deskilling approach - lower skill requirement for the job is likely to result in lower 'motivation potential' for those jobs (because of its adverse impact on the factors that drive job enrichment that we had discussed earlier). But this can also be avoided to a large extent. Here the trick is to change the profile of the candidates/jobholders. So if the job was being done (before the job re-design exercise) by a graduate engineer, the candidate for the deskilled job should not be a graduate engineer (who will find the job de-motivating) – it should be someone with only an engineering diploma/certificate. Now, what seems routine for a graduate engineer can still be quite challenging and motivating for a certificate holder. Of course, this approach also has cost advantages (as a certificate/diploma holder in engineering costs less as compared to a graduate engineer).

I am not saying that these are the only HR responses possible (or even the best responses) in the situations described above. My point is that certain situations require radically different HR responses – responses that seem so different from the usual/traditional HR responses that they appear to be crazy. But they are actually much more sane - as compared to the alternative of 'continuing to persist with the same (failed) normal/traditional HR response and expecting different results' - which incidentally was the way Einstein defined madness.

What do you think?

Monday, October 27, 2008

A decade of 'active experimentation' in HR

Of all the models/concepts that I encountered during my MBA studies in HR, one of the few that I haven't managed to forget (even after 10 years) is the 'Kolb's learning cycle' - according to which 'experiential learning' takes place through cycles of 'Active Experimentation, Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation & Abstract Conceptualization'. Now, what triggered the memories of this 'old friend' was the new novel written by Abhijit Bhaduri. This book(Married But Available), deals with the first ten years of working life of a young HR professional (Abbey) after he completed his MBA in HR from MIJ(Management Institute of Jamshedpur).

Since I am completely 'innocent' of any deep understanding of fiction (or of reviewing books for that matter), I will confine my self to commenting on (what I think are) a few themes in the book that relates to HR and to the career of an HR professional. While I have also just completed the first decade of my career in HR, I am not sure if that places me in a better position to comment on the book. You see, my data set (primary and secondary points I have on the matter) is limited and it does not come any way close to being a 'representative sample'. So this might make me more prone to the risk of generalising based on limited data. Hence these comments may be based on assumptions/inferences that are closer to fiction than the story that Abhijit tells.

The first one is the tendency of MBAs to compare (or 'benchmark') their achievements against that of their batch mates. Now, this tendency is likely to exist, to some extent, in any group. But the 'pressure cooker' nature of many MBA programs coupled with the high degree of 'results orientation' in many MBA students can make this 'tendency to compare' more pronounced among a batch of MBAs. The situation becomes more interesting in the case of HR MBAs, as 'position and salary benchmarking' is part of the job responsibilities of many HR professionals. Yes, this tendency can lead to lot of unnecessary suffering, especially in those situations where a person's identity (and self worth) is defined mostly in terms of his/her job (see Job and Identity) - because in those situations, the comparisons go beyond 'comparison of achievements' (and get into the territory of comparison of 'worth of individuals'). One good thing is that after a few years out of the B-school, it becomes very difficult to make exact comparisons - as people would have taken different career paths - and as there are often significant differences across organizations in terms of roles, levels and designations. Also, over a period of time 'internal benchmarking' (comparing oneself with people within the organization that one is working) becomes increasingly more important (as compared to comparing oneself with batch mates in other organizations). Again, people might have/use different definitions of success (different parameters to measure success or at least attach different relative weights to the parameters) - making the comparisons even more difficult. So even in those cases where one is not able to avoid comparing oneself with one's batch mates, by being 'creative' with the definition/parameters of success, one can achieve a favorable result for oneself - in the comparison game. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. One can also find ways to conclude that everyone else in the batch is more successful than himself/herself!

I also liked the mention in the book about being at the receiving end of an HR process (recruitment -in this case). I have found that 'being at the receiving end of HR' (experiencing an HR process as an employee, especially if it is a 'not so pleasant' experience) can be a great eye-opener for an HR professional. This helps one to be more sensitive to the 'human' in 'Human Resources'. While most of us have been employees also (in addition to having been HR professionals) for most part of our careers, we often have this strange tendency to discount our experiences as employees (as internal customers of HR strategies/ processes/ policies) as compared to our experiences as HR professionals (who design/run HR strategies/ processes/ policies).

The last point I want to talk about here is insight that the book provides about the 'increased cost' (human and social cost) of retrenchment in the Indian context. Since there is little or no social security provided by the state, the role of the employer/expectations from the employer in this domain get heightened. I would even say that since the joint family system (that used to provide some sort of insurance/social security) is breaking down, this aspect can become even more significant. Then there is this issue of 'family involvement'. Since many of us still have the tendency to 'get our families involved' in most of the important decisions that we take (like marriage and job!), separation from the job has an impact on the family that goes beyond the economic impact (as it can have impact on dimensions like family pride and even identity!). This also has implications for the 'innovative' employee engagement & employee retention strategies/ initiatives that many organizations are trying out these days - initiatives/strategies that try to 'lock in' the employees by actively involving their families (like parents day, get the families to the office etc.). Yes, these can help in reducing employee attrition/voluntary turnover. However, this would also make retrenchment/involuntary separation more difficult for the organization and more painful for employees (and their families).

Friday, October 24, 2008

In search of a 'sharp' employee value proposition

These days, many companies are quite vocal about their 'employee value proposition' - the 'total employee deal' that they offer. Some of them even have formal employee value proposition statements. Yes, this is a positive development. If organizations are serious about treating their employees as anything more than 'mindless resources' and if they acknowledge that the employees exercise at least some amount of choice (in matters like joining the company, staying on, putting in discretionary effort at work etc.) it make sense to think about (and more importantly, to do something about!) creating a value proposition (or a 'total employee deal') that appeals to the the current and prospective employees.

However, we often come across two types of problems with 'creating a compelling employee value proposition' efforts. The first is that the value proposition exists mainly in word and not in deed. Hence this becomes more of a communication (or 'public relations') exercise. Now this might work for sometime (in terms of increasing employee morale and in terms of attracting new hires) - as employees often believe the employers (or at least give them 'benefit of doubt'). But after some time, when the employees don't see much action (or the alleged 'employee value' in the employee value proposition) it leads to more frustration/ disillusionment/ mistrust. Thus the employees might develop some sort of aversion (or at least reduced sensitivity) to employee value proposition statements/initiatives.

The second problem is that the 'employee value proposition' statements of many of the organizations look very similar. Now if many organizations start speaking about very similar 'employee value propositions' it leads to a lot of clutter and hence the the employees, especially the prospective employees, find it difficult to judge the relative merits/demerits of the employee value propositions offered by various organizations. This can also add to the 'reduced sensitivity' to employee value proposition statements that we were discussing earlier.

In many cases, one of the key reasons for the above two problems is the attempt on part of the organization to do too many things - trying to improve all aspects/dimensions of the employee deal - that too for all the employees. While this ('trying to be everything to everybody' kind of approach) leads to 'well-rounded employee value proposition statements' the implementation/delivery of the employee value proposition becomes too difficult/impossible. When many organizations follow this approach this also results in employee value proposition statements that look very similar (and too good to be true!).

The above discussion implies that, to be effective, organizations need to find a way to cut through this clutter and reduced employee sensitivity - while ensuring that the employee value propositions are implementable. This where 'sharp' employee value propositions come in.

The basic requirement here is to create a very clear employee value proposition that is different from (and perceived to be different from) what other companies are offering. Usually this implies focusing narrowly – concentrating only on one or two levers/dimensions of the ‘total employee deal’. So the idea is to choose one (or two) aspects of the employee value proposition (based on the business and HR context/strategy/plan) and to channelize most of the resources to enhance ‘employee deal’ in those dimensions. For example, the value proposition can be that
  • ‘we are the best paymasters in the industry’ or
  • ‘we provide the fastest career growth in the industry/we offer positions at a higher responsibility level as compared to what the other companies offer for a given employee profile’ or
  • ‘we provide better/more stable long-term career and greater work-life balance’ or
  • ‘we provide greater opportunities for job rotation and the opportunities to work in multiple geographies’ or
  • ‘we provide the opportunity to work with the most advanced technology/tools and the chance to work with people who are considered to be the thought leaders in the field’ or
  • ‘we provide mass-career customization/greater flexibility in designing your own career’ etc.

Now, all of the above options listed above might not be feasible in the context of a particular company. However, some of the options might be very much feasible. Of course, having/developing competent managers and building a good work culture are very important – especially from a retention point of view. But since every company talks about these it becomes difficult to make these differentiating factors – when we are talking about attracting a new candidate/when a candidate has limited primary data points regarding what particular companies are really offering.

Once the organization has chosen the lever(s) to press and has enhanced the employee value proposition on that dimension (by modifying the policies/processes/management style etc.), the next step is to publicize it – both internally and externally. This will also ensure that the organization attracts the 'correct' profile of candidates (as the ‘focused’ employee value proposition will appeal to only a particular set of candidates – candidates who have a set of workplace preferences that is similar to what the organization is highlighting). While this might reduce the size of the ‘candidate pool’, it will help the organization greatly in reducing attrition – as the organization is attracting only those people who are motivated by those aspects of employee value proposition that the organization is providing better than what the other companies are doing.

It is also possible to further customize ('sharpen'!!!) the employee value proposition to make it more attractive to particular employee segments (e.g. high performance – high potential employees, employees in certain jobs, employees with certain skills etc). This makes a lot of sense if the organization has very limited resources and if it doesn't have equal need to retain all segments of the employees.

Any comments/observations/suggestions?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Influence of 'early career experiences'

What has been the impact of your 'early-career experiences' on you? For the purpose of this discussion, let us define 'early-career experiences' as 'experiences during the 'most impressionable part' of one's career and this would imply (for many people) experiences during the first few years of one's career/the experiences during one's first job. So please take a couple of minutes to think about your 'early-career experiences'. What do you remember about them? Do you think that they have impacted you in any significant manner? If yes, what has been the nature of the impact?

The importance of early life experiences on the psychological/behavioral development of a person is well known. But considering that one is usually much older when one starts working, can a similar phenomena occur - in the domain of one's basic assumptions about organizational life/work/career? In an earlier post (see HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder), I had speculated that 'traumatic' early career experiences might contribute to the development of some sort of a 'Multiple Personality Disorder' among HR professionals - especially among young MBAs in HR.

While I have been thinking about this issue for quite some time, the 'trigger' for this post came recently in the form of a discussion in an e-group that I am part of. This e-group consists mainly of my ex-colleagues from an organization in which I had worked a long time ago. We were discussing issues like"the reasons for the existence of strong bonds among us even though most of us had left the organization a long time ago"; "why do we often talk about the 'great experience' that we have had in that organization" etc. Now, there were multiple factors (at multiple) levels involved in the situation. I felt that one of the key factors involved (apart from the factors related to the organization context, nature of work, nature of inter-dependencies in the group etc.) was the profile of the members of the group/organization at that stage - most of us were at an 'impressionable stage' in our careers!.

It was the first job for many of us and I felt that it 'shaped' our definitions of 'what is good' in an organization/workplace context (i.e. the tacit/subconscious definitions of 'good' boss, 'good' team member, 'good' team, 'good' employer, 'good' learning opportunities and even that of 'good' work). Since other organizations (that we joined later in our career) are unlikely to provide environments that exactly match these definitions, the work experiences in them are likely to be perceived as falling short of 'the good old days'. I think that this is similar to the phenomena in which the traditional way of cooking in India (cooking with fire/heating food from the outside) influenced our definition of 'good taste'. This in turn made it difficult for a product like the microwave oven (that heat up food uniformly) to become popular in India* (other than for reheating the food) - till a new generation brought up on a more 'microwave-friendly' definition of 'good taste' became consumers.

So my hypothesis is that early career experiences can have a significant impact on our careers by influencing our basic workplace preferences and attitudes. Of course, there are other factors (like personality related factors) that can also influence our workplace preferences and attitudes. It would also be interesting to examine if the impact/influence of early career experiences reduces as one progresses in one's career (and gains more experiences/data points).

Any observations/comments?

*Note: I am not saying that this is the only factor that possibly worked against the popularity of microwave ovens. There could be many other contributing factors. For example, from a psychological point of view - fire has many important associations (i.e. fire symbolizes a number of things). It is a symbol of purity - for fire is considered to purify everything. Hence cooking food in fire can symbolize purification of food. Fire is also supposed to symbolize 'illumination', 'inner light' , 'holiness' etc.. It is interesting to note that in many of the cultures across the world there are myths related to 'theft of fire' (e.g. according to Greek mythology, Prometheus [whose name means 'foresight'] stole fire [which was available only to the gods at that time] from Zeus and gave it to the mankind). As I have said earlier (please see Myth and truth : 'So true that it can't be real'), myths often embody great truths.

Now let us come back to microwave ovens. From the above discussion, it can be seen that 'microwave-cooking' might have been at a disadvantage as compared to 'fire-cooking' because of the symbolic significance of fire. This argument becomes stronger if we compare microwave ovens to washing machines. As compared to microwave ovens, washing machines became popular in India much faster. One of the reasons for this could be that a washing machine is a more or less 'straight forward automation of an essentially mechanical process' (i.e. washing). So washing machines did not have to fight some of the above 'psychological battles' that microwave ovens had to fight! Anyway, since I am not an expert in marketing (or in microwave ovens/washing machines for that matter) let me not push this point any further !

Sunday, June 29, 2008

In praise of HR generalists

Let me begin by saying that I am a specialist - I am in a specialist role now (in Learning and OD) and I have spent most of my career so far in specialist roles in HR. But I have also handled HR generalist/HR business partner roles where I was the 'internal customer' for specialists roles in HR. Again, I have been fortunate to get opportunities to work in the HR domain in multiple contexts - HR consulting, Internal HR and HR Shared Services Centre. At this point, I am very happy to be back in a specialist role. But I have much higher appreciation/ respect for HR generalists now - as compared to what I used to have during the early years of my career.

Earlier (when I was looking at HR generalist roles as an outsider), I used to consider most of the HR generalist roles to be rather 'shallow' - in the sense that most of those roles (when it comes to the way they are actually executed) don't require any significant application of HR/behavioral science knowledge (please see HR Professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder). The main requirement for those roles seemed to be 'a bit of common sense coupled with knowledge of procedures/policies'.

Now that I have closely worked with some very effective HR generalists (and also seen generalist roles from an 'insider perspective'), I am convinced that what appears to be straight forward common sense decision making often involves fine judgement - the kind of judgement that requires knowledge and much more than knowledge - often requiring the kind of 'wisdom' that I spoke about in 'Wisdom-level consulting'. Since HR generalists need to interface with employees & managers, they need to ensure that what they do/the decisions they are communicating appear simple, clear and consistent. But these simple 'front-end/user interface' is often achieved by absorbing a lot of complexity at the 'back-end' of decision making - and you have to be an insider to see/appreciate this 'back-end' of decision making!

I have seen many senior HR generalists do the kind of great process facilitation/ process consulting work with business leadership teams that would make an Organization Development (OD) specialist proud. But usually these HR leaders don't call it OD and they don't talk too much about it - may be because they see it as a very natural part of their job and may be because they don't want to annoy the 'designated OD specialists' in the organization! I have also seen these leaders being able to synthesize the inputs from multiple specialists (staffing, compensation, resource management, workforce planning, employee relations, capability development etc.) and provide the the business leaders with an integrated HR response (diagnosis and solutions) to business challenges.

This ismuch more useful for the business leaders than receiving separate recommendations from various specialists. I feel that integrating multiple perspectives and answering the 'so what' question for the business is a much higher craft than coming up with isolated findings. Again, some of these HR leaders have a much higher understanding of the business as compared to that of the specialists and they are able to look at the organization from a 'total system perspective' - to identify and exploit 'leverage points' - those points/areas/factors in the system where a small change made can have a huge impact on the overall system/business.

Another reason for my increased respect for HR generalists is a gradual shift in my definition of 'what really makes a difference'. These days, I am more inclined to think that unless what an HR professional does makes a difference at the level of individuals, it is not making much of a difference. Of course, I agree that often a system level intervention is needed to impact a large number of individuals and that the definition of individuals is not limited to particular employees. But I have seen that technically perfect work (or 'high-end HR work') done at the system level does not always translate into making a difference at the individual level (to the individual stakeholders).

From a diagnosis and solution design point of view, it is required to go beyond the immediate appearance of people related problems/issues and look at the 'underlying form/patterns/principles'. But, we need to ensure that these solutions designed at the 'pattern/underlying form/principle/theory' level, need to be converted back to the level of individuals - solutions to the actual problems/issues that we had started our analysis with.

This is similar to the 'physical problem-mathematical model of the problem-mathematical solution-physical solution' process used in approaches like Six Sigma. Since specialists work mostly at the pattern/principles/system level (similar to the mathematical/'ethereal' part mentioned above), generalists are required to bring the solutions to the ground level - to make them 'real' - as solutions to the actual problems of particular individuals.

Specialists enjoy an advantage over the generalists - specialists usually support more than one client group, where as the generalists are often embedded in a particular client group. So it becomes relatively easy for a specialist to take a objective/neutral perspective as compared to a generalist. Thus balancing the interests of the particular client group that one is supporting with that of the larger organization becomes a more difficult task for the generalists.

There is another tricky balancing act that HR generalists (especially at senior levels) often have to do. Many of these generalists have a good amount of specialist functional expertise and there is one part in their personality that craves for technical perfection of the solutions. But their roles demand that the solutions should be pragmatic/workable/easy to communicate and implement - keeping in mind the organizational constraints. Also, because of their greater proximity to the particular businesses they are supporting, HR generalists are much more aware of the organizational constraints (especially the tacit ones) as compared to specialists.

This leads to an interesting situation when these generalists are the internal customers of specialists roles in HR. When the specialists push for technical perfection of a solution, the generalists often have to push back - to keep the solutions implementable. This would mean that in addition to arguing with the specialists, they also have to argue with themselves (i.e. the specialist part of their personality). Believe me, this is not a very enjoyable situation to be in! Of course, specialists also face these kind of issues as they grow in their careers. Please see 'Of specialists and business alignment'.

Overall, I feel that HR generalists roles are more 'messy' as compared to specialist roles. Often, HR generalists have to act as the 'face of the organization' when it comes to communicating unpleasant decisions (like disciplinary actions, layoffs, reduction in employee benefits etc.) to the employees. It becomes a challenge to maintain integrity (at the intrapersonal and at the interpersonal levels) when an HR generalist has to to stand in front of the same group employees -within the short span of time - first to announce employee engagement initiatives and then to announce a layoff.

As I have mentioned earlier (Please see 'At the receiving end of change management'), even in the case of major changes in the organization that have significant impact on the organization structure, jobs and on the employees, often the HR generalists are able to get involved only when it is too late. By that time 'emotional wounds' have already been created and what is left is more of communication and 'dressing of wounds'. This is definitely not the 'strategic change management' role that they were supposed to do. Now, I am not saying that these 'organizational scavenger' (or 'organizational earthworm') kind of roles played by HR generalists are not important. Actually they are very critical for maintaining the health and vitality of the organizations (just like earthworms increase the vitality of the soil/scavengers help to maintain the health of the ecosystem). My point is that these aspects of HR generalist roles are often very messy.

Again, since HR generalists often have to respond quickly there might not be enough time to come up with neat solutions. The specialists also have their own battles to fight in organizations and there is always the risk of 'injuries'(Since these are 'organization battles', these injuries are unlikely to be physical in nature - but they can really hurt. Please see 'Leaders and battle scars' for a related discussion.). The 'injuries' sustained in 'specialist battles' are more likely to be similar to 'cuts' , whereas those sustained in 'generalist battles' are more likely to resemble 'wounds'. It is important to note that here we are talking not just about the 'injuries' sustained by HR specialists/generalists. We are also talking about the 'injuries' to the other players in the organization and to the relationships - the relationships between HR professionals and business leaders/managers that are very important (especially for the HR generalists) to get their work done! In general, 'cuts' tend to heal faster (and neater/with less scarring !) than 'wounds' !

Another factor here is that the boundaries of generalist roles are often not well-defined and hence all kinds of tasks/problems (especially those no one wants to touch) can get dumped on the generalists. In some contexts this can also imply that HR generalists are 'on call' 24x7. Work can become a series of small activities with nothing substantial to show (or to add to the CV !) at the end of the year. Again, there is the greater need to walk the thin line between confidentiality and openness, empathy and objectivity, cooperation and capitulation, emotional intelligence and emotional manipulation etc. One can even end up feeling like a 'mouse in a maze' - running here and there, feeling extremely busy- but not reaching anywhere! Now, what amazes me is that I have seen many HR generalists being effective and producing very 'neat' work in such a 'messy' situation. So how can I stop myself from writing this post - 'in praise of HR generalists'?

Any comments/observations?

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Job and identity

Recently, I left the job that I had been doing for the past three years and took up a different type of job with another organization. I also got the opportunity to take a 3-week break in between - the first in my career that I have done so. I spent most of this time outside Bangalore - with some of my close relatives. This also meant that I met a lot people (the friends/relatives of my relatives) - and I was meeting most of them for the first time. One side effect of this was that I had to answer the question "So Prasad, what are you doing now?" - roughly 3 times/day - about 40 times in total, over a two week period.

Initially, I tried the answer "I am on vacation" - but that did not seem to work. People would wait for me to say more and if I did not say anything more they would ask me something like "What do you do for a living?". To this I tried to give the answer "I work mainly in the area of Organization Development". But even that answer did not seem satisfactory. Sooner or later people would ask me "Which company do you work for?". To this I tried answering "I am in between jobs" (or "I am taking a break") - but this also did not appear to work well (and sometimes this answer elicited a confused and/or sympathetic look/expression also). So finally I was forced to answer "I was working for company 'C1' till date ' d1' and I would be joining company 'C2' on date 'd2' ". While this turned out to be 'satisfactory answer' (from a social perspective), I did feel quite uneasy.

My uneasiness was mainly at two levels. At the 'social level' I was bothered about how would I have handled this question if I was not in a position to say that "I would be joining company 'C2' on date 'd2' ". At more personal level, I was wondering whether I can articulate a clear answer (just for my own consumption) to our initial question ("So Prasad, what are you doing now ?"), without referring to any of my employers (past, present or future!) or to the job titles. After I thought about it for a while, I felt that uneasiness at the first level was not a very important - as it was arising mainly from 'social desirability' and 'norms of polite communication in a particular social group' - and hence it should not bother one unduly so long as the 'economic viability' angle has been taken care of. The uneasiness at the personal level was more difficult to address. Once I resisted the temptation to 'destroy the question' by resorting to philosophical answers (e.g. one should be bothered about 'being' as opposed to 'doing'), the real issue became "Have I wrapped my identity too much into my job/career ?". I feel that this is an important question that needs to be looked at more carefully.

There are conflicting trends operating here. On the one hand, many of us spend a very large part of our waking lives at work. Many of the jobs are very demanding and they occupy a lot of our 'psychological space' - much beyond office space and office hours. Our 'passion for work', might make work and the achievements at the workplace very important for us. It has also been argued that in an environment where the role holder has the opportunity to shape the role to a large extent (and/or where people are expected to be responsible for managing/developing their careers), role identity and career identity are essential for success/effectiveness. On the other hand, these days many people routinely change jobs or even change careers. Again, often people are forced out of their jobs and careers by organizational changes(right sizing, restructuring etc.). Thus, if your identity is wrapped up in what you do, a change of job or a change of careers (especially if they were forced on you) becomes traumatic (much more so in the case of a job loss).

So where does this leave us? Developing and understanding our identity as individuals is essential for personal effectiveness. This would serve an anchor point for us when everything around us are changing. While job and career identities are useful from a job/career effectiveness/success point of view, they can't define who we are as individuals. Jobs and careers are like the cloths that individuals wear and change. Just as we can't let our cloths define us (though some of us might choose to express some aspects of ourselves through the way we dress), we can't let our jobs and careers define us completely. So it is very important for one to examine one's current definition of oneself and if the results don't show anything beyond job and career identity, it is time for investing significant time and effort for expanding the boundaries of those definitions. Of course, developing and understanding our identity as individuals is a lifelong process.

By the way, there is another reason for being careful about this 'sense of identity wrapped up in job' . It has been argued that 'sense of identity wrapped up in job' is one of the factors that could predict the risk of violent behavior at the workplace. So now the relevant questions are - "Are you at risk ?" and "Are you a risk ?" !!!

Related Link: HR carnival at Strategic HCM blog

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Passion for work and anasakti

" People here are not passionate about their work. If you ask them to do something more, they start speaking about their deliverables, resource constraints and work-life balance. People should show passion for their work and they should be willing to work beyond office hours and on weekends to go beyond their job descriptions", said the senior HR professional. I did not know how to react to this immediately. There were many themes and assumptions (in addition to many emotions!) in his statement. I needed to think through this before I could come up with a reasonable response. So I just shook my head (in an ambivalent manner !) and tried to change the subject of the conversation.

Now, if you have been in the corporate world for some time, it is highly unlikely that you would have been able to avoid hearing these kinds of statements about 'passion for work'. While most of these statements are made in the context of 'motivational speeches' (without any concrete action points on this 'passion for work'), this is not just a 'philosophical' issue. It has been observed that while 'passion for work' might or might not have a significant impact on actual job performance, 'perceived passion for work' is an important factor in selection decisions. Of course, we have more fundamental issues here - like 'how exactly do we define passion for work' and 'what are the behavioral manifestations of this passion for work'. To begin with, I don't agree with the assumption made by our senior HR professional that 'passion for work can't be demonstrated during normal office hours'!

While the connection between 'passion for work' and job performance seems logical (though I am not sure how much empirical evidence is there to support this), I do wonder if one can do anything to develop/enhance 'passion for work' in oneself and/or in others. It appears that it is very difficult to train/'inject'/'program' this 'passion for work' into anyone (including oneself !)- especially on a sustainable basis. 'Passion for work' seems to be a byproduct of more fundamental things like meaning, purpose, talents, basic personality orientations etc. (Please see 'Employee engagement an the story of the Sky maiden' for a related discussion). So it appears that 'passion for work' is more like something that we can discover/re-discover and help others to discover/re-discover (as opposed to something that we can directly create).

While this seems promising, we might find it difficult to align the 'passion for work' that we have 'discovered' to the immediate job requirements/context - as passion for work might not be bothered about 'minor' things like job descriptions!. May be we should 'let our passions find work that meets them' rather than the other way around. Of course, this is not a simple task - either for the individuals (in terms of actually finding such work - over the span of an entire career) or for the organizations (in terms of developing/maintaining the flexibility required - in organization design and in talent management).

This could explain why our senior HR professional came to the conclusion (based on many years of experience in the corporate world) that passion for work requires working beyond normal office hours. However, the problem with this approach/conclusion is that it tries to work around (and even perpetuate) a problem rather than trying to solve it. From both 'organization effectiveness' and 'personal effectiveness at work' points of view it is worth trying to solve this problem - though it would involve significant amount of effort. By the way, it can also be argued that since passion for work is not easily trainable, using 'demonstrated passion for a particular type of work/job' as one of the selection criteria for that job is not a bad idea - especially if we can find a reliable way to define/ assess it (e.g. formulating a definition in terms of its behavioral indicators in the particular context and using targeted/behavioral interviews based on those indicators).

Another aspect that intrigues me is the possibility of 'undesirable side effects' of this 'passion for work'. For example, I do wonder if 'passion for work' comes as a package deal - along with complications such as too much attachment to the task/job/position, tendency to attempt for local optima (at the task/individual level results) that might not add up to global optima (at the team and organization level results) etc. On a more philosophical plane, this discussion has similarities with the discussion on the fundamental issue of 'whether happiness and sadness are a package deal' (i.e. "can one be 'emotionally open' to feeling happiness while being 'emotionally closed' to feeling sadness" or "can one reduce one's sensitivity to sadness without reducing one's sensitivity to happiness"- assuming that the person has no major psychological disorders !).

So is there a type of 'passion for work' that is does not involve attachment? There does exist such a concept (in yogic literature) - anasakti. While anasakti is sometimes translated as 'detachment', the true meaning of anasakti is closer to 'non-attachment'. Actually, there are three related terms here - asakti (attachment), vairagya (detachment) and anasakti (non-attachment). Non-attachment is acceptance of situations (and responding to them adequately) without getting emotionally affected by them. This is similar to the ideas of 'being in the world but not of it' and of 'engaging in tasks, yet not being concerned with rewards involved'. It is also interesting to note that anasakti has similarities with Scott Peck's definition of true love. A person high in anasakti carries out tasks (as a karma yogi) with a sense of responsibility and task enjoyment without any additional expectation (while this person does not refuse to enjoy the 'fruits of his labor', he/she does not get hooked on to these conveniences).

I must say that there is a huge difference between finding the concept of anasakti and implementing the same successfully in work-life (as a model of the ideal type of 'passion for work')! Finding a term that describes what we are trying to achieve, does not automatically enable us to achieve it. However, we can get some useful ideas from the thoughts/experience that have already been developed around the term (though in a slightly different context) and this in turn might help us avoid 'reinventing the wheel' in some aspects. So our quest for finding and implementing the ideal type of 'passion for work' continues.

Any comments/thoughts/ideas ?

Note1: In this post, I haven't really tried to define 'passion for work'. There are essentially two reasons for this. 'Passion for work' is essentially an internal phenomenon (more like a feeling) and internal phenomena are 'better experienced than defined'. The exact nature of the feeling can also be highly individual-specific/personal. Hence any formal definition given in the post can create some sort of a 'disconnect' in the minds of some of the readers - as some parts of the definition might not match with their own tacit/intuitive personal definition. Hence by using the phrase 'passion for work' without defining it I was trying to prompt the readers to use their own personal/intuitive definitions of 'passion for work'. Now let us look at the second reason. This post was focusing mainly on the implications of 'passion for work'. Hence I was concerned that dwelling too much on the technicalities of a formal definition could shift attention away from the main focus of the post. Of course, this approach would work best when there is quite a bit of 'common ground' among the personal/intuitive definitions and when we are concerned more about the implications of 'passion for work' (especially for particular individuals) as compared to 'passion for work' itself.

Now that we have got the reasons and rationalizations out of the way, let us look at some of the common themes/terms/phrases/definitions associated with 'passion for work'. One of my favorites is 'spark in the mind' - that a person brings to work (and that makes him/her look forward to coming to work!) - that encourages him/her to care deeply about the work and to put in his/her best - and even to approach work as an act of love . We can also try to define 'passion for work' in terms of its typical behavioral manifestations - increased energy, creativity, commitment etc. This bring us to another term related to passion for work - enthusiasm - to be inspired . If we look at the original roots of the word enthusiasm (en + theos = 'in god' or enthousiazein = 'to be inspired by a god'), it is not difficult to arrive at the 'work as an act of worship' idea associated with 'passion for work'. Another related dimension is 'finding/ experiencing deep meaning in the work that one is doing ' - in the work itself and/or in terms of one's work contributing to a worthwhile objective (in the 'laying bricks - building the cathedral' sense). Since we are also speaking about anasakti and non-attachment, it is important to avoid any undue attachment to these objectives/goals - even while being inspired by them!.

Hence, 'being inspired, caring deeply and feeling an intense connection (or even 'oneness') with what one is doing - without developing any undue attachment' is the closest that I can come at this point to a definition of the kind of 'passion for work' that I am talking about here. Quite a tall order, I must say!

Note2: As I have commented here, I feel that 'passion’ is closely related to meaning and purpose. Yes, if one is passionate about something, one will be willing to stretch/extend one self (‘suffer’) for it. Interestingly, this again takes us very close to another aspect of Scott Peck's definition of 'true love' that was mentioned earlier in this post(Etymologically speaking, the origins of the word passion can be traced back to the Latin words pati (to suffer/endure; the word 'patience' also has similar roots) and passus(suffering). But it is ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ that take ‘suffering’ into the realm of ‘passion’ (as in 'Passion of the Christ'). After all, there is a lot of meaningless (neurotic) suffering in the world, in addition to meaningful (passionate) suffering.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Mysteries of 'being a good team player'

"My team is not happy with me. They have told me that I am not a good team player", said the young engineer. The latter part of his statement triggered alarms in my mind. Over the years, I have learnt that when it comes to receiving negative feedback, one is in a much better situation if the negative feedback is about some particular action/task that one has done. In that case one can understand the mistake made and try to do better/avoid it next time. However, if one receives feedback like 'you have an attitude problem' or 'you don't have passion for work' or 'you are not a team player' then the situation becomes much more tricky. Firstly, it is often very difficult to figure out what exactly one did wrong. Secondly, it is usually very difficult to change these impressions/perceptions (regardless of what one does).

Let us come back to our young engineer. What happened in this case was that the team/ work group that he was part of decided to on a picnic to a neighbouring state. Our friend did not go along with the team for the picnic. He did not want to go out of station for very strong (but very personal) reasons. However, he covered for the team during that period by putting in extra hours in office- including many night shifts. This lead to a peculiar situation. Our engineer felt that he displayed 'team work' as he had put in additional effort - enabling the team to minimise work disruption while they enjoyed the picnic. Some members in the team felt that our engineer did not display 'team work' as he did not join the team for the picnic (or as he declined to 'play with the team' !). So what could have been a 'win-win' arrangement degenerated into a 'lose-lose' situation.

There are many dimensions here -the possible differences in the understanding of even very commonly used terms & their adverse impact, power of metaphors in our thinking and of course our primary topic - mysteries of 'being a good team player'. It has been argued that human thought processes are mainly metaphorical and that we understand and experience things and concepts (e.g. the concept of 'team work' in our case here) in the network of their metaphorical affinities.

The underlying metaphor in the case of 'team work' is essentially that from the field of sports - a sports team. While this appears rather straight forward, there could many complications here. There are many types of sports/games. The type of 'team work' that is required varies widely from game to game. The type of team work required (and hence what makes someone a good team player in that context) is different in the case of a soccer team as compared to that of a cricket team, a relay team (in athletics) or a Davis cup (tennis) team. Now the amount of interdependency among the players in a soccer team is higher as compared to that in a cricket team and much higher as compared to a relay team. In the case of a relay team, what is required to be a good team player is essentially to run his/her part of the race as fast as possible and to exchange the baton well with the other team member(s) involved. In the case of a Davis cup team, all that is required from a team member in a singles match is to win that match and get a valuable point for the team/country. Obviously, the same type of approach will not make one a good team player in a soccer team!

Now let us take a closer look at 'team work' in a workplace context. As we can see from the above discussion, when different people say 'team work' or 'team player' in a workplace context, they might be using the sports metaphor (team) with very different types of games in mind. This can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. Actually, there are additional factors involved here that could complicate the situation even more. The tacit definition of 'team work' in highly individualistic cultures could be significantly different from that in collectivist cultures. It has also been observed that there could be gender related differences in the understanding of what makes one a good team player. Part of this could be because of the fact that young boys and young girls tend to prefer playing different types of games (e.g. 'war games' and 'doll games' - to use a stereotyped example)! By the way, it is interesting to note that we can learn a lot about an individual/ team/ organization from the metaphors/expressions they use to describe key experiences.

It can be seen that, from a team effectiveness point of view, different types of team work are required in different workplace contexts. So it would be a good idea to analyse, understand and agree upon what exactly is type of team work required in the case of a particular team/work group in a particular organization context. This would also help us to develop and communicate a good 'operational definition' of 'what makes a good team player' in that context. Of course, an 'operational definition/working definition' is not very glamorous and it does not fully capture the mysteries of the 'broad concept of team work'. But it can help to avoid a lot of 'avoidable unhappiness' at the workplace!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Why pigs have wings (Importance of differentiation in people management)

The more interesting part of the title comes from 'Through the Looking -Glass' (by Lewis Carroll). The other (related !) part - importance of differentiation in people management - is something that I have often thought about. There are many issues here. Is differentiation really important in people management? What types of differentiation are relevant? What are the implications of differentiation ? Is it worth the trouble and effort?

Now, there are many types of 'differentiation' possible in people management . We can look at differentiation in terms of the parameters on which differentiation is based on (i.e. input parameters/criteria) and/or in terms of the ways in which differentiation is implemented (i.e. results/outcomes). For example, differentiation could be based on (inter alia) performance, potential, criticality/ impact of the role, job level, job family, market value of the skill set, tenure, business unit etc. or a combination of them. Again, the differentiation could be made/ implemented in terms of (inter alia) compensation, benefits, recognition, career progression, development opportunities etc. or a combination of them.

If we look at the large number of input parameters and outcomes listed above, it becomes apparent that there are a large number of combinations possible here. The relevance of a particular combination would be context specific. To keep this discussion manageable, let us classify the input parameters into three broad categories - parameters that are related most to the
(a) individual (performance, potential, tenure etc.)
(b) position (criticality/impact of the role, job family, job level, skill set)
(c) part of the organization (business unit/function/geography)

I must say that these catagories are somewhat arbitrary and there could be some amount of overlap among them also. For example 'skill set' is related to both the role and the individual. It also raises some interesting questions like 'if an employee has a skill that is in the list of 'hot skills' (as defined by the organization) and if the employee is currently in a job that does not need that skill, should the employee be given any sort of differentiated rewards? ' OK, OK, let us come back to our discussion.

Based on our classification, the question now becomes whether it makes sense to differentiate based on individual, position or organization/business unit related factors? Different business unit in a company might face different markets (both product and factor markets) - with different dynamics and market practices. Business units might also differ in terms of their performance. Hence there is a strong case for differentiation. However, too much differentiation might lead to a situation where the employees in different business units don't really feel that they are working for the same company ! Thus, the organization culture and philosophy becomes a key factor in determining the extent of differentiation. Similarly, it can be argued that some positions in the organization have a much higher impact on organization performance and that some skillsets carry a greater market a higher market value at a particular point - there by making a case for differentiated treatment. Of course, we should keep in mind the fact that the list of critical positions and the list of key skills could change - sometimes quite quickly.

Now, if we examine differentiation based on individual related parameters a similar argument holds good when it comes to individual 'performance' - higher performance merits higher rewards. The case (if any) for 'tenure' based differentiation usually has more to do with organization culture/values. The case for 'potential' based differentiation (on a stand alone basis) is more complex. Anyway, the most common practice is to use a combination of performance and potential. This also leads to interesting situations and challenges. Please see
'Paradox of potential assessment' for a detailed discussion.

Now let us leave aside all these details and examine the core of the issue. I feel that the most important factor driving differentiation related decisions should be 'contribution/value addition to the organization'. So if there are some business units/positions/individuals that create more value to the organization as compared to other business units/positions/individuals they could be given preferential treatment. By the same logic, the extent of differentiation should mainly be a factor of the variation in the 'contribution/value addition to the organization'.

While this sounds quite neat/logical, there are a few important prerequisites to make this work. For example, everyone should understand and agree upon what exactly is meant by 'contribution/value addition to the organization' at the business units/position/individual levels. In addition to this we might need to include probable 'contribution/value addition to the organization' in the future, apart from the current ''contribution/value addition to the organization' (e.g. in the case of differentiation based on 'potential'). Also, it should be possible to track/ measure/ assess this relative 'contribution/value addition to the organization' (to the satisfaction of everyone involved) at all these levels . Again, there should clear norms in staffing the positions/business units to answer the question 'how can I move to that position/unit that gets better treatment'. As we can see all this could get quite complex.

As I see it, what really matters most here is the dynamic interplay of the factors (as opposed to a particular factor per se) in a particular context. For example, it is worth it to have a 'key talent program' ( that aggressively differentiates 'high performance - high potential' employees in critical job families) if we are in a context
(a) some positions (say critical positions) have a much higher business impact as compared to other positions &
(b) in critical positions, a high performer in creates much more value as compared to an average performer &
(c) it is very important that senior positions are filled by developing talent from within (say because of the nature of work and organization culture)
In such a context, the business case for the key talent program is clear even if the program could have possible side effects in terms of annoying a large section of the employees who are not part of the program. However, if one or more of the conditions mentioned in (a), (b) and (c) above do not hold good (or if they hold good only to a limited degree/extent), the business case becomes less compelling.

While this does not negate the existence of the complexity that we were discussing earlier, it can be seen that some patterns can be found amidst the complexity that can lead to actionable inferences in the area of differentiation in people management. Also, while we are caught up in all this talk about differentiation, we should not forget the importance of 'individualization' (managing each employee as a unique individual - please see previous posts like
'Paradox of HR systems' and 'Feasibility of mass career customization')- though it is not really 'differentiation' - in the sense we are using the term here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Paradox of 'HR Systems'

"But I don't need HR systems", said the senior business manager. I had gone to this gentleman to seek his buy-in (and sponsorship, if possible) for implementing an internal HR product/ solution that I was managing at that time. The main selling point for the HR product was that it would improve the effectiveness of core HR systems in the organization (like Staffing, Rewards and Training). I had just finished my sales pitch and then I was hit with this response. Actually, he was not being difficult. He had a point. This gentleman was managing one of the most profitable units in the organization. This unit had a relatively small number (as compared to the total headcount in the organization) of employees - but with a highly specialized (and difficult to find/retain) skill set. His point was that because of the nature of the skill set and high business impact of the positions in his unit, key people related decisions (hiring, rewarding, training etc.) are directly handled by him and his direct reports in a highly individualized manner and this has been working very well. So any (standardized) HR system/process would be more of a hindrance for him in running his unit !

While the above scenario is not representative of the typical organization context in which HR systems function, it brings us to an interesting paradox in 'Human Resource Systems/ Processes'. There is a clue in the name itself. The words 'system' or 'process' convey an impression of standardization/ consistency. The word 'human' implies a unique individual. As I have mentioned earlier (while discussing the various terms used for HRM), the new business environment has forced organizations to pay more attention to the 'human' part (as opposed to the 'resource' part) of 'human resource management'. This has resulted in a quest for more individualized approaches for managing people (See here for an example in the domain of career development. Another example could be the shift/progression from 'level/grade-based' to 'position-based'' to profile-based' to 'individual-based' approach in compensation and benefits management.). Now the question is that "how can standardized processes/systems be effective in managing unique individuals?" But we can't jump to the conclusion that HR systems/ processes are not required. Absolute chaos can result if there are no HR systems/processes - especially in the case of large organizations. Moreover, how can we forget what we have learned about 'procedural justice' ! However, it has also been established that human beings are managed most effectively in small units. This again brings us back to the importance of customised approaches to managing people - at individual and small group levels - even as many organizations are becoming larger in size. Thus we have a paradox in the true meaning of the term - 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.

One 'solution' that has evolved/emerged in response to this paradox (which is often seen in MNCs) is to establish well-defined processes across the organization and also to give a lot of decision making power to the managers. For example, the process (steps/procedure) for giving a salary increase (or a promotion) would be very clearly defined; but the manager has absolute freedom to decide on the quantum of salary increase for a particular employee (or to decide whether or not to promote a particular employee) subject to an overall salary increase/ cost of workforce budget for the entire team. Thus, highly individualized approach can be taken for managing a particular employee while maintaining standardization at the group level.

People management is a field which is full of paradoxes (for more examples of such paradoxes please see paradox of 'hiring good people and letting them decide' and paradox of potential assessment). . The 'human' dimension of the issues in this domain is one of the main contributing factors. Also, any system (including a human system), when it becomes sufficiently complex, becomes difficult to 'manage' in the normal sense of the term 'manage'. As I have mentioned earlier (while exploring the behavioral science foundations of HR), a key prerequisite for managing is the ability to predict. In the case of complex systems, we face a dilemma - predictions about the behavior of the system that can be made accurately are not very relevant/helpful in managing the system and predictions that are relevant/helpful in managing the system can't be made very accurately ! However, a paradox per se is not a bad thing. If there were neat/linear solutions to problems in people management there wouldn't have been many deep-specialist jobs in HR (which in turn would have forced many of us to look for jobs in other domains !). Paradoxes also contribute to the richness of the domain. However, managing paradoxes might require approaches that are different from traditional problem solving methods. They might need approaches similar to those that I have described in posts like 'Making problems disappear' , 'Wisdom-level consulting' and 'Of problems, paradoxes, koans and wisdom' - approaches that reflect simplicity at the other side of complexity !

Any ideas/comments?

Related posts : See here and here for related posts.