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?