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).


bombay dosti said...

Well, in the journey of a HR professional, isn't there also a phase of doubt,of the actual value add done to the business and to the people? In some sense, this is also a comparison- of what we expected from ourselves when we entered the profession, and what we end by achieving. Or its only something that idealists go through!When expectations are higher,frustration is also highly probable. In HR, although there are innumerable articles that tell us the linkage between HR strategy and Business Strategy, there are times, that I do wonder!
Maybe thats the phase, I am in.

About involving family, in the professional life of employees, I think,it would work only if the company, articulate its policy of retrenchment/layoff transparent as well or atleast, the company should be seen as caring,when it lays off, for sure!!Where, layoffs are part of working life, I think, employees will see through initiatives involving families.

Prasad Kurian said...

Nice to see you back and commenting!

Yes, if you are prone to introspection and to intellectual honesty (at least to yourself), then you are highly likely to go through phases of doubt (and even depression!). As far as I know, HR professionals (even with their reputation for being thick-skinned) are also not immune to this. Yes, as HR professionals we have an ample supply of things to get depressed about – including lack of value addition to the businesses/managers/employees, lack meaning, boring work and sheer absurdity of many of the HR initiatives. Yes, high expectations can make this worse (it has been said that the secret of happiness has something to do with having low expectations).

I feel that the ‘way out’ differs – depending on the context and the ‘essential nature’ of the particular HR professional involved. Personally speaking, my preferred approach (at this point of time) for solving this problem has more to do with ‘making the problem disappear’ – similar to what I have described in a post with the same name (see )

Anonymous said...

What day isn't today?