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?


bombay dosti said...

I think I am going to ramble a bit here. Your post,has got me thinking in different ways. I am just wondering if your "job deskilling" is similar to the job design that happens abroad. Well, this evolves from my basic understanding of the differnce in Ways of working in India and Europe(atleast). We once had a cross cultural team discussing this. One of the differences that came across was that, Europeans were given highly focused jobs i.e. one person would be responsible for only one narrow aspect of the job. It does not necessarily mean that they are deskilled, it could mean that they are highly skilled in one aspect. Indians on the other hand, were particularly "jack of all trades but master of none". This also means that, in the indian context, I will not be able to find a complete replacement for this jack of all trades because,
1. I cant even articulate his skill sets completely 2.he would be taking with him a lot of tacit knowledge because of the haphazard nature in which his job is designed.
At the same time, this would also mean that there should be a high level of maturity that we would need in processes as well, to document and so on. Also, even the talent supply in the country should also be that matured in nature for me to find those specific skill sets.
I am not sure if this is the best model, also, as I have also wondered if they would not get bored doing one kind of job. One of the selling points of a career, atleast in my company was the possibility of job rotation and exposure. But it seems to work well there.

Also,think its time, companies stop talking about loyalty.Personally, am not a great fan of the 'hire and fire' system. Especially when we as a country do not have a social security system as in other countries.With so many layoffs happening around, I feel its not justified to have one convenient part of the game alone. But then since companies are not loyal, there is no way one can ask for loyalty from employees.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks for the comment.

I feel that a narrow focus (the job involving only a few tasks) does not necessarily mean low skill requirement – if those tasks require a high degree of skill. Yes, this can reduce ‘skill variety’ - unless those few tasks themselves require a wide range of skills. Job deskilling would essentially involve reducing the skill requirement - by modifying the way in which the tasks are carried out, specifying detailed operating procedures, redesigning the process/jobs in such a way that activities that require a high degree of skill are concentrated in a few jobs (and there by reducing the skill requirement for bulk of the jobs) etc.

Yes, I also agree that employment is a relationship – between the employer and the employee. Like all relationships, it is also a two-way street. So the degree of loyalty that the employers can expect from the employees should be similar to that they show to the employees! Neither the employer nor the employee is doing a favor to the other – in the context of the employment relationship.