Conversation Context

If you are on WhatsApp, you are probably on a host of groups, which you have, in all probability muted. Ever seen a pattern in the conversations in these groups? If someone started a group, and you connect with old friends after say 20 years, the first few days are about exchanging notes, and reminiscing about old days. After that the lull comes in the conversation, and this is when most groups become about forwarded messages or jokes.

Friends from college have a group, which is the place for college-style conversations. After a while, the conversations turn towards politics, and discussions about the world, pretty much the way it used to be back in college (boys don’t grow up, remember?!). However, due to a number of reasons, we decided to start a separate group about political/intellectual debates. Yes, intellectual indeed, even if I myself say so. Over time, the original group, which all of us are still members of has become a group for forwarded messages.

The reason is simple … context. No conversation can happen between two people without some modicum of a shared context. Take the context away, and the conversation can’t last. As college friends, we have gone different ways in our lives. However, there is a strong shared context of our time together at college, but beyond that, the shared context is that of the world around us. And hence, these are the two topics on which conversations can sustain.

In other words, context is key.


HR Change Agenda

Over the last few days, two pieces have appeared in HBR, about the change agenda for HR. One is written by Ram Charan, which talks about splitting HR, while the other, written by Cathy Benko and Erica Volini, about what it will take to fix HR. At the most fundamental level, both these pieces acknowledge the fact that there is a problem with the HR function in the organization. And since they agree on that, they also agree that something needs to be done about it. And thats where, more or less, they move in different directions, as you would see from the blogs.

Lets step back, and take a look at some of the reasons why these problems are there, coming from the perspective of HR practitioners. The first aspect we need to understand is that in today’s world of business, with a steady level of complexity, and increasing levels of disruptive changes, HR managers need to understand details of the business, both internal and external to the organization. Only then can HR managers play a meaningful role in defining organization strategy. In other words, HR managers need to be at the confluence of business management, and people management. However, most of the HR practitioners I talk to are nowhere close to this point. Most HR practitioners are generalists, and not SMEs when it comes to business operations. This means that they need to take guidance from business managers, and formulate practices based on this guidance.

Because that might sound a bit abstract, let me take an example. Lets say a business manager decides that there are some skills lacking in his team. The manager would reach out to the L&D team, tell them what type of training is required, and the L&D team would search through a catalogue, identify the training, and execute the logistics to deliver the training. The L&D team, in this example, has no understanding of the reason for the training requirement, the objective that is to be met, or the outcomes that should come out of the training for participants. In this scenario, the team is essentially fulfilling requirements, rather than giving strategic inputs into the forecasting of medium- to long-term training needs, how these would help address business objectives, and address employee development.

To summarize, it is at the intersection of business and people management that there is a gap, and filling this gap is the need which needs to be addressed. To address this, we need people who have a sound understanding of the complexity and challenges of business, and how people practices can help to address those challenges and meeting that complexity. Whether this is to be achieved by splitting the HR function, I dont know, though the debate throws up more questions than just that. It raises the point that I am talking about here … that in stead of HR practitioners only taking guidance and fulfilling requirement, HR practitioners need to be in a place where they can add strategic value, and that this requires a change in the way HR managers look at the intersection of business management and people management.


Humility & Leadership

This one is something probably a lot of folks wont agree with. Something that sounds logical, and yet, something which is quite contrary to the popular picture we have built today. The idea that humility is a greater gift for leaders than arrogance is. Something I have read, and thought about before, and something which came up again in this article. The popular picture seems to equate arrogance with getting things done, and somehow, the assumption seems to be that leaders who are more humble dont command respect, that people dont look up to them. This, in my experience, isnt true, though we still hold on to this notion in spite of many case studies, personal experiences, and plenty of research.

The importance of humility is underlined by the business environment we are operating in. In the past, when business environment and markets were more static, leadership wasnt too complex a subject, but today, as forces working on a business, both external and internal, strategic or structural are far more diverse, the information and skills required by a leader to understand, assimilate, analyze, and act upon these is humungous. Its just not possible for many people to be able to do this, and that too, in double quick time. This is why, a leader needs the ability to be able to let go, so to say. To summarize, a leader needs to:

  • Understand that they dont necessarily have to understand all the dynamics and analyze their impact on the business.
  • Be able to accept that they need to rely on the advice of experts who are far more capable of handling these.
  • Build a team of capable, motivated people to support the decision-making.
  • Listen to the advice of these experts, even if the leader doesnt like it.
  • Learn to accept advice, and act upon it, while at the same time taking ownership of the advice.

All of this requires tremendous humility, as this requires the leader to accept their limitations, and to listen to, appreciate, and accept viewpoints of others. This also requires leaders to understand the importance of continuous learning, which is an important ingredient to continuous improvement. Most importantly, this requires the leader to let go some influence. All of these require humility in large doses.


TM/HR

Over a period of time, the concept of Talent Management has become a hot topic in HR circles, and many people are talking about the idea. However, I dont quite know any two sources which give the same definition of Talent Management. A number of things I have read include:

  • Talent Management is strategic while HR is transactional
  • Talent Management is about retaining high-flyers while HR is for lesser mortals
  • Talent Management is about managing skills while HR is about managing the policies related to people
  • Talent Management is old wine in new bottles
  • Its a term coined by clever management consultants to make a quick buck (no I havent read that but thats always a pet theory of quite a few people, isnt it?)

Are these true? I dont quite think so. To some extent, I feel Talent Management is the natural progression from the HR philosophy. Essentially, I feel the difference between HR and TM are more to do with how the organization looks at its main asset … people! In the earlier, HR world, people were one of the factors of production, and of creating value for the organization in a sort of undistinguished way, somewhat (though this is not exactly an accurate parallel, but just to create an illustration) like one machine is interchangeable with another machine, and none the wiser.

TM is based on the understanding that each individual is a distinct one, and each one has a distinct personality, a particular set of talents and skills, aspirations and potential which is unique to each one, and so, need to be treated iondividually. This means that the growth needs, based on their aspirations, would be different for different people, which means that development plans, both in terms of skills development and individual growth in the organization need to be tailored to the individual needs of the particular person. And this, I feel, is the primary difference between TM and HR.


Training’s Khan Academy

Theres lot said about the way the principles of Khan Academy can be applied in the world of education. However, i see education and training as two essentially linked areas, and so, if there are lessons for education from Khan Academy, there must also be lessons for corporate training teams.

This made me think about what could be the key take-aways for a training manager from the way content is structured in Khan Academy. And an immediate answer that comes to mind is brevity.

Today, organizations are under pressure to increase productivity so that organizations are able to deliver more with the same number of employees. This means that employees need to deliver more in the same period of time. In consulting organizations, this is a euphemism for utilization pressure. Many of us would have heard those, havent we? And while L&D managers are under pressure to deliver training to enhance employee capabilities, there is also the constraint of getting participants away from their work for a few days to attend classroom sessions. There is of course e-learning, but can e-learning be an en bloc alternative for classroom or virtual education? I dont think so.

And this is where the Khan Academy concept comes in. This is something i had championed to some extent over a period of the last few years. I am talking about training modules which are a twitterized form of training. In other words, module videos which are to youtube what twitter is to blogs.

In this scenario, the fundamental idea is that people are more interested in training to enable them to do their jobs more effectively. This means that they would be more interested in short, crisp programs (not more than 5 minutes) which help them learn how to do specific tasks as part of their job. Just the things which are required for them to become more effective in their work.

Think job aids meet youtube meets twitter.


Leaders …

The question of leadership, and who leaders are, or ought to be, has been around for a while. I remember the discusion going on about whether are born or whether they can be made for two decades, and i suppose we werent the first people in the world to discuss this. This is a question i keep getting asked When i am running a leadership development training program. Of course, this is a question to which everyone has an answer, and everyone would be confident theirnanswer is the right one.

Well, i too have an answer, though i am not sure if this is the right one. I feel leaders are born, but having said that, there are some principles of leadership which can be generalized (this in the face of believing that every leader has their own distinctive style, not all of which can be generalized, because its relevant to the context) and so, can be taught to some extent.

Having said that, men look up to leaders. Which means that if we can identify the people who people look up to, then we have identified natural leaders who have emerged. This is something this piece from managementexchange talks about.

What you will find really cool about the piece is that it describes that natural leaders emerge based on the level to which they are ready to share expertise or knowledge they have, and the level to whch they are able or willing to collaborate with each other. This, i feel, is the learning paradigm of knowledge-work in a flat world, as they say, that “knowledge shared is knowledge squared”, now it also seems that this paradigm of squaring knowledge may also be at the core of emergent leadership.


Email

Came across a piece about an organization banning email. Now, that might sound a bit radical, but there you are. You can find the article here. The CEO believes that only 10% of the emails people get are useful. Even if thats a trifle too little, the idea still remains that email may not be the productivity tool that we think it is. Lets look at why this may be.

To begin with, the purpose of email is to communicate, collaborate. Looking at the basic concept of email, we find that email is not a tool for conversation. Most of us would agree that the best way to communicate and collaborate is through discussions, conversations. And email, by its very nature is not meant to be a tool for that. though, quite a few of us do use email in that way. How many mail chains have you seen which run into pages? Sometimes, it seems like an email ping-pong which goes on. At times, you might get included in the email at a very late stage of the mail chain, and its rather a task to be going through the entire mail chain to figure out what its all about. This is because email is being used for conversing when thats something it is not meant to be for.

So, if the essence of communicating is conversation, which is also the tool required for collaboration, then wouldnt it be easier to collaborate if we use tools which are available to us, which are meant for collaboration and conversations?