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.


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.

L&D Aligning with TM

Whether you are a Talent Management practitioner, or a Learning & Development practitioner, you would have the question about how these two should align. The question is one of how one can enable the other. To answer this, one must explore the source of L&D initiatives, with which L&D initiatives must be aligned. This source is higher people performance. If we take this as the premise, then it stands to reason that L&D must be strongly aligned with TM strategy.

People performance is defined based on the performance management framework the organization would have in place. Broadly, the levels of this framework (in a theoretical scenarion, and many organizations differ widely from this) could be seen here, and one can also see the levels and ways in which L&D can align with, and enable this TM strategy.

As you can see, the inputs from L&D initiatives at different levels need to be aligned to the requirements of that level, and the learning objectives which need to be met at that level.

At the level of KCAs, where the need is to build behaviourial capability, the training requirement primarily is for soft-skills, the details of which are based typically on a combination of role and the level in the hierarchy of the employee (commonly called band).

At the employee-goals level, the requirements are either in terms of organization needs from the employee, or in terms of employee aspirations, and these are primarily met in the form of technical training, or in form of training designed to meet the needs of succession or progression. From the perspective of succession or progression, organizations usually have programs aimed at equipping people for meeting specific roles, wither at the same level or at a higher level, and these would typically form part of the training needs at this level of the framework.

At the project/operational level, the training needs are primarily project-focused, to build capability inventory aligned with the requirements of the project or operations, and this forms a large part of the training requirements, mostly technical or functional.

Hockey … India

The Indian hickey team lost every single match at the Olympics … Including to South Korea, Belgium, and South Africa. That India lost to Netherlands, Germany, and New Zealand sort of seemed to be an assumption. This is the point when it seems to be very tempting to write the epitaph of Indian hockey. But lets look at an analysis of the point at which Indian hockey is.

Hockey in India has been at the receiving end of apathy for decades now, at least two, would you say? And yet, every two years, once during the Asian games, and once during the Commonwealth games, or the Olympics we that Indian hockey is going downhill, harking back to the glory days of Indian hockey, when we saw (here i am talking about my generation) players like Pargat Singh, M. P. Singh, Mohammed Shahid, Zafar Iqbal, Jude Felix, Merwyn Fernandes, or Salim Sherwani, Hassan Sardar, Samiullah, Karimullah play hockey for the subcontinental giants, or the fact that India has won 10 medals in hockey, out of which 8 have been gold medals. One thing we need to understand, and expect, is that it will take at least 4-5 years for Indian hockey to reach somewhere close to the glory days. This is a long term strategy, and while we should certainly try for a podium finish at Rio, we shouldnt expect it, i feel.

Having said that, lets look at the other side. Today, India is at a point where we can either choose to be the dominant team among the minnows, or be the minnow in the big league, and we have reached from the former to the latter. This, i feel, has come with comparative ease, and the credit should go to the players, coach, and administrators, though frankly, my knowledge of hockey comes from what i watch, or what i read. Having said that, what is surprising is that even though we lost, the quality of hockey played by the team is far inferior to what they played at the Olympic qualifiers, or at the Azlan Shah cup recently. While losing to Netherlands and Germany was expected, the team played a good game versus the Dutch, and if we see how the Dutch demolished Great Britain in the semi-final, India certainly played very well. I suppose the team started losing their way from the match versus Germany, and from there, it was downhill. Maybe its, like former skipper Dhanraj Pillay says, something outside the field which was bothering the team members.

Whatever way it be, we need to look at the picture in its entirety, and see how Indian hockey can, given encouragement, reach the levels of past glory.

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.

About Reading and Blogs

A discussion that I was having with colleagues the other day was about why I usually don’t read management books. And I was surprised to think that I haven’t read a management book for a while now. In other words, a few years, I suppose. And I got to wondering about whether I have stopped learning? This is not to say I have given up reading, but the reading I do now has taken an altogether different form from what it was maybe a decade ago.

I have read a number of management books about topics at the edge of management thought … From The Fifth Discipline to The Balanced Scorecard, to Business Process Reengineering, and many more. So, what am I doing not reading now? And this is where I looked at how learning patterns have changed over a period of time. Today, a lot of information, and so learning, reaches us, not through books, but through the social media around us. This isn’t just about millenials, but senior citizens too. A lot more information is available out there in the form of, especially, blogs. And this information reaches us through the social network. A large number of blogs reach me through tweets, and this, to a large extent, has become my learning channel. Whether it is something new, or whether it is something where I need to upgrade my skills, I look more and more online to learn. Let me give you an example. I have been trying to understand Clifford algebra. And I have found the information available out there, without having to read a book.

Does this mean that books are history? I don’t think so. Books are still an important way of learning. Books are still an important form of story-telling. Where I see books today, and maybe in the future, is to give a structure to the learning. This means that I get from books what I need to learn, and the learning from books is supplemented by blogs. For example, why am I studying Clifford algebra? Because I am reading about quaternions. Why am I reading about them? Long story. So, in this way, books are giving the structure, outline, and quite a bit of detail, while blogs are giving a lot more detail to add to them. This is why I feel today, blogs and books go together in the learning process. Another step towards the social learning paradigm, you would say?

Leadership Development

Recently came across an article about the top 25 companies for leaders. You can find the article here. Going through the article, couldnt help seeing that there seem to be some practices most of the organizations in the list seem to have, with respect to developing leaders. Thought it might be useful to list out the thoughts i have about these:

  1. Organizations with exceptional leadership must have a robust process to identify the leadership pipeline. There must be processes in place which can identify potential leaders across the organization, and across levels of the organization. This process must be person-independant, and must operate in a way where it can identify even junior employees who have the spark, the potential to lead, early on in their careers.
  2. There must be well-defined career paths for people who are identified as potential leaders. The important aspect here is that these people must be retained, while at the same time, ensuring they are on track to achieving their leadership potential. Lot of organizations refer to these as fast-track, or star-performers, but this career path approach must go beyond just that, to giving responsibility to these people to manage important projects or teams. This is not just about honing skills, but about giving them the opportunity to continuously prove their potential, both to the organization as well as to themselves.
  3. There must be a well-defined development process for these identified leaders. This development process needs go beyond training, and must include a range of other tools, including simulations, coaching, mentoring, special assignments, even including potential leaders as observers in senior management reviews, for example. This is a way of enabling them to not just understand theoretical concepts, but to develop themselves through hands-on experience, and through the guidance of leaders. Important here it is to include the senior leadership of the organizations in this process, especially when it comes to mentoring and coaching. This is where the senior leaders need to invest effort in developing the next line of leaders for the organization.
  4. Instead of looking at leadership development as a point intervention, it must be seen as a process which is going to take time, with defined milestones, and ways of evaluating performance while at the same time including feedback mechanisms which could further help enable the coaching and mentoring process.
  5. Grooming leaders must a mandatory part of the work of the senior leadership of the organization.

Assuming that different people would have aptitude for different functions, it would also be important to identify the areas of the organizations which different leaders are groomed for. Not every potential leader would be the CEO, thats something we need to accept, but having done that, we also need to define clearly who can play a leadership role in which domain of the organization.