The Lost Decade of Human Resource Innovation Or What Could Have Been

Over the last decade or so, India’s has the highest increase in salaries in the whole region (and one of the highest in pretty much the whole world) most years. For software/IT, that has come on a pretty good base as well. NASSCOM – in an article published last year– laid it out in clear numbers. Salaries went up 5-8 times in a decade, across numbers of years of experience. It was often times more in captive MNC units and product companies than at large services organizations.

Obviously, this has been great news to both the direct as well as indirect beneficiaries of this growth. It helped “grow” the economy, and this sector moved up to being a blip in the GDP to not only a significant number, but a driver of growth.

Has it all been good news?


Well, the NASSCOM article itself points to the pressures the IT services industry has been under owing to the growth. A random chat with people across types of organization and grades of employment will elicit moans of excessive work pressure, long hours, no investments into training and improvement, repetitive, boring work, skill-ceilings if you don’t want to just manage headcounts, and most often, the very fuzzy ‘lack of satisfaction’ with their work.
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One could also argue that neither actual productivity or skills, nor the monetary benefit derived from them have gone up even near-proportionately. And its meant to be “market value” which logically should derive from business realities (and not $/Re conversion rate)!

To draw a favourite analogy of mine, we’ve gone from pricing our skills like a value for money, efficient family car towards a luxury sports sedan without actually changing the car at all.

(If anything, it can be argued that overall, the industry is operating with a lower average skillset than it was a decade ago. But that’s fodder for a different, longer debate.)

It might sound counter-intuitive in the face of all the money and growth, but it begs the question – what went wrong?

Let’s go back to the question of what people want out of work. Or rather, what people can or should ideally want out of work, and did at some point of time. Money, of course. Then, many derive a positive kick from the impact their work has on users, industries, society. The excitement of doing something that’s different, maybe a little risky and cutting edge is definitely a huge plus at least once in a while. Many do seek variety in the kind of work they do – at least over time. Social/peer acknowledgement of what they do is always a motivator. Everyone would also love it if what they do helps them enhance and improve their work skills and overall intellectual growth. And, given the recent burning of candles at both ends and in the middle, time has become a scarce, prized commodity.

But it seems, from where HR stands, folks have been mere “resources” that need to be “compensated” (a very unfortunate word – otherwise used in rather depressing contexts).

Money has been the prime motivator; at the centre of definitions of professional success, focus of negotiations when people come looking for a job, and a tool to quell discontent – be it about the quality of work or questions about efficiencies of processes, cross continent turf wars that were increasingly lost, ethics or just about anything else. The ease with which salary inflation was justified (in some instances, a 30%+ year on year growth for over 3 years across the company for anyone who was a decent performer!) came at the cost of many of the other factors, and its starting to show up. With increasing cost pressures, what used to be a once a year hard push is a constant firefighting model of work now – with one manufactured crisis after another that helps ‘justify’ the costs in the short run.

But many have tired of just money. The increasing numbers of entrepreneurs who’re willing to risk all is one part of the testimony. People quitting with no clue to “what next” are another – and these are mostly successful, capable folks who’ve been there and done that. Conversations with over a dozen of these over the last couple of years has convinced me that eventually, many want to ‘earn’ more than just the cash – the various factors described earlier are all critical and the Human Resources function across the board has been singularly uncreative about it – especially given the easy access to money thanks to the currency arbitrage, in most cases.

What else could they have done differently? To start with – by and large, they lost sight of their goals beyond hiring and retention using money, money, money. And then, we’ve hardly seen any real innovative ideas from that section!

Recognize different types of (and levels of) ambition


Organizations mouth motherhood statements such as “we need everyone to work at 110%” too easily. Hey, some really bright ones are also creative and want to have a life as well. But given the cost pressures, ambition has become this one-size-must-fit-all that each employee must possess in exactly how the organization deems appropriate. The truth is really far away – most people do want to do a good job, but not at the cost of everything else. Just recognizing this will give the whole idea of managing people a lot of good karma.

DIY time and vacation management


A company in the US has declared unlimited vacation time for employees. Hey – you’re dealing with grown ups, and giving them responsibilities that impact customers and eventually, huge revenue numbers! Trust them to figure out how they can manage their lives and work, please. They, and you, will know when its not working well enough for you.

[ On the above note – I have more than once advised the younger crowd in my workplace to go ask for a combination of money and extra self-time during times of appraisals and hikes.]

DIY appraisals and hikes


Over chat recently, a good friend and ex-colleague who’s managing a rather large team at a fairly young organization said he would be busy with “calibration meetings” for a couple of days. Honestly, I had to go look it up on Google 🙂 It then got me thinking why otherwise nimble startups lost the same agility and fresh thinking when it came to these functions. Assuming (and based on empirical and anecdotal evidence we all know this to be true) that despite all the objectivity organizations try bringing to appraisals and raises – they often get it wrong – would it be much worse to let people DIY it, and to use game theory, automation, statistical analysis and do an audit at random to ensure it wasn’t getting exploited? I’d contend that it would lead to a lower error rate, and a higher satisfaction rate with the process. most people would actually be aligned better with company goals and performance if there was a top level declaration of ‘this is how much we can allocate for raises this year’.

Again, people are smart (or you’ve hired wrong). Trust them!

Hiring for aptitude and attitude, not just “skills”

Cannot emphasize this enough. Many people grow into certain roles and jobs, and are not always ready-fits for exactly what you’re looking for. Job descriptions and interviews have increasingly been used as tools that eliminate and not seek a good fit. Hire like startups, for attitude, cultural fit, and for the smarts. The exact skill set match is needed in a few cases, not all, so let’s not overdo it. We’re really really not launching rockets for the most part.

Sabbaticals : The What and the How

Face it – most people need a break. And most people want to, and are capable of doing more than one kind of work. A sabbatical gives people a way to experiment, follow a passion or devote time to a cause, and derive a sense of satisfaction. It helps people from getting too jaded, and adds a lot in terms of people skills, networking, connecting with hitherto unknown worlds. Or even plain burnout.

I know – it scares the hell out managers when people say they want time off for 6 months or a year. But hey, for once think for them, not yourself.

Letting go!

When someone’s decided they want to earn intangibles that you cannot provide, its best to be supportive and let go, rather than try and induce them to stay on, or worse, use fear (a CFO friend of mine who is quitting mentioned that his boss asked him how he’d manage his finances!).  As I see more and more people who have both valuable skills as well as experience switch out of regular jobs, I’m sure industry will need to start formally engaging with them – perhaps as consultants or on a part-time role based basis. So stay engaged.

Intrapreneurship

This is often paid lip service to. But after having been on my own for 7 years I’m only starting to understand what it truly means, so folks in structured work environments are highly unlikely to ‘get it’. Work with those who’ve left and done something on their own to understand motivations, and how you might be able to create something for those who’re undecided for a variety of reasons but would like to experiment.

The above are some ideas that I’ve come up with. No, they’re not all tested, and there must be many more people can come up with. The point is that innovation has been lacking, and there’s so much that can be done, or at least tried.

Perhaps this is all wrong, and large organizations are happy with how it is. Maybe they need more people who just come in work and adhere to a narrow, contracted set of tasks for a hard negotiated salary. Maybe verticalization – a euphemistic word for a model that discourages independent thinking – that numerous MNCs have adopted over the last few years – needs this kind of transactional behaviour and HR is merely serving that need.

But given the frequent noises made about moving up the value chain, creating products, and non-linear growth models, and for the sake of the long term health of the industry, one would like to see human resources become more human and eventually – sustainable.

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