Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Curious Case of the Nosy Employee

We all know of the employee who is a wanderer in the office premises. All that he ever does is walk around and march into other peoples' desks and cubicles, and ask - 'Hey, what's going on!' He greets people with a big smile and a deep baritone that you know is going to reverberate through the office as he opens his mouth to speak (let's call him The Wannabe Tycoon). Or he might be a quiet guy who goes about his task very subtly, somewhat akin to the horse whisperer who tames the wild beast with his mellow voice, and then builds a rapport with the stallion for life (let's call him The Smiling Buddha). Whatever his demeanor, his behaviour is sure to harbor extreme reactions in people - he is either liked a lot by his fans or downright detested by his audience. Yet others may be slightly amused by his candor, and shrug their shoulders in disbelief every time he leaves their cubicle. They wonder when he gets actual work done, and if he gets any work done at all.

Let's linger for a while longer here and understand the modus-operandi of this curious employee. You might be working for hours on an assignment holed up at your desk, it is probably late in the evening, and you are hoping for some divine intervention that will help you get it done and go home. A head suddenly pops up from the desk across your cubicle and your friendly neighborhood Buddha is beaming at you. You smile back. He comes over and very politely asks if you would like to get some tea. You forget all about the assignment for a brief second. You are relieved to have The Smiling Buddha for company and for the chai break - you happily consent to the offer. 

Rewind the scenario back a bit and go back to when you were working hard on that assignment. You are startled and almost fall off your chair when you hear a booming voice from right behind you that shouts "Whats going onnn!" You turn around to see The Wannabe Tycoon beaming his perfect set of 32 teeth at you. He comes and sits by your side to engage you in a long drawn discussion about methane gas on Mars, challenges at the workplace, his cool new gadget, potential client wins on the horizon, and his last vacation to the Bahamas. You are slightly annoyed at the interruption, but humour him nonetheless, hoping to get back to your work as soon as you can. 

Regardless of the personality type of the employee, we see both The Smiling Buddha and The Wannabe Tycoon leverage the informal learning environment that exists at the workplace. During the next team meeting, you can rest assured that both these gentlemen would have interesting insights to offer - about the market, assignments, competition, etc. They consciously try and glean important information through active conversation with colleagues, bosses, clients, and competition, while at the same time respecting personal boundaries and confidential information. 

Leaders must recognize the importance of knowledge exchanged via a social setting, and consciously create conducive learning environments for such interactions between employees. What is the point of having relevant knowledge rot in the company's social media archive for years? Or the rich, albeit underutilized perspectives that exist in silos within the four walls of the organization? Very few managers can identify the powerful synergies that can be realized by getting their employees to engage in active discussion. Imagine getting members from your legal, finance, marketing and sales teams into the cafetaria to have a lively SWOT talk over coffee or lunch. They would be uncomfortable sharing anything at all the first time, but when this turns into a regular affair, you will begin to see perspectives come to the fore that nobody thought existed previously. The Smiling Buddha and The Wannabe Tycoon use the power of informal learning to establish lasting relationships, learn more about their business and their industry, and advance their careers. Maybe it is time to use some of those techniques to enable your organization catapult itself to the next level of learning and performance.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Can HR be an architect of firm culture?

The role of the HR function has evolved over the last decade and a half to keep pace with business realities.  A number of definitions of the HR function and its roles have been put forth by business leaders and researchers alike. For example, a simple typology of four groupings of HR practices that follow the processes central to organizational success are1:
  • Flow of people
  • Flow of performance management
  • Flow of information
  • Flow of work

The role of HR has also been defined through the lens of strategy, wherein the HR function is actively involved in both the creation and implementation of the overall strategic direction of the organization. HR no longer has to worry about working doubly hard to convince leaders that it is central to the business and about achieving the proverbial “seat at the table”. In this context, HR is a Strategy Architect, looking at organizational challenges through the lens of both business and people. This leads to the HR function facilitating strategy creation, clarifying and articulating the strategy, ensuring timely execution, aligning leadership behavior to strategy and bringing the view of the outside customer into the organization2.

However, there is also a third, and extremely crucial function with respect to strategy implementation. This ‘missing link’ is only now beginning to be understood by HR practitioners and business leaders. The link assists in seamlessly integrating the four crucial groupings laid out above, and is sometimes seen as the ‘soft side’ of management. However, experienced leaders will tell us that it is actually the hardest, because it deals with attitudes and behaviors which seem vague, but are critical to the firm. This missing link is Culture.

Defining Culture

What then is organizational culture? The concept of organizational culture has been defined from many perspectives in the literature. There is no one single definition. The topic of organizational culture has been studied from many perspectives and disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, organizational behavior, and organizational leadership to name a few. Deal (1999) defines organizational culture as values, beliefs, and behaviors that differentiate one organization from another3. Simply put, culture defines the proper way to think, act and behave within an organization4

This simple, yet accurate definition of culture gives us scope to ask several questions about the nature of firm culture. What is our current culture? Who creates culture? Who sustains it? Is it always aligned to firm strategy? Is it well aligned with the firm’s vision, mission and values? 5 What leads to changes in firm culture? Is it always managed top-down? And most importantly, it leads us to the question: What role does HR play in shaping firm culture?

Leveraging Firm Culture for Competitive Advantage

Human, not financial, capital must be the starting point and ongoing foundation of a successful strategy6. Significant advantage accrues to companies that encourage open communication and that know where and how to break down barriers to honest feedback. Risk management programs at large companies tend to be finely tuned to financial and compliance risks but rarely focus on cultural sources of risk7.

If the collective attitudes, perceptions and behaviors of all employees in an organization shape its culture, then alignment of culture with the firm strategy is imperative to firm success. It is common to talk of an organization’s culture as if it is simply “the way things are”. But no culture is static8. It is continually reinforced and balanced by internal and external events that drive the organization.

How then can HR play a pivotal role in shaping firm culture? Would some of the traditional tools of pay systems, performance management, recruiting, selection and training & development suffice in this endavor? Or is something more required?

  • Ulrich, Dave; Brockbank, Wayne, The work of HR part one: people and performance, Strategic HR Review; Jul/Aug 2005; 4, 5; ABI/INFORM Complete
  • Ulrich, Dave; Brockbank, Wayne; Johnson, Dani, The Role of Strategy Architect in the Strategic HR Organization, People and Strategy; 2009; 32, 1; ABI/INFORM Complete
  •  Boniface C. Madu, Grand Canyon University, Organization culture as driver of competitive advantage, Journal of Academic and Business Ethics.
  •, HR Impact on Corporate Culture, Jul 1, 2005.
  • Andy Hanselman, Moneywatch, How to Use Culture for Competitive Advantage, July 22, 2010.
  • Christopher A. Bartlett & Sumantra Ghoshal, Building Competitive Advantage Through People, MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2002, Vol. 43, No. 2.
  • Paul Edelman, Srikanth Seshadri and Randeep Rathindran, Organizational Culture: An Overlooked Internal Risk, Bloomberg Businessweek - Companies & Industries, October 01, 2010.
  • Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, Random House Business Books. 

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The People Paradigm: Why sticking to the basics will go a long way to ensure sustained growth

The fast-evolving, ever-changing, globalized world of today leaves us gasping for breath as the corporation of the 21st century tries to make sense of the myriad tools available at its disposal to take it to the next level. With the Indian economy slowing down drastically over the last few years, the focus has shifted from long-term, vision-oriented growth, to maintaining a consistent top and bottom-line, ensuring steady growth quarter on quarter, appeasing shareholders, and staying just a little ahead of competition. CXOs move at a frenetic pace to discover and re-discover technologies that help improve processes, strategy and quality. Entrepreneurship and learning agendas revolve around technology-enabled platforms that help improve these factors. Paradoxically, while we seek out tools that help improve efficacies and cut-down costs in a slowing economy, we self-impose constraints upon ourselves which disables us to think beyond top-line growth. It is natural that market-related factors would result in additional pressures on the firm. However, looking at the problem through the very narrow lens of just numbers chokes up the two crucial aspects of the evolving organization: outcome-oriented innovation and transformational leadership.
Let us draw a parallel here with something that we are familiar with: a bustling metropolitan city. Assume that your organization resembles this city. An ever-growing city, it acts as the financial, political and entertainment nerve-centre of India. The city resembles a living, breathing being spreading out its tentacles as it expands further in all directions. The bustling metropolis is a hotspot for a multitude of professionals: artists and bankers alike. Communities from all over the globe call the city home. Every day a new housing project is announced by a hot-shot developer, promising gated communities, green zones and wide open-spaces. But those of us who have a vision for our futuristic city also understand that this growth is not sustainable. This is also a city that is bursting at its seams. Endless traffic jams, bad roads, poor connectivity, delayed projects, pollution and waste-management / sanitation issues are blocks that degrade quality of life. It is therefore imperative to build a solid foundation on a bedrock of energy, conservation, and world-class infrastructure.
From an organizational perspective, this bedrock is its people, the employees. Just like the world-class infrastructure of a well-planned city provides a strong foundation for the city to grow, the people of an organization provide support to the firm through their personal and shared visions. Growth for its own sake neglects the people of the firm; and when we neglect our people for a long time, we risk weakening the foundation on which we build our institutions. Just like well-laden parks and public spaces allow personal enrichment for citizens in mega cities, opportunities to stretch the mind, created consciously within the firm, create the right environment for employees to grow and flourish. The parks may not serve any immediate purpose in furthering productive usage of the land (as some people may argue), but visionary city-planners understand that providing this benefit allows for happy citizens leading a healthy, balanced life. Similarly, creating metaphorical parks for employees that allow them to periodically break out to innovate and ideate go a long way in strengthening organizational foundations, as opposed to focusing on one-dimensional growth with single-minded ferocity. Neglect this most crucial aspect of building and nurturing the foundation, and you risk building a futuristic city on a foundation of loose silt, creaky infrastructure and poor sanitation. What results is a cranky organization, replete with honking drivers, endless traffic jams, filthy streets and potholed roads. 
Here are some questions for introspection: As someone with a vision for your organization, what do you as a person stand for? What does your organization stand for? How many times do you discuss your firm vision with your employees? How often do you evaluate gaps? How often do you listen to the perspectives and shared visions your employees bring to the table? Do you start your change-management process when you begin to see a spike in attrition levels? It is probably too late by then. Or do you prefer a proactive approach, by consciously, continuously investing in your employees, giving them enough opportunities to collaborate, take risks, and implement their personal and shared visions? Are you aware of your firm culture and what it is breeding? Where do you envision your firm to be in five, ten, fifty, hundred years? Are your people well equipped to march with you into the future? Do you consciously promote a culture of excellence, innovation and constant self-renewal? Or is it a by-product of the industry that you operate in? (again, a reactive approach).
These are some tough questions that organizations need to ask themselves. Any form of growth, be it frenetic or slow, cannot be sustained with weak foundations. We live in a world filled with unlimited opportunities and ever-expanding possibilities. It easy to get washed away with the ebb and flow of volatile market sentiments. Well-grounded leaders understand the value of investing back into the firm: more specifically, into developing their people. Company strategy may shift, numbers may fluctuate, technological influences may vary, but one crucial aspect remains constant through all of these: people and the power of transformation they bring with them. Choose to ignore this and you choose to convert your only constant into an unknown variable.

Entrepreneu is a Verb

Just the way a runner runs, a dancer dances, a teacher teaches; an entrepreneur entrepreneus. It is a very simple understanding which enables a shift in the mentality of an individual. With a slight shift in mental paradigm, people are able to perform their tasks with great efficiency because the derivative of the 'why' behind what they do now comes from an intrinsic rather than an extrinsic place.

What it means to Entrepreneu
To entrepreneu is more than to just take ownership of work. It means to creatively and confidently provide solutions. When we say 'provide solutions', we don't just mean when dealing with clients. We mean in any and all situations. To entrepreneu means to reflectively think. It means to learn from all that one does; to stop, think, derive a learning, an understanding, an open conclusion subjective to change based on a revelation. To contemplate not only the failures but also the successes, to not only realize what not to do but what could be done better henceforth. Most of all, an entrepreneur is an excuse remover. Where a person with an employee mentality would have a host of reasons to not complete a task due to lack of resources or unsupportive conditions; the person who entrepreneus bends rules, goes the extra mile and figures out a way to complete the task. To entrepreneu means to not let life's shortcomings and lack of circumstantial preparedness keep you from arriving at the intended goal. In other words to entrepreneu means to be a go getter in any and all cases. It is a thought-enabled action which brings about a change in behavior which leads to supportive habits. And as a result the overall circumstance of the individual changes, allowing his circumstantial preparedness to match his personal preparedness which is what truly makes him prepared to achieve success when the opportunity presents itself.

Entrepreneu to Prepare
Entrepreneu to Prepare