Hello Sameer – Thanks and welcome to this interview. It’s a pleasure having you here and we look forward to learning from your rich experience in people management and to gaining insights which our readers will find valuable. The best part about you, Sameer, is that you don’t just represent HR, you’re also a business function person who is leading HR for the last 8 years. I am pretty sure that you will have superior insights into how the whole thing functions. This is just great because usually such combinations are quite rare . 

We would like to talk about a few specific topics – Talent Management, Role of Technology in evolution of talent management and the current situation impacted by the pandemic.

Q – Let’s start with this evolution of talent management. How have you seen this changing over the years? First of all, let’s talk about, how you define talent management. Do you think it’s a very broad term and also, do you think it has undergone change in its very definition? 

Let me take you a little back in time.  Before looking at talent management, I think we should look at the evolution of HR and how the aspects of talent management come into it. Historically, HR was primarily about personnel management, where we managed people, payroll, leaves, and related items. Then the government introduced Employees’ State Insurance Corporation adding new aspects to it. That’s how the whole of HR as a function was really created. However, the whole scope of HR goes beyond just taking care of employees’ salaries or ensuring that they come into office every day or that they’re healthy enough to work every day. The HR function has evolved from asking ‘How can they perform?’ to ‘How can I improve their performance?’.

When you look at talent management, of course, different companies use that word in very different ways. Especially in the IT industry where I currently work, it is all about services and it is also all about people! People really become your resource, your asset, or your input, and are counted like your inventory. In fact, a lot of people in the IT industry use the word people supply chain for the resource management function.

You may say people are part of your supply chain, but people are not commodities. The whole gamut of talent or people really needs to be managed and managed well.  That’s where talent management as a word really comes from. There is a significant evolution in the way talent management is treated. I feel that it has moved in parallel to the way the world and its economies have moved, over the last 30- 40 years.

For the previous generations, what was the driver for taking up a job? Perhaps job security was more important. Over the years, the different opportunities and avenues available have changed. Perceptions of job have changed.  It also has access to a great deal of more opportunities, than ever. To keep them interested and stable in a job, we need to think beyond just paying salaries. That’s how the whole talent management works today and how the whole evolution has started. And, whether it is a broad term – depends upon how it is defined within the organization. IMO, it’s specific and revolves around people as your valuable assets.

Q – That’s very interesting. As you rightly said, the whole change is brought in by the flourishing service industry where people are at the core of what they do. Have you also seen how the approach to talent management changed in the last 10 years, and the significant impact of technology on talent management?

Change has happened from generation to generation. Earlier, the philosophy was that you took up a job in one company and pretty much planned to retire from there. Today, you don’t plan to do that. You would move from company to company on a regular basis. This necessitates planning on how to train them and how to use them to benefit of your company, during the time they are working with us. This is different from training and grooming someone who was going to be with you for the next 35 years of their career, their relevance and usefulness for you and your industry. Today’s philosophy looks at an employee’s usefulness and relevance today, or in the near future. We do not know if we can spend time and/or money grooming the employee and if they would stay with our core team. There certainly would be some high performers for whom we would prefer to do that and for all the others, our approach would be a quote-unquote ‘factory model’ of enabling them to meet our immediate demands/requirements using on-demand training or on-going development.

From erstwhile being a support function to an enabling function, Talent Management has now necessarily become an important business function – an effective Talent Management can significantly help improve your revenue and your bottom line as well. So, yes, the approach to Talent Management has undergone a lot of transformation.

Technology took these efforts to the next level by enabling us to do some of these things better and quicker. With globalization, technology has become imperative as it helps manage people across geographies, and not necessarily working with us in the same place.

Q – Interesting. You talked about high performers and we will come back to them later. Now that the generations of employees and how they think and what they expect from their jobs has undergone a change, do companies also need to change the way they look at them? Do you think any specific technology stands out in the way it supported or has driven the change in the people’s behaviors or a company’s changing talent management efforts?

The current generations are born digital. Did you know that even Mario turned 35 years old recently? Their ease of adoption to technology, their drastically different expectations, their levels of confidence, the ease with which they communicate or express themselves (and proclaim their relationship status on Facebook) make them stand apart as a new generation. Their apprehension of how they will be perceived for being so open is also different. They are driven by comparisons with others in their peer group, and how they were made to look at things like recognition or gratification. They represent a mix of and balance between humane empathy on the one side and technology on the other. It’s the balance between these two that will have a play when it comes to managing them.

Technology has exerted its own impact. As people transition from using email to Yahoo and MSN groups to group chat and get ownership of individual communication devices, the whole map has changed . This change has come progressively, with many developments adding up to an incremental change, to sum up to a significantly different approach and changed standards in communication at every level. The ability to communicate with anyone at any point in time has itself been a big driver of this change.

The new world concept of the distinction between work and life has also changed due to the impact of technological applications. Today you may want to do something on your Facebook account, post an insta, or tweet something while at the office. That would be personal work done in-office time. In the evening you may get home and maybe watching a movie but find yourself answering an office email. So, the barriers between work and life are getting erased by technology and its impact is mixing up work and life – so, we are moving from work-life balance to work-life integration!

Q – Do you think this widespread adoption of technology is detrimental to productivity or is it aiding productivity?

I think it is detrimental to productivity, primarily because everyone is facing a reduced ability to concentrate for longer periods. Our attention spans today are not even stretching to a WhatsApp video which runs for 2 or 3 minutes. Our limit today is about 1 and a half minutes. I remember being involved in some research in a previous role, where we estimated that our attention spans were at about 3 minutes or longer. Earlier we were actually looking for longer videos. So, that attention span is gone.

The way I see this is – whenever there is context switching, there is always a loss of productivity. There is also a loss of efficiency because your mind is building onto something, which has to rebuild it.  While in some cases, like in the creative world, it may be good because new ideas will come, and your thought process is not stagnant,  overall, it is detrimental.

When we look at a person’s career, we may think of it as two separate halves when they are in a job. We are not talking about entrepreneurs here. The first half of the career (let’s call this Type A) is structured, the tasks are assigned routinely, and you do those tasks in a structured manner to deliver on the job. The next half (Type B) of your career however would demand that you deliver on yours tasks with incomplete ambiguity. For example, as a CEO of a company, you are expected to estimate your projected revenues, even in the face of a pandemic.

The CEO needs to make predictions, in spite of the ambiguity surrounding the situation, without knowing how their customers would react. They have to make better sense of words and actions and set the strategy for structured work that can be delegated to their teams. The ability to make the transition from structured Type A tasks to ambiguous Type B tasks is a necessary part of every career, on the upward trajectory.  That is how the shift for a person’s career really happens.

Q – How does the tendency to get distracted affect the mind, when it needs to be prepared for ambiguity going forward? Does it help to face the ambiguity?

I definitely think it will affect your efficiency adversely. We see enough studies these days which tell us that multitasking is not okay. When we were young, we used to be awed by stories of how the fictional character of defense lawyer Perry Mason, created by Erle Stanley Gardner, alternatively dictates 7 law stories at the same time. Amazingly, each book is supposed to deal with different case laws and other details.

I think multitasking has the mind distracted at some level. Apt Decision-making is not possible in a state of distraction as we will not have a 360-degree view of the components and may miss out on some. Less distraction is always better. There’s a reason why all schools have class periods set between 35-45 minutes and not more. It is the maximum stretch of time someone can spend with complete attention and focus. Getting a 5-minute break before the next class would help them to focus again.

Q – Moving on to the role of technology in the phenomenal growth of your company over the last 10 to 15 years, how has technology helped you to with the challenges involved in managing people? How do you manage the issues which come up around people’s performance, compensation, increments as well as career development? How has technology helped you to manage the scale-up phases in your growth? 

I have found technology to be a phenomenal enabler. Technology helps me to speed up my processes and solves my problems quickly. It analyzes my data very quickly and accurately to offer me insights that assist me in my decision-making. I like to adopt technology as an enabler in each and every aspect of my work and I appreciate the big role it plays in improving my efficiency, like my performance management system. The pandemic may have accelerated the use of technology, but Zoom was there even before the crisis. But there’s no doubt that technology adoption will get accelerated due to the pandemic.

WhatsApp has drastically altered the way we interacted with our friends, whom we met only physically when we went to their city or when they visited ours. In the earlier technology like interactions on Yahoo groups and other forums were limited. With WhatsApp, these limitations vanish. We meet all our friends at the same time and get their comments and opinions without delay. Similarly, businesses are reaping benefits with performance management systems that they could never have imagined in people management.

Technology has broken through many barriers and made many of our traditional processes like travel to client locations and conference calls obsolete. Technology is about doing things here and now and choosing what you want to do and how you want to do it when it comes to handling any business operations. With technology today, people management is about taking care of people’s aspirations along with organizational needs, at the same time.

Q – Do you think it is fair to say that the real-time and ubiquitous nature of connectivity that technology offers helps talent managers to better understand the aspirations of their people and link them to the organization’s goals better?

If you are able to express them, there doesn’t have to be a lag between the two. If we are able to express the aspirations along with the business needs, they can be acted upon. Technology is able to make the expression easier.

Q – Let’s look at the growth that you have seen and managed in your company. What were the biggest challenges you faced? Was managing recruitment hard or was it harder to manage the people and linking their aspirations to what the organization wanted them to do? Did you find it easy to link their career growth with their individual contribution to the growth and development of the company? How did you overcome these challenges?

Recruitment has always been and continues to be a challenge for everybody in our industry. If we looked at the various aspects of recruitment, training, grooming, ensuring that people can deliver, there’s one concept which we have worked on and emphasized a lot for the last five, seven years. We call it ‘Me-Enterprise’.

The whole concept of a ‘Me-Enterprise’ is that each individual is an enterprise in himself or herself.  She / He wants to increase her / his own value. Just as a company wants growth every year, with growth in revenue numbers and bottom line, the person also wants growth in their own value. They want their salary to grow, along with their savings. My brand value as a company needs to grow and my value to the company needs to grow. I need to look at my value to the enterprise and try to ensure that I add value to the company incrementally. Even if it is at 1% or even 0.1%, it will also add value to and improve my CV every day. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to shop and look for another job. It is about my skills and development, even as I contribute to the growth of my organization.

Now, I need each employee to buy into this concept. They need to increase their value by learning something every day. They can expect more important and interesting challenges to come their way at work along with more recognition, a bigger salary, more gratifications. As long as you do that, you can retain your people for longer, and longer. If employees feel that their value is not increasing they start thinking of moving on.

The challenge has always been about ensuring that people stay focused on increasing their value, generation after generation. People need to know that after reaching value X, they cannot settle into a comfort zone and say, ‘I am happy with my value being X’. They need to realize that if their value remains the same, their relative value goes down when other people don’t stop striving and keep growing. So, you always must be worried about if people get into their own comfort zone.

It’s like the time value of money. It has to grow beyond the prevailing inflation rate. 

Yeah. So, you need that increment in your value. Ensure that people really understand this whole concept that they need to keep on growing regularly. Otherwise, unfortunately, you will get squeezed out, or watch others moving ahead.

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