Keeping people at the centre is critical for technology firms in India, a market which is at the forefront of changing economies

Former US President John F. Kennedy once said, “In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognise the opportunity.” This is apt for businesses, as nothing in business stands still. The key question most organisations try to answer is how to build profitable and sustainable growth when competitiveness is ever-increasing.

The answer lies in building a sustainable competitive advantage, which gives a firm an edge over its competitors, allowing it to generate greater sales or margins and/or retain more customers. There can be many types of competitive advantages including the firm’s cost structure, product offerings, distribution network and customer support. A differential advantage is created when customers see a firm’s products or services as better than another’s. But there’s a caveat, if you want to grow your business and remain competitive, you not only need to ask the following questions but need to know the answers as well — why would our customers buy from us and why would the best employees choose to work for us?

Understanding customer needs

Sustainable competitive advantage and differentiation will often come from looking for and identifying an uncovered market segment or more responsive buying method, and these can emerge from understanding customer needs that are not met satisfactorily.

In order to address these needs and deliver world-class customer experience, the quality of employees servicing them becomes important. Now, more than ever, with the volatility in the economy, ensuring high quality and serviceability in customer experience is critical to an organisation’s long-term success. As the economy continues to shift, competition increases, and technology continues to advance, differentiation in products and solutions becomes key for success and this needs the best minds at work and, hence, people become the most significant asset in an organisation.

Matching jobs and skills

Yet, people are the most under-managed in organisations. For example, if we look at the Indian IT industry over the years, the actual foundation and growth took place in the 1990s. Through this time, the typical talent route was hiring suitable engineering graduates from universities and honing their skills through rigorous in-house training and development programs to meet industry quality. Service delivery was managed through a factory approach, whether onsite, near-shore or off-shore. Every project and assignment was monitored to ensure on-time deliverying and quality. The industry also created a practice-based approach to build specialised skills like solution architects and, hence, creating competency map to ensure successful delivery of projects.

While all this was happening, in an organisational context most people were getting trained in IT services and most of the innovation happened around the process side. The evolution in the intellectual talent space didn’t keep pace with the likes of hardcore ‘product or solution research and development (R&D),’ where the need to innovate at the product-level is a fundamental requirement. Typically, people who have spent time in IT services have had to mould themselves in non-technical managerial, sales and marketing roles, resulting in the absence of technology thought leadership in the industry. Now, such companies are evolving on platforms and looking at non-linear growth models as part of their strategy.

On the other side, there are over 700 multi-national companies with R&D centres in India, and over 200,000 engineers make up the hardcore engineering and R&D teams. Most of these R&D centers are climbing through the value chain from conducting tests, validating and implementation work, to undertaking complete end-to-end engineering for products out of India. However, only a few of the 700-odd companies have successfully developed unique concepts and products out of India and taken them to market. With the tremendous potential the Indian engineering workforce has and the demand for new technology services from ‘rapid growth markets’, there is significant opportunity for organisations to scale above the rest and become true ‘differentiators.’

However, for those of us questioning where to spend time and energy,aget the most effective return on investment and become market differentiators, management of technical talent is the answer we’re looking for. It is becoming all the more obvious that an organisation can gain sustainable competitive advantage only if it is orienting its talent pool towards a culture of innovation, technical excellence and, proactively addressing market gaps.

But it isn’t easily achievable. Talent management (recruitment, development and retention) is a top challenge facing all engineering R&D centres in India and it is imperative that it is addressed as one of the highest organisational priorities. It is important to strategically look at talent management under these areas — addressing skills gap, fostering a culture of creativity and problem solving, enabling ownership and providing for continuous focused learning.

Skills Gap

The key to talent management in R&D centres is to understand the skills gap. Skill maturity with an organisation will depend on the clear articulation of the expectations within the organisation. The enablers for success are cultivating business knowledge, culture of constant learning and building emotional intelligence. To achieve this it is imperative that there is a focus on and sustained actions to drive excellence and collaboration within organisations. Take the example of TCS — the company is known to implement ‘skills forecasting’ as part of its business reviews, forming the basis of annual talent development and retention. Here, the competency required for upcoming projects are mapped onto the competency available; the skills gap thereof is met through cross-training of existing employees and hiring.

Creativity and Problem Solving

There is a growing force to foster creative and problem-solving thinking and derivative innovation and enhance knowledge exchange. Companies are also encouraging intrapreneurship and the opportunity to fail fast and are instilling a culture of innovation , and are also using the information from failures to experiment and make mid-course corrections. Such approaches gain tremendous momentum in globally-spread teams where the local market needs, local education backgrounds and unique cultural traits get exchanged at a global level. India — because of its large engineering workforce, booming information economy, and increasing adoption of technologies — will have a very important role to play in influencing the products and solutions of tomorrow.

Ownership and Empowerment

Employees at every level are motivated and engaged when they are allowed to make decisions that impact their work positively. It is important that organisations not only empower but also enable the thriving workforce to be successful. People contribute more effectively when they understand how they fit into the organisation’s mission and strategy. There are some interesting lessons on this to learn from GE — one, it is known to integrate the overall business strategy with people measurement at its planning cycles; two, it encourages its leaders to take ownership of the people development process as a key driver of HR strategy and three it’s current global Chief executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt is said to devote one month to assist in strategic HR planning processes. With such a core focus on people development, it is no wonder that GE is what it is today — a global company whose success has been sustainable for more than a century.

Learning

Continuous learning to enable employees to be successful is an important component to build a highly motivated and thriving workforce. Workforces that constantly upgrade their abilities tend to believe in the future potential and growth. If employees are provided opportunities to learn and grow, they not only thrive but also help the organisation. IT organisations are offering “work-and-study” programmes by partnering education institutes. One of the well-established programmes in this regard has to be BIT Pilani’s work integrated learning programmes, which are academic degrees in science and technology for employed professionals. It is becoming increasingly clear that organisations with the best and most-focused people strategy will have the most “sustainable” strategy to differentiate in the marketplace and succeed. Companies like HCL Technologies are implementing this through their management philosophy of ‘Employee First, Customer Second’. An all-round focus on talent development and management — both existing employee base, and prospective talent pool — will enable organisations to develop problem-solving approaches in the market and truly stand out from the clutter.

The author is Senior Director (Emerging Markets), EMC India.

(This article was published on July 20, 2012)
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