Guest AuthorMahalingam

Move into the HR future

By C. Mahalingam

Human resources (HR), as a function, has become central to any organisation’s competitiveness over the past two decades. With increasing emphasis on harnessing the intellect and passion of people, managing talent has assumed heavy emphasis. HR leaders are called upon to innovate people practices that will attract, retain and engage the highly creative, socially-networked, globally mobile, easily- bored workforce that is asking for more than money: meaning, respect, freedom and balance in work life. Traditional people policies and practices fall actually short of getting anywhere close to what the new-age workforce is looking for.

HR leaders of tomorrow will have to rethink and reinvent, rather than simply tweaking and tinkering with current approaches to managing people. It is not going to be easy. It is good to bear in mind what Dr Gary Hamel says in his book The future of management, “Asking a manager to manage less is a bit like asking a carpenter to pound fewer nails! Yet, the oversight, the rigid plans, the comprehensive assessments, the strict policies, the mandatory procedures — in short, the whole “father-knows-the-best” premise of management — is antithetical to building companies that are filled with energetic, slightly rebellious, votaries.”

Given this reality, the task cut out for HR leaders is two-fold: (a) their own perspectives and behaviours need an overhaul; and (b) they need to inculcate a very different style of managing on the part of the line managers, who are either one or two generations away from understanding and leading the new-age workforce.

For well over a decade, HR busied itself with embracing technology and outsourcing as key priorities.

HR service delivery models embraced new developments withbusiness-to-employee (B2E) intranets becoming key gate-way for transactions, capability centres established for talent development and total rewards. Further, the experienced HR professionals were assuming the role of business partners and were embedded in the business as consultants on people matters.

HR emerged from being peripheral to business to becoming central to business. This is past and history!

The relentless market-place and roller-coaster business climate have introduced hitherto unknown levels of uncertainty, making past successes meaningless as indicators of future comfort. And this is the context for the need to reinvent HR.


Prof Lynda Gratton from London Business School reveals several forces that are changing the future of the work and work place. Some of these are listed below.

Technological capability zooms: By 2025, more than five billion people will be connected with each other through hand-held devices. And Kenya has emerged as the centre of innovation for hand-held money devices. Cloud, big data and mobile technology have taken the prowess of technology to new heights

New drivers of productivity: The first wave of productivity came from use of technology. However, the second wave of productivity will flow not from technology but from such organisational assets as culture, commitment and continuous learning

Growing distrust of institutions: Across the world, there seems to be a steep decline in levels of trust in leaders and corporations and it is further expected to fall in the coming decades.

Decline in general state of happiness: Even as there is noticeable jump in standard of living, there seems to be serious decline in happiness. The root cause may be many, but this has an impact on engagement levels of workforce in organisations. Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell have coined a term, “hedonistic treadmill” to refer to the situation where as income increases, so too, do desires and aspirations.

Increasing status anxiety, shame and resulting isolation: Decreasing trust at work and outside, widening gap in status for variety of reasons have led to new level of anxiety and shame and as a result isolation as defensive mechanism.

Roller coaster business climate: On May 6, the New York Stock Exchange reported a drop of six per cent in share prices between 1.00 and 1.15 pm, it became known as the “six-minute recession.” And, as we are increasingly living in ajoined-up world, the impact of even a small sneeze anywhere in the world is causing a cold and cough across the world.

Social participation increases exponentially: More than e-books and e-learning,self-generated content in Web sites and Web pages has gone up significantly. Wolfram Alpha has done some remarkable work in the domain of statistical data and very soon search engines or knowledge engines, as they would soon be known as, will achieve this with social data.

The way socio-technical and technology forces are evolving and changing have implications for how we should manage our emergent workforce now and in the future. HR leaders who do not recognise these changes and forces responsible for these changes will likely be left behind.


To remain relevant and add value, HR leaders have to reinvent their roles and deliverables and before doing so will have to let go of their ‘status-quo’ mind-set and craft a change agenda for themselves and the organisations they are working for. Key deliverables in the foreseeable future would be as described below:

  • Build a significant sense of urgency in the organisation, for nothing substantial ever gets done in a complacent environment. A healthy dose of paranoia with steady-state and old-fashioned way of managing people would be a core attribute for success.
  • Reorienting the managers in their organisations to stop “managing people” and “start leading” them will be key. This is more than mere semantics but serious change of paradigms. Turning managers into coaches capable of helping people to become more self-governing and passionate will be an important step in graduating from managing to leading.
  • Liberating employees from being infantilised by the tyranny of systems, processes and supervision will be key to harnessing the passion and creativity of the new-generation workforce.
  • Gamififcation of learning, rewards and communication will be required to engage the workforce and seek their active involvement. Peer recognition will matter more than the formal recognition from managers.
  • Explicit celebration of merit over seniority in administering rewards and recognition, including opportunities for advancement, will be critical. Age is important only if you are cheese or wine!
  • Terms of contract for employment and during employment will have to be boutique in nature — crafted to suit individual employees, rather than one shoe fits all approach. Contractual employment that is renewed every a few years will become the norm. However, this will be done markedly differently in the sense that no benefits would be denied on the grounds of contractual nature as is the common practice now.
  • New age workforce would be keen to pursue different interests at different points in time like active work for a few years, taking a break for a few years to pursue a passion or hobby and this would be regarded as ‘rejuvenation’ and not as ‘recklessness.’
  • Career lattices need to be crafted to replace the traditional career paths and ladders. Employees would seek flexibility to side-shift or even down-shift their career and this needs to be accorded not as an ‘adjustment’ or ‘favour’ but as a ‘normal way of life.’
  • Jobs will have to be sculpted to suit the talented workforce rather than as apre-determined role with boundaries. People need to experience a sense of autonomy and wholesomeness in what they choose to do. If jobs and roles do not meet the need for ‘purpose’, there will be few takers.

In the ultimate analysis, the fundamental paradigm of viewing employees as “costs” or “assets” needs to be replaced with the new paradigm of viewing them as “investors.” After all, employees have chosen to invest their time, energy, intellect and passion with you and so they would eminently qualify as investors. And, this paradigm will bring about a need to relook at how the ‘return on their investment’ would be worked out and forked out.


C. Mahalingam is a leading HR Thought Leader in India. He was Executive Vice-President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation and served in organisations like IBM, HP, Phillips, Scandent Technologies etc. He is now a Leadership Coach, HR Strategic Consultant and visiting faculty at some of IIM’s.

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