It was a bright day with perfect visibility as I recalled the words of my instructor and opened "the throttle slowly, steadily, and to the fullust (sic) extent". The ungainly L5 Sentinel (if you know this type, I know your age) picked up speed, unstuck itself from the tarmac and gave me among the most thrilling half hours of my life. The runway was in sight from the time I entered the crosswind leg until I landed and my eyes were my sole navigation aids. I had completed my first solo and proudly started sporting wings on my NCC uniform. This actually happened.
It was almost midnight when the Rafale squadron was 'scrambled'. The presence of clouds and the absence of a moon made instrument flying mandatory. Six trusty instrument aids provided the basic information (airspeed, attitude, altitude, heading, vertical speed, and turn data) needed by the pilot to head towards the sector where intruders had been reported. Soon enough, some hostiles were picked up by the Rafale’s SPECTRA PESA (Passive Electronically Scanned Array) radar. Time to bring the aircraft’s own formidable armaments into play by switching on the RBE2 and AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radars. It acquired multiple targets and just as the pilot picked on one... BAM … I woke up. This had been a dream. (Warning: Pilots are advised to get proper instruction and not use the foregoing as a guide.)
HR, of course, can make dreams come true, though rather more prosaically than the instance you have just read. In the frequently opaque reality that underlies corporate life, HR needs a variety of regular information flows and dedicated sensing systems to avoid obstacles and find its way to achieving goals that are important for the organization and its people. 2
As in Rafale, we can broadly divide HR’s vital input streams into three. First come the regular reporting systems that have to be set up in advance to tell us broadly how we are situated and where we are headed. HR can also pick up information on threats, opportunities, and other developments as a secondary benefit from other processes that are not intended specifically for the goal in question. Finally, we can narrow our focus and target hot (or cool) spots demanding initiatives or remedial action. This column attempts to exemplify each of these sources that are essential for making HR a day-night-capable mission accomplisher.
Regular information flows
As with the 6-pack in an aircraft cockpit, HR pilots need an ongoing stream of quality information. For any reasonably sized organisation that has existed for a while, such information needs to make (preferably graphically supplemented) comparisons between units / sections and reveal trends over time. A sound HR information system must also build in algorithms (increasingly AI-supported) to flag warning signals and demand senior attention even without report perusal, as well as from those not on the reports’ normal access or circulation lists.
Here is the 6-pack I tried to use throughout my corporate HR career, starting haltingly with reams of 1401 printouts, proceeding through the clunky interface of Lotus 123 (mitigated by the graceful graphics of Quattro) and ending with real-time alerts on smart devices from a near-autonomous HRMS. If much of the following appears basic and brief, it’s because it is intended only as an aide memoire for the fundamental reporting with which all HR practitioners are familiar. The bullet points that follow each head are also scattered pointers rather than a comprehensive plan but I hope they add useful nuance to what can otherwise become routine reporting.
1. Value-adder Availability: It is no longer sufficient to look only at the stock of permanent people assets (who contribute to a diminishing share of the value addition as technology and contractualization take their toll) but at those employed on contract, for short and part-time periods, as well as Created Intelligent Resource Assets (at some point in the future). 3
- Level-wise tracking of key diversity target groups (e.g. SC/ST, women, neurodiverse, …) is needed to ensure they are not bulked at the Bottom of the Pyramid – or outside it! 4
- Bulging of groups (e.g., the precariat) where cost doesn’t put a check needs monitoring to prevent exploitation and addiction.5
- Tooth-to-tail and top-to-toe ratios help in spotting fat accumulations.
2. Value-adder Withdrawal: Attention-deficit, absenteeism, and attrition are progressively more serious ways in which employees indicate their unhappiness with the situation they face at work.
- Pockets of high withdrawal often indicate toxic supervisors.
- Policy problems are identifiable through the tenure, level, and age analysis of withdrawal waves. These remain hypotheses until details are filled in through active probes such as exit interviews.
- Cohort analysis yields vital feedback on recruitment sources (see below).
3. Value-adder Augmentation: Innovative source identification coupled with cohort tracking and source modification are among the most strategically important people decisions HR can take. An example of innovative sourcing is available in a previous column. 6 Cohort measurements are simpler when a substantial part of the sourcing is cadre-driven (e.g., Graduate Engineer Trainees). Laterals make cohort identification more complicated but not impossible once the right markers (e.g., education, age, level and type of organisation at the time of joining) are in place.
- Recruitment expense and time-to-effectiveness comparisons are starting points of the analysis.
- Next come 3P comparisons: Period of tenure, Performance at various career points and Progression (both vertical and horizontal).
- Finally total tenure costs (see below) need to be linked to 3P.
4. People Cost: Comparing costs of sourcing choices (see 3 above) while taking into account the productivity they deliver (see 5 below) lies at the heart of scientific manpower planning.
- Costing of stock options and other Long Term Incentives (LTI) pose challenges but cannot be ignored for that reason.
- Disparities in compensation between levels and types of contract (with the pretend-trainees and precariat at one end and the LTI lords at the other) acquire a moral dimension. They must be viewed in conjunction and selectively placed in the public domain. 7
- Market information on a periodic basis is important to prevent panaceatic pleas for paying more, overpowering other ideas for improving engagement.
5. People Productivity and Quality of Work: Many of us who started in manufacturing cut our teeth on Standard Man Hours, Takt Times, and Six Sigma.8 The good news is: the principles behind efficiency gain and judging improvements from the ultimate customers’ eyes remain unchanged. However, everything else has changed so drastically that HR practitioners transitioning to (or starting in) predominantly knowledge-based operations need a very different productivity toolkit. 9
- It is important to distinguish between output and productivity. Simplistic measures, such as output per head (without controlling for time spent), can lead to undue pressure and burnout, as sometimes happened during COVID times.10
- Place must be made for crediting process improvements. Otherwise, seemingly common-sensical measures may disincentivize innovation (e.g. evaluations—and, sometimes, payments—of individuals or teams based on Lines of Code per Available Person Hour provide no motivation to write more efficient, elegant, and shorter programs).
- Measures of quality need to be as close to the ultimate customer as possible. Hence quality and customer feedback (not necessarily quantified) must find eager readers and analyzers in HR. Even CEOs can gain insights from such end-point quality checks.
6. People Capability Enhancement: HR’s main contribution claim must lie in enhancing the value and capability of the stakeholder in its care – people.
- To be useful, input-related training measures (e.g., training / coaching days, cost of in-house / external training) must be segmented to prevent 'easier (softer) training from predominating' or for training to be targeted mainly at top levels.
- Training evaluation must measure outcomes, e.g., productivity gains.
- Progress on developing individuals for totally different jobs and for internal leader grooming (evidenced by the ratio of internal to external staffing for mid and senior levels) must be tracked.
Information feeds from other processes
Time to look at our PESA (Pertinent Extracts as Side Advantage) feeds. These flow through three broad conduits.
There is a wealth of information available in HR processes which the uninitiated discard as distracting noise. A few instances should suffice. Selection interviews (both external and internal) can have candidates at their most frank (barring when they speak of their own limitations), especially when explaining their reasons for wanting a change. Information about competitors can sometimes be so valuable that less scrupulous firms are known to hold interviews with candidates who they have no intention of considering for appointments, simply for their information value. Training programmes and the formal and informal discussions they ignite (particularly when they are residential) are also rich sources of frank feedback and speak in favour of HR facilitators being present throughout. While development has the first claim on 360º feedback, the process is also valuable for pointing out the heels (both with and without the Achilles prefix) among leaders for further investigation. Grievances, whether collective or individual, provide direct shoe-pinching evidence and must be treated as information sources apart from the obvious problem-solving and goodwill-gaining opportunities they provide. 11 Deactivating such sensing gauges through automation or outsourcing of operational HR can lead to fatal crashes.
It is not only HR processes that yield valuable information about the organisation and its people as a side benefit. CHROs have access to financial and audit reports which have clear employee implications. Business excellence audit findings are also accessible to them even when HR doesn’t facilitate the process. They are also at the top of the table when key dynamics are played out in front of their eyes. Strategy and resource allocation, as well as belt-tightening meetings, are particularly instructive in this regard. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), open halls have tended to become the modern equivalent of medieval 'durbars' and rarely yield even faint traces of the violent undercurrents that may be roiling below the surface.
An extremely important, non-targeted source of information comes from LBWA (Learning By Wandering Around). While the chatter in some wandering areas may fade in a CHRO’s presence (shop floor toilets, workmen’s cafeteria, …), less exalted HR functionaries can move around freely in these. What is important is the sensitive antenna and the intuition to find signals in the small talk, observe oddities in the ocean of events and connect the dots in the deluge of impressions. As a preceptor of mine used to say, "An HR man [sorry, pre-PC times] who doesn’t have his ears to the ground will soon have his backside there".
All the information we need to steer and target the HR craft doesn’t fall into our laps as a secondary benefit from things we were planning to do anyway. The AESA (Aimed Examination of Specific Areas) finally has to be switched on. Several of these intelligence-gathering instruments may also serve other purposes but the information yields are what makes them mandatory and worthy of the resources and time they demand. Their use follows another 3P cycle:
- Prioritisation of TAO (Threats And Opportunities)
- Probes to pinpoint root causes and constraints
- Plans of action for TAO tackling
Engagement surveys provide good starting points, provided they are extended to all value-adders (regardless of the types of contract), de-ritualized, and (at least in the process of being) converted into happiness gauges. 12 Emergent aspects of interest can be tracked in greater detail and frequency with pulse and mini surveys. Such anonymous sources should ideally be supplemented by an active programme of random but comprehensive face-to-face interactions across all levels of the employee or precariat population. 13 Finally, the most detailed information is obtained from the special audits, investigations, and task teams set up to pursue problems already identified.
A far subtler but potentially richer lode of information is available through networking. As useful as it is within the organisation, it is absolutely invaluable for outside intelligence, screened as the latter usually is from most of the information and process flows so far discussed. Professional counterparts, customers, competitors, opinion-makers, authorities, union leaders, community influencers—the list is endless, though these seven (roughly sequenced in order of importance) are a good start. I must admit this paragraph is written under the guidance of a friend who has excelled at the art of networking while I have been a late and bumbling entrant. By the time I was pushed into professional body participation by a far-sighted boss, I had missed many opportunities to learn more about the HR community and the larger environment in which we operate. Hopefully, young readers of this column will learn from my failure and not spend most of their careers in the same Selkirkian solitude. 14
I turn last (fittingly, I suppose) to the exit interview, an inexhaustible mine of otherwise concealed information that is often dug so casually and perfunctorily that, in its normal form, it bears almost no information at all. Done diligently, however, it can yield a lot of information that almost no other source can. The reason was revealed in the bitter words spoken by Sohrab to his father: "Truth sits upon the lips of dying men". 15 While departure from a corporation is not as serious as the fatal wound Sohrab received, it can prompt the same veracity. However, this is not just available for the plucking. Even Sohrab revealed the truth only after he had been provoked by the unintended taunts of his yet unrecognized father. To elicit the true facts requires empathy to draw them out, judgement to separate boasts and vested or vengeful agendas from reality and perseverance to counter-check claims (if necessary, through other exit interviews) till a reliable rendition of reality emerges.
Seat of pant flying is unsafe
There are still plenty of HR leaders (though the number is gradually declining) who navigate through the organisation the way I did in my L5—by the seats of their pants. Aircraft have changed since then and a pilot incapable of flying on 'instruments' alone would never be allowed on an all-weather mission. Why? "Three senses interact to keep us upright, feet firmly planted on terra firma: vision (eyes), proprioception ('seat of the pants', pressure sensing organs in the skin and joints), and vestibular (balance apparatus in the inner ear called the semicircular canals). Once airborne... [v]ision rules supreme as the only reliable orientation sense... Remove the natural horizon [as in the clouds or at night], ignore attitude instruments, and your lifespan is reduced to an average of three terror-filled minutes!"16 The career of an HR leader operating by hunch may not be so brief but it is certainly unlikely to be effective.
Maybe we should give wings to HR professionals who can navigate using all three information categories. Did I tell you about the time I got mine?