From reimagining legacy systems, becoming strategic partners in business to bringing in technology and automation to keep up with the changing world of work as digitization and disruption become an everyday affair, HR leaders of today have a lot on their platter. And moreover, leading the HR function for a brand that has existed for more than a 100 years is not an easy feat. In this exclusive interaction, Sumit Mitra, Head - Group HR and Corporate Services, Godrej Industries Limited and Associated Companies, who has extensive experience in the area of people and work, shares his perspective on how the role of HR has changed in the past few years and what are the expectations from it as we move ahead in a changing world of work.
You have been associated with Godrej for almost 25 years; how has the journey been so far? How has the landscape changed in terms of talent in these years?
Over the last 24 years, I have watched Godrej and our people philosophy evolve. We are 123 years “young” as we like to say, deeply proud of our legacy and values of trust, integrity and respect for others. At the same time, we are growing fast and have exciting, ambitious aspirations as an evolving, diversified multinational conglomerate, delighting over a billion consumers worldwide.
When I joined in 1996, our people function was very different. Like in many other companies, HR at Godrej too played more of a generalist role, with a focus on industrial relations and administrative aspects. There were no established processes like talent management and even performance was not differentiated. Loyalty was rewarded and people would join to retire from the company.
In fact, one of my first major projects was to work on an open performance appraisal system. Back then, the approach to performance was discreet and highly confidential. Making this shift was a big one. Today, our meritocratic culture is a big differentiator for us. We continue to value loyalty, but it’s not everything. Loyalty and performance are given equal importance.
Purpose and culture-driven organizations will thrive over time. One of the most important roles of HR is to enable this by being a role model. Fundamentals like fairness, equality and empathy cannot be automated.
The role of HR too has transformed, becoming more of a business partner and value creator, from being a functional expert and enabler of processes. The talent landscape is constantly changing; who we hire, where we hire them from, what we hire them for, and how long we hire them for, is distinctly different from the trends we have seen before. This changes how HR enables performance and engagement, and leverages technology to make more informed people decisions for business growth.
How has the role of HR evolved in the past decade? What will the new HR skill set look like in the age of AI and automation? Also, how can HR ensure the human touch remains?
In the 1990s and early 2000s, with increased globalization and the focus on people as competitive differentiators, there was a shift in the role of HR to become more of a business partner. Now, like with any other role, that of HR too will be shaped and impacted by AI and automation. AI and automation are important tool kits to help us become successful business and HR managers. Through automation, HR can significantly scale up impact. We will however need to make some clear choices between technology and human interventions. While HR teams can become leaner, their skills will need to be much more nuanced and differentiated. For example, with increasing globalization and scale, technology will be imperative to reach out meaningfully to team members, and provide quality assistance and guidance. Chatbots are a solution to this. They can respond to standard people queries without requiring human intervention. Similarly, other standardised processes can be automated to enhance employee experience.
What won’t change is the importance of the “human touch”. Purpose and culture-driven organizations will thrive over time. One of the most important roles of HR is to enable this by being a role model. Fundamentals like fairness, equality and empathy cannot be automated. If these are not exhibited by HR, then one could really ask - why should HR even exist? Because without this, it could easily be replaced by machines.
The talent landscape is constantly changing; who we hire, where we hire them from, what we hire them for, and how long we hire them for, is distinctly different from the trends we have seen before. This changes how HR enables performance and engagement, and leverages technology to make more informed people decisions for business growth.
Also, machine learning and AI work on the principles of consistency and repeat responses. But no one person is exactly like another, and so no situation or complication linked to any one person is likely to be exactly the same as another’s. There can’t be an automatic one-size-fits-all solution. We could certainly have common issues where we use automation, but there will always be a unique question which a machine can’t respond to. That’s where HR will need to be “human” and empathy will continue to be non negotiable.
In the context of automation and AI-based disruption, how do you see the evolution of jobs? And what is required to make one job-ready?
Every generation has seen some form of incremental change. From the steam engine to the electric bulb, then computers and now, AI. That said, change has become faster and more multi-dimensional. So, our workplaces will need to become more agile to keep up with this pace of change.
Leveraging the benefits of technology can’t replace the fundamental skill set needed to do a job. You will still need to train in and demonstrate core competencies before using technology to enhance your skills and performance. Technology can then be offered as a toolkit to enhance impact and scale. For example, if you are a sales manager, then technology can offer you a lot by way of data analytics and insights to make more targeted choices on where to sell and how much to sell what of. But you will still need to be familiar with markets and consumers on ground to make sense of what the analytics offer you.
What do companies need to understand about the future of work? From the perspective of an innovative workplace with the optimal combination of humans and machines, how would you describe the workforce of the future?
The future of work will require every job, role and structure in a traditional organization to be re-examined. We will need to bucket them as contributing to incremental or exponential value add. Processes that are standardised and well-defined can be evaluated for automation. Those with incremental value add can be possibly outsourced. But aspects which add exponential value or provide competitive advantage is where we will need to build strength and invest.
Our future workplaces will also be much more inclusive. Godrej has a presence in more than 90 countries with over 20,000 team members, representing 36 nationalities, multiple generations, ethnicities and religions. The complexities and benefits of this diversity are significant. To add to this will soon be another layer - managing how people and machines work together - and that will require a very different skill set.
Another important aspect is that talent will increasingly not be owned by companies. We are already seeing the explosion of a gig economy; people choosing how they will work and where they will work from. We will need to develop a very different engagement model for such talent that provides great competitive advantage, but isn’t restricted to or owned by us.
How will reinventing jobs impact organizations as they seek growth and success in an era of change and digital transformation?
Organizations will have to ‘right size’. We will need to relook at some of our legacy practices and policies, segment jobs and introduce automation at the right places. Talent will need to be skilled to do the core of the job and then upskill using technology. Most importantly, leadership will need to re-orient themselves to embrace a different way of working. What worked yesterday will most certainly not be enough to make us successful tomorrow.
What talent challenges do you foresee in the workplace of the future? What challenges would the HR function face in particular?
There are a couple of talent challenges that I foresee. The first is a lack of skill, especially in India since our education system is based on knowledge and not skill. We are churning out a workforce that may be educated, but not necessarily trained or skilled.
The second, is the lack of functional depth. Most people do not invest enough time in creating expertise in the jobs that they do. The importance of building in-depth knowledge and core capabilities can’t be ignored.
The HR function will also face a couple of challenges. For starters, how do we straddle the core and achieve a balance with new skills and technology? We will need to continue to do more of what is core to HR, like ensuring that fundamentals of trust, empathy, fairness, equity are embedded in the culture of the company. At the same time, we will need to learn how to leverage new skills, AI and automation.
Extrinsically, we will be dealing with a larger and more diverse workforce, spread across different geographies, time zones, genders and with very different skill sets. How we recruit, engage and retain such people is something that is not taught in traditional business schools. We will need to experiment and find our own answers to these challenges.
How does Godrej Industries plan to carry forward the Great Place to Work tag? What are your top priorities moving forward?
Being diverse, innovative and agile will continue to be our competitive advantage as we reimagine our role in a constantly changing, very connected world. I believe that a Great Place To Work has three elements: (1) meaningful and challenging roles, (2) a learning organization and (3) great managers. We will continue to invest in and build these, while deepening our strong sense of purpose and our core values.
Going forward, what would you say would be you Next Curve as an HR professional?
HR needs to be minimalistic, but more impactful. We can only enhance impact if we have a continuous source of data and measurement by making our processes more digital and analytical.