HR must leverage technology to champion change: Suresh Kumar, Polycab
The pandemic has enabled the digitization journey for a number of companies. In an exclusive conversation with People Matters, the Chief Human Resource Officer at Polycab talks about how the company adopted HR technology in a phased approach, the challenges they encountered and the key lessons they learned.
Suresh Kumar is the Executive President and CHRO at Polycab. Previously, he was the President – Strategy and Human Resources. Prior to Polycab, Suresh worked in various HR roles at companies like Mafatlal, Polycab Wires, Hindustan Lever Limited.
Q. Can you talk about the journey towards adopting HRMS and the key talent challenges you were planning to tackle?
At Polycab, we were looking for an integrated HRMS system for over a year. And our focus was to identify a system that was both – integrated and employee friendly.
As a company, our goal was to move away from manual work and our thought process then was to make the HR department into a paper-less function by the upcoming financial year. And the HR technology system had to support the company’s growing vision. Another criteria that was important was that the technology had to be employee friendly. It needed to address the concerns that employees already had – whether it was providing seamless support and giving employees the information that they needed. Adrenalin was chosen with that intent. According to us, it had the capabilities which matched our expectations.
Q. What were the top 2-3 biggest challenges in your journey to integrating technology into your HR function? And how did you overcome it?
---The biggest challenges we faced in integrating technology in our HR function were
• Managing the transition – HR is a very sensitive function. It contains critical information such as payroll and employee performance records among others. Accurately migrating such confidential data was a herculean task.
• Maintaining compliances – We operate in a highly regulatory business environment. It was important for us to ensure internal and external compliances to meet audit requirements.
• Training the staff to adopt the new module – This was compounded by the recent COVID – 19 pandemic that disrupted us all.
Fortunately, we have an able workforce that knows how to overcome adversity. Our employees showed great character during these testing times and put in their efforts to maintain business continuity. Our H.R team went through great lengths to thoroughly understand this module. Despite being limited in our interactions, we managed to connect with each other digitally, sharing ideas and suggestions on how to make the system more user friendly. We organized regular testing modules, exploring and familiarizing ourselves with the system before implementation.
Q. What steps did you take to align the culture of the company to ensure the adoption was a success? And how did you bring about the mindset shift needed to embrace new technology at the workplace?
Polycab as a company has always embraced the latest technologies. However, this was the first time it adopted such a comprehensive HRMS module. The management was open to its implementation. It was important to acclimatize the employees with it. We conducted weekly discussions where business/functional heads would express their views post consultation with their respective departments. Feedback was encouraged and we ensured that relevant input was factored into the system. Naturally, employees were initially apprehensive at first, as change, more often than not, is met with resistance, especially, one that pertains to confidential people metrics. We sent regular broadcast messages, highlighting the merits of this new system and conducted periodic training interventions to adapt the module. This helped convince the employees about the effectiveness and potential of the new system. Such a profound transition can only be successfully accomplished through regular dialogue with all the relevant stakeholders.
Q. Could you talk about how you chose the HR technology partner for this journey?
--- We wanted to implement an all-encompassing HR module that helps propel our business forward. As a nation, we are progressing to a more agile workforce that demands real time data and a holistic approach to people matters. Automation is a key differentiator. We needed a service provider that can help us in this transition without any compromise. Adrenalin assured us a platform that can enable it and shared our vision to combine the key functions of HR under one roof. Though it is still early days, we are optimistic about our association.
Q. Could you talk more about the launch and the modules you chose to focus on?
The launch was done in a phased manner. The first focus area was payroll – for the staff and management. The second phase was the performance management system and the third phase was the workers payroll. In the fourth and fifth phase, the focus was on training and e-learning. Once we complete that, we will be working towards a 360 degree feedback mechanism and off-roll employees. The Adrenalin team was very helpful in customizing the product according to our needs.
The goal is to complete all roll-outs by February, so we can start the financial year with the integrated products in place. Shortly after the COVID induced break the process had to be re-energised.
Q. How has automation helped in reducing OPEX/CAPEX – by what percentage? And by what percentage has productivity increased? Have process cycle times reduced?
Since we are still in the early stages of this module, it would not be plausible to measure any reduction in OPEX/CAPEX. Regardless we are confident that automation will help achieve our vision of a less paper dependent organisation. Every year millions of trees are felled to meet the demand for paper. This has led to adverse effects on our environment. We want to reduce our carbon footprint and be a more conscientious organizsation.
Q. You’ve had the chance to see the evolution of HR technology over many years. How has the products and services space evolved over time?
Ten years ago, we were looking at how payroll can be integrated into the system, then came training. But we could not have imagined that technology would play an instrumental role in driving 360 degree feedback or that we would have artificial intelligence.
Today, HR technology is not just enabling overall employee requirements, it is also enabling management decision making. In the future, we want to leverage information to make hiring decisions and ensure that we are able to make continuous improvements to our career planning – whether that’s in the form of a market correction of salary, type of policy changes we need to make, enabling career planning, closing critical positions, proactively studying attrition reports, or the kind of environmental changes that need to be made.
The second important thing is to be able to understand and identify skill gaps and align training programs. And there’s a need for a collaborative performance management system.
Q. What are the key lessons you have learned from implementing a complete HR digital transformation exercise? What were interventions that were necessary to make the journey successful?
The key lesson learnt is the importance of perseverance. Despite the COVID induced lockdown we were able to connect digitally with our peers and associates to first understand the module. Also, as discussed earlier, any change is met with some sort of apprehension. Our employees, the HR team in particular, exemplified the resilience needed and left no stone untouched to implement the system.
In order for us to successfully implement the system, we needed to first motivate our employees during the lockdown. We have an in house magazine – Sparsh which encouraged employees to express their ideas. It was also released during the lockdown to keep employees abreast of what was going on in the organization and with their colleagues. Our Radio service also played a big factor in keeping our employees engaged. Our CMD in particular, gave an impassioned speech, convincing us to weather this storm. Since employees morale was uplifted during this difficult time, they were better prepared to maintain business continuity and accept the transition.
Q. What has been the experience of employees at the HO and plant, post the shift to digitisation? What do they have to say?
---The employees have been very enthusiastic with this recent transition. The current module has helped integrate the core facets of HR namely payroll, recruitment, training and PMS under one roof. This will enable business leaders to get a better perspective of people metrics. Employees can highlight their training needs, set goals and track their progress. The PMS module has been specifically designed to factor in all the variables while assessing employee performance. This will no doubt lead to just and equitable organisation culture. Needless to say, employees are eagerly anticipating it.
Q. Technology has been a major enabler in helping companies ensure business continuity during the pandemic, could you talk about how you've leveraged the power of technology to innovatively engage with your employees?
During this time, we introduced our own radio show that was intended to communicate what we do and at the same time engage employees. We ran a number of programs, and it was very successful. It brought a sense of nostalgia as the radio jockey was also able to engage and connect with our employees and the response was great. Our message was to reinforce that idea that “my wellbeing lies with me” and therefore one has to follow the necessary guidelines and take care of the family.
The connection with the employees ensured that they felt they were cared for during this time. And we continue to focus on three things – which include reflecting on how we keep our employees engaged, how can we keep them safe and healthy and keep them up to date from a knowledge and skills perspective.
Q. When you look at the changing priorities of work - due to the rise of a hybrid workforce model, how would you describe the shifts for HR?
A hybrid workplace model may not work for a manufacturing set up. And so we are expecting to go back to normal as soon as possible. In the long run, we expect people to come back to office and we’re seeing that there’s a need for employees to interact face to face and work alongside each other.
Q. How has the pandemic shaped your approach to workplace productivity?
It hasn’t changed our perspective significantly. If work isn’t really impacted, then productivity hasn’t suffered, although some employees feel an office environment may be more conducive, still others feel that they have become productive working at home. What is still needed, is a passion to work, wherever you are. As a company that employs a significant number of blue collar workers, working on-site is needed for the morale of workers.
Q. How do you measure success when it comes to HR technology (Any examples you'd like to share from an HR perspective and also from the perspective of employees)?
If all of our goals and business roadmap can be cascaded down to the lowest level of the employee pyramid – and specially informing KPIs and KRAs, then we can collectively achieve HR and business goals. That’s what we want to see – performance goals mapped to business goals.
Q. What is your one advice to leaders and HR teams embarking on an HR transformation exercise?
--- My biggest advice to leaders and the HR fraternity in general, is to champion change. Manufacturing, Finance and Supply Chain are functions that have made great strides in adopting the latest technologies in India. We must not leave ourselves behind. HR functions will play a major role in driving economies forward, especially in a post COVID world. We must embrace and adopt the latest technologies to develop the biggest resource in any economy – people.