Suraj Chettri is a leading HR professional with nearly 20 years of experience in a variety of industries spanning across specialist HR functions. Currently the Head of Human Resources at Airbus India, Chettri started his career with Bata India and moved to Bosch India in 1996 and then to their HQ in Germany. In 2003, he joined General Motors Technical Centre as Head HR and was part of the Leadership Team responsible for setting up their operations in India. In 2011, Suraj joined the Airbus Group India. He was conferred with the Gold Karmaveer Chakra and the Rex Karmaveer Global Fellowship for his contributions towards the Bio-Diversity Program by iCongo in association with the UN during 2014-15.
In an exclusive conversation with People Matters, Chettri shares how the company is navigating the need for new technology skills, emerging challenges in skilling and building the right learning culture. Here are the excerpts from the interview:
How would you characterize the need for digital and technology upskilling in the context of your business and industry?
Technology is core to everything we do. Over several years, we’ve looked at the mega trends across the world in terms of technological breakthroughs, demographics, and social trends in the context of rapid economic change and a shift towards urbanization. And then we looked at what our focus areas should be and came up with ten technologies that we would like to focus on.
The first thing we needed to do was to restructure the organization. A digital transformation office was created and functional innovation teams were introduced. We formed cross-functional catalyst networks within the different businesses we have. With a focus on external innovation, we launched a program to encourage ideas from outside the organization that we could fund, sponsor, incubate, take it internally and run it. In order to co-innovate, we created a funding organization called Airbus ventures.
With a focus on incremental innovation, the goal is to create the right environment. And then set up a different proof of concepts (POCs) with the objective to learn fast, fail fast. All of which are at a different level of adaptation.
Data is going to be the key in the future. There are billions of data points that we generate. And if we can connect the entire ecosystem, its going to benefit everyone
What are the talent challenges you're seeing with the rise of new skills?
The depth and understanding of advanced technology skills in India are high. Because we aren’t mass hiring, we have created different clusters of technologies. So far, hiring is not a challenge.
The challenging part is looking at the roadmap not in isolation but along with other roadmaps on strategy, operations, information technology, etc. Another challenge is to make sure that technology focus areas are not overlapping. It’s a problem area in large companies.
From the perspective of upskilling, what is your journey of upskilling internal employees like?
Once we’ve identified a skills gap, we work towards bridging the gap after looking at what is done in our ecosystem. By and large, our focus is on getting experts from the industry and ensuring that employees work together. Only when you understand the value of doing something can you build a culture of agility and digitalization.
For programs on information management, for example, projects have moved away from a waterfall method to an agile method - which means when they start working with their product owners and scrum masters, there’s awareness about new ways of working. That’s how employees are groomed to learn. Like most other organizations, we have online portals that educate employees on AI, ML, Data Science, etc.
What is required from a leadership and culture standpoint?
From a leadership standpoint, it is important to create the right environment, where there is recognition for innovation and new ways of working. There are three levels of creating this environment.
Internally, different departments have their own structures and platforms, and we get cascade ideas up the organization. We also ask employees which projects they want to push or work on.
Using our biz lab which is a business accelerator, we’ve had the active involvement of the leadership to help identify projects to fund.
If we are creating an environment of learning, we should be able to support and handhold employees and lead them to the future. So it’s not just talking about the idea but also ensuring that we can implement it. Culture is a platform on which you can build technology.
What are some of the top trends that you are excited about?
Data is going to be the key in the future. There are billions of data points that we generate. And if we can connect the entire ecosystem, it’s going to benefit everyone. Say for example, if an airline is looking at optimizing their route that they fly through. And we have the data of similar aircraft – and we’re able to tell them how they can save a certain percentage of fuel or how their flight paths can be optimized, that could create a new model of revenue generation. A similar project involving data that we worked towards was optimizer. The idea was that when an aircraft lands in an airport, what is the sequence of activities that will help get the return flight-ready at the earliest. Can we look at the possibility where we can pick up the luggage from your house and it automatically gets delivered to where ever you want it to get delivered? There is a whole host of technologies and jobs that will impact the ecosystem including the Internet of things, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.
Just learning courses and upskilling don't ensure that one has the depth of experience and is ready to tackle emerging opportunities. And that makes the job of a recruiter all the more difficult
What keeps you up at night? Is there something that worries you about emerging skills and technologies like Data Science, AI, and ML?
One thing that really bothers me is the compensation hikes for candidates working on these specialized technologies. The fear that I have is that it’s come to a stage where the candidate can demand what they want. And I haven’t seen this kind of a trend earlier. And these costs are strangely the same everywhere.
Earlier we would talk about having a cost advantage of operating in India, today we have cannot play with costs any longer. It’s not 1x or 2x, we’re talking about 15x when it comes to cost. So that really impacts the budgets of everyone, and it keeps on growing.
As an HR professional, do I have a bandwidth to hire someone in data science with specialized aerospace industry experience? The answer is no. There is a talent cost chaos in the market when it comes to specialized and advanced digital skills. And it causes difficulty in predicting labor trends.
The speed with which I have seen technologies grow has made me certain that in the future, something more exciting will keep coming up. And by the time you master and understand a new technology, something else will have already taken its place. Today, it’s AI, tomorrow it could be cognition technology.
But it’s also important to remember that there’s a lot of white noise and misunderstanding from a skills perspective. Just learning courses and upskilling don't ensure that one has the depth of experience needed to tackle emerging opportunities. And that makes the job of a recruiter all the more difficult.