March 04, 2007

Talent Management : An Industrial Approach

Good Morning friends :

It is my pleasure to deliver this key note address and I thank the CII-Eastern Region and its Chairman, Mr Bhusen Raina for the privilege of addressing this august body.

We are assembled here today to talk about how we can enable excellence and I believe that to excel it is necessary to have the talent to excel. So my focus today will be on the management of Talent in India.

We are told that India is moving away from an agrarian economy to an economy dominated, not by industry as it has happened in the west, but directly to a knowledge economy .. an economy dominated by services. As a management consultant, buzz words like these should be a part of my professional repertoire but strangely enough I am always hesitant to be so discrete with my thoughts. The world is not quite so black-and-white ... it is always shades of grey. So when I talk about an industrial approach to talent management I will try to weave into my words, some thoughts and ideas drawn from areas that fall outside the traditional domains of talent management, education and human resources management. There may be a few who disagree with this -- but then seminars like this are always meant to bring forth a plurality of opinion. So let it be with this one.

Amartya Sen has let the cat out of the bag when we talks of the Argumentative Indian. We love to talk and argue but when it comes to work we are very often found lacking. I want to avoid this trap and so in addition to talking ( which I cannot help, in a forum like this ) I would like to propose two actionable ideas of which one has short term implications and the other has a more long drawn impact on India.

So first the short term one ...

I am a great fan of Thomas Friedman right from the days when he lionised the Outsourcing Industry with his thoughts on the Flat World. I am not here to talk about the Flat World but about another idea that he has floated of late ... and it is an idea that I like very much : The concept of drilling for talent.

His thoughts on this are very simple. There are countries that drill for mineral resources and he is specific about drilling for oil and he says that countries that drill for oil -- the Middle East, Nigeria, Venezuela, Russia are the ones who are making short term wealth but this wealth is not sustainable in the long term. In contrast, he lauds countries like India, who are not very successful in drilling for oil, but who have managed to drill for talent inside the population and have used the talent that has gushed out to develop a flourishing and sustainable knowledge based economy.

So let us focus on drilling for talent.

Actually this is not such a new idea at all but we must thank Mr Friedman for building a buzz around a very good idea. We in India have always been drilling for talent through our National Talent Search Examinations. These are conducted by the NCERT, Government of India and there have been some variants run by other organisations. Unfortunately this whole infrastructure of the NTS is pretty badly managed and if I may say so, it is on the verge of collapse. May I suggest that corporates under the banner of CII redesign and rejuvenate this program and make it more effective.

The current Talent Search process works with school children and is focused on text book knowledge. As a National Talent Scholar myself, I can assure you that despite this focus on bookish knowledge, it is indeed a source of great inspiration and financial support to many middle class people like myself. However in today's global arena, book knowledge is only one arrow in the quiver ... and I would suggest that the Talent Search process be enlarged to include entrepreneurial skills ... from the current National Talent Search to a new National Entrepreneurial Talent Search.

Consider the example of Radio Raghav that enjoyed brief notoriety when it was operating a full fledged FM radio station without a license in Mansoorpur in Bihar. It was hailed as the perfect example of the triumph of enterprise in the face of insurmountable financial odds and was the toast of the global radio community when it was showcased in the BBC. Of course it is a different matter that the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1880 was invoked to shut it down ... but it goes to show what kind of entrepreneurial talent exists in the country.

My suggestion is this : Can the CII put together a mechanism to locate such entrepreneurial talent, match it with managerial talent available in the country's B-Schools plus the money bags of the Venture Capital community and then hand-hold then for a period of say five years so that such enterprises can thrive and grow ?

Students in business schools are familiar with the latest technology, the latest business processes and the latest global trends .. but are they natural entrepreneurs ? Not likely ... the skills needed to clear the GMAT are very different from the risk appetite needed to dream about, start up and follow through with a thriving business ... but for every Sunil Mittal who has made the successful transition from selling cycle parts to owning the largest telecom company in the country, there are hundreds who fall by the way.

Can the CII sponsor a formal Entrepreneurial Talent Search process that will identify these individuals and help them reach the next level ?

Many of us who have graduated from IITs remember with extreme gratitude the monthly stipend of Rs 250 from NTS that was a source of great motivation for us. And it is the same people who are now holding positions of trust and responsibility in companies that are making India proud in the global arena. Is it too much to expect that 20 years from now, the CII leadership will have a fair share of business leaders who would be admitting their gratitude to this Talent Search Process for the success of their enterprises ?

The Talent Search is something that can be thought of as something in the short term, but perhaps we should think of something more fundamental that can affect India in a more profound manner.

I began this address by Drilling for Talent but let me carry the industrial analogy a little further and into the domain of mass production. This may be a slightly more long drawn approach, as opposed to the ETS process that I mentioned earlier but is also based on another old concept of public-private partnership in infrastructure.

The PPP route in physical infrastructure is now well established -- roads, airports and all that and I suggest that we now bring it to the educational domain.

If we look back on the Great Indian Outsourcing Story, we would note that the success in this area has been achieved because of the educated people that we have in this country. This is often referred to as the Demographic Dividend .. the benefit of having lots of people. However sub Saharan Africa is perhaps cheaper but you would not find people to do the job for you.

Unfortunately the Demographic Dividend is running out. It is not that we are running out of people -- we are billion strong and thanks to the teachings of the Kama Sutra we are growing ... but as every HR manager worth his CV knows it is impossible to get the right people with the right skills. While jobs are going abegging in the service sector -- Software, BPO, KPO or whatever, there are semi-literate people standing outside the gleaming glass houses and either begging for money or at best serving tea to those who drive cars for the people inside the building.

How can we bring in these semi-literate people into the work pool and convert their idle despair into billable hours ?

Private donation based colleges -- good or bad, I will not comment here -- we have and more importantly, we have business models in place that allows the growth of such colleges.

But where are the schools ? The primary schools and secondary schools ... where are they ? And more importantly who will fund them ? It would have been great if the government could -- considering that they now charge an Education Cess but frankly when did you last hear of brand new government school that has come up in your neighbourhood ? This is where the CII can step in with some creative business models.

  • Let us explore different funding models -- the MPLAD scheme ? Tax Free Bonds ? The Education Cess ?
  • Let us explore new technologies -- modern materials ? pre-fabricated buildings ? Wireless broadband
  • Let us explore new pedagogic tools -- distance learning ?
  • Let us explore new management models -- parent-teacher councils ? an All India cadre for teachers like the IAS or IFS ?

Let us put all these on the table, throw out all holy cows and shibboleths of the past and craft a new vision of education that has ONE single goal -- to create ONE NEW school in every district of the country, every year for the next five years.

The National Highway Authority of India is a good model for a central agency that funds and monitors the construction and operation of highways by quasi-autonomous commercial entities in the country. It is impossible to argue against the fact that highways in India today, especially the ones along the Golden Quadrilateral, are two generations ahead in quality and quantity, compared to the roads that we had 10 years ago ... and this has happened because the NHAI has been hammering at it in a focussed manner.

Can the CII catalyse the formation of an equivalent National School Authority of India that will in a public-private partnership mode fund and monitor the building and operation of schools in the country ?

The NHAI has a target of <so many> kilometers of highways to be built every year. The parallel NSAI should have the target of delivering 500,000 class room seats every year in the rural districts of the country.

During the Second World War when German U-Boats were sinking Allied shipping at an alarming pace, business men and engineers came out with the plan of building the Liberty Ships, in a manner similar to the process of making cars on an assembly line. Perhaps we should think big, as big as that, when we plan for these schools ... which are as important to us in India as the ships were to the Allied Forces.

I have talked of two specific ideas .. one is short term idea of having an Entrepreneurship Talent Search process and a long term idea of high volume 'manufacture' of primary schools. If I go on speaking I can come out with some more ideas ... but the trouble with many of us in India is that we talk too much and deliver too little.

I am sure that there are and would be many more ideas but let us get some consensus around these to begin with. If a significant number of us agree with these ideas we need to get down to the nuts and bolts of implementing the same. Unlike individuals from the political community who revel in announcing new schemes and laying foundation stones, we in the corporate community, who have in the past executed projects in time, within budget and to the satisfaction of our customer ... must get our act together to see how we can deliver.

I call upon the CII to anchor the process of evaluating these schemes in greater detail and see how they can be transferred from speeches heard in Taj Bengal to real business cases and then finally execute them for the good of the country.

The theme of this conference is Enabling Excellence. I believe that with these two steps, one short term Entrepreneurial Talent Search and the other long term plan for a National School Authority of India ... CII can accelerate India's growth to the stars.

I have always believed that when Resources are Limited, Creativity is Unlimited. As Mr Friedman says, when a country has a lot of valuable resources like oil, its creativity gets blunted. Let us leverage this shortage and instead of drilling for oil, let us dig for oil and then transform our educational system into an assembly line.

Jai Hind.

Speech Delivered at the CII Eastern Region Conferance on Talent Management and HR at Calcutta on 28th Feb 2007

1 comment:

Abhishek said...

This touches upon the core of some the problems we have in India today. Both the suggestions are really great, especially the one where you are suggesting we have a central nodal agency to setup schools across India. But is anyone listening??!!