Going Beyond Agility with Antifragility: Practice Beyond the Rhetoric! 0

Amit Das

 

Amit Das, Director - HR & CHRO, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. (Times Group) in conversation with All Things Talent shares the disruptions observed amid COVID-19 pandemic and how talent leaders can turn this crisis into opportunity by making agility an organisational necessity. He also talks about the need to leverage the technology ecosystem, redesign the recruitment funnel, and overhaul the organisational talent acquisition practices to create a future-ready workforce.

JOURNEY

With your versatile and rich experience of almost 3 decades across different industries in Human Resource, how eventful has your journey been like? How did your career transition with the changing landscape of HR in these 20-30 years?

When I reflect back, it feels like yesterday as I walked into my first job, excited and apprehensive at the same time. As an individual, I strongly believe that it is essential to know your “Sense of Purpose”, which can always help someone navigate the uncharted terrain like a North star. It helps you find and do things that add meaning to your life.

Over the last 3 decades, I have been following this belief, and I strongly believe that it must have helped me and also people around me in the professional world & beyond that as well. Let me explain this with an example. Imagine you are driving on the highway. Now this road that you are travelling represents your Mission. But what is also important is to ask yourself:

  1. Why are you on this journey?
  2. How are you going to reach your destination? 

Now if you use this analogy in your personal or professional space, you will find your answers. The “Why” answers your Purpose, the “How” which might be the Map that is giving you direction are your guiding Values, and the different milestones that you achieve on your way to your Mission are your Accomplishments.

Now let me explain this in the context of our organization. Times Group is India’s largest media conglomerate, but we have a core DNA of a 185 years old startup. Our endeavour as HR professionals has always been to align the heart & minds of our employees with the overarching purpose of the organization. With multi-generational workforce, the challenge has always been to ensure alignment of the varying “needs and priorities” of our multi-generational workforce with the overall purpose of the organization and also ensuring their behaviours & actions to achieve the successful deliverables are aligned with our DNA or core values which are extremely close to our heart. Alignment & synchronization of the organization and individual purpose has fostered trust & credibility for us as an employer, where employees always displayed their discretionary effort to walk that extra mile beyond their call of duty.

For example, when we recently had interns joining from various premier business school campuses, our primary focus was to honour the organization’s commitment on the offers rolled out and stick to their joining date, despite all the business disruptions due to COVID-19 pandemic, apart from providing them with a meaningful learning stint through a virtual model. Having done that, the next focus was to curate a unique “Virtual Internship Program”, which acclimatize them with the company culture, values and purpose. As a result, these interns today have become our advocates, who will definitely help share the compelling value propositions of our Employer Brand to thousands of their contacts & associates.

So when I reflect back, the HR journey has been from being a Business Support to a Business Partner, which transitioned into a Business enabler, and then to a Business Value Creator, in order to gradually move up the enterprise value chain. This not only provides me with a great sense of fulfilment of my own purpose, but my role as an HR leader has also provided me with an opportunity to align and fulfil the purpose of numerous human beings with the overarching purpose of different organizations, across business sectors, that I have served in the last 3 decades of my professional journey.

AGILE HR

Never before has the nature of work and workplace changed so quickly and continuously, and HR is in the middle of it all. In your opinion, how can HR leverage the power of agile practices in dealing with crises?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote the book ‘Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder’, where he has provided many valuable insights that are more relevant in today’s unusual times. “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and uncertainty. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

Amit Das 3Being Agile is no longer an option, but an organizational necessity. Agility is all about proactive responsiveness by being flexible, nimble, resilient, able to adapt and change for the better in an innovative way. The journey as a CHRO is full of unprecedented demands, resilience, and adaptability in real-time while being at the centre of pertinent discussions ranging from business continuity, safety & well-being, total rewards, and engagement.

The imperatives to build an Agile organization involve creating a shared vision, seamless communication, sensing the environment, aligned collaborative team, ownership & accountability, encouraging experimentation, celebrating success and also failures that provide insights, rapid decision making, and consistent fast execution.

“So when I reflect back, the HR journey has been from being a Business Support to a Business Partner, which transitioned into a Business enabler, and then to a Business Value Creator, in order to gradually move up the enterprise… Click To Tweet

We adopted a three-pronged approach to ensure business continuity, employee well-being and boost employee morale in this period of crisis:

Also Read:  Agile Recruitment - The Renaissance of Human Resources

Tool-Set: Ensure work continuity by providing requisite support, infrastructure and resources for employees to be productive, especially as they adapt to the “new ways of remote working”. IT infra enablement, virtual working, VPN, informative sessions on remote working were all part of the plan.

Skill-Set: Assure every individual, build trust and communicate that we are all in it together. We focused on creating a virtual learning & engagement ecosystem where one could learn, engage, be aware and be appreciated. Hence, LEAP (Learn, Engage, Aware, Praise) was launched with defined objectives – cross-functional collaboration, seamless communication, empower and engage employees beyond the workplace and more importantly, deliver a positive employee experience. We achieved this and more, as virtual learning and engagement sessions were segmented, designed and implemented. Efforts were made to engage the employees by encouraging them to share their “work from home” experiences.

Mindset: We consciously decided to focus on the well-being of every individual and various interventions to drive the wellness quotient. Health and fitness initiatives were initiated involving the employee and family on yogic practices, sessions on functional therapy, addressing and enhancing emotional quotient by engaging through quizzes, games, trivia, and challenges on multiple online platforms. Every crisis presents an opportunity. Increased connect, collaboration and engagement were some of the outcomes; however, 60% of the workforce and their families participating in one or more intervention was a highlight for us. An Employee handbook was released across the organization to reorient employees with the new normal and provide guidelines on the new work arrangement which ensures safety for self and others, as well as collaborative workforce practices.

I strongly believe that the ultimate measure of an individual is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and adversity. The question to be asked by organizations that hope to build Antifragility must be:

What can we do now which will make our employees remember us in the future? Employees will never forget the compassion and care demonstrated by us when they needed us the most; even it entails certain difficult measures undertaken in our journey. That’s the sure-shot way to increase the Antifragility quotient & vaccinate the organization for any potential black swan event in the future.

Can you tell us how agile principles help HR improve recruitment, increase business focus, efficiency and effectiveness?

A Cheetah, the fastest land animal depends on more than just speed to catch its prey, since it also needs to slam on the brakes and turn quickly, while on the move. That’s agility! Now apply this learning in the case of an organization and especially while recruiting the right talent. An organization needs to interact, evaluate, and move quickly when the decision is about hiring the “right talent” within the right time, at the right cost.

We all know that in the last decade, our work, workforce and workplace have evolved and become more digital, global and technology savvy. At the same time, the business needs, turn-around time have evolved at a faster pace. This essentially means creating platforms, processes, and tools that will be efficient and provide significant value to the stakeholder and the organization. In today’s scenario, as jobs and skills change, finding and recruiting the right people has become more critical than ever.

In this ‘War for Talent’, new technology-enabled talent aggregator platforms for getting a diverse workforce can help us get a competitive edge by breaking the chalice of traditional resourcing channels. Data-driven HR has started leveraging machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) to demonstrate significant improvement in the quality and speed of talent acquisition through the use of remote video interviewing modes and chatbot interviewers for screening to list a few. Social Recruiting involves the engagement of talent on easily accessible portals on the go, automation and gamification. These trends along with the use of predictive analytics and other tools like NLP and ML for analysing contextually relevant information from both structured and unstructured data, online skills testing has laid the foundation for objective talent screening.

HR needs to reimagine, re-engineer and re-define talent and overhaul the organizational talent acquisition practices supported by the right technologies to ensure the impact on both business efficiency and effectiveness.

Lastly, do you think leadership qualities can be developed by cultivating ‘learning agility’? How does learning agility as a skill/competency play a role while making hiring decisions in an organization?

Let me explain this with an example. Jim Kwik has been recognized as one of the foremost experts in speed-reading, memory improvement, brain performance, and accelerated learning and more importantly, is a sought-after trainer for global organizations. But you would be surprised to know that due to an accident in his childhood, he had difficulty remembering and learning and hence was known as “the boy with the broken brain.” During one of the “aha moments” in his life, he realized that he was taught but not taught “how to learn” which eventually became his “Purpose”. Today, he helps individuals understand how the human brain works, strategies one can enable to utilize potential and more importantly, become a leader by discovering true genius. So yes, leadership qualities can be developed by cultivating learning agility.

In response to your second pertinent question, you would agree that in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, ‘Learning Agility’ is an essential aspect of an individual’s personality as there are constant changes and complexities in our ecosystem. It encapsulates an individual’s ability and passion for quickly studying the new problem and using their learning process to gain deep understanding before deciding. In unpredictable business environments, especially what we are facing currently, adaptation and evolution at a faster pace are required, the organizations increasingly scout for talent with a high degree of learning agility to successfully navigate and succeed in the complex and unpredictable business ecosystem with endless possibilities.

Also Read:  How To Identify A ‘Talker’ From A ‘Doer’ When Hiring?

TALENT ACQUISITION

The effects of COVID-19 are kicking in, and recruitment is not the same as before. How do you view the current talent acquisition landscape? In your opinion, how will COVID-19 impact recruitment funnel? 

We are going through unprecedented times which have prompted organizations to change their strategies in their ways of working and talent acquisition is no exception. Virtual recruitment is now going to be the “new reality” which would require a mindset change, both from an interviewer and interviewee perspective. With an increased focus on hiring the right talent to adapt to today’s current scenario and ensure business continuity, one will also witness challenges in the virtual world. From an increased emphasis on active listening and remaining completely present in the interview to not being able to read the other person’s body language, to building trust towards a virtual organization, are some of the aspects that would need attention.

Today talent is being redefined as any capability which creates economic value for the organization. So talent is not physically restricted to any space and time. Hence, the recruitment funnel needs to be redesigned to have a much wider scope across the talent continuum, from direct to indirect resources, whether they are full time, part-time, project-based, or distributed talent. We need to constantly leverage the technology ecosystem & interconnectedness to strengthen the recruitment funnel to create a future-ready networked organization across this redefined and wider continuum of talent.

Having said that, the talent market is exceptionally dynamic. As a 185 years old organization, with a strong legacy and mind of a start-up, we will continue to invest in people and technology to ensure that we build resilience and further strengthen our employer brand. Recruitment funnel will adapt as per the needs of the organization and the opportunities created in the business to enable strategic changes to business models and culture.

HR STRATEGY

Given that it will not be business as usual for quite some time, the agility of organizations will be tested in how they keep their remote employees engaged and productive. How important is it at Bennett Coleman to help people stay focused and mentally healthy in the face of such significant change? How do you ensure it?

As a safe, ethical and caring organization, we strongly believe in the physical and emotional well-being of our employees not just at the workplace but beyond as well.  As mentioned earlier, even before the current crisis hit us, we had proactively initiated the employee connect & awareness primarily focussing on their health & safety, built trust and consistently communicated that we are all in the game together. We created a virtual learning & engagement ecosystem, where one could learn, engage, be aware and be appreciated by launching LEAP (Learn, Engage, Aware, Praise) intervention with defined objectives – cross-functional collaboration, seamless communication, empower and engage employees beyond the workplace and more importantly, deliver a positive employee experience.

The higher degree of adoption of technology-enabled social enterprise tools will continue to drive a collaborative workplace culture for a more connected and engaged workforce. The momentum and culture being established by this new learning and engagement architecture during this period of remote work arrangement will definitely be the fundamental plinth of our future learning and engagement interventions, once we adopt the new normal of hybrid work arrangement in near future.

“Data-driven HR has started leveraging machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) to demonstrate significant improvement in the quality and speed of talent acquisition through the use of remote video interviewing… Click To Tweet

With industry leaders, managers, employers and employees eager to get back to normal, what are some major lessons that you think will come out of this crisis and how do we make sure that we learn from this experience?

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every part of our lives with everyone’s experience being unique in their own ways. This has been an acid test for organization leadership across global corporations. All the aspects of our work, workplace and workforce have been impacted in one way or the other. I strongly believe that this crisis has helped us rediscover our agility which will emerge as our unique strength for any such black swan event in future and it’s encouraging to see how everyone adapted to the new normal and worked seamlessly despite all the challenges with effective and efficient use of technology platforms.

Empathy, gratitude, collaboration and shared success – are some of the key learnings which everyone will agree to. But I also believe that this crisis has taught us the need to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about how we can change, what we can change, and what we can adapt in our lives.

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke represents danger while the other represents opportunity. I would say, in a crisis, be mindful of the threat but don’t miss the opportunity.

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Amit Das is the Director - HR & CHRO, Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd. (Times Group). He is a seasoned and purpose-driven professional with over 30 years of experience of working in senior leadership roles at various professionally managed large MNCs & reputed Indian organizations across diverse business sectors, namely, Tata Motors, CESC Ltd, ITW Signode, Britannia Industries Ltd, Taj group of hotels, Vodafone, RPG Group, and Reliance Group. He has effectively built and led large HR teams, managing the overall responsibility of HR function in the context of integration of HR with business strategies to facilitate the simultaneous growth of Human and Business capital, globally. Recognized and rewarded for professional contributions by several organizations and management associations across the globe, Amit is one of the most prominent and respected global HR leaders across industries and sectors. He is part of the Advisory Board and is a Governing Council Member in several reputed corporate and educational institutions across the country. An alumnus of Kellogg’s School of Management, Chicago, he is a regular speaker at reputed HR forums, colleges, and management institutes.

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