Article (December-2018)


IR cannot be divested from mainstream HR

Dr. Aquil Busrai

Designation : -   CEO

Organization : -   Aquil Busrai Consulting, Gurgaon


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Do you think that HRD function in organisations, conceived four decades ago in India, has evolved in the right direction. If not, what are the gaps?
AB Human Resource function in India, across all industries, has been one of the most visibly evolved functions over past four decades. HR has responded well to the changing needs of the industry as well as changing processes within the HR function itself.
Chartered to handle only welfare and statutory compliance in the 1960s, HR function seamlessly evolved to becoming specialist in handling Industrial Relations in 1970s and started playing the role of Change Agent in 1980s after which it moved to a more defined role of being a business partner.
The evolution, however, was a reactive one - driven more by forces outside of HR rather than a proactive move by HR itself. This was a significant facet because the HR function started moulding itself into what was asked of it by the business. Very seldom it played a role of a catalyst initiating changes based on its own expertise. In many instances, this took away the thought leadership away from HR. Consequently HR was reduced to merely implementing actions rather than shaping the direction.
This was further compounded with the advent of organizations in IT and ITES sector - most of which were part of a global organizations with set global HR practices. HR in these Indian arms of organization was presented with fait accompli and expected to implement the global processes and that too in a well laid out standard method. Very little room was thus left for HR in India to customize the process to sync with Indian situation. It is pertinent to note here that the evolution of HR processes thus happened more rapidly in IT related industry in contrast to manufacturing and medium sized organization.
Also a new phenomenon silently crept in the India HR scenario, during past two decades - that of recognizing organizations for their best HR practices. Several institutions spawned up magically giving out awards of one kind or the other to all and sundry organizations that simply participated in their benchmark study. It would be unfair and harsh to say that the organizations winning these awards did not deserve the recognition. But the downside of it was very evident - other organizations simply started mimicking some of these so called benchmark practices without ensuring their suitability to the requirement and culture of the organization.
Until two decades ago, HR was taken up as a generalist function but now it has become more of a specialist function. Will it be good for the organisation as well as professionals to become as specialist of one branch only in future?
AB Couple of decades ago, the term 'generalist function' also had a veiled reference to the HR being a more common sense driven than a function requiring specialized knowledge. This was an unfair label tagged to a function that had the charter to manage one of the most crucial resources in any organization - manpower. Unfortunately, some HR professionals themselves started growing more comfortable with being perceived as a mere 'support' function, thus carrying out activities that had been agreed by a consensus in management leadership meetings - a pure case of general knowledge driving a subject specialist function. It was therefore, not any surprise that the credibility of HR as a profession suffered a severe setback.
It was also around this time, that business leaders started seeking answers to specific people related matters rather than a generic support. Specialization within HR, which was always there but crouched under a larger umbrella of General HR, started to sprout and few activities like Compensation, Recruitment and Learning started taking an independent shape. Advent of specialization brought to surface a somewhat segmentation of HR function. HR professionals started thinking and behaving in silos often missing the bigger picture. They were measured and rewarded on their specialized contribution and that added further alienation within the HR function itself.
By itself, specialized knowledge in any function is highly desirable. So there is nothing of concern when functional expertise arises within HR. However, it is critical that the individual functionaries are linked neatly together to provide a holistic people related services.
What could be the advantages and disadvantages of such trend?
AB On positive side, high level of specialization is desirable in any function. It brings depth of knowledge and focused attention on the subject. It also brings best industry practices to the organization because the specialists are well networked. Specialized sections also provide great opportunity for rotation within HR and thus increase career attractiveness.
On the negative side, however, emergence of silos can disintegrate a department. If the specialized functions are not knit together in a cohesive manner it may lead to lopsided priority. It is here that the CHRO plays the crucial role of 'Sutra Dhar' or a consolidator and an aggregator. If this role is played effectively, then the sum total of contribution from an HR function can be highly meaningful and relevant to the business.
One of the significant impacts of this specialized trend was on the choices young HR professionals exercised while opting for career within HR. There was an enamored attraction to work on areas that seemingly were more esoteric rather than mundane. Young trainees expressed desire to work on Competencies, Career Planning and Organizational Development type of roles as they considered these more glamorous.
The biggest casualty of this trend was on careers in Industrial Relations. IR was considered as "low-end" HR job and certainly not as glamorous as OD. Consequently, Industrial Relations function was relegated to lowest choice amongst young HR professionals. Specialization within HR had taken its first toll - and a prized one at that. Quality of professionals joining IR function declined and a vicious cycle got into motion whereby IR function ceased to attract good quality talent. Indirectly the new generation HR practitioners missed out an important piece of experience, vital to become a successful HR professional in the long run.
It is generally said that element of human is no more left in HR function and it is reduced to resources only? Is it correct? What are the dangers of such mindset?
AB I feel such comments are highly generalized and do not reflect the reality of the contribution, HR makes to the business. Most HR professionals are genuinely concerned about people issues and feel a sense of pride and obligation to represent the people agenda.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that focus on people issues has largely shifted to the hands of line managers. Here lies an inherent conflict of interest. Line managers are concerned and focused on managing cost of the operation. And rightly so, because they are measured and rewarded on the criteria of return on investment. HR Function gradually became an arm for implementing many people related decisions - taken not necessarily from human relations angle.
In this era of technology advancement, How HR professionals can keep them strongly connected with people without sacrificing the potential and advantages of technology in HRD function?
AB One of the foundations of HR function is its connectivity with the rank and file employees. HR was called upon to share the pulse of the people and gauge employee morale because it was believed that they were connected well with employees.   
With the advent of technology some of the avenues to this connect with the employees began to fade away. Introduction of Chat Bots and Interactive Web did away with the need of employees to meet HR face to face in most organizations. 
The opportunities to connect with employees thus reduced significantly for the HR community. This was easily and universally justified by claiming that reduction of 'routine work' freed HR function to spend more time with business and partner with them more intensely. To some extent this was true. However, many missed calculating the opportunity-lost cost of less frequent interaction between HR and employees. Some may call this line of thinking as obsolete in today's times but it is important to pause and recognize the inherent value that such interactions provided.
It is, therefore, not a surprise that some reputable organizations have had to retract some people - related decisions because they had not judged employees' sentiments accurately. The accountability for such a fiasco lies squarely with the HR function. It is their charter to keep an eye on the employee feelings and sentiments and if they ever feel that technology has stepped in to replace some of the activities which provided HR that connectivity, then such HR professionals are deviating dangerously away from what should be their stock-in-trade that of gauging employee morale, mood and sentiments. It would be naive to ignore the effect of technology being deployed or likely to be used in managing people issues. HR will necessarily need to leverage technology and move with the time. But in doing so it cannot abrogate its responsibility as champion of employees' welfare and well-being. Nor can it sidestep its role to remain connected with employees on a continual basis.
Do you also agree that HR function is going to extinct in near future? If so, What HR professionals should do to keep them relevant in business world?
AB It is quite fashionable to be a doomsayer and predict the demise of HR just because the HR function is going through a metamorphosis due to heavy advent of technology. I would not give credence to any such prediction even if one of the most respected journals from Boston took a creditable swipe to give this argument a tinge of legitimacy.  Why would HR function become obsolete? It will continue to be considered of high importance, as long as it is adding value to business and decision pertaining to business. HR professionals will increasingly need to emerge out of their specialty cocoon and explore the real world of organization's business; its changing market scenario and also the manner in which competitors are playing in the same field. For doing this, HR will need to understand real business issues and empathize with line mangers to actually comprehend what makes business leaders lose their sleep. HR will thus understand the nuances that impact organization's business and this will, hopefully, prompt them to find solutions through people interventions. This a simple act of HR integrating itself with the business and adding value.
Do you think that industrial relations function is separate from HRD and they are not intertwined? How both functions can supplement each other for employees' holistic development?
AB I have already expressed my views on perils of creating non-porous silos with in HR. While some activities will necessarily be performed by subject matter - specialists, it is important to link all such activities in a cohesive manner so to present one face to the business.
Industrial Relation is certainly a specialist function but it cannot be divested from mainstream HR activities and be made to become a stand-alone function. It has to be an integral part of holistic offering that the HR function provides to the business.
There is a misconception that Industrial Relation applies only to blue-collared workforce. I am a firm believer that unionization of white collar workforce is inevitable. I have advocated this view since mid 2000 and have been often accused of being 'sensational' for the sake of it. I, however, feel that with the advent of social media, an organized and concerted white-collar workforce is going to be a major challenge for the HR function. We are already noticing some activities, though sporadic at times, of white-collar unionization and this, in my opinion, will gain momentum in times to come. Manifestation of such organized workforce will be very different though, than what we have noticed in past few decades. No more slogan shouting, picketing at gates and street - corner meetings - all these will be replaced by digital platform to exchange views, gather information and pass on instructions. Negotiations will be more fact-based rather than mere muscle power as has been the trend. Employees will not merely demand more pay rise and benefits but career growth, knowledge up-gradation and fair play.
In light of this - HR's holistic approach to employee development will be an indispensible way out. Thus, ruling out segregation of Industrial Relations as a stand-alone specialized function.