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Why Talent should be Calibrated and not just Managed


-Madhu Karunakaran

Talent and talent-related challenges keep changing along with the changing business opportunities. When managing projects, the right talent is of utmost importance; especially when people across geographies, cultures are part of the larger project team.

Every decade, the talent landscape makes a tectonic shift and poses a new set of challenges for the business. Organizations have been effective in tackling these challenges and with every such experience, we grew wiser and more mature. Each and every time there had been a problem, the solution has been made available through an insightful change in perspective while approaching the challenge.

The Asian crises in the late 1990s had a global effect on multi country projects. The South East Asian region - the nerve centre of the crises, was on a growth phase with several multi nationals running projects in manufacturing and financial services. The impact on employment scuttled high profile projects and on the flip side several new theories emerged in Human Resource management.

A classic example for our easy reference can be from Yuhan-Kimberly's Respect to the Human Dignity paradigm*.

The Asian crisis of the late 1990s (approx. 1997-99) led many corporations to restructure their workforce which resulted in large layoffs. This would have never been an easy decision and at the same time, there was an uneasiness between the workforce and the management. While most companies went with the common known decision, Yuhan-Kimberly (henceforth will be attributed as Y-K), paused before diving into action. Mr. Kook-Hyun Moon, the former CEO and president of Y-K was an empathetic leader and he approached the problem from a different perspective. Y-K had brought down the production by 50% and the redundant employees due to this halt production were close to 40% of its workforce. Instead of layoff, Mr. Moon suggested job-sharing system, a system that was referred as “four crew/two shift system”.

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Under the system, a team works the dayshift for four days and another team works the night shift for the same four days. After four days, another two teams took over the shifts and the previous teams have four days off (3 days of rest and 1 day of paid training). This brought down the individual productive hours and the individual wages were down by ~ 10%. This was perceived as a better option than laying off 40% of its workforce.

The positive side of this practice was:

• Upskilling /cross skilling the workforce by mandated training hours

• Adequate rest for the workforce to start afresh without any fatigue

• Saved time and effort to hire new workforce and train them when things were back to normal

This would have caused initial confusion in consent from employees and allotment of batches but they persevered through it and when the tide was back, it was easy for Y-K as it had saved itself from rehiring 40% of the new workforce and training them to the task. They already had a workforce better equipped in terms of skills to handle the job, and in no time their revenue jumped from US $332 million in 1996 to US $704 million in 2003.

Hewitt Associates and The Wall Street Journal Asia ranked Y-K among top 10 companies on their list “Best Employers in Asia”. The management changed its perspective and calibrated the workforce and worked on their skill level and it reaped benefits in terms of revenue, capability and productivity.

This case might push one to adopt this idea in a company with a known scenario one is aware of. This situation need not be a prescription to our present-day problem but a valuable lesson for now and times ahead – Change the perspective of approaching the problem.

The important question I put forth to all of us here is that, are we calibrating our talent and supporting them with adequate tools and techniques? Calibration here relates to segregation of skill based on competency and then supplementing all levels of skill to perform to the optimum. This calibration requires intuitive planning and measured interventions. This intuitive planning can be done only by the in-house consultants. For a typical project, what kind of skills are needed? A calibration here will surely help get the right people. Also shuffling people across projects will be easier using this approach.

Talent calibration is not just training or upskilling/cross skilling initiative. It calls for intricate administration of employee capability optimization. This calibration is not an off-shelf plan and it requires customization of initiatives to the organization skill and cultural demand. Each level of workforce requires separate and relevant sets of supplementing tools and techniques.

The tools and techniques can be:

1. Skill imparting / development

2. Talent optimization through Training & Development

3. Talent honing through Coaching & Mentoring

4. Expertise leveraging – Consultation (SMEs)

It requires skill assessment at skill levels. It requires study and administration of corrective actions (support) wherever necessary. This is a continuous pursuit which calls for different data slices at different parts of time. This requires precise data capture and analysis.

Calibration of talent can happen if we are ready to embrace the reality. This requires survey/study of the Skill landscape and perception of the workforce in terms of business, business challenges and project / program requirements. This has to be owned and driven internally. Human Resources function, being the custodian of Talent of the organization, should brace up this arduous ongoing effort.

The HR shouldn't stop at being hiring shops for talent. They need to run skill workshops to calibrate and optimize the talent engine of the organization. In a projectised organization, the talent/skill matrix will be quite complex and varied. With HR participating, a program view will give the correct insight for the right talent in the portfolio of projects.

Madhu program manages Managerial & Leadership effectiveness initiatives, along with running the HR function for the Bangalore office of Temenos.

*(Quoted from Book, Management Cases by Peter F Drucker).

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