December 15, 2011: Prabir Jha, Senior vice-president, Human Resources, Tata Motors
Speaks on the various HR initiatives that aim to bring about a company-wide transformation
What would you describe as your most important challenge in human resources?
Clearly, the biggest challenge we face is talent leadership. At the end of the day, a company is all about people, their ideas, skills and their ability to envision their own roles within an organisation. Even as the global environment changes, in many senses, the auto sector is of the people and about people. Automotive jobs are more exciting today than ever before as the industry globalises. There are opportunities for people to grow in their careers, not only in India but overseas. Global companies are now in India and so there are opportunities to work overseas. There will be a war for talent, and the real issue will be of leadership, looking at how business changes, the future of organisation design and the emerging skill-sets of the future. The entire challenge at the core is talent and leadership and whatever functions, soft or otherwise that support this, have to play a key role. Today, the real challenge, to put things succinctly, is to get a bunch of leaders who are the best.
One always talks about de-risking business but can we also de-risk the issue of talent shortage?
We live in a world where there is going to be a demand-and-supply issue for talent. The automotive segment will go through the same talent crunch as others. As India becomes a major manufacturing hub, we will also have our problems. Not everyone is going to be working in auto. Young people now have choice. You can be in IT, in management and traditionally, the automotive sector has not been the sexiest of businesses. However, there is now a real buzz and excitement about the sector and it will be interesting for youngsters. The people we want are not available at all levels, right down to the shopfloor. Today, one doesn’t get electricians, for example, the government infrastructure is inadequate. It is a larger issue of industry, academia and the government collaborating.
Is the government doing its bit?
It has begun to but having said that, there’s a lot more that can be done. It is important for the government to appreciate the emerging possibilities in the interests of the organisation and industry itself. For academia, we must upgrade the quality of teaching faculty because if that input is poor, then we get people who have degrees and qualifications but who cannot deliver the goods. That is the gap between employability and certification. Undoubtedly, it is a complex issue and will take time to sort itself out but the way I look at it, whatever the requirements, there will be a gap between what we need and what is available.
At Tata Motors, what’s your strategy to handle this?
We do not have a challenge getting people from the bigger, more prestigious institutions. We are a Fortune 350 company and have a reputation in the marketplace. But we have issues at the junior-most level. We are supporting a lot of ITIs which becomes a catchment for us. We are active in supporting and upgrading ITIs. This we do in terms of providing equipment for students to learn on the job, to enable them to practice their skills.Historically, we at Tata Motors have run very promising apprentice programmes and many of these are in our new facilities at Pantnagar and Sanand. We have taken people and have invested in on-the job training which are multi-year programmes with the idea that this could be a possible catchment area when we need permanent staff.
What problems do you have at the middle level?
Given the aspirations, we do have to strengthen our retention but we are not alarmed. We are still in single digits as far as attrition goes, as a company. It is important to their aspirations; many want to pursue higher education. Bright engineers want to go for higher education or leave engineering for management. This is not unique to the automotive sector. In a career, the first five years are important because that is where the young mind is distracted and he has to decide whether this is the sector for him.So as a company, we should ensure that the first five years are a great experience. So if the guy stabilises, then chances are he will continue to be with the sector.As an organisation, that is what Tata Motors is trying to do. We’d like to make the first five years so enriching for the youngster that he stays within the sector, and our company. We have to realise that youngsters today live in a world of opportunity and choices and we have to get our rightful share in the sun. We want to make Tata Motors a very aspirational place for a young man or woman. That is the essence of our people-thinking.
How has globalisation – acquiring JLR and Hispano – helped evolve Tata Motors’ HR policy?
I handle all global human resources, except for JLR. We are at the moment exchanging notes and looking at possible synergies. Some months ago, we got the HR heads of all subsidiaries together and we are trying to think as one. At Tata Motors, we have a Human Capital strategy that we articulated last year.In it, we aim to address the near-term expectations of our people and over the long term, build a great organisation and the two together support a sustained customer experience. The Human Capital strategy has seven to eight key levers but the centrepiece is talent and leadership. We are a company with a lot of pride and achievement but we do have some legacy aspects which we want to re-visit. Overall, we bundle these levers under organisational renewal. One key lever is performance enablers which includes compensation philosophy and greater IT-enablement of our HR processes.We cannot play global scale unless all the employee experience is real time. It is one of the building blocks of our HR strategy.We hope to put all this under something that reflects a culture that is agile, respectful, supportive of integrity, sensitive and very customer facing.This is a very exciting times for us as over the next four years, we have 4,000 employees retiring. The average age of a Tata employee is now about 40 and in five years, that could fall to 30. That would call for huge changes in the company’s people practices and policies which is an area of re-design at present. What worked for us 10 years ago may have outlived its utility. As the company gets more global, we have to ask how best we can support the new Human Capital.
With your global acquisitions, is there any practice or policy that you may have picked up or adapted?
What I believe we have done well is that when we acquire a company, Tata Motors does not move in as a triumphant hero, supplanting that company’s leadership and management. We have gone in with a lot of respect for the companies that we have bought. Our approach is soft, so that we can slowly align all companies as we globally integrate. Titles and work-levels are different across our companies but going forward, we want to make work levels more synchronous.It is imperative for any global company to align people into one common organisation. Directionally, that will help us simplify things, reduce complexity and enable a much more free flow of talent. At the moment, we are not upsetting the existing set-ups in our acquired companies but in our new companies, our priority is to align our organisational set-ups in places as South Africa, Thailand and Indonesia. We want to make the company seamless.
What strikes you when people of different backgrounds come together?
When people look at any country, the first things that become apparent are the stereotypes. In India, people don’t typically say no, mannerisms, choice of words, emails are different. People tend to jump in, into tele-conversations assuming they’d be left out which can be mis-read by someone from another culture.When we had the three-day global HR meet, we wanted that people within the team learnt to bond within and that’s the starting point for all that we want to do with people. We can then hand-hold the rest of the organisation to learn to work each other. The appreciation of cultural differences is important in even small things such as sheer body language, tone, the way emails are written, the response time to email … when you say you will turn it around by tomorrow morning, is it really tomorrow or three days later?As we grow global, both sides must appreciate each other. We are trying to build a top-class team and have added a person, a lady in our learning business, totally dedicated to our international business. We wanted to build capabilities in the team to respond to aspirations of the company and also to handle our growth plans. We have a Chief Learning Officer who is tasked with calibrating our skill gaps across the organisation as we look into the future, and to ensure that we focus on the really significant emergent skill needs of the future.We also wish to build leadership and managerial bandwith. At Tata Motors, we have always focused on giving our people the best training but we have got to build scale and get more targeted. And we have to add the nuance of supporting a global culture as well.
Has it been easy?
We have just about started the exercise. But HR is never instant coffee. We at Tata Motors are clear and conscious about what we want to do. If we do it right, then we add to our competitive advantage but it has to be done in a deliberate and sustained way because it is not a month-on-month or quarter-on-quarter change. We have to build a generation of new talents and leaders who are able to leverage the opportunities of the sector head-on and that’s what the Chief Learning Officer will handle.
Any initiative at Tata Motors that can be replicated on other companies, sectors?
We have at Tata Motors what is called the fast-track selection scheme. This is done every year and we are trying to make it more stringent, more broad-based. We are also looking into offering it to our subsidiaries outside India. In this scheme, persons are put through a multi-tiered selection process and about 800 people take the process. At the end, 14-15 candidates make the final cut. This select group can then get bumped up 10-12 years in seniority. This has enabled us to spot talent and then hand-hold them through the process. This fast-track selection scheme is agnostic of your qualifications or the institution that you come from. I believe this gives the person a greater sense of self-esteem and self-worth and self-belief. This has worked for us because many of the senior people we have, have been through this process at some stage in their career.We want to review and upgrade the essentials of the test and want to offer it across companies so that we can move people across geographies. We believe that the more we take risks with younger talent, it will work for us. Today, Tata Motors is a $27 billion company and a person in HR has to ask whether what we do is relevant or not. If something does not make sense, we should jettison it, change the tyres. We have to be in line with the realities of today and more tomorrow and that is what the exciting journey that human capital agenda is trying to address at Tata Motors.
What are the three challenges that an HR person will face in the 21st century?
The challenges are, by and large, the same everywhere. The first and biggest is talent and leadership. Companies need differentiated talents and, even more importantly, leaderships. We need wholesome leaders. They are not looking for lifetime employment in one organisation. Today’s youngsters won’t work with a boss who is not inspirational; we need leaders who can be coaches. It is not longer command-and-control leadership.The second challenge is employee engagement. Today, today’s generation is exposed to the best of the world and does not want to live with anything else. They want exciting roles and providing that is a challenge for today’s HR. Every company wants to put younger people in the positions of responsibility. We need a healthy balance between young (who may be more talented than the more experienced) and older. Employee engagement is going to be all about customising experience for the people we employ. The older guys have wisdom which must be tapped. The third challenge is to develop a global culture and mindset. Not everyone is comfortable with change but business models change, work takes place across many time zones and demographics change worldwide. The workforce in Europe, for example, is aging and if talent from here moves there, that’s a challenge for us in India to grapple with.All the rest – reward and recognition systems and others – is about enabling these three business imperatives.
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