Recent Trends in Human Resource Management

Monday, February 18, 2008

India's secret resource: Managerial skills

ONE of the best-kept secrets of India’s outstanding success in the IT area is the vital role of its management skills. Much has been written about the extraordinary technology talent of our human resource base, as also its magnitude. In fact, while we in India are acutely aware of the serious shortcomings in our education system, most people abroad are overawed by its sheer size and the growing reputation of institutions like the IITs. India’s globally pre-eminent position in IT off-shoring is generally attributed to the capabilities and motivation of its young software professionals, with low costs being only an additional or supplementary factor. Other success stories — from the Space and nuclear programmes to the Tata Nano — are also seen as the result of the country’s technological prowess. Yet, none of these could have been realised without exceptional managerial capability.

The little-publicised Indian Space programme has been phenomenally successful. The record of perfect launches of the work-horse PSLV launcher is the envy of other countries, as are India’s applications-orientated satellites. The design, production, testing and actual launch are all extremely complex tasks, involving dozens of companies, multiple locations, thousands of components and hundreds of technologists from a variety of disciplines. The organising and co-ordination of this is obviously no mean task, especially when it has to be done within specified — and tight — cost and time outlays. To do this within the framework of government rules and procedures requires organisational and management skills of the highest calibre.

The low-cost car from the Tata stable, the Nano, evoked great international interest about its design, materials and manufacturing. Its design and concept have already won much acclaim, even before its formal release. Yet, as much as the design, its success — even prior to hitting the road — is due to excellent management, which pulled together expertise and resources to create the unique automobile.

On a larger scale is the case of the Indian IT software and services industry. It has evolved from being merely cheaper to also being better (with its emphasis on complying with the highest quality standard), and faster in delivery. Each of these stages has had its own managerial challenges. Further, the success of the cheaper-betterquicker mantra has led to very rapid growth; handling such growth has itself required great managerial skills. For example, the IT-BPO industry is expected to recruit about 400,000 people this year, with the bigger companies each adding tens of thousands of employees. The tasks of screening, selection, training and retention/motivation of such a massive number of new recruits is a managerial task of considerable complexity. There is also the challenge of retaining the organisation’s core values and culture, when about a third of the employees are new recruits. Managing a global work force is another facet that, though new, is being well handled.

Over the years, IT services and BPO sectors have evolved, adding more complex and mission-critical tasks. Product development and IP creation has grown, and new segments — like engineering services, remote infrastructure management, animation and gaming — have emerged. The evolution of the industry, in a very short period of time, and integrating a variety of professionals — researchers and creative people, for example — has required dexterous management.

Handling the recession and the back-lash against out-sourcing in the US a few years ago, creating a large-scale BPO sector, converting an economic slowdown in major markets into a growth opportunity for outsourcing: these were possible only because of nimble and resilient management.

India’s mobile telephony sector presents another instance of excellent management. The phenomenal growth of this industry has necessitated high quality management. While the challenges of growth are similar to those confronting the IT sector, a major difference is that the service providers in telecom have to deal directly with tens of millions of customers, and very widely dispersed operations. Simultaneously maintaining good service, growth and profitability, while tariffs are amongst the lowest in the world, is something that could not have been done without first-rate management.

India’s exceptional capabilities in management are, however, not limited to the high-tech or knowledgeeconomy sector. Reliance has provided proof of these skills in the execution of its large refinery and related infrastructure in Jamnagar. By all accounts, the whole project was executed at far lower cost and in much shorter duration than comparable projects anywhere in the world. At the broader level, Indian managers are now winning praise globally and are much in demand in organisations around the world. The IIMs are beginning to be as well-known as the IITs. Yet, such recognition is largely restricted to a few stars: barring a limited cognoscenti, the capability of Indian management is, as stated at the outset, yet a well-kept secret.

Amongst those who have not yet fully recognised the importance and potential of India’s managerial skills is the government. Organisations and programmes continue to be run by bureaucrats (rather than professional managers) and as bureaucratic operations. Where there are exceptions, the results are immediately visible — the Delhi Metro is a good example.

Areas like health, education, rural employment and slum development are hugely under (if not mis-) managed. Critical programmes like rural roads and highways are faltering (in both, the achievement so far is hardly 30% of the year’s target). Despite our rapid economic progress, health indicators continue to be shameful — amongst the worst in the world — and acute shortages of power are endemic. Many of the problems are attributable to poor management. There is an urgent need to find appropriate ways of tapping private-sector managerial talent for public purposes. This may need the creation of special organisation structures with implementation leveraged through financial allocations. Inclusion of this, in some form, in the Union budget would be a good start.

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