Fill it, shut it, forget it: Why the very idea of ‘Management’ is all wrong

“Human Resource Management”

“Talent Management”

“Learning Management”

“Performance Management”

Meet the corner-stone of how people are dealt with in organizations, i.e. management. Even the top business schools around the world are dedicated to this one cause. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I went to one of them. But here’s what I want to say today, without qualms, and from the bottom of my heart:

If we care for how businesses can create value using their human capital, we should scrap every trace of this thing called “management” from organizations, and drown it in the deepest ocean known to man.

Now if that seems a little extreme, bear with me for a while. I hope you will soon see the point.

Take for instance performance management. Every working professional has suffered it. What is the yardstick “successful” performance management system? That it is “standard”. We have all heard the cliché, “don’t measure a fish by its ability to climb a tree”. Yet, we implement this cliché with religious zeal through performance management systems, every year, around the world.

You see, management is nothing but a “set of transactions”. We need to pay employees, so let’s define a philosophy, process and policy, i.e. set of transactions – whether or not they suit the context or employee need. Similarly, we need to hire people, so let’s have a fixed selection process irrespective of the fact that different candidates may need to be assessed differently.

Problem is, our idea of “management” assumes that “one size fits all”.

But if we look around, the employees have changed. People might choose to work with start-ups at 1/4th the salary. A decade or so ago, people focused on career, money and a stable job. Today they are seeking learning and a meaningful experience. Job is just a by-product. There is no way we can create experiences that make sense to each individual with the current idea of management – which prioritizes efficiency and standardization above personalized experiences.

I was in a conversation with a senior leader in one of blue-chip companies. We were talking about the kind of people who are joining start-ups like ours (@Dockabl). He said,

“Sanjeev, I want talent like you have, but we don’t know how to attract them”.

This is someone from a blue-chip company telling the founder of a start-up. No, I don’t feel smug. I feel sad.

Sad because the answer is not all that difficult. And there are companies who are already practicing it. In Asian Paints, when they find an employee not doing well – they don’t simply discard him/her in the bell curve. They ask 3 fundamental questions:

·      Have we put him in the right place?

·      Have we enabled him?

·      Have we created the right experience for him?

The company practices “putting the fish back into the water”, not judging it for climbing a tree.

Another example is that of Sapient. That is one company I have almost never heard any employee crib about their HR. I happened to meet someone from their HR team at a conference and asked her what they were doing differently. The answer was simple. “We are focusing on individual aspirations”, she said.

Now we might ask, how do we enable individual aspirations, without a standardized management system, while dealing with large numbers?

Fair question.

Let me give the example of a Google screen. How does it look? Is it loaded with features? Or, is it plain and simple? It is the latter. Yet, Google offers a world of tools to you. But it does so, without over-whelming you – and it gives you, what you need, by understanding you. So, your Google screen over time, will work differently for you, than it will, for me.

In my interactions with business and HR leaders over years, my sense is that many do realize that the traditional management methods have failed. However, they are still stuck with the inertia of using tools and systems, designed for the erstwhile management style. While the philosophy has changed, the systems have not.

I was speaking on a panel, at a conference, recently. I asked (rather poked) the audience:

Don’t you think the technology we use for people, within organizations, are like glorified excel sheets?

There were about 150 HR professionals in that auditorium and everyone got laughing, nodding their heads vigorously. We know the problem. We also know the solution. In an age where user-experience is the king, organizations cannot afford to turn a blind eye to it, when it comes to the tools used for their own employees.

There used to be this Hero Honda ad when I was young.

Fill it. Shut it. Forget it.

For far too long, we have dealt with employees like that; i.e. creating a management system once, and forgetting about it, even after the context and employee expectations have changed.

Employees are taking cognizance of the changes in the world. And they are taking charge of the situation. It’s high time, organizations wake up, and do the same.

The HR ‘split personality’ simply isn’t working

Sometime during the year

Dear Employees,

For the development of budding managers, we are launching a 360 degree feedback program.

Thank You, Talent Management Team


Later in the year

Dear Employees,

We are thrilled to announce a tie-up with a so-famous-university for continued education of our top talent.

Thank You, Learning & Development Team


In the same year

Dear Employees,

To keep our teams motivated to do good work, we are launching a peer-recognition program.

Thank You, Employee Engagement Team


Sounds familiar?

HR was meant to be a single entity; the arm of business that engages with people. However, somewhere down the line, HR developed this split personality – a composite of recruitment, compensation, talent management, business partners, OD, learnings, engagement, etc. What makes it a split personality (and not a multi-faceted personality) is that:

All facets of HR operate disjointedly, having very little connection to each other.

Take for instance a very common phenomenon in organizations, i.e. attrition. When more people start leaving, the employee engagement team swings into action, rolling out interventions to “make employees happy”. Or, the compensation team rolls out “retention bonuses” for “key talent”. In parallel, the recruitment team naturally has more numbers to rehire. However, almost never does it happen, that the recruitment team is involved in conversations on why people are leaving.

Pause for a while, to marvel at the manner we operate in.

I will say it again. The part of HR which is responsible for bringing people into the organization, has no involvement or in-depth understanding of, why people are leaving the organization! This is what I mean by HR having dis-integrated into multiple sub-functions operating in silos. The biggest tell-tale sign of this dis-integration is that:

HR has become, a function of “interventions” and “check-boxes”, instead of a function that creates impact.

If you have attended any town-hall presentation of HR, the slides are mostly around a list of “HR initiatives”; something like this:

  • Learning team conducted 300 trainings
  • Business partners facilitated 50 team building activities
  • Engagement team organized “employee coffee conversations”
  • Talent management launched “leader connect”

However, the key questions remain unanswered:

  • Why did you take these “initiatives”?
  • What problem were you solving?
  • Why were these the best solutions?
  • How are the initiatives connected to each other, and to an overall goal?
  • What’s happening to the “initiatives” taken last year?
  • What is the impact – how does it affect the employee’s life?

No wonder employees and managers feel awkward, when you have to go in for the “annual ceremony” of performance conversations. If you never had a discussion in the entire year, good luck with having any meaningful conversation about what happened 12 or 6 months ago! Further, it is not surprising that the “learning goals” you chose a year ago, make no sense during the appraisal discussion.

Or, even the training programs you get nominated to, just because you and your manager need something to fill in the “developmental goals” section.

We at Dockabl, follow a simple practice for the development of our team. We don’t have the typical blanket workshops for everyone. We practice micro-dosed, on-demand learning. While on-job, any team member who feels the need to quickly learn a skill (say something to do with programming on Coursera), they ask for it, and we enable it. It has a direct impact on business outcomes. It helps the employee perform better, get rewarded better. They feel nice getting better at their job. Everything gets connected to each other – learning, performance, reward, motivation and engagement.

It’s not that organizations need to crack some Da Vinci code of HR, to get this right. Organizations simply need to crack common sense.

Common-sense that reminds us, that an employee is one human being. Also, that each employee is unique. So, a set of silos, blanket interventions driven by silos sub-functions, will simply not work.

The key handy-man enabling the HR split personality, are the legacy systems and tools.

Any HR professional in the industry using some of the most popular systems will know that they hardly provide any insights or analytical capabilities to answer questions such as:

  • Why is the employee unable to perform – what can be done to change that (currently these are gut-based solutions, dependent on the managers’ individual wisdom)?
  • Where exactly are hot-spots of problems, addressing which should be our top priority?
  • Are we demonstrating any kind of bias while appraising or rewarding employees (as diversity gains priority, these questions will become critical)?
  • What kind of developmental opportunities do we need to invest in (Currently, this is one of the most unscientific, whim and trend-based decision in organizations)?
  • Can I build a 360-degree employee-view far ahead of the 9 box – can we factor in performance journey (not just ratings), data on key values demonstrated, potential, demographics (helps understand diversity), etc?

One of the top challenges for businesses today is engaging the millennial and Gen Z workforce, amidst making sense of the technology onslaught. Days of interventions like joining bonus, retention bonus, fun and games are over. Unless HR is willing to acknowledge this problem and fix it, it cannot survive the next wave of change in the industry. As they said in the movie, Split:

“The beast is real”.