Published in Times of India, Consumer Edge, Mumbai, 30 Dec, 2006
After palace intrigues forced Rama to leave Ayodhya and go into the forest, his father, Dasharatha, lay in bed a broken man, wailing, “Rama is gone. I will die soon. O, what will happen to Ayodhya?” Kaushalya replied, “Don’t worry. It will survive. We always believe the world will collapse after we are gone. It never does.” These lines from the Ramayana resonant a very profound and bitter truth that most men and women in the job market find hard to swallow: without them, organizations can and do survive.
Out there is an ocean of restless young professionals with low tolerance and high skills, ready to leave one organization and join another at the drop of a hat. They are angry with their bosses, frustrated at work, or simply annoyed with their pay packets. They feel that loyalty does not pay, that passion is no longer rewarded. These feelings are not new. They have always been there, in every organization since time immemorial. But now, thanks to the growing economy and the shift from socialism to market liberalization, there are many job options available. It is easier to jump ship now than ever before. And to cater to this ‘jump ship’ generation, there are placement agencies like Naukri.com and Monster.com who are advertising like never before. Everyone is now familiar with the tale of Hari Sadhu’s disgruntled employee who heroically gets back at his jerk of a boss (“guess who has heard from us” campaign) and with images of batsmen washing clothes or bharatnatyam dancers working at airports (“stuck in the wrong job” campaign). Human resource is the new ‘product’ in the market and vast corporations – both Indian and MNC, are the new ‘consumers’. Only this market is unique. Here both, the ‘consumer’ and the ‘product’ have the right to choose. Ayodhya here can always find another Dasharatha, if not a Rama.
Fully aware that those they employ can leave shortly, and realizing that retarding attrition is a rather tedious and expensive proposition, many corporate houses are preferring ‘commoditized’ human resources rather than ‘branded’ ones. In other words, they are focusing not on highly talented people but on averagely talented people who they can align to a highly efficient and effective processes. This decreased dependence on people and more dependence of processes has created a vicious cycle. Processes are created to manage the high attrition rate of people. But they end up making the workplace so impersonal that they end up contributing to the attrition rate.
When people go, creativity goes, initiative goes, vision goes. Processes cannot give direction, or motivate people. Realizing the dangers of depending on processes, realizing that soon the market will shift from processes towards people, Microsoft, in its foresight, has announced its ‘People-Ready’ business vision. In their TV ad, we find a bunch of people trying to figure out what makes their company different. And after scratching their heads for long they realize it is their people! Ironical, considering it was Microsoft that brought the Excel spreadsheet to every desktop, making it easier to measure everything, and everyone, reducing all things to tiny impersonal numbers on that all-powerful corporate dashboard.
The conflict of people versus processes is an ancient one. Realizing the disruptive power of people’s desires and personal goals, ancient Indians came up with the concept of dharma. This essentially refers to social roles, rules and rituals that establish social order. Dharma was all about processes aimed at creating a stable society where, if people did their duty as they were told, ‘ the rains came on time’ and ‘there were no accidents’. The regularity of rain (read, sustainable profits) and absence of accidents (read, minimized upheavals) were the Key Performance Indicators of dharma (read, processes).
The struggle to balance people and processes, duty with desire, and create a model society, led to the writing of two great epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Rama of the Ramayana struggles to uphold dharma at the cost of personal desires while Krishna of the Mahabharata struggles to change dharma to accommodate human values. Thus one could say, Rama is more process-oriented while Krishna is more people-oriented. That only Rama is king while Krishna is only kingmaker, never king, makes one wonder if there is a message here.
There is no denying that both people and processes are required for certain and sustained growth. People bring magic to the table: creativity, entrepreneurship, passion. But they also bring disorder: mood swings, power centers, knowledge stasis. Processes, on the other hand, bring logic to the table: predictability, measurability, manageability. But they take away from the organization its ability to cope with change or crisis.
One needs both: people and processes, but organizations tend to veer towards one or the other. Take football for example. The Brazilians prefer the magic of players while the Germans prefer the logic of team work. In cricket, the Pakistan team is a bunch of passionate players while the Australian team tempers its team’s passion with clinically precise processes. In the one, you find the great players. In the other, you create a great team out of good players. In the one, individuals shine. In the other, individuals perform roles.
In the international market, Indians are seen as poor team players and terrible at following processes. Yet, it is precisely our creativity that make us valuable in the software industry that demands extreme creativity in debugging problems. Unfortunately, the very same software industry, as it grows in size and becomes centers for outsourcing business processes, is increasingly relying on systems and processes and shying away from individual talent. In the words of one techie who was in between surfing Naukri.com and Monster.com, “We are becoming obsolete as companies are becoming more Excel and less PowerPoint.”
There is, as always, need for balance. PowerPoint and Excel. That is why in ancient India, the king was given a bow during his coronation. If the bow is too tight, it breaks. If it is too loose, it is useless. Likewise too much of people-power can lead to chaos and too much of process-power can lead to suffocation. The CEO, king of the new business order, has to create that right balance, that perfect organizational bow with passionate people aligned to key business processes, if he wants to shoot the arrow of constant, predictable and sustainable growth.