Interview with Mr. P. P Sahoo, Director HR & Corporate Affairs, Balmer Lawrie & Co. Limited

Question: 'Availability of Talent' has become a much talked-about issue. Do you think that it is a significant issue which is plaguing almost all the organisation?

Answer: Absolutely. Undoubtedly, this country is definitely faced with the issue of talent crunch. The issue is not that of numbers. In terms of numbers, availability is more than adequate; the issue is that of quality. In terms of quality, most of the Engineering/ Management graduates who are available can be equated with graduates from general stream. At the end of the day, such engineering/management graduates do not add much value to the business process. Today the issue of availability of talent in terms of quality is not only a human resources management issue but an organizational issue

Question:. Do you think that more and more the education system has been broad based, there has been deterioration in quality?

Answer: It is good that even technical/management education is getting broad based and in terms of penetration and reach, it is being made available to larger number of people. But yes, the qualitative aspect has been largely neglected. Lot more efforts needs to go into the process of making the education system stronger in terms of quality. In terms of depth, what an engineer of yesteryear knew and could deliver is not available with the professionals holding Engineering/ Management degrees these days. Their insight was much deeper and this was evident in terms of application of knowledge also. Therefore, Engineering or Management degrees which are generally available today cannot be considered to add value.

Question: Yes, the depth of knowledge is becoming superficial, but do you think that more and more Industry-Academia partnership would have helped bridging this gap?

Answer: Undoubtedly. There is no two way of thinking on this. But there is a totally different take on this issue. As the education system is getting more & more commercialized, a veneer of respectability is required to be introduced to attract students and their parents as well. While some parents dream big about their children’ future career, others, under social pressures are compelled to put their children into courses for which they may not have the aptitude. To lure such students and their parents it has become a practice to include some big names from industries in the Institutes’ in their brochures. Unfortunately, most of these big names are not available even for a single session. The level of industry-students interface which should have been there is not happening and therefore the required inputs from industries are not being made available to the students. The industry has to play a more proactive role. They have a lot of inputs to give which could provide huge strength to the academia. It is in the interest of the business organizations that they should come forward in giving the required inputs and making the curriculum more industry-oriented. The partnership you are talking about is required to be taken much more seriously and not left at the level of lip service.

Question: Do you think that more application-orientation would help bridging this gap?

Answer: In earlier times, for social acceptance, we needed to be a graduate. Now, the yard stick has moved to an Engineering/ Management degree. Unless you get these, you do not get social acceptance. Therefore, we see a wild rush for acquiring these degrees. If you see the issue in a commercial perspective, the demand is there therefore, supply is also there; Institutions have been mushrooming all around which are trying to derive commercial benefits only out of this demand and in the process neglecting the qualitative aspects and the basic objective of education. At the end of the day, all of us should understand that there are two basic purposes of education. While the first is to make an individual aware about himself, his surroundings, his environment, the second is to provide a livelihood. If any of these purposes fail, the very objective is defeated. Does an Engineering/ Management degree which is available today ensure a meaningful future in the professional field or does it help the person to get a stamp? All of us want to want to get a stamp but is one without any purpose worthwhile? Change in the mindset and taking pragmatic decision on the part of the student/ parent can only bring about the required change in the system. This would create a counter-pressure on those who are trying to entirely commercialize the system. There is nothing wrong about commercialization of education but without quality and accountability there are major long term issues for the country. Take for instance, the cases of young qualified persons taking up call-centre jobs. In a call-centre, youngsters may be well paid but the value-addition which they want to make does not come through. And, that is where huge problems arise; frustration increases. Ten years down the line, they may be forgetting whatever they have learnt in the professional field and I think that really is a waste of resources.

Therefore, there is a need to reorient the thinking of the youth so that they believe that there is life beyond Engineering/ Management degrees also. Today opportunities in the professional field are wide open as long as you are ready to work intelligently and with dedication. Students with the right set of aptitude should only take up Engineering/ Management as their field of studies. Others can be taken through a structured process of vocational training which can ensure a meaningful livelihood. Opportunities should be made available to all, but in different spheres.

Question: While we have talked about the linkage between the education system and availability of right talents, do you think compensation is a major factor in the matter of attracting/retaining talents?

Answer: It definitely matters. But, saying that only compensation matters would not be correct. In this context, I would like to take reference to choices made by me in my professional career. I had started my professional career with IBP, a PSE. After 5 years I changed to Brooke Bond, a MNC only to realize that fundamentally there are not much difference between sectors, only there are differences in terms of the context; I came back to another PSE, Balmer Lawrie knowing fully well that there would be compensation issues. I was looking for meaningful assignments and roles, the right kind of recognition and career growth. I have got all from this PSU. However, with increasing level of consumerism, the context has perhaps changed. Youngsters do look for higher and higher compensation which takes care of their perceived ‘needs’. But I think, by and large, the factors which had influenced my career decision still hold good today. Professionals look for recognition beyond compensation. They want to contribute and expect to be recognized for it..

Question: Any comment on other factors like informal environment, flexible working hours, shortening of the hierarchical span, learning opportunities?

Answer: All these and many other factors largely depend on the ’organizational culture’. The cultural canvas of the organization, the value system mostly determine whether it is a nurturing/learning organisation, whether it provides for an informal eco system within the formal hierarchy or whether it promotes innovation & entrepreneurship

Question: As regards Generation ’x’ and ‘y’, do you believe that organizations which give more space for work-life balance can attract/retain employees?

Answer: To me, the classification of GEN-X and GEN-Y is a misnomer, a mere artificial classification. Work-Life balance is definitely important but it is not particular to any generation. How one strikes the balance is purely individual-centric. For instance, if we talk about longer working hours it largely is perceived to adversely affect the work-life balance. I have seen many professionals of the current generation work long hours, if operational requirement demands, and without any grudge. However, choices are wider today, opportunities are more. I see no wrong if most from Gen-Y prefer to explore in pursuit of such wider choices thus resulting in issues of retention. I suppose every good organization should recognise this reality and have plans to deal with it as they have in respect of any scarce resource.

Question: Do you feel employer branding is important in attracting talent?

Answer: Undoubtedly, employer branding does contribute a lot. In this age of competition, every organization is looking to get the best talent from the market. Therefore, employer branding is very crucial and essential in attracting talented professionals.

Question: What are your future plans in this direction?

Answer: During pre-2000 era, the balance between lateral hire and providing internal growth opportunities was more tilted towards the latter. In 2000s, when the voluntary separation was implemented in Balmer Lawrie, many talents also moved out along with non-performers, though unintended. Now, we have to manage more with less; the turnover of the company having doubled in the due course. Through the process of retirement, many vanguards of Balmer Lawrie have moved out and within the next three years, about 60% of the top managerial personnel shall follow suit. There is a considerable gap in terms of numbers as well. Undoubtedly, today, quality and quantity of manpower both have assumed importance for the company. Some of the steps we have taken in this direction are:

  • Taking young and bright people through campus interviews at the entry level.
  • Going for aggressive lateral hiring in different functional areas; especially, specialists.
  • We have also come up with the concept of ‘Fixed-Term Contractual Appointment’ more or less in line with what is prevailing in multinational companies. The structure of compensation is flexible and does not have rigidities attached to that applicable for the permanent employees.

The appointee is fully empowered and has total functional/ administrative control, even where it involves supervising permanent executives. As regards our policy towards retention of talent, we have taken a few steps as well which you will appreciate are radical in their approach in the context of a PSE.

These are:

  • Our designations have undergone a major change. AGMs, DGMs and GMs have been re-designated as Associate VP, VP. Business Heads have been re-designated as COO of the particular division Business and the Corporate Functional Heads as the Sr. VP of the respective function.
  • Secondly, we have reduced the criteria for experience at different levels. I give one example. Previously, at the level of “Manager”, 10 years’ experience was required. Now, it has been relaxed to 7 years so that career growth opportunities become faster.
  • Thirdly, we have introduced a scheme called “BL CAP” OR “Balmer Lawrie Career Acceleration Plan”. The process is focused on identifying & nurturing potential. Any executive who gets an “Outstanding” and a “Very Good” rating consecutively for the last two years is eligible to participate in this scheme. He/She has to go through a competency assessment programme, at his/her choice through which potential factors & competencies are assessed. If he/she gets through, then he/she is given an opportunity for faster growth and becomes a part of the BLCAP pool. The members of this group are eligible for ‘Double Promotions’. For example, an Executive from this pool who is in E2 level is eligible to apply for a position/vacancy existing in E4 level. If he/she is selected, he/she can become the’ Reporting Officer’ of the person to whom he was reporting so far. Radical, is not it!
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