November 24, 2015

Richard Cowley, Founder, WorkAmmo, on the changing perceptions of HR and why the start-up boom might not be as big as it seems.

Does HR understand HR?
One can treat HR like a continuum. On the far left is ‘personnel’, as they were called 20 years ago.And to the far right, you have ‘business partners’.The old HR replaces permanent employees with more permanent ones.The HR leader of today asks if permanent employees can be replaced with contingent or outsourced ones. The old HR is still too focused on training. The new age HR leader is also cognisant of the fact that 50 per cent of time should be spent on learning aligned to business goals.The model of learning today is 10 per cent education, 20 per cent relationships and 70 per cent experiences. The old HR sends out appraisal forms in March; the new HR sets KPIs beforehand. The next step is to turn HR into ‘capability leaders’. An opportunity has come your way to manage your career through an online platform. This platform provides answers to your queries from choosing the right career to developing your existing career.

But aren’t most conventional job-seekers in India more enamoured by ‘permanent’ jobs?
There are actually 30 different types of workers! The aspiration for permanent jobs is real, but not for everyone. In Australia, flexible work is the goal for many. But it’s true that when I was a contractor, I was treated differently and that’s a shift we need to make. It’s more of a philosophical transition and we need to look at why people don’t want to be on contract as well as why companies do it. For companies, benefits are the crippler. But professionals definitely want them! They also want to get invited to all the company events. What works is to give first preference to contract workers whenever there’s a vacancy. That serves as a motivator. But let’s not forget the minority – the work-from-home folks and those who want to work at multiple companies at the same time.


What are the best HR innovations/practices in recent times?
A) The rise of professional networking: It’s been a real game changer, though it still hasn’t achieved its full potential; B) Learning Management Systems (LMS): They enable accelerated sharing of best practices and when you integrate knowledge and learning management systems, you have the ultimate enabler. The challenge is that not many people have adopted it yet; C) Pulse-tapping software: One of the companies I work with has introduced something called ‘Be Intent’ which allows them to test the pulse of the team at any given moment. So these boxes pop up on their windows asking them for their views on issues such as promotions or changes in the company. Of course, there’s the danger of going over the top and bothering them about things they don’t care about! D) Big data: Big data has been one of the biggest innovations so far, but the key is to pick out the right bits from a sea of data and turn them into meaningful information. There is data in disparate places and we don’t yet have software to connect the dots.


Does calling HR something fancy like talent officers or people champions really help its case?
It does help. Philosophically, if I call an HR person ‘personnel’, there’s a certain perception. If I call this person a business partner, there’s a different perception. Either way, HR will live up to the title and what it demands of them. Of course, 90 per cent of fancy titles should be underpinned by substance. The negative impact occurs when the person does not understand what the title means and if it takes away aspects of the job that they previously enjoyed. In that case, a change in designation can confuse and stress people because earlier they felt in control and now they don’t! If you try to turn HR from nurses to doctors without any practice, then you’re inviting trouble. You need to give them space to learn.


This interview was published in the print and web editions of The Economic Times.