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Lessons From The Humble Shaving Alum

Published October 16, 2017 by vishalvkale

I don’t really know why I purchased that shaving alum; I was at a medical store, I just spotted it in the shelf top glass display. I just asked for it on a whim, as in  “dekhein toh sahi” types; and took it home. Started using it, aside from my regular after shave lotion. After a period of time, say a week or so, I began to notice that my after shave lotion doesn’t burn as much; that my skin feels real soft as I run the alum over it, and feels nice and relaxed. I shrugged the thought off – I mean, it was after all, just a piece of alum and I was doing basically a relatively unimportant daily ritual. Not worth doing any brainstorming, or so I thought.


Until that day the alum ran out – what lives must die, the immutable law of nature. Well, I mean – it was just alum, wasn’t it? No big deal. I still had that Lotion, nice perfumy in a decorative bottle, one which cost one hell of a lot {that is what it seems like now}, and one that I was used to. My skin, who happens to be a most independent and self-centered chap, had most definite and other diametrically divergent ideas though. It would have none of it, and revolted. It began to miss the calming soothing caregiving touch of the Alum… and drove me to the medical store again, to buy… the humble Shaving Alum!
Now that set me thinking – about customer demand, what influences demand, the entire customer experience, the product benefits & features, the entire marketable package – and about human behaviour as well.


HUMAN BEHAVIOUR
Let me first look at the human aspect – I was aware that the Alum had many benefits; not just shaving benefits. Yet, I in my Upper Middle Class educated punch drunk stupor, never thought of actually trying it out. Why should this be so? The thought itself did not occur to me. And when it did, I was consciously telling the Pharmacist let me try it out. Why this needless clarification? My ego – and my perceptions, which dictated that Alum was downmarket! I thought myself to be superior, in other words – and that perception had a defined marketing benefit, recognized by most marketers as such. Had I gone along with my perceptive biases – I would have missed on a great experience every morning, and that is too high a price to pay for either ego or choice or perception!
There is another deeper level here – many times, very probably, we do not observe the real good qualities in people, objects and the world around us, as our self-placed perceptive biases do not allow these to permeate to our consciousness. This means that we allow our biases, perceptions, images, thoughts to cloud our realization – leading to incorrect assumptions as well as missing out on some great people, great experiences, and great opportunities. Thus, it is vital that we, each of us – self included, actively make an effort to recognize these perceptive biases that cloud our vision!
These biases and blockages of perception not only prevent us from a richer experience, but they could also be hampering our performance, our relationships, our outreach, our values and beliefs; as Mukul Deva says – my reality is as real as his or her reality {approximation}. We need to see the other reality as well as the hidden aspects – some of which may actually have deep resonance with yourself at an individual level as well – as the Humble Shaving Alum taught me. For example – you may not agree with someone’s views; , or you may have higher achievements… in that case, broaden your vision – move ahead even if he or she doesn’t, look beyond! See the larger perspective of the personality involved in front of you – and spot synergies. Once you do that – hidden benefits will certainly emerge!


MARKETING AND BUSINESS LESSONS
Look at this entire business transaction from a Channel Perspective before we move into theory in the next article: A customer of a premium product has discovered an alternative for a core function of the product – each product has core and additional features. Scent, form, packaging, psychographic & behavioural factors etc are also critical – note that I still use the original product, which I find to be quite excellent by the way. Yet, I cannot but miss that in my opinion, the Alum does a far better task of soothing my skin. This is a direct attack on a core product feature. {Not only that, it is also a big learning-  the power of observation, inquisition, and willingness to learn. But that is another story, for another dedicated article}
How did this happen, arise? I saw the cheaper alternative in a channel display in a premium shop, one which is not a standard solution for such cosmetics, namely a medical shop. You would ordinarily not associate Alum and Lotion as competitors, and yet – at least one customer of Lotion has gone in for Alum. Where is the guarantee that someone else might not, and that scale wont build up? Now this may never happen – the point is that what we can learn from this as managers.
First learning – the power of the channel, displays, good old retail marketing, involvement of the retailer, POP marketing etc. This is the basic and easily visible level. Let us go deeper from here onwards. This anecdotal evidence hides something deeper within its womb – the second learning, which is the dynamics of customer choice, the role of the first semester marketing lesson of early adopters, innovative customers, {There is a small  chance my write-up may cause someone else to buy Alum!} as well as the vital importance of keeping in touch with the market at the bottom levels.
At this second level, the bigger question arises that how do we measure, judge, compare, study these interactions which  take place daily at thousands of retail outlets? Marketing says Marketing Research – which is basis, at the core, a defined sample. That is one method – granted. You have another readily available source-  two of them. One – your own sales teams. Find a method to reach out to these, and identify a method whereby minute-by-minute market feedback can be captured in real time, not on your smartphone gadgets you give to the FOS but through deeper methods at slightly higher levels, that is SO / ASM / RSM levels, wherein you now have the requisite education, experience to be able to summarise these trends into actionable formats. This will improve performance in terms of range choice, channel decisions at RSM level as well! How – stay in touch with my blog as I develop my thoughts further.
Second method – India has a management college in every single district. These students by and large have zero practical experience, and summer placements don’t help. Reach out to these colleges and formulate a methodology whereby students get hands on projects to complete, either paid or unpaid projects – real market research to implement; have it incorporated into the marking system – and use this resource to identify market and consumer trends. This wont cost much, and will be accepted by colleges so long as the project is designed well enough; is devoid of illegal / unethical perceptions, and is sufficiently broad in in core objectives – giving a win-win scenario, allowing colleges to mount original research into trends, creating a pool of talent as well as knowledge.
CONCLUSION
We need to recognize perceptive biases in both our human societal sides as well as our professional sides. Personally, not recognizing common ground in the middle of an argument can lead to losing a valuable relationship – and is thus a win-win scenario. A perceptive bias does not mean you are wrong; it only means that you recognize there are other views as well, right or wrong, and that you cannot force your choice even if it is correct  on the other person. The other person may value Ego, or scent – higher than a functional product core benefit; that is his reality!
Professionally, identifying, recognizing, and sorting out perceptive biases is not something that we should be doing just for self-improvement; it ought to be a vital and constant parameter of self assessment, done in a positive light, so that we may be a better decision maker. Being from Sales, I presented the Sales and Marketing side with a channel example; the point of learning is that we ignore the strongest resource we have in our organisations – our internal teams, which regard Market Data as something to be collated with minimum intelligence and effort. We need to be far more vigorous in ensuring we reach out to and connect with these people. And we need to, most vitally, be inquisitive in every professional endeavor, constantly open to new ideasThis is just one example – how many other areas can we re-look at & introspect so as to eliminate perceptive bias and find new superior ways?
NOTE:

I would like to give credit to Mukul Deva, whose book gave me the final idea that allowed this observation to fall into place, and Debashish Biswas Sir, CEO of SILC, a discussion with whom also gave me deep introspection…
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Corporate India : Understanding The Ethical Dilemma

Published December 16, 2014 by vishalvkale

This is the second part of the article of Is This Business? Professionalism? Planning? Management?


We looked at some real-world examples of the result of unethical behaviour in the Corporate World in the previous post linked above; these can be easily added to by the simple means of a google search; any number of real cases will appear for ready consideration. As I asked in the conclusion of the previous article, why does this happen? 


There is no simple answer to this; I personally refer to this as the Ethical Dilemma that each new employee is faced with. At this juncture, let us all move away from the oft-repeated excuse that we are a corrupt society, and this is the way things happen. That is not the issue here; the focus here should be to understand the underlying factors that result in on-the-job unethical behaviour, and how are they rooted in core corporate concepts, processes and methods. 


It is only through such an exercise that we can evolve new processes that can alleviate the problem. The objective is not Gandhian or some abstract social change paradigm; I am a hard-core, hard-wired corporate professional, and my objective here is only to assist in creating a more smoothly functional organisation that can deliver better bang for the buck while remaining within legal and moral parameters; in fact – harness ethics and ethical behaviour as an asset, rather than as a liability that most people currently believe it to be. It can be done; that is certain. All it requires is a process-centered approach and an iron-will…


UNDERSTANDING THE WORD ETHICS IN THE BUSINESS WORLD

In this article, I shall focus on the ethical dilemma; we shall subsequently look at some processes in the 3rd part of this mini-series. Before we move into corporates, let us establish the bedrock : our society. Whether we like it or not, the current trend is that morality and straightforwardness is not an asset in the modern world, with corruption being almost endemic, and there being an almost ubiquitous belief in “duniyadaari” or being worldly wise. And most discussions on ethics are brushed aside by saying you need to be worldly wise. Keep this in mind; this is a vital attitude that we will return to later in the 3rd part, as it betrays a lamentable lack of understanding of  a few basic concepts. 


To be frank; such an attitude is neither here nor there, and is in reality totally irrelevant. There are only two terms that are relevant to us : being ethical, and being naive. If you open all your cards in a business negotiation, you are not being ethical; you are being naive, and foolish. This has nothing to do with ethics! As another example, if your channel partner is not giving adequate focus to your business, then the question of how to proceed is not one of ethics, it is a straight and simple business question, and has nothing to do with ethics. 


We need to be specific : what do we mean by the term ethics? By that, let us be clear  that we are referring to illegal behaviour, actions and steps that are against standard societal norms, and such actions that will eventually lead to loss to the organisation in the long term due to their being focused on individual gain. Let us qualify this last point with one caveat : unless short term steps are deemed to be necessary for short-term organisational survival, and documented as such by the concerned management.



THE ETHICAL DILEMMA

Let us start with an example; you are in a negotiation with a prospective business partner. In the course of negotiations, you hold back certain information; as I stated before, that is a standard and indeed essential practice. But this needs to be clarified : all information that is pertinent to the decision of the business partner as well as is vital for a long term association needs t0 be revealed; holding that back is unethical. Such is the fine line between ethical and unethical behaviour in a business situation. 


Furthermore, there is also a very high degree of probability that the above may be against the law, which mandates release of all pertinent information in a business contract. Be that as it may, the decision as to what is pertinent is a very situational parameter, and requires experience. Look at it this way : if the Channel Partner is looking for a long-term association with a solid or upcoming brand with a clear way forward, whereas you are in it only to solve a short-term crisis without having any long-term intentions, there is a potential fundamental disconnect. If your brand then does not have a clear way forward in terms of new products, marketing activities and their range & scope, and you nevertheless imply or commit that you do, then you are in unethical territory. 


So long as you give complete disclosure, that you need a business partner urgently, can provide a solid business case to the potential partner, and can meet objections, you are fine. All you have to do is identify the core non-negotiable points of the other party, and what points can be negotiated on, and build your case on them. But the moment you cut corners, and start lying, you are on suspect ground. This leads to a disconnect between the partner and the organisation upon the start of business when the partner learns that there is no clear way forward – leading to him or her withdrawing from the business. 

This is just one example of the ethical dilemma, wherein professional falter  : my KRAs versus Solid Business Logic. The inability to connect the two is the ethical dilemma; the word dilemma means specifically “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable“. Here the choice is the unpalatable choice of breaking norms and lying to achieve the goal, versus the equally unpalatable choice of having to struggle hard while keeping on the right side of ethics. 



UNDERSTANDING THE ETHICAL DILEMMA


Why should the employee be faced with such a hobson’s choice : KRAs, or Ethics? The next question then comes automatically : Are the two really mutually exclusive under current circumstances? Or is the entire feeling of a totally different origin? Or is it that both the KRAs as well as the other factors need consideration and reworking? And what are these other factors? 

One thing needs to be clear at the outset : the question of ethics is fundamentally an individual decision, an individual choice. And yet, we see the improbable sight of a large number of people sacrificing ethics at the altar of the rat race, the race to succeed, to survive, and to get ahead. This is the single largest indicator that there is something, some fundamental weakness or oversight within the core processes of the companies that either catalyzes or fails to check unethical behaviour. No company states unethical behaviour as acceptable; 100% frown upon it, and yet large swathes of companies are struggling to bring unethical conduct under control, which is a strange paradox. 

Optimally, the ethical dilemma should not occur to employees in the first place; ethics should support and in fact strengthen the business process. That they dont is a manifest reality, as indicated in the examples I mentioned in the first article linked above. Granted that in the real world, there will always be difficult choices and borderline cases; but that does not take away from this core reality. 

Since the choice is one of individual behaviour, and is made with an objective to achieve some business goals, KRAs automatically become a part of the discussion. So does the entire system that the employee is exposed to; why is the employee having to make such decisions on a regular basis? KRAs, Relations with superiors, Support systems, Checks and Balances, external environment all come into the gamut of discussion. For the ethical dilemma may be that of an individual, but it is of an individual who is a part of a larger system, which shapes as well as influences the thinking and decision making of the individual. 

The key point, the way forward is to understand the functioning at an organisational level, and plot the pulls pressures and developments in both the organisation and the external atmosphere it operates in. The reason is simple : we are in business for profit, not an NGO for social development. We need to plot a way forward that is largely ethical, that rewards ethical conduct, and that does not instill a feeling of threat while being ethical; all the while operating in the external atmosphere as it exists in the modern day – and we certainly arent living in a Utopia. 

This is the subject of the 3rd part of this series… 

Corporate India : Is This Business? Professionalism? Planning? Management?

Published December 5, 2014 by vishalvkale

1) An employee of a top Indian firm was physically roughed up and beaten up in the market in 2010


2) An employee of a top Indian firm was held by the local distributor as old claims were not settled

3) An employee of a top Indian firm was held by a channel partner due to old disputes

4) An employee of a top Indian firm was stabbed due to on the job disputes

5) A few employees of a good Indian firm were stabbed due to internal disputes

6) An employee of a good Indian firm was shot to death due to channel disputes




This is Sales? The above is professionalism? The above-mentioned is business? Are we in Business, or are we in a combat unit? If that is the case, then I am better off not knowing such excellent and praise-worthy tactics! I readily admit I dont know anything about Sales! These are not isolated cases; there are the outliers in an extremely disturbing trend that I have spotted in some industries. The trend can be seen in the rising number of scams, exposes like cobrapost, murders, suicides, sackings and pink-slips, lifestyle diseases, divorces etc. Most sales people I know of can readily recount such tales as given above… 







All the cases above are true cases. All the cases above really happened; and there are several others that have happened that I havent listed; like the many arrests of telecom employees, the threats that I have seen and heard in the market etc. Add to this the cases of suicides, harassment, rising work stress and lifestyle diseases that are on the rise in Corporate India. The net picture that emerges is not a very healthy one, as a multitude of surveys have clearly indicated.



Is this why I work? Just to get killed, roughed up, or kidnapped, or arrested due to reasons entirely outside my control? Is this business? Is this professionalism? And most importantly, why does this happen, and why are these incidences increasing by the day? Where are we going wrong as professionals, as human beings, and as specialists in our trade? 



It is important to understand that the cases highlighted above are not isolated cases; they are the product of a brutal system that gives no credence to the proper process, the optimal way of doing business. While it is certain that disputes will arise in any business due to a variety of reasons, these disputes ought also to be settled in a manner that does not create harm for the organisation and its employees. Especially its employees; if in any situation, the choice is between the organisation and the employee, the employee, his health, his career and his safety  has to come first. 



Does this happen? Arguably, it doesnt. Why do I, as a professional, then give my 100% to an organisation that does not care for me, for my family, for my health, and for my safety? People make organisations, not vice versa; and in the modern days’ chase for numbers at all costs, people are the ones who get used and forgotten once their perceived value recedes. With the demand supply imbalance in the job market, there is an assured supply of manpower as ready replacement. This further erodes the perceived value alluded to above; there is no incentive for the boss or the organisation to focus on true employee development; this is why average tenure in an organisation is on the decline.



These words above may sound defeatist, the words borne out of failure or dejection. They are neither; they are simple hard facts, as I shall now proceed to elucidate with categorical evidence and proof. Let us consider the case of the Sales function, and look at some real-world scenarios, situations that happened in the real world, the response and its analysis. 



ONE


It was the month-end in a major Indian company, where pressure sales were the norm rather than the exception. During closing, a few deliveries were punched in without there being any orders from the concerned distributors. In other words, billing without there being any order from the market. The local Sales Person, at a grade of Assistant Manager, had to do it, or lose his job. This person then went to the concerned distributor  to ensure that the material got offloaded into his godown. During the stretched negotiations with the distributor, the State Sales Manager was overheard on telephone telling the transporter – catch hold of the Manager there; beat him, or threaten him, or whatever – but the material wont come back! HR was informed – and no action was taken by them on this rather serious complaint. HO was informed, with a similar lack of action on their part



TWO


In another top Indian company, the local collection team took a full-body scan video of the back-office lady staff at a distributor point. The ladies complained to the Sales Manager in charge of the distributor, who escalated the matter as it concerned a sexual harassment case, and was an inter-departmental matter. The company blamed the concerned Sales Manager for escalating the matter and not sorting it out saying boys will be boys! The Sales Manager was held responsible for the entire matter! 



THREE


For the third example, let us go deep into the sales function, into specifics. In a top firm, fake commitments were made to the entire channel. This led to a situation wherein the balances of the distributors did not reconcile with the company accounts due to undocumented claims. The channel subsequently stopped ordering fresh inventory, leading to outdated products in the market, resulting in loss of marketshare. This has happened in at least 4 companies that I know of personally,  across several states


FOUR


In another top company, fake documents were the norm for case closure. If any document was incomplete, the procedure was simply to fake it. In this same company, fake sales were common, very common – generate fake sales to make your sales numbers look great, and never mind the channel health or anything else. These fake sales would get flushed out later through delayed secondaries or through adjustments, and pretty soon this became the norm. Point to be noted – this is something I have noted in 3 industries and several companies




Each of the cases mentioned above has its causes in one simple habit : The end justifies the means. Be it fake documents, or not taking action against a key employee, or fake commitments, or fake sales, or fake documents – these are all the symptoms of the real disease. These are not the disease; they are the symptoms of a much deeper malaise that needs urgent attention from all stakeholders within an organisation. 



The pressure to deliver on your commitments in the modern organisation is extreme; this is combined with a total lack of a safety valve for outlet of pent-up tensions and pressure. On top of all this is the constant fear of a job loss, and the attendant difficulty of finding a new job and providing for your family. The icing on the cake is the driving ambition of the Managers {at all levels} which does not normally have the safety lid of empathy, teamwork, process-orientation, organisation centricity & long-term orientation.  



And this occurs in an atmosphere with a pressure to conform, where any attempt any individuality is a sign of weakness and a sign of not being a proper “fit” in the concerned function. For example, if an employee has a personal safety valve – music, switching off, or just being mentally strong and not showing tension – he or she runs the risk of being called a misfit! Thus, you have not only to perform, but also conform; or perish! If perceived as a misfit, all mistakes get amplified and  all achievements get devalued…



It is into this pressure-cooker cauldron that the employee steps in and is expected to perform miracles and wonders, and from day one. Please understand : the ultra-competitive modern world means that you actually have very little time to adjust; you have to hit the ground running. This can be a major source of competitive disadvantage if employees take too long to adjust. And this is where organisations go completely awry. A human being isn’t a machine; an automaton. He or she is going to take time to adjust and get used to it.  And rather than evolve systems and processes to mitigate this circumstance and ensure that the employee has time to adjust, organisations place the entire load onto the employee. 



Be that as it may, this person enters, and takes charge. He or she now has to deliver; previous experiences have taught the employee that perform or perish is the norm…



In the concluding part of this article, I shall go into the details of why the cases highlighted in the beginning take place… 


Book Review : Infinite Vision

Published July 21, 2014 by vishalvkale

How Aravind Became The World’s Greatest Business Case For Compassion

The Story Of a Hospital That Provides Free Treatment To The Community, And Is Yet The Best In Its Field In Terms Of Technology, Skills, And Throughput


By Pavithra K Shenoy and Suchitra Shenoy


Infinite Vision is the real story of a phenomenon, an anachronism that belongs more in the Satyug or Tretayug than in the modern cutthroat Kalyug, Anno Domini 2014; an absolutely unbelievable and yet completely true story of a family who redefined the concept of life, living… and Medical Care in the Modern World. A book that is guaranteed to take your breath away, a book that will challenge – if not actually change – the way you look at the world; a work of art, and a book that should be required reading in schools. I wish I could rate is 6 stars out of 5… stunning… 
This is the real story of Aravind Eye Hospital – of how one man, one single man went about doing the impossible. The story of one man who overcame a career-threatening illness to work for his employer till retirement. What makes him doubly special is that after retirement, he doesn’t hang up his boots; quite the reverse – he sets about creating a concept that will one day shake the whole planet and its medical fraternity to its core. 

This is also the story of a family, a family that was cajoled, talked and convinced into sharing the dream stated above; note my words – “sharing” the dreams, not trying to fulfill out of love. It is the story of how every member of the family contributed to the dream. It is also about how the family, through sheer dint of hard work and performance, stunned the world, and made their creation – Aravind Eye Hospital – the finest of its kind in the world, a hospital focused not on profits, but on a dream – the eradication of treatable blindness  in India. 

The target was clear : eradication of Blindness. The method was clear – free treatment, or highly subsidised – and absolute world-class, the best treatment. The problem is that nothing comes for free in this world. At this point, they made what would seem to us to be an illogical decision – we wont accept donations or grants. So, they went about creating internal systems and procedures that would minimise expenses, while not compromising on quality.

Infinite Vision, indeed – appropriate title for the book. It is the engaging story of how these Doctors, MBAs, Business Professionals connected together, and created the internal systems, procedures that ensured they handled the highest number of patients worldwide, by a factor or 3 times. Procedures that ensured that they achieved and maintained financial independence, while providing free services to the community of the poor people, who could not afford to pay! The Money Will Come – Focus On Your Tasks was the constant refrain – dont worry about money; if we are the best, money will come. Remember 3 idiots? Chase Excellence – Success will follow. Well, the Aravind Eye Hospital is the living proof of that statement.

Aravind Eye Hospital is also the story of the chase of excellence in treatment; of the sacrifices everyone made for the greater goal. It is the story of a single-minded chase after excellence, and the pursuit of perfection, challenging all norms, modes and systems. It is the story of how one Hospital went about ensuring the availability of the best the world has to offer in a 3rd World country like India, and then subsequently beating the world at their game. 

It is a text-book case study, in that it covers every aspect of a modern organisation – from Marketing to Operations, and from Finance to Human Resources. This is the book that will help you understand the importance of Vision and Mission of an organisation; this is the book that will teach you the magic of training. This is the book that will teach you the importance of constant upgradation of skill sets; of a single-minded focus on employee retention and how it works wonders in the company; This is the book that will teach you the importance of backward integration, of research, or opening markets, of a planned and strategically executed expansion strategy – of bringing the latest technologies to India, of setting state of the art manufacturing facilities, and consulting houses.

This is the book that teaches you the benefits of a focus on the long-term, of the importance of total intolerance towards short-termism that is so common now, this is a classic case of how to plan your human resources both for the current-to-mid term as well as the long term, of smooth succession planning right till the topmost levels without compromising on even one single point. This is the book to read to learn just how vital a long-term look at Human assets is important, and how training can play a pivotal role – and of the importance of robust systems and processes in an organisation; and how following the basics and building blocks leads to marketshare, leadership as well as an excellent top and bottomline. At is also the story of how one organisation can create a worldwide ecosystem, and create as well as define a new market – becoming the leading consultant in the world. It is a story of sharing information, and helping the competition – and reaping rewards from the experience. A book that challenges long-held notions, and does so quite successfully.

 The writing style is engaging, and keeps you absorbed. You are not taken into a series of numbers and facts; instead you are taken onsite, and get a prime seat among the main players as the time rolls. You are treated to organisational lessons for learnings in a fun form, loaded with examples and practicalities, while fully detailing the roadblocks, problems that emerged, internal as well as external. 

All in all, a deeply engaging book that leaves you richer for the experience, and successfully changes the way you look at life and business… A must read book of how one family created an ecosystem, as well as the finest Eye Facility in the World – a book that should be required reading for everyone in India at least. Last but not the least, Infinite Vision is the book that explains how having a purpose and a dream can be actioned, and of the importance of having your soul in what you are doing, combined with a higher purpose- while meeting the requirements of practicality. A book that reaches deep into your soul, and forces you to ask some tough questions of your own self.. .

The Skill Gap – 2 : The Way Forward; Focus On What You Can Change

Published July 1, 2014 by vishalvkale

I am penning this article based on my experience as a corporate guy with nearly 16 years work experience cutting across Indian companies, as well as MNCs. What makes me slightly different is that I have been a visiting faculty in 3-4 management institutes, and have managed to develop relationships with quite a few students. These institutes range from top ones to unknown ones, and thus represent the entire cross-spectrum.

I am also an active blogger, and regularly attend blogger meets across platforms like Indiblogger and Blogadda, where I meet and mix with teens, 20-somethings as well as 30-somethings.

Thus, I have seen the so-called “unskilled” people at 4 levels –

* hiring manager;

* team leader / area manager / segment manager / regional manager;

* Professor and/or guide

* Friend, or group member, having been talking to and conversing with them as one of them.



THE BACKDROP

As I observed in my previous post on this – The Great Indian Skill Gap, the so-called Skill Gap is vastly different from the perception. I have read several news articles that wax eloquent on this, as well as a few surveys – all have the same verbiage and meaning; but fall short on specifics, Furthermore, most are a survey of hiring managers, and are frankly based on the gift of gab. This is by no means in the category of an exhaustive research. 


The answers to the questions are based on personal experience, and the background of that experience, the company policies, industry realities, specifics KRA requirements etc is not taken into account. 

The phraseology is wonderfully indistinct, and proves nothing either way. What does “lack of technical competencies” mean in specific terms? It can mean anything under the sun. It needs to be specific, this is just a general statement. This statement can also be construed to mean that companies are setting the bar way too high. This is way too general a statement, and we can draw no conclusion based on this. The technical competencies vary widely with the role, function and the industry. There can be no generalisation; we can conclude nothing based on these reports. 

Frankly, it could also mean that employer expectations are rising too fast, and employer willingness to invest in training is waning too fast. This hypotheses has not been tested; hence, one simply cannot draw the conclusion that there is a skill gap from such data unless the reverse hypotheses is tested, and not on hiring managers, but on a more exhaustive research. Only then can we state anything for certain!


ABOUT SKILL SETS AND COMPETENCIES

It is not about setting the bar high; it is about hiring for skills that are just not required for on-the-job performance! Our intake process does not measure KRA-Specific skills, but rather wavers all over the place, including all and sundry items in addition to job-specific skills in the guise of gauging personality. And the fun of it is that this judgement is passed by people who themselves have precisely zero knowledge of psychology, or personality! The entire process is highly subjective and prone to error which is perhaps why frequently positions go unfilled or hiring gets delayed. 

And the description “technical competencies” cannot be so vague – especially not in a high-level report, on which basis strategic vision documents are created. It has to be specific – and it will vary from industry to industry. For example, for underwriting in insurance, the core skill is knowledge of documents & their veracity; basic finance; insurance theories, concepts and processes; and so on. No college teaches these skills; and oral communication is not a pre-requisite. Neither is an excellent knowledge of English a requirement, given that documents can also be presented in the Vernacular. 

Anything else is frankly immaterial insofaras underwriting is concerned. A similar case can be stated for other functional skills – the moment you go specific, you realise that the organisations are equally responsible for bloating the entire affair out of all proportion. I say this as I have seen all sides of the coin – the college, the young brigade as well as the company side. Whether or not the candidate can speak English is immaterial, as is any other point not mentioned as a core skill. Not all jobs require you to be technically savvy, or speak English at all {let alone fluently}

The focus on hiring managers in survey after survey is fallacious; this requires a deeper research to get a handle on this entire matter, which is far too complex to rely on one set of individuals alone. Few hiring managers are skilled in psychology, and yet “bad attitude”, and “personality mismatch” feature as rejection reasons. How can a person who has zero knowledge of psychology pass judgement on these parameters? Far more critical, how can any decision on future direction be taken on the pronouncements of these people?


TRAINING SCENARIO

How much emphasis is placed on training? How much emphasis is placed on skilling the candidate in specific KRA-designed training programmes by companies? Nil. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Nothing. Cipher. Induction programmes are unimaginative affairs, listing things a simple google search will reveal. You require an induction for that? What for?

How many hours are devoted to periodic training that is KRA specific by companies? Again, very near zero. Training is looked upon as a waste of time by line managers. A training programme nomination is looked upon as a warning, as is treated as a first step to sacking by more than a majority of line managers. Periodic training to refresh skill sets is absent across functions. Simple fact.

How can you blame candidates or universities in such a scenario? The companies are not willing to invest in their own people, whom they call “assets”, and want to earn profits from their performance? Furthermore, no company is wanting to engage with universities and colleges outside the top 10-15, and communicate with and work with these colleges. Arent the companies a part of our society, our culture? Shouldnt they do it – if not for nationalist feeling, then out of a pure play profit motive?

I am not absolving the colleges of the blame – just making a simple point that this is far too complex a matter. 


THE WAY FORWARD – THE CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE  

Let me clarify. I once had occasion, during my tenure as a visiting faculty, to check what my students are using as study material. The non-regular students were using translations into the vernacular; these students were further not in the A-Graders, or even B-Graders. Now companies immediately scream at this juncture : English Problem! No Skills! Prima Facie, this seems logical, and spot-on. Except, on deeper analysis, this is exposed as a fallacious impression. 

First, is the knowledge of English mission critical? In most roles, it isnt. Fact. Then why reject because of this? Next, how do you expect a student from the heartland and hinterland, schooled in poor schools or local languages to upgrade to flowing top-level English in the space of a heartbeat? Impossible – it cant be done! Does this mean that this person has no talent whatsoever? 

The next point follows from this – if the person cannot even understand English, how can anyone expect him to be functionally an expert, or at a par with those who can, given that most top-level books are in English? At this point, companies reject, scream “Skill Gap” and wash their hands off the entire matter. Seems logical – except that it is anything but, as deeper thought reveals.

As Corporate India moves into the smaller towns / smaller colleges in big towns for its hiring, this is going to be a persistent problem. This is not really a problem – it is a signal that Corporate India is not in sync with the ground realities, and needs to modify its processes and procedures, and undergo serious introspection. 

The reality is that only the creamy layer is exposed to good schooling; this is an external reality. Hindi / Marathi / Bengali / Tamil / Telugu etc are the medium of instruction. Corporate India has yet to realise this reality, let alone accept it. Books and quality material, access to resources are absent in this layer. Schools and parents alike cant afford it. This is a hard reality. 

Does this mean that this entire set of people, or a large majority among them, is not worth hiring? Has anyone given them a chance, by proper timely training interventions before deployment on the job / regular interaction with college managements and faculties and such like? No! Then how can you assume that they cant perform, when you are using standards of judgement that they just cannot meet, and are therefore manifestly unfair? 

This isnt socialism – I am talking pure capitalism and perfect business sense. You have a vacancy; you have candidates who have passed an exam pertaining to that required skill set; and you dont hire! You choose – note that – actually choose – to leave the vacancy open in a hyper-competitive market! Amazing! 

Not one corporate in my experience has tried to retrain these people. And, sadly and shockingly, in corporate India itself there are people who have overcome these handicaps, reskilled themselves, and succeeded – thereby proving that this is a gap that can be bridged. And if it can be bridged, it ceases to be a gap, and becomes a ground-level challenge that needs attending to. 

Trust me – there are students who are raring to go, given a chance at reskilling. It is in corporate interest to give them that chance. Either that – or cry skill gap, leave positions vacant and impact your business competence. Corporates are running away from the problem, not trying to solve it. 

They are a part of this nation; they are a part of this society. That they should get in, dirty their hands and get it done is beyond debate. The pay-off? Talent. And there is plenty of latent talent – try interacting with these students. I did. And was stunned, humbled and shameful. 

Remember : Focus on what you can change, the circle of influence. The socio-economic factors, the schooling issues are way too complex and are in the circle of concern. Changing that will require decades- and you want business performance in the near term. 

My point is that this is not so simple, and has many, many facets and roots – Socio-Cultural, Economic, Political, Business etc. This does not lend itself to simple and-or situations. In the meantime, we in Corporate India need people. 

Any youngster will have dreams and aspirations, that is natural. It is the absence of dreams that is a problem, not how tall they are. Similarly, not all can communicate their feelings and thoughts. That is again a human trait. Does this mean that all those who cant communicate are worthless, and have no talent? Obviously no. What is needed in counselling – which is not done, or proper guidance as to what suits which person. This is the most significant gap in educational systems. 

What can WE do should be the question? That is our circle of influence. Remember – we require people as much as they require jobs. Our need is in some ways greater than theirs. We can either sit and cry as to the failures of the system – or roll up our sleeves, plan and execute strategies that will bridge the gap. The latter course is a sure guarantee of success. The former isnt. 

What we can do is step in, fill the perceived gaps in chosen institutes that have the potential of meeting our needs, and work with these institutes round-the-year, through monthly seminars with students, one-on-one counselling sessions,and other such activities. This will cost next to nothing, and give us a strong understanding of the prospective candidates to boot. In the pressure for immediate results, we forget to nurture new talent; we set the bar too high due to our internal deliverables which are demanding, so say the least. The need of the hour is a long-term approach. To be specific, choose and target specific colleges in smaller towns and cities – Indore, Bhopal, Varanasi, Surat, Nasik, Akola, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Bhuj, Agra etc. Work with these places – you will get talent, and at a lower cost. Win-win situation 

This will also go a long way in reducing employee turnover, reduce stress, build engagement. Survey after survey is showing rise of dissatisfaction, unbearable stress, physical diseases, mental diseases in Corporate India. 


In my experience, students do respond to counselling, and proper guidance. Problem is, they dont have anyone to approach for help and guidance. We can play that role. The pay-off? Talent. Assured talent, and tie-ups with institutes that will last years, as also fulfilling your CSR mandates in a sure way.