'REIMAGINE HUL’ (Hindustan Unilever) is close to the heart of its outgoing MD and CEO, Sanjiv Mehta. He coined the phrase when he took over the reins in 2013 and has since transformed the FMCG conglomerate from a traditional distribution-led business into what he calls a ‘consumer-tech’ business. Mehta is particularly proud of ‘Shikhar’, the app which has over one million retailers ordering their inventory digitally. No longer dependent on salesmen coming to stores physically, retailers can place their orders on ‘Shikhar’, and get them delivered within a few hours.

The FMCG major believes ‘Shikhar’ would become a key route-to-market tool for its distributor trade, and for that it needs to train its frontline salesforce to operate and understand the app. This would mean skillsets of digital specialists with an understanding of data and analytics.

“We have done a skill analysis of our entire salesforce, which is more than 3,000 people, and have understood that most of them have fantastic selling and influencing skills. They need to be data-driven, and that is the focus we will give them with a mix of classroom and on-the-job training,” says Anuradha Razdan, executive director, human resources, HUL.

The ₹53,000-crore FMCG major is committed to upskilling its 21,000-strong workforce by 2025. The upskilling process is happening right from employees at the company’s manufacturing facilities to its senior leadership. Only 30% of HUL’s shopfloor employees have new-age digital skills and the goal is to ensure that at least 70% of the rest are upskilled within the next few years.

As the company moves towards fully automated, digital factories, it needs to train its employees in automation, digitisation and instrumentation, says Razdan. “We have nano factories where we want to drive agility, to reduce time between two batches. We are conducting a rigorous upskilling programme on our shopfloor, so that each of our operators moves up the skill ladder. In the last year we have seen 5-7% shift in those who have moved from unskilled to skilled and the journey will continue,” she adds. The company has partnered with U.S.-based Khan Academy and Delhi-based Industrial Training Institute (ITI) for the same.

In addition to upskilling its existing frontline salesforce as well as its factory staff, HUL has launched an apprentice programme, as part of which it is training college students in various new-age skills. “We can transform the whole mix of people in the frontline by getting in younger people and giving them digital and automation skills, which are inherently part of their education and DNA.”

HUL’s management training programme is well known. The company hires 80 management trainees from the country’s top business schools every year and puts them through rigorous training in HR, finance and marketing functions. This year it has launched a specialist stream, ‘digital commerce’. “Digital commerce is function-agnostic. If you decide to pursue a career in this stream, there is a specific recruitment process, the questions are different. We have developed a digital readiness index, we make the applicants go through it and post that they can join as a management trainee in HUL in the digital commerce workstream,” explains Razdan.

The company has also launched an initiative called ‘Open To You’, which focuses on working with people with skills in performance marketing, digital marketing, artificial intelligence and so on. “To ensure we have supply for these kinds of people we have created an outer core of almost 300 people who are focused on digital skills.”

HUL has partnered with a host of other companies to create this talent pool. One of them is ‘DigiPivot’, a partnership between Indian School of Business (ISB), Google and HUL, as part of which it has trained 250 women (who have taken career breaks and want to upskill themselves in order to make a comeback) in digital marketing. It has tied up with edtech firm AltUni for a programme in digital marketing to train talent with two-three years of experience, and has also partnered with UpGrad to hire data science students in various gig roles.

Razdan calls these partnerships a proactive approach to talent-building relationships. “Tech companies are laying off; we may not be able to hire all of them, but we want to have connections with the talent, so that they can come across either as gig or even full-time employees.”

India is facing a massive crisis of skilled talent and HUL’s way of dealing with it is to first upskill its existing employees, as opposed to hiring. “We keep repurposing. The business is transforming, the mix is changing within, it’s not like every time we go and say we are doing something new and we want 300 more people. We change the mix of people within and keep driving productivity and efficiency within roles or jobs which we believe are duplicative and can be done better by technology or automation. We do a mix of upskilling people and bringing people from the market,” explains Razdan.

“In last two-three years, the number of data scientist jobs went up three-fold, but we have groomed a lot of these people. We are building a digital commerce stream, for which we have in-house training programmes,” she adds.

The company’s transformation journey has created new job opportunities such as performance marketing, digital marketing, artificial intelligence (AI) specialists in planning and supply chain functions, roles which didn’t exist earlier.

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