There are over 14.3 lakh registered companies, of various sizes and vintage, in India. Assuming that even one-fourth have a formal HR role within the entity, that necessitates 3.6 lakh HR teams in the country. The larger debate is this: Is the Indian HR a proactive human potential enabler, or mere process worker in the entire business cycle?

The Indian context

India's population of 130 crore has nearly two-third of them under 35 years of age; that gives the workforce the potential to deliver economic value for national development, as well as qualitative value-addition to quality of living. It has diverse set of people, that cut across various lens of socio-economic background, gender, educational qualification, skills, geographic base, experience, caste, religion, surname, family background, social network or access to it, etc. A typical human capital development in such stratified and complicated market condition requires understanding of India’s diversity, and yet make its talent management and development, as an equal opportunity without any bias. This is what HR is expected to achieve.

Most Indian companies, including the largest among the over 7,000 listed entities, are family-majority-owned and even management-controlled by the family individuals. In the past two decades, Indian corporates have managed to bring in their next-Gen from the owner families into workforce, with management education. However, some of the basic behaviour of management styles of the past have not changed. While you can polish the apple with wax to make it look reddish and appealing, how do you solve for what’s the core inside?

When India liberalised in early 1990s, it was with the intent to disengage licensing as a concept to prod industrial growth. While much of delicensing happened, the policy circles brought in various other checks and balances under the guise of regulations, licences, approvals, renewals of all these in various frequencies. While these kept up adequate employment in officialdom, it also brought in roadblocks for industries. HR continues to manage many of these licence-dom norms around the workforce! Despite technology usage, these continue to be irritants for the industry.

With the advent of advanced technology usage in HRTech, most of process (in)efficiencies in the HR domain can be tackled; whereas human intervention is still needed in much of human development initiatives. The HR function in India has been conventionally seen as a process function and to keep workforce measured in terms of input of activity to output of work. Despite the knowledge sector having scaled up now, sadly the conventional thinking is still around and wants to measure ‘impact’ of work the same way that it was measured before!

It is useful to understand that much of India’s early liberalised economy (services sector) was built around large multi-national firms moving their global back offices to the country, and the scaling up of Indian ITeS sector. That brought with itself many of the western world HR systems and processes. Hence the HR sector has been using those principles like HR compliance management, succession planning, talent assessment; atleast the larger Indian entities. So has the Indian HR merely copied and built on the western view of what HR should be?

While Indian HR leaders have been able to prove their mettle in global organisations, not much innovation or HR involvement has happened in the Indian domestic market, barring few outliers. With more business managers playing the hands-on ‘people manager’ role, is the HR function left to being a process enabler?

Also with younger demographics entering workforce since the past decade, and now in mid-management to senior-management levels, most of the HR community have not moved from the old school ‘command and control’ hierarchical mindset to the needed ‘influence and impact’ way. It has shade moved from the old school IR to HR. It is also fashionable to call it Human Capital or People Practice, without much difference to either approach to managing people’s aspirations or to making impactful proactive contribution to the business context. For the past few years, the Indian sector has observed the trend of everyone who manages an individual or a group of individuals, acting as the quasi people manager — and being responsible for their performance and growth.

Very few HR leaders in India have grown to lead the full business suite in the industries they served. And yet it is common for the HR fraternity to talk of need for HR community to get access to board seats or the corner office. But why?

Indian content: Human Capital to HR vanities

The word ‘potential’ means being ‘capable of coming into being or action’. Human beings by nature, are full of energy, capable of thinking and equipped with superior mental abilities; therefore, we are capable of being proactive as opposed to being reactive; our latent energies can ‘come into being’. By using our potential, we are capable of taking charge of ourselves. But do we?

There is much to be learnt from the ancient Indian business practices too. The art and science of managing human beings as a concept is available even in the ancient Indian writings. Early records of trade, from 4,500 B.C. to 300 B.C., not only indicate international economic and political links for then India, but also the ideas of social and public administration. The ancient treatise — probably world’s first management book 'Arthashastra', codified many aspects of human resource practices in Ancient India.

Often, in the current VUCA world, business goals and priorities change, before the HR initiatives have paid off. And when companies don’t meet their performance goals, some of those HR programs are among the first to be shut. On the flip side, HR must show why the issues it addresses matter to business and also proactively demonstrate that it has ideas and measurable methods to manage them. In today’s digital economy, much of the newer skill requirements and ability to measure them keep shifting almost every few years. The most vocal critics say that HR managers focus too much on process compliance and stereotyped tools, just because they learnt it when they graduated and don’t want to unlearn !

With growing gig economy, even in the knowledge space, HR thinking has to be rewired. The Indian stakeholders for HR, are of younger demographics (essentially young millennials to GenZ), which needs different engagement models. HR is about continually identifying new challenges and designing tools to meet them. In this regard, the function has much to prove about its delivery and proactiveness. Agility, unlearning and learning are traits that HR leaders are expected to demonstrate and to execute in their function.

HR has to reinvent itself. For it to be relevant, and even needed formally. But it’s not a sign of its death yet; decay for sure! In the world’s fastest growing economy, the scale and size of the demographics, along with aspirations of those youth is an opportunity for the Indian HR to set a new global framework; especially if our people leaders can add qualitative learnings to create a hybrid model in developing an Indian HR way !

Will Indian HR rise above its dreams, redesign itself for relevance, and actually deliver ‘potential to possibilities’ narrative, starting with itself?

The author is a corporate advisor and independent markets commentator.

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