SV Nathan on Key HR challenges in 2020 and strategies to fix them


Super exclusive conversation with S.V. Nathan, Partner, and the Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte India. Nathan has over three decades of experience in HR management, across diverse industries including Manufacturing, Hospitality, IT, Telecom, and Professional Services.  

He is a respected voice of the HR profession in India, Nathan speaks regularly at several national and global forums on contemporary HR matters. He was conferred the ‘Distinguished Alumnus Award’ by XLRI by his Alma Mater. He was acknowledged as one of the top 25 thought leaders in the Digital space by SAP. He was also recognized as one of the top three Power Profiles in HR by LinkedIn for 2017 and his blogs and posts on #OfficeTruths on LinkedIn is very popular. Recently, Nathan has been appointed as senior faculty members from India, at The Josh Bersin Academy. And LinkedIn announced him one of the LinkedIn’s Top 25 Voices 2019 from India.

Q- You are an inspirational HR veteran having vast experience with fortune 500 companies. How do you look at your career journey today? And what have been the key milestones in your life?

I was born in ‎a very modest family and my early education was in a school run by the municipal corporation. In all, I have been to five schools across three cities, completed my graduation in mathematics, and ended my studies on a high note at XLRI Jamshedpur. I was a good student and did well academically. Each stage in my professional journey has taught me something new. From my first company, a British multinational called ICI in which I spent 12 years, I learnt how important it is to seek out bright minds and train them to be a successful fit with the organisation. Next, Sterling Holiday Resorts in Madras taught me that bright minds are not always the ones with a formidable resume. Always look for a spark that can be harnessed to deliver extraordinary results. At Reliance, I learnt the power of imagination, and relentless project planning and delivery. It was then that I found my way to Deloitte, first with the US Offices in India for 10 years, and now, with Deloitte India. This a place where people lead by example, serve with integrity, take care of each other, include everyone, and collaborate for measurable impact.

Q- What are the biggest challenges facing HR today and how can it prove its relevance within its organisation and bring strategic value? 

Any organisation runs on the back of two key elements: one is customer /clients and the second is people. Organisations can do an extraordinary job if they have the right people. There are so many examples of firms that started very small and have had extraordinary results because they brought in the right people.

There are some challenges that HR is facing today.

  • GETTING IN THE RIGHT QUALITY OF PEOPLE: Define what is the right quality for your needs. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work. For example, a growing organisation may need talent that is entrepreneurial. A data-driven one will benefit from analytical people.
  • GETTING THE BEST PERFORMANCE OUT OF PEOPLE: Quality is just step one, you need to develop the right HR performance process and drive it really well, so that people understand they are working in an organisation where performance is valued. This also means that people will need to be trained and mentored, so that quality translates into delivery.
  • GIVE PEOPLE A REASON TO STAY IN AN ORGANISATION: People stay in an organisation when they feel a strong sense of purpose, and leave when the purpose doesn’t translate into reality, or if they lose faith in that purpose. HR should help individuals to find purpose in what they do. This will be of tremendous value.
  • GETTING THE BEST HR TECHNOLOGY: HR needs to invest in the best technology in the business, to help the business grow. Today, the challenge for HR is in convincing the business (i.e. the management) to spend towards the many new technology solutions that are available, and much needed. The need of the hour is to be ahead of the queue and use those technologies to increase the candidate/employee experience.
  • ABILITY TO CONVEY VALUE: While the HR field has significantly advanced, it’s not uncommon to come across memes about HR’s objective being Traditional Days and Secret Santa. Problem is that traditionally, we just get the work done and keep a low profile. Often, the business may not know the value that HR provides. This is where the importance of analytics and its use in the dashboard and sharing information comes in. Predicting outcomes is also important. HR does not have the ability to tell a story on the dashboard. Firms understand the value in financial terms, so HR needs to convey value in financial language.
  • CULTURE: HR’s ability to influence culture is the current challenge.  People in organisations want to learn and grow; HR can be the enabling function that helps people with it. HR should invest in learning programs that are relevant for the future of work, and specifically look into developing programs that are coordinated with millennials’ inclination for anytime – anywhere – any subject learning. HR can also help in creating a coaching- and dialogue-oriented environment to enable better performance. 

Q- How do you see the Talent challenges, changing Talent priorities in all industries, and what will the new talent landscape look like in 2020 and ahead?   

The work, the workforce, and the workplace are all changing.

Intelligent automation is making organisations reimagine work. The profusion of innovations will constrict human involvement in routine processes. White-collared jobs will have to focus on what are the specific tasks that can only be done by a person. There will be big pressure on workforces because of these changes.

Translating this into the area of talent management, there will be a need for flexibility, redesigning, and customising jobs. This will also affect talent mobility and compensation.

  • People will look at new ways of working.
  • There will be new ways of learning.
  • Diversity is going to be at the top of the agenda.
  • Organisations will focus on getting women back to the workforce.

Q- Do you see the skills gap in the workforce; Companies are concerned about digital skills in their workforces, how to go for hiring and rebalancing the workforce?

Of course! The biggest challenge that organisations have is the real skill gap between what they have and what the new age wants. The ability to train and re-train is a challenge, because it doesn’t happen very easily. You need to have wherewithal, infrastructure, and you need to invest your time and energy. It is also a matter of changing the culture. In a multi-generational workforce, it is even more challenging.

The problem that organisations will face in getting people with the right skillsets is the MAKE or BUY tradeoff. The BUY model is an expensive model and the MAKE model takes longer, but is more economical, and creates a strong sense of belongingness among your people.

Until the time that the skilling ecosystem is not geared towards the demands of Industry 4.0, companies will continue to face a challenge in finding the data scientists, analytists, and even shop floor operators who can work the latest technologies and processes.

Q- The gig economy is on the rise, more than 70% of companies use the gig workers, and it is projected that gig workers will comprise half the workforce by 2020 globally. How do you see the future of India’s workforce?

Might be globally, but in India, it will be 50% by 2025. Gig in India is divided into four areas-

  • Contract to hire through agencies
  • Direct contract of people for a finite period of time
  • Contract for a certain job/ projects
  • Contract someone for certain hours/ days

The gig-economy is completely changing the talent landscape because you are really looking at a great way to get the skills where there is a demand/supply mismatch. The gig platforms that we currently have connect the buyer (organisation) with the seller (the person with the skills).

Gig workers have some advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that we may have sharp and intelligent people who have the skills required, can be compensated based on assignments, and that they can work at home.

Disadvantages include the disruption in the organisation’s culture, design, and way of work. There is also going to be a disinclination to invest in training anybody in an organisation.

Nevertheless, the need for skills will drive the Gig Economy and we are going to see that in India, in a major way. Therefore, organisations need to be proactive and create mechanisms that make this transition, smooth.  

Q- The employee experience is the future of HR? How to design and shape EX strategies to compelling experiences for the employees?

I believe that there is a model one needs to adopt. To get the entire envelope of the employee experience is on the back of four pillars-

  • Connect with your employees
  • Develop your employees
  • Care your employees
  • Help your employees perform

Start right from when someone wants to join the organisation, don’t skip steps, and remember, those who take shortcuts end up with the short end of the stick. Only when you commit to, and implement all four of the above, do you get a compelling experience for employees.

Q- How should HR redraft their People Strategies to mitigate such challenges?

The HR function will have to revamp the entire process, structure, and delivery system, and most importantly – how they create value in the workplace in whatever they do; whether it is analytics, hiring, or talent models.  

Possibly, they will need to reinvent the entire HR team itself, to understand the new realities; they have to be fine-up for the new world.

Last, but not least, HR functions need to bring all things together and create a dashboard, which allows them to see what they are doing right and where they need to improve. Importantly, to reinforce what I said earlier, the HR function needs to communicate the value that is being derived through all these actions.

Q- Like the workforce, the workplace is also changing. Which trends are expected to dominate the workplace by 2020 and ahead?

When the demands of the workforce are out of the box, why should the workplace continue as before? The more lines, cubicles, walls, and partitions you have, the more you impede the free-flow of ideas. We need to move towards collaborative workspaces. I agree that like with any change, there will be some resistance towards having common tables, lounges, and no assigned desks. But once the benefits are visible, the acceptance will come. Ten years back, good WiFi bandwidth was a luxury. Now, it’s a given. Today, it’s increasingly common to see many more open-plan offices, with more colour, natural light, playfulness, and even greenery – and the adapters are well beyond the usual suspects like media, or ad agencies.

So, future workplace trends will include-

  • Greater communication
  • Greater collaboration
  • Greater ease and flow of work

Q- What are the HR trends which will stay relevant in 2020?

Though I have covered most of the HR trends in the above questions, let me recap them here for easy reference:

  • Talent and skills will prevail over university degrees.
  • Gig Economy is a big trend, it will make big moves in India.
  • The workplace, the workforce, and work itself will change.
  • Automation and digitalisation will continue at a faster pace.
  • Compensation and rewards approaches will see dramatic changes. 

Q- What is your advice to HR professionals who aspires to be in your shoes one day?

If I were a young person, and entering the workforce today, I would go with-

  • How can I learn more and learn fast?
  • How can I experiment with new ideas?
  • How can I acquire more skills and understand different industries?
  • How can I learn to collaborate?
  • How can I train to have a curious mind?

Thank you, Nathan!

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