Sunday, March 27, 2011

Metaphorical Management - Talent Works like River Flows

Stanford University Professors, Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky in their research paper, “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning”, PLoS ONE, February 23, 2011 (courtesy, my erudite friend Narayanan Surendran) hypothesize that the way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor. In five experiments, they explore how these metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. They find that even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems and how they gather information to make “well-informed” decisions. Probably, this explains how powerful speakers with deep grasp of various domains are able to influence vast sections of population by metaphors and analogies drawn in a contextually relevant manner to current political, social and economic problems and their resolution.

The researchers see the influence of the metaphorical framing effect as being covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision. Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences. Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. They find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems. Knowingly or unknowingly, I believe, I have used metaphorical discourse in my recent blog post “Value Creation in Commodities: Water Lessons for Managers” (Strategy Musings, February , 2011). That said, the specific research by the Stanford Professors inspires me to explore and propose more metaphorical lessons from nature for management theory and practice.

The thesis for this blog post is that talent is for organizations what rivers are for life and human settlements. The evolution and behavior of talent in organizations mirrors how rivers originate and run their course. At least ten propositions on the course of rivers can be conceptualized to understand how talent influences, and gets influenced, by organizational forces. These interplays are as natural as manmade, as spontaneous as deliberate and as positive as negative. When we visualize through nature’s lens we would better appreciate the organizational dependency on, and vulnerability, to talent. Beneficial talent management can emerge from an understanding and application of the following ten principles, modeled after river characteristics, and also illustrated with practical organizational examples.

Rivers are water; talent is intellect

Like rivers are made up of water, talent is made up of intellect. Just as water is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, intellect is made up of knowledge in two parts and attitudes in one part. Knowledge and attitude in talent are inseparable from each other like hydrogen and oxygen are in water. While assessing talent for induction into organizations, talent managers would need to look for the right flourish of intellect, fusing knowledge with attitude.

While many organizations are technically and commercially successful, leading organizations are often distinguished by talent profiles that reflect such fusion. The leader in each industry reflects talent that has that unique combination of knowledge and attitude; for example, the IITs in technical education, IIMs in management education, McKinsey in consulting, HUL in FMCG, ITC in conglomerate business, Tata Motors in automobiles, L&T in engineering, Infosys in IT and so on.

Purity at source; openness at graduation

Rivers are the purest at source; whether at the rain fed hillside catchment areas or pristine glaciers of snowy Himalayas. Talent, likewise, is purest at entry into an organization; intellectually alert, and anxious to deploy the knowledge in the organization. Like rivers, talent as it runs its course it gets vitiated by unpleasant organizational experiences even as it could be enhanced by the right on-the-job experiences and additional training inputs. Talent managers need to be focused on preserving the purity of talent and enhancing it over the long career spans of individuals.

Successful organizations have well-crafted mentorship programs that ensure that the worth and warmth with which a professional enters the organization are preserved and reinforced. A mentor is one who has high capabilities and long experience but more importantly a flair for developing people to their fullest potential. Mentors also like to mingle with youngsters and absorb new points of view. Mentors help fresh entrants navigate through complex organizational dynamics, retaining their intrinsic soft skills and acquiring necessary hard skills. Mentors should be identified not only for fresh entrants but also for experienced personnel who enter the organization.

Shapes as the container; moulds as the job

Water has no shape of its own; it assumes easily that of the container. Rivers likewise are shaped by their embankments. Talent fits the job it is supposed to fill. The structure of the job and its potentialities therefore determine to a large extent as to how talent gets positioned in the organization. Most times talented professionals fail to live up to their potential because of poor job design or misalignment between capabilities and job requirements. Accessing talent without a job that fits the talent is like trying to hold a river on a plain ground; it simply seeps itself to obscurity. Talent managers and organization designers need to work together to leverage professional capabilities through challenging jobs.

Clarity on job profile is an essential requirement for shaping talent. Job profiles must be designed with a macro perspective, providing a cascade of responsibilities and a canvas of stretch responsibilities, linking all jobs across the organization. Well-structured organizations have fundamentally well-structured induction and on-boarding programs that integrate the person, position and the organization under a canopy of vision, values and strategy of the corporation. Induction programs as well as re-contact programs are the opportunities to develop interrelationships between the old talent and new talent and shape the talent to the needs of the organization.

River follows gravity; talent defies gravity

Rivers, like civilization, have long history. As they get renewed seasonally with rains or glacier and snow melts, rivers run their pre-charted course. While a river moves from highs to lows, talent seeks to overcome lows to reach highs. Institutions and courses provide the motive power for talent. Talent that graduates out of reputed institutions or acquires top-notch experience has expectations commensurate with the background. It is important that career progression plans are designed to let highly capable talent move up the organizational hierarchy without needless obstacles.

Career progression is the toughest call of talent management. In a virtuous cycle, top-class talent, competitive corporate growth and rapid career progression reinforce each other. However, organizations in mature industries are faced with challenges in accessing and retaining talent that can drive growth while lack of growth per se in mature industries is further constrained by talent. Appeal to considerations other than compensation, like basic interest in an industry, helps in stability of talent. Talent level and industry setting have an equation that needs to be followed to achieve equitable career management.

Streams become rivers; people make organizations

Rivers often have their origins at multiple sources. Streams combine to become rivulets which, in turn, combine to become rivers. At a macro level, organizational talent is like a mighty river drawing into its mainstream multiple streams of talent. Diversity of talent that enters an organization needs to be encouraged to become an integrated organizational competence. Performing talent that enters the organization pure and raw can turn into high performing talent with the right inputs as well as challenges and opportunities.

A major challenge for human resources managers is to make employees across domains and organization feel like one family. Diversity should ideally also make for unity. The more diversified geographically and business-wise an organization is the greater is the challenge of making people feel together. Modern software and portal technologies as well as social networking tools provide platforms for even extremely large organizations generate employee engagement and create oneness. More than tools and technologies, however, a corporate brand reflecting what it stands for in terms of products, customers and values sustains togetherness, irrespective where the employee works in the globe.

Rivers join oceans; talent becomes national wealth

Whatever be the origin or course, rivers ultimately merge into oceans either by themselves or by joining other larger rivers. It is often thought that the ultimate goal of professionals is to reach the apex positions of an organization. The competition for the apex positions and the churn at the top reflect the aspiration of the highly evolved talent to achieve self-actualization. In a macro view, all great talent becomes national wealth as it gets experienced and turns more capable as well as more mature. Organizations must have programs by which their best talent is represented through membership of industry and national forums to enrich a nation’s competencies.

India and the larger world have many examples of top-flight business leaders helping out nations and governments. Indian corporate veterans and leaders like V Krishnamurthy, N Vaghul, D Parekh, R Tata and R Seshasayee played major roles in government bodies and commissions. N Nilankani, the CEO of Infosys left corporate management and joined the central government as the head of UID project. Even the American government has co-opted several senior corporate leaders in various committees, Jeff Immelt being the most notable of such entrants into the national mainstream.

Rains replenish; training rejuvenates

Whether perennial or seasonal, rivers need incessant rains to be fulsome. Likewise, talent needs continuous on-the-job experiences and periodic educational inputs to stay continuously productive. Professionals placed in unchallenging jobs and are governed by introverted talent management tend to experience an intellectual decay of sorts. Such professionals and organizations may sustain stable mature corporations in an operations and maintenance mode but would be incapable of taking the organizations into more competitive and more exciting areas. By ensuring exposure to external academic and professional inputs, talent managers can ensure high levels of competence in their organizations.

Organizations which have become large today had significant training infrastructures even when they were small. In fact, their early emphasis on training set the tone for enhanced competencies and hence higher growth. Way back in the 1960s, Tata Motors (then, Telco) had one of the finest multi-location management training centre network. Most IT companies, Infosys being a leader, have their universities to train and retrain their employees. Organizations which cannot afford their in-house training infrastructure must develop relationships with leading academic and development institutions at least. Hindustan Aeronautics had such programs with the IITs in spite of having internal development capabilities for reasons of accessing specialized knowledge.

Society needs river reservoirs; organizations need talent pools

Conservation of rain through high rise dams is a gift of modern civil engineering that provided water insurance for a society stricken for water. As the world faces global warming with changes in climate, water would increasingly be in short supply. Future confrontations would be on water hegemony and not for political or economic dominance, some experts aver. The situation for talent is no different. Higher order global aspirations require higher order talent; especially the kind of talent that not only stays on with the company but also constantly reinvents itself. Talent managers need to structure plans that retain talent but also build it up into a reservoir that can lead futuristic growth.

If there is one redundancy that organizations must aim at it is talent. If there is one inventory that needs careful planning it is talent. Yet, many organizations run on shoestring budgets in talent pooling. Organization must precede both structure and strategy. Companies aspiring growth have benefitted from talent pools that were built up ahead of growth needs. HUL, Tata Steel, Tata Motors, Infosys, ITC, Reliance, M&M and scores of Indian blue chip companies are some companies which have built large talent benches to be proactive on growth.

Rivers are multi-purpose; talent is multi-faceted

Thanks to advances in civil and electrical engineering, rivers have become multi-purpose national assets, irrigating farmlands and generating hydro-power. Their vast reservoirs regenerate water table. Talent is multi-faceted. Many times the same problem is analyzed and addressed in different ways by different people. This is essentially because different faculties come into play when problems are approached with an open mind by different people. Organizations must emphasize a collaborative spirit by which diverse approaches are brought to bear on the problem. From a different perspective, each professional could have capabilities which are more diverse than those required by the job. Talent managers have to find ways to discover latent talent of professionals.

Discovering latent talent requires risk taking by companies. Frequent job rotation is seen as an answer. A precursor would be entrustment of special assignments to test the latent talent. The foundations of Ashok Leyland Finance in the 1980s were laid by the business plans laid out by me as an engineer. So was my advocacy of the IndusInd concept. Some organizational leaders have an uncanny knack to identify talent for purposes far beyond the obvious. This capability would be a core competence of the organizations. Many public sector and private sector undertakings have the practice of taking the young entrants as executive assistants to challenge and stretch their talent.

New water replaces the old; new talent reinforces the old

Flowing rivers are characterized by new water constantly replacing the old. The flow characteristics of a river determine the river’s standing in social acclaim. Good talent cannot stagnate in organizations. It must be the endeavor of talent managers to choose appropriate talent renewal cycles so that contemporary talent constantly reinforces the established talent. Existing talent must recognize the need for strengthening its capabilities by enlarging the talent pool. Talent managers need to promote a culture of openness in their organizations to welcome and integrate new talent.

Induction of new talent cannot be a sporadic affair. Companies which have annual graduate and post graduate selection programs institutionalize the process of new talent induction and progression. State Bank of India is a great example of building generations of professionals and leaders through annual probationary officer recruitment programs. Several other large private and public sector companies in India have maintained talent flow through annual inductions. Companies with such strong entry programs are also able to find internal talent more easily and assuredly for apex positions.

Talent ecosystem

Just as nature provides the ecosystem for rivers that are essential for life, organizations must provide an appropriate ecosystem for talent. Intellect that defines talent, like the water that provides the source for rivers, is universal. Successful organizations build talent proactively and gain competitive advantage. Talent properly managed helps organizations grow, but when improperly managed sub-optimizes potential. Metaphorically, talent like rivers can be harnessed for growth and competitiveness, if the ten principles of natural talent management are appreciated.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on March 27, 2011

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