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Echoes of an ecosystem: Revisiting HRM in Sri Lanka


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Overview 

Ecosystems are so essential for nature. They provide the basis for survival and sustainability. Can the practice of Human Resource Management (HRM) be meaningfully viewed as an ecosystem? Today’s column attempts to do so in the broader context of Sri Lankan organisations operating in local and international territories. 

Ecosystems in a nutshell

An ecosystem can be described in multiple ways. The typical biology textbook calls it a community of living organisms. It can further be described as a group of interconnected elements formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment. It appears that the business world has borrowed the term from biology and adapted it to suit business needs. As such, it can be viewed as any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts.

The essential feature of an ecosystem is the lively interactions among the elements. It is a dynamic set of interrelationships that create value. An ecosystem can be influenced by internal as well as external factors. The scope and the space of an ecosystem may vary. In fact, the entire planet has been identified as a mega ecosystem.

HR Ecosystem through 10 Gs

It is indeed fascinating to see how HRM operates at various levels within an institution as well as outside an institution. I propose an HR ecosystem as a combination of 10 Gs, namely Goal, Get, Give, Grow, Glue, Glow, Guard, Grapple, Grip and Gratify. They are related mainly to four levels, from micro to macro. I would identify them as Ground, Group, General and Global. Figure 1 illustrates such multiple facets at multiple levels. Let’s go through the details of the 10 Gs depicted in figure 1 with examples.

Ground Level

I propose this as the institutional or organisational context. It could be private or public. The first seven Gs are very much in existence here. 

Goal

This occupies centre-stage in setting the direction of the entire organisation. It revolves around the strategic intent, comprising vision, mission or aspiration whatever the terminology may be. Aligning the grooming of people with the goals of the organisation should be the right approach. There are numerous occasions where people are unclear about their top goals and priorities. 

Strategic Human Resource Management (SHRM) appears prominently in this context. SHRM is an approach which defines how an organisation’s goals will be achieved through people by means of HR strategies and integrated HR policies and practices. 

Get

This is all about getting the right people in. The hiring challenge looms large for organisations in diverse environments, mainly owing to a talent gap. I would call it a R-R gap, the gap between required talent and raw talent.  

The market is abundant with raw talent, especially with school leavers. Are they geared to do a demanding job in a target-driven environment? Sadly, the answer is no. We teach complex subject matter but not how to gain confidence. Job orientation in academic courses has been recognised as important only of late.

In practical terms, updated job descriptions and job specifications should be available for each position and these should be used in the selection process. Also, selecting the appropriate test in predicting future performance on the specific job is of importance. Managers should be trained in effective hiring, with special emphasis on interviewing skills. 

Grow

This refers to the need to build people. Training and development go hand-in-hand. The simple difference is that the former is for the present and the latter is for the future. In essence, training is to do something. Development is to be someone. Both are intertwined in such a way that training leads to development.

Choices in training and development are captured here. Identification of training and development needs is of the utmost importance in this regard. Having clarity on program participants, presenters, designers, coverage, delivery methods and expected behavioural changes are some of the vital associated components. 

A growing emphasis on training effectiveness with proper mechanisms to measure is seen in the Sri Lankan private sector. The use of the popular Kirkpatrick model to assess training effectiveness at different levels is one such approach. Return on Training Investment (ROTI) has slowly become a critical factor in the local scenario as well, in justifying the monetary allocation for training and development.

Give

“If you give peanuts, you get monkeys,” goes an old saying. What you give to the person who came in by way of reward and recognition is of utmost importance in the context of competition. Your competitor can grab your best talent by “giving” more. 

One may observe that some Sri Lankan organisations have well-structured reward and recognition schemes. What is needed more could be the strengthening of behavioural aspects, such as verbal appreciation of an exceptional performance.

Glue

I would associate the feature ‘binding’ with glue. This refers to the range of choices in retaining talent. Having developed the knowledge and skills of high performers of any organisation, seeing them leave is the last thing an organisation would like to see. The multifaceted phenomenon of employee engagement needs to be dealt with through appropriate strategies.  

Finding out why talented people leave and taking appropriate action to arrest the outflow should be high on the HR agenda. Offering a variety of financial and non-financial rewards to stay also needs to be strengthened. 

Encouraging evidence can be found at many leading organisations in Sri Lanka. Yet the reality remains that when there are a number of overseas opportunities with unmatchable financial offers, employees tend to seek better prospects. As I have seen at many organisations, effectively engaging the employees with a clear purpose can be a sure cure in arresting the rot. 

Glow

This is the subtlest of all. It can appear in several forms. As one such form, choices in promoting the employees can be captured. When a career ladder is available for them to climb, and when the organisation is genuinely providing support and encouragement, the chances of them contributing better in a more committed manner is high. Establishing criteria for new jobs, allowing volunteers to take up challenging tasks, evaluating candidates’ potential, supporting new job-holders are some of the key actions in this regard. The broad aspects of performance management fall into this arena. 

In another form, encouraging the employees to unleash their potential is also a way of allowing them to ‘glow’. Creating an environment where employees feel free to experiment, resulting in innovative products and services is a right step in this direction. Global examples such as 3M and Google have made this a sure-fire approach in making people glow.  

Guard

Guarding is all about employee protection through a proper policy framework. It may include controls as well as clearance for creative action. A widely shared and wilfully practiced set of corporate values also falls into this perspective. A weak guarding may result in employees having uncertainty and ambiguity with regard to their direction, resulting in lower involvement and contribution. 

The above seven Gs are interrelated and in existence at institutions. Let’s move one step further. When many such institutions in an industry have seven Gs, there are much greater prospects for HRM to prosper. 

Group level

I use the term ‘Group’ to identify many institutions in an industry. Several apparel manufacturers having the seven Gs of HRM in the apparel industry is such an example. The eighth G, Grapple, is required here.

Grapple

It is the reality of competition among various institutions to grab the best talent. It also highlights the way to handle possible conflicts or collaborations between different institutions with regard to HRM. Among the competing organisations how HRM practices can be shared and supported is worth exploring. In essence grapple refers to the challenges of facing competition among the firms and how HRM should respond to such challenges. 

In the diagram of an HR Ecosystem, several institutions having the seven Gs of HRM are represented with the eighth G as an institutional HRM response to the industry. This in fact can be further extended to more than one industry as well.

General level 

This is where all industries with many institutions meet. It is essentially the broad national level where countrywide HRM policies and practices become significant. This is where twin influences occur with regard to industries and thereby the institutions within. I would like to call them gearing factors and governing elements.

Gearing Factors are the typical PESTEEL factors that gear or influence the steering of an industry or the institutions within. PESTEEL stands for political, economic, social, technical, environmental, ethical and legal factors. They affect an industry in general and an institution in particular. What is the implication to HRM? It is a case of having a grip on the gearing factors in making HRM policies. I propose this aspect as the ninth G, Grip.

Grip

In essence, it is the collective and committed HRM response to the gearing factors. Let’s say a policy decision of allowing knowledge workers from a neighbouring country is taken. There is a need for HR professionals to discuss, decide and do the needful in such an event. That is to take a firm ‘grip’ in responding to the influencing factor. It is a significant step in staying competitive as a nation.

Apart from the gearing factors, governing forces need our attention. 

Governing Elements are the stakeholders having diverse expectations. They include government, labour unions, HR professional bodies, HR research units, etc. What is required from HRM is the tenth G, which is to ‘gratify’.

Gratify

This essentially refers to stakeholder satisfaction. HRM has a macro role here. HR professionals have to connect, cooperate and collaborate with multiple institutions, communities and organisations at a national level. These moves provide the key drivers for being more competitive as a nation. 

Global level

Having discussed the ground, group and general levels what is left is the global level.

The Global Level is where the national competitiveness of a country matters most. For us to be more competitive as a nation at the global level, HRM should produce global talent from Sri Lanka. HR professionals have a critical role in ensuring the seven Gs at the ground level, the eighth G at the group level and the remaining Gs at the general level. The current indications such as the Global Competitiveness Index reveal a significant area for improvement in this respect. It is the culmination of all Gs that HRM has to offer in order for the country to be globally more competitive.

Way forward

Revisiting HRM through an ecosystem to discover its depth and breadth is not just a conceptual act but points to concrete actions towards goal attainment. The role HR professionals have to play is getting increasingly important with the associated complex challenges. 

(Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri can be reached at director@pim.sjp.ac.lk, president@ipmlk.org or 

www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)


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