Data analytics and not technology will redefine HR

Krish Shankar, ex-group HR head, Infosys, embarked on his professional journey at the age of 21, and has since completed 39 years in the industry. He superannuated last month, and now he is preparing for a second stint. In an extensive conversation with Prajjal Saha, editor, HRKatha, Shankar openly shares his wealth of experiences gathered over the years. Here are some excerpts


Q. How satisfying has been your professional journey of 39 years?

A. It has been a bagful of mixed experiences. At times I have been very satisfied, and at other times, not so much. However, I think I have been extremely lucky. My professional journey started in 1984 at the age of 21. My first salary was Rs 1950, a princely sum in those days.

I had a very interesting start, with an Eicher factory at Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh, some 36 km from Chandigarh. I was supposed to join on 1 June, so I reached Chandigarh on 31 May, 1984 and put myself up in the company guest. However, as luck would have it, I was confined to the guest house for the next two to three days because of Operation Blue Star.

Those were my early days of learning in IR. I remember, there was a strike in the factory, and I blamed myself. I wondered what I could have done differently to avert it. At this Eicher factory, there was a lot of action, a lot of independence but also, at the same time there were times when I felt I didn’t do too well.

Q. You spent around two-decades at Hindustan Unilever (HUL). How did you contribute to the business in a product oriented sector such as FMCG?

A. In the 20 years at Levers, I did many jobs. This includes outside HR as well, when I was running an export business for about four years. We did many small but good things. In a company such as Unilever one can’t do big things, but one can make small changes. These changes, though small, have really led to big changes over the years.

“At Infosys, there are 3,50,000 people, and people costs contribute to more than about 65 per cent of the total cost of the company, which is huge. Besides, it has a presence in over 74 countries, and people from more than 147 nationalities work in the company.”

Krish Shankar, ex-group HR head, Infosys


We created HR Partners for each business. Earlier, Unilever was very centralised, and management development was handled by just three people — a head, a recruitment manager and a training manager. Leena Nair was business partner for the detergents business, Archana Bhaskar was the business partner for all personal products and chemicals, and apart from the MDP, I was heading HR for the beverages business. That was the first time we worked closely with the business team. This created a very different business focus.

Q. How was it at Infosys, with a very different set of people and one of the largest workforces of ‘white-collar’ employees in the country. Was there a change in terms of HR approach?

A. I think industry makes a big difference within HR. What works in one industry may not work in another. For instance, in an FMCG company such as Unilever, the focus is on development of individual talent and creating a succession plan by building the right capabilities in future leaders.

At Infosys, there are 3,50,000 people, and people costs contribute to more than about 65 per cent of the total cost of the company, which is huge. Besides, it has a presence in over 74 countries, and people from more than 147 nationalities work in the company.

To manage this workforce, one has to have a process — because talent is not just a high potential, but is closely linked to business — revenue, profitability, future growth. It’s also about compliance and compensation, because one has to deal with so many countries. It’s a much more strategic way to look at people.

Q. So what did you do differently at Infosys? Did you have to unlearn a few things?

A. Yes, one has to really improvise. At Infosys, everything is on a huge scale. For instance, in leadership development, the whole concept of identifying high potentials does not work here, given the scale across all levels. Having said that, we still need some markers of performance.

So what we did was create two segments — one comprising senior leaders or the top 1000 people at Infosys, and another comprising the remaining employees. The second segment was evaluated on two counts, skills and performance, based on which we created a high performance group and then helped them grow further.

For the top leaders, it wasn’t easy to create a succession plan, because in a B2B business, continuity is more important as they come with certain domain knowledge and a strong relationship with certain clients.

At Unilever, it was easy to move people around, for instance, a sales manager of tea in the South can be moved as brand manager of Surf in some other market. So one has to still identify future leaders and give them that exposure. For that, we created a constellation project. While they did their jobs, they also worked on other cross-functional work / opportunities. That gave them the required exposure. One cannot create the whole job roles movement that’s there in FMCGs, but ensure that people work in a different way to do the same thing.

At Philips, we learnt to change the culture in a team. The whole idea was to get the team together and have an intervention around it. Some of the learning from Philips was used to create ‘power teams’ at Infosys. We created three or four such interventions as power teams which were all from the learnings from other companies but customised it, to make it relevant. GE also has a similar model – ‘leader acclimatisation’. Plug and play doesn’t always work in HR!

Q. Attrition in the IT sector — even though other sectors are not untouched — has crossed the healthy figure post pandemic. Should we worry about it, or will it stabilise with time?

A. The attrition of 2022 was unusual, and it had appreciated because of the sudden demand.

I define attrition in two parts – driven by market demand and driven by internal value proposition. In the first case, the focus should be on taking care of the key people in the organisation, which is around 20 per cent, and ensure they are there. From the remaining 80 per cent, if people are leaving, one can’t do much about it.

In the second case, if the attrition is led by one’s own value proposition, that’s something one can control.

The innumerable freshers joining the IT industry will take a year to learn, another year to build skills and after that, between the third and seventh year, they are likely to go.

They are at the broader end of the pyramid, but higher up the management levels, the pyramid becomes sharp. There is a need to look at the internal value proposition for them to stay and ensure that the best of them become managers. It is also important to create an alternate path for those who cannot become managers but may be good at their job. For instance, we created new streams such as ‘digital’ where people with technology capabilities could move to.

It’s complicated. We have to look at several value propositions that go beyond compensation. For a company of our scale, compensation has to be at the median of the market. A smaller company may be able to pay their people much more and retain them, but at our scale we’ve got to keep everything in mind, and therefore, we believe in providing opportunities for other growth, other development, leveraging our scale to give them more opportunities.

Q. Do you think people who work for consumer brands, have a higher sense of ownership than those working for the IT services sector?

A. I think it’s about how closely one relates to the company. At Infosys, we have lots of people who have been working for more than 10 years. They live and breathe Infosys.

While working for a client at a company such as Infosys, one is also working for a client, say a Bank of America or Apple. Recently, I had been to Germany and met the team that works on adidas. Apart from Infosys, they had a very strong connect with the adidas brand.

In FMCG, one is able to see the product so there is a connection with the product/brand instantly. In IT, we work with clients, and in some cases, the client may or may not have a product that one can associate with. That’s the difference. I think its variable, I would not conclude it completely. It may take time for new employees to build that sense of ownership, and yes Infosys is a company of new people. But then there are also delivery leaders, who get business for the company, and their sense of ownership is very high.

Q. Do you think future HR leaders should have a technology bent of mind or be more analytical?

A. Technology is now in every function. However, it doesn’t mean everybody needs to know how to use it. I think, we need a group of people, may be the CHRO, and one or two other people in HR, who understand technology, and know how and where to use it. All one needs to have is a liking for technology, and not really be a master of it.

“Talent is closely linked to business — revenue, profitability, future growth.”

Krish Shankar, ex-group HR head, Infosys

Analytics is different, and is increasingly becoming important. I would say HR people have to understand analytics much more. Normally, when people think of analytics, they think of tech, but it doesn’t have to be so. Tech can help but just thinking in a more analytical way is more important.

Q. In technology, one can always have a team but I think data analytics helps understand what one does. Earlier, it was more about figuring out the rationale in HR, now it is more about analysis in HR?

A. I wouldn’t say we didn’t do any analysis before, I would say, now we have more data points to capture. In the past, we did not have the technology, or data points to capture.

Now, hundreds of data points are available and so is the means to capture them. A smart HR person will know how to use this data effectively.

Q. People have been critical saying HR’s becoming too analytical, and we need to focus more on the human aspect…

A. I don’t think using analytics makes anyone less human. We’ve got to really look at it separately. I think being human in HR is about understanding the people’s needs, interacting in a human way but ensuring that people’s emotions, aspirations and sentiments are respected. Data helps make those decisions, so data helps HR be more human.

Over-reliance on technology in HR is a concern. The processes are getting too driven by what kind of packages are available. I think technology is an enabler so it should not determine what we want to do. Data really helps and allows us to make better decisions without any bias.

Q. Did you anticipate the changes that have happened at the workplace in the last few years or were you taken by surprise?

A. Yeah, there are some changes that have taken me by surprise. ‘The Great Resignation’ last year was quite a phenomenon, because the level at which it happened was quite high and unimaginable. Thankfully, it has calmed down now. One of the things that I’ll always admire, is the great statement by Bill Gates. He said that we over emphasise the impact of change in the short term but we under imagine the impact in the long term. That’s exactly what happened. When COVID hit we thought we’ll go 100 per cent remote, but soon we came back to normal in most industries except in IT. But the kind of change it will have in the longer term is underestimated. That’s why I feel what Bill Gates said was on the dot. May be we’re underestimating some of these changes and their long-term impact.

You’re right, HR in India has changed a lot from what it was. In the past, only a few companies had a very professional and development-oriented HR and maybe others had an IR and admin-related HR. Now that has changed. Be it a startup, a PSU, or an established company, the kind of HR systems, the kind of work we have, is phenomenal. I believe our HR talent is among the best in the world. That is reflected in the companies we see now. Knowledge companies and people-oriented companies have grown exponentially because of HR.

Q. Even the manufacturing companies have changed a lot, don’t you think?

A. Yeah, I agree. We have some great examples in PSUs such as NTPC or Hindustan Petroleum, or even private companies such as Tata Steel or many other Tata Companies. They have great HR practices and a great focus on people. Overall, what has changed is the mindset and the very paternalistic attitude – ‘I will determine’, ‘I will do’, ‘You should listen to me’. In addition, the days of IR problems and militancy of unions have gone.

We now look at things more contemporarily, and at what employees want. Besides, a lot of women and young people have come into the workforce.

The economy has changed and people also have more opportunities, so all of that plays a part but I think the mindset, the focus, the initiatives that HR has put in, have made a difference.

Q. What will make HR a glamorous position urging more and more youngsters to join the band?

A. HR is not a glamourous role. It’s not like the CTO. You will not be a Jonathan Ive of Apple. I think the best people in HR are not those who are looking at becoming stars but those who are looking at building companies. Human resources is an integrative function. The very nature of HR is to work closely with people. At one point, HR was about command and control, but not anymore. It’s about getting people together and collaboration now. It’s a function which integrates strategy with people’s aspiration.

One meets a lot of people from other functions, who, after quitting a company may say, “In that year, I did a revenue of five billion or I got a margin of 22 per cent”. But an HR person, after quitting, will talk about the people and the practices in the company. What HR does, is not on the balance sheet, but on the people’s minds. It has a much longer impact.

Q. What will increase HR’s influence in the business?

A. I’ve written it in my book. There are three sustainable sources of value creation in the future. One is talent, the second is culture, and the third is the reputation of a brand. One cannot build them overnight.

Technology can be bought, and finance can be obtained. But the right talent, right skills at the right time, the ability, the culture, the right behaviours, and the reputation of the company and the brand are to be built, and only HR can lead it. Companies are now focussing on sustainable economies and sustainable growth, and HR is being asked to lead that. How

Q. Do you think the role of HR will change because of that?

A. It depends from industry to industry. It’s called ESG and there are three parts – the environmental part, that is, about climate action, net zero and so on; the social action is about the stakeholders in the environment with whom you work and what you are doing to the society; and then there is a governance aspect. There are some industries where the ‘E’ becomes very different. In an FMCG it’s about water conservation and plastic, and it’s led by the business. The HR’s role in this is to talk about it so that it can attract better people.

In industries that aren’t as climate oriented, for instance in IT, it’s about travel. Therefore, there the HR can have a greater role in how to get employees more involved in making this change. The ‘S’ part, is the area where HR can play a big role. HR leads it where it is needed in terms of diversity. We have to see how HR can work with the society to build talent.

Governance is all about the board — how HR works with the board, how one creates the right governance mechanisms, transparency and so on.

The interview was first published in the March 2023 edition of HRKatha Print Magazine when Krish Shankar was the Group HR Head of Infosys.

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