Arecent conference on the theme “The Skill and the Will to Create Human Resource Professionals", organized by the very enterprising HR leader Yogi Sriram, explored the moot point of how to attract the best minds to HR and enable them to meet the emerging business scenarios.

Missing links: Perceptions on pay and ‘pizzazz’ are two deterrent factors.

The pressing question then is why, oh why, are students in higher-ranked institutions thumbing their noses at HR. This, at a time when most CEOs, even the ones in more staid industries, are turning around and giving a second, third, and maybe fourth, worried glance at the human resource agenda. The Conference Board (a global, independent business membership and research association based in the US), in its annual report on “CEO Challenges", usually has three-four human capital related ones in its Top 10. This year too, talent merits a Top 5 ranking. This trend and the “holistic engagement of employees" resonates even stronger among leaders in India, as Peter Cappelli and his colleagues from the Wharton School (of business) have put it eloquently in their book, The India Way: How India’s Top Business Leaders are Revolutionizing Management.

Yet the numbers of those who bite the HR bait are abysmal. And things have not changed, it seems, in the last three decades. Many moons ago when I graduated from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, there were two of us serious contenders in HR. More than a decade later, I visited the alma mater to recruit and found that the numbers specializing in HR were again a dismal two. Given the way the cookie crumbles, it would be no surprise if another decade and a half later, come placement season, we see similar numbers for HR in the placement pie.

A quick dipstick among graduating students throws up some interesting perceptions:

• The importance test: “HR is such a backroom function and only a cost centre. It does not play the P&L game"

• The challenge or lack of it: “HR is so administrative and its work so dull, repetitive and bureaucratic. Where is the globetrotting pizzazz of the sales job and the ‘in the factory’ or, if you are lucky, corporate office solidity of HR?"

• The compensation hurdle: A student put it rather well when she said, “Even when you list all the top pay packages across different functions, HR always brings up the rear."

• The dearth of role models: Where are they, those dashing corporate HR honchos who can whip up a Charge of the Light Brigade kind of sentiment in their troops? Buccaneers who light up a CEO career path from the bowels of the HR world?

• The vicious circle syndrome: Companies rarely come for HR to these campuses, because the students are like gold dust, which in turn discourages students from opting for HR, and so the circle continues…

Perception, alas, is reality

So how do we widen this talent pool? By evangelizing, by creating chairs at prestigious institutions, by championing the profession rather than just the organization, by case studies and role modelling; by demonstrating through personal examples to remove each one of those perceptions which prove hurdles in student career choices.

But as we strive to build this pool, to address the scarcity scenario, leaders need to take the challenge head on and innovatively create their individual pools of quality HR professionals. Organizations like Accenture have great programmes twinning with institutions like XLRI to create HR talent. Others like me went out and raided other functions.

My head of employee relations came from—hold your breath—inward bills, that archaic function which probably has been restructured in this ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) world. A wonderful human being, who met the acid test of picking up the phone even at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, even if the caller ID was an unknown one. The head of recruitment had earned his spur in sales, the compensation and benefits leader was a software engineer, spreadsheet warrior and scenario builder par excellence, and the learning and development leader had trodden the quality path. But all of them had the basic tenet of learnability, a strong service mindset and most importantly, a business orientation.

But, but, but…. the organizational effectiveness leaders always came grounded with HR domain knowledge, usually from the bluest of blue-chip management institutions. This conceptual knowledge, I believe, is a critical ingredient for the success of this very important, though often unheralded, role. And unfortunately this is the pool that is in very short supply today.

Training and retraining HR talent is equally important—certifications for knowledge and skill and coaching/mentoring to augment attitudes critical for the function. For HR heads themselves, as the 30-year industry veterans compete with the 13-year young turks for the same job, relearning will be critical.

If it is a set of competencies that you seek for your HR team, I recommend the October 2010 issue of the journal published by National HRD Network, co-edited by my good friend Pallab Bandyopadhyay. It is indeed a treasure chest of wisdom nuggets from several seasoned professionals.

As for the institutions, those hallowed portals which churn out management professionals for the future, let us hope HR takes a larger chunk of the placement pie. And for all our collective selves, let us resonate with the renowned HR thinker, Dave Ulrich, and his co-authors’ fervent plea: “An old adage that we hope is quickly buried forever holds that someone who can’t make it elsewhere in business ends up in HR."

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.

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