An HR Perspective of Organisational Excellence


Prof. Jayashree Sadri
Senior Visiting Faculty in
Senior Visiting Faculty in Human Resources Management and Business Ethics
Indira School of Management Studies
Tathawade, Pune

Men and women who have held official positions of some importance start developing phobias when retirement is imminent and start looking for family support when they have discarded the self-same families and lived in a world of selfish indulgences when the going was good. People also seek conformity, (to norms convenient to their personal well-being), as an insurance against perceived depletion of power and privileges, which they have been enjoying, and deep down they realise that this feel-good experience may be short-lived. Executives who have lived high profile lives often fear that after retirement they may become socially insignificant. These are those who harboured feelings based on false consciousness. On the other hand persons who have lived their lives ethically do not harbour such fear since ethics sustains authority.

There are several examples like the ones cited above but from times immemorial men have fashioned unfreedom, which is a large measure of conformity, as a bribe for self-perpetuation. In the words of Peters and Waterman, men quite often willingly shackle themselves to mundane, pen pushing, clerical nine to five jobs, if only the cause is perceived to be something great. Management is as guilty of perpetuating this sense of false consciousness amongst its workforce as is the employee for lamely accepting it. Organised ritual based religion performs the same function for the larger civil society as the government does for the over-staffed and under ambitious minions in the civil service. Little does the government realise what moral crime it is committing against humanity. How can, for instance, an employee or a person be rendered surplus? It means either one or all of these four things. The recruiter goofed up. The top management failed to create a competitive organisation. The manager was not creative enough to generate work. The Human Resources department failed to develop the employee so that he/she could add value to the organisation and thus not become surplus. How can organisational excellence be achieved under such conditions and why does the HR Expert not have the gumption to shoulder the blame?

Positive economists do not fail to remind us that all value is created by labour that capital man made aid to production that production is the creation of value and consumption is but the transformation or destruction thereof. Sociologists constantly harp on the theme that in the pursuit of a better quality of life mankind has evoked interest in the sciences, the arts, religion and the philosophies in the hope that their lot will be better. Historians vouchsafe that man has sought excellence through his efforts has left behind markings of his footsteps on the sands of time. And yet when we go to a symposium of experts on excellence all we hear is words like systems, processes, procedures and market competition. Where did man, the basic creator of value disappear in this new calculus? This short piece is aimed at finding out why Indian companies do not attain the much-needed maturity to be truly competitive and thereby approach excellence.

It is found that only a few top companies like Wipro, Infosys and TCS in information technology, Ranbaxy and Sun in the pharmaceutical industry, Tata Steel, Godrej Industries, Tata Motors, HDFC and ICICI Banks, NDDB, SAIL, BHEL and NTPC, have attained a measure of excellence. This is because in other organisations the basic labour force, the man behind the machine or the desk, is conveniently asked to play a secondary role to technology.

Surely, the CEO must have gone to a good B-School or an elite University. How could he/she but not know this simple fact? Why is there such a great divide between the theory and practice of people management and why is Organisational Excellence so illusive? Is it enough to devise and put into place an ethical culture and good governance practices? What is the role of Human Resources Management in helping the organisation to achieve excellence? The fact that business ethics and corporate governance is an intrinsic part of building Organisational Excellence can no longer be doubted. But in exploring the reasons behind the great divide between the theory and practice of management and the failure to achieve excellence, the role of Human Resources Management (as a specialisation) is thrown up for critical examination. This is an aspect of objective social reality that this short paper shall try to examine briefly.

Themes that generally emerge when we examine the gap between the theory and practice of management unmistakably point towards the fact that the HR function does not or is not allowed to pull its weight. We shall address six of the main ones, which if satisfactorily approached even if not wholly resolved will make a positive difference. These are:

  • The competitive challenges faced by organisations.
  • The extent to which TQM (total quality management) has been practised.
  • Evolution of a learning organisation.
  • Outsourcing the legitimate HR functions.
  • Self-assessment frameworks and their role in modern times.
  • Approaches founded on performance management systems.

Competitive Challenges: Organisations have long since realised that the only way to thrive on the cutting edge of market competition is to use technology to convert their core competence into competitive advantage. Organisations consequently need to learn how best to respond and adapt to the plethora of discontinuities of life. An organisation is known by the type and competence of people it has and not by the physical infrastructure it exhibits. The service mindset has to pervade every facet of corporate life and organisations have to compete along several dimensions to meet customer needs. 

Visionary leadership is not enough since it has to be sustainable in nature and this comes from it being value centred at the same time. Change orientation in every facet of organisational life must be such that divergent skills and behaviours combine to achieve convergent aims and objectives. Organisations must have goal focus, customer focus and market focus at the same time. The customer and the market have become more important that profits and technology. The latter were the drivers of progress in the 1980s and the 1990s while the former have become the organisational drivers in the 2000 era. The key question posed is thus: do organisational results match the demands and expectations of the market and the customer? If not, then sustainability will be short lived.

Total Quality Management: It is most unfortunate that TQM is a term that is heard only in classrooms and seminar halls. It is not as often seen in organisational practice, as it ought to be. The promised gains of the LPG exercise are slow in materialising and the ranks of the self-employed and the un-employed persons are rising. If one reads the daily newspapers one finds out that scheming and scamming have become the order of the day. Entrepreneurs get rich at the expense of the organisations they have promoted. If one reads academic journals and the research findings that are reported in them, another story emerges. Top management is not visibly involved in integrating quality into strategic planning. Even managers who speak most vociferously about change and transparency are unable to change their own ways of doing things or accept that they need to be transparent themselves. How should senior managers provide the much needed direction and how should performance be measured at the strategic level remain issues of serious concern? The Eastern Hotels Group has a lesson or two to teach their industry in this arena.

Financial compulsions and short run profit motives overshadow the imperatives of quality management and customer satisfaction. There is a visible gap between knowing what out to be done and doing what needs to be done. Perhaps the reason is that top management is caught up in the glamour of event management and short run actual cost considerations that it is in market orientation and long run opportunity cost considerations. Hence a sea change in the top-level mindset is called for and quality must become a way of life. Concepts like Economic Value added (EVA) and severe consequence management (SCM) need to be pursued with zeal and actualised. The corporate strategy itself must be well thought out, well managed and be capable of converting customers into clients.

The Learning Organisation: Top management needs to have the maturity and the ability to understand and learn from organisational performance and outcomes. New compulsions demand that new organisational competencies emerge and new strategies are harnessed. Value centred leadership, visionary stewardship, the ability to learn from the mistakes made by themselves and those of others, seizing opportunities for change, creativity and innovation, and restoring the dignity of labour are the new HR mantras of the 21 st century. How these competencies are recognised, how the existing talent is nurtured, how to create multiple teams that complement each other's efforts and how to get ahead of oneself become the major HR concerns.

Empowerment and accountability must go hand in hand. HR strategy for this reason must be inseparable from HR execution. The road ahead must be well mapped, realistic and user friendly if organisational goals are to be achieved.  People Management must replace the term Human Resource Management since people are not inanimate resources like silica sand and cement bricks. The sense of belonging must be so enhanced that people start saying and acting as if (a) the organisation belongs to me, and (b) I belong to the organisation. Hence new managerial competencies need to be developed and this has to be so demonstrated that people would "want" to be a part of the growth process. Above all else, management must learn that since it cannot alter the direction of the wind, it can always alter the angle of its sails to get ahead with its dream.

Outsourcing HR Functions: The bogey of Business Process Outsourcing that has come fast on the heels of Business Process Re-engineering seems to have caught the fascination of many a HR Chief. It first began with hiring persons equipped to fill out various returns required under Indian labour legislation. Most of these persons were either moonlighting from government offices where they were employed full time or had been working as such prior to their retirement and knew how to pull the right ropes. The came the period when trainers were hired to impart special skills and behaviours that HR departments felt that their organisation's employees needed. That scientific diagnosis often did not precede such activities is well known. Then came the era of hiring the services of placement consultants to pick and choose manpower and thereby cut down recruitment costs. At this point something nefarious happened. The trainers tied up (informally) with the recruiting consultants. The level of attrition rose especially in the software industries sector and together the financial fortunes of the trainer and the recruitment consultant flourished. Just about the same time (in the 1990s) companies went in for Business Process Re-engineering. The task was invariably assigned to managerial greenhorns and not to the experienced people managers. The result was that organisational structures were flattened and accountability was emphasised but delegation of authority did not follow. Just when top management decided that BPR was not such a good thing after all, the new mantra of BPO shot into prominence. The more enlightened companies introduced computer packages like Peoplesoft and Ramco while the not so bright management actually outsourced the HRIS function.

Incessant pressures on organisations to be goal focused, customer focused and market focused remained. Retention, reward & recognition and career development became a part of HR strategy. Structures and functions concurrently collapsed just as organisational goals and managerial roles began to unfold and expand. It was then that Strategic HR consciously replaced HR Strategy, and People Management as a specialisation, reached its maturity. Experience which was a treasured trait until fairly recently was replaced by talent which was a trait that was prized and hence managed and developed. As has been argued in Geometry of HR (2002), one thing that cannot be outsourced is Corporate Culture Building. This is what People Management today must be concerned with and this is where ethics and governance have a positive role to play.

Self-Assessment Frameworks: In the journey towards excellence, self-assessment awards and frameworks lay claim to being the vehicles for organisational learning. Unfortunately the weight of evidence is against it and more organisations use the business excellence model than those who use self-assessment frameworks. But the business excellence model itself is a questionable construct in several organisations. This is because of many reasons. Firstly the validity of Business Results criteria is open to question. How can star organisations that were awarded accolades for good governance become sick babies the very next year, as was the case with UTI and L&T? Secondly the measurement of the link between internal improvements (called enablers) and business results is often blurred. Language used in the business excellence model is often open to varied interpretations, unless of course it happens to be written in Sanskrit where one word can have only one meaning!  User judgement in identifying key processes is not always uniform and unless a high degree of quality maturity has been attained, award frameworks will remain public relations exercises that use political leverage to build corporate brands.

We often hear of great scientists who have almost become cult figures in the 2000 decade, when in reality their last real research paper was written three decades ago. Today they may well have become social icons who are out of touch with the very subject in which they are held to be gurus. If competitiveness must be sustained then it follows that excellence must become a habit and all managerial activity in an organisation must be value-centred. One must constantly compete with oneself and erase the word impossible from one's lexicon. It was once believed that the human body was incapable of running the mile in less than 4 minutes. When Roger Banister broke the illusion clocking 3 minutes and 59 seconds in May 1954 people took it as a freak incident. But how can we also thing so since the 4 minute a mile record has been broken over a few hundred times since then? Hence self-assessment is limited by the fact that one wishes to improve constantly and realises that the last rung of the ladder risen to is not to be rested upon but used to climb higher still. The answer therefore lies in developing multi-dimensional and dynamic models for monitoring corporate performance.

Performance Management Systems: One only has to look around to find that since 1991-2 Indian organisations have begun to seek assistance with defining drivers, which will aid the self-assessment process. There is little doubt that well framed performance management systems provide both the focus and the impetus for organisational development. However HR experts like P C Shejwalkar, Sorab Sadri and Mihir Ajgaonkar will tell you that the key to developing strategic abilities is reflection on outcomes. Hence it is only logical that a good performance management system will embody sufficient data, documentation and specific information to enable proper reflection and evaluation to take place.

In order to achieve the above, performance management systems must no longer be generic, as is the case in many Indian organisations. This inhibits opportunities for learning to take place since they are inflexible and cannot provide the desired responsiveness to changing environment. Organisations then tend to be so reactive that they develop an auto rickshaw mentality where the driver of the vehicle is not in control of its direction and destiny, depending upon the passenger in the backseat to determine this.

The sum and substance of the six points highlighted above is that as long as these six issues are not strategically resolved, organisational excellence cannot be attained. Logically then, it can be argued that since most organisations in India have failed to address these issues effectively organisational non-excellence has been the inevitable result. Except for a handful of corporate players (who we all know about) Indian business and industry are not internationally competitive and while we have 1/7th of the world's population we barely control 1% of the global trade. The answer to this malaise lies in giving People Management its rightful place in the corporate world and making Strategic HR inevitable. The fact that value centred leadership backed by business ethics and good corporate governance is the launching pad for attaining organisational excellence is taken for granted. But in addition to these, Strategic HR has a specific duty to perform before organisational excellence is realised. To enable this to happen we put forward ten strategic initiatives, which must be conceptualised, realised, managed and delivered. Only then can the wheel of corporate fortune be turned around from a position of organisational non-excellence to global level excellence. On the basis of the author's study, it is argued that the following imperatives are required if organisational excellence is to be achieved.


1. The first task for Strategic HR Managers is converting the mindset of those at the top. Get top management convinced, committed and involved in the journey towards excellence. Once those at the top start walking their talk and leading by example breaking mental barriers of those down the hierarchy becomes relatively easy. And once mental barriers have been effectively broken only then change management can be introduced. If not, change management will remain at the level of window dressing that adds a frill to the annual report and nothing more. Excellence will then remain a mirage and HR will be held responsible for it, and in this author's opinion, justly so.

2. For the HR Expert to change the mindset of those at the top he/she must possess both an agile mind that can spot opportunities and a nimble disposition to convince those that matter. He/she must be able to diagnose the situation and strategically address the key performance indicators (KPI) head on. For this the HR must also develop his/her own vision that is capable of energising the workforce to develop trust relations and transparency so that teamwork is the inevitable result. And no matter how good a player Pele may have been, he still needed the other ten players to take Brazil to the great heights in international football. Achieving organisational excellence and the role of Strategic HR within it is not much different.

3. Logically the bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle. So is the case with organisations in India that are positivist and operate from the top downwards.  Hence if anything good has to happen and any examples are to be set these must emanate from the top and percolate downwards with the active assistance of HR. The first rule to follow is that we must be creative and constantly innovate at the level of goals, roles, processes and products. If not we shall stagnate and go the dinosaur way since that great animal disappeared from the face of the earth just because it could not adjust to environmental changes.

4. The Strategic HR Expert must actively work to negate the influence of the mediocract-bureaucrat who looks at the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law and who does not realise that the process of administration is less important than the purpose of administration. He/she consequently misses the wood for the trees and becomes a stumbling block on the path to progress. To register developmental growth he/she must be identified and isolated as an organisational priority.

5. Organisations must get into the habit of using technology gainfully for the good of all. This must be done while consciously remembering that technology was meant to serve man and not the other way around. As economists like Sorab Sadri have always argued, technology is but a commodity, albeit a unique commodity that you purchase without seeing. For, if you see it you need not have to purchase it. This is just what the great Japanese reverse engineering experiment was all about. The innovator who spent hours in the laboratory or in the library would not be justly rewarded for efforts made if technology were to be freely available. Hence it comes at a price. Hence the brouhaha about TRIPS and TRIMS can be well appreciated. And since technology always comes with a price tag it must be used wisely as an investment multiplier.

6. If people are to perform excellently they must constantly benchmark against their own past achievements and better the record. The impossible can become very much possible as was the case with running the four minute mile. To do so goals must be set such that the employee is stretched to his/her limits and are able to cover that extra mile which lesser players could not. These stretch goals must be tough but realistic and achievable so that the employee does not get frustrated. In addition, the environment to enable achievement must be made conducive so that the motivation to excel is retained. This is what Strategic HR intervention must ensure through its proactive policies and practices.

7. Several HR Experts who have been otherwise brilliant have failed only because of their inability to balance priorities. There is no golden principle to guide somehow how to prioritise. It has to be developed keeping in mind the organisational constraints and the market imperatives. The ends-means debate features prominently in this exercise. This, in the author's opinion, is the key to the HR function empowering itself and leading the organisation towards excellence.

8. People across the organisational hierarchy must be given a free hand to take calculated risks since the old adage nothing ventured, nothing gained is as relevant today as it ever was. But the risk must not jeopardise the organisational image, damage the brand value of its product or cause irreparable damage to its finances. As long the intentions are bona fide, due diligence is exercised and basic belief systems are not violated risk taking must be encouraged. After all risk brings with it a just reward and organisations have often leveraged this first mover advantage in the market as was the case with This can happen only if HR has been successful is creating a value-centred corporate culture and the leadership within the organisation is truly visionary.

9. Earlier it was argued that organisational leadership must be visionary, value centred and be able to walk its talk. In addition, it is now argued that effective leadership is one that also walks behind the managers lending them support and pushing them upwards towards greater heights. To enable this to happen, managers must be given adequate autonomy or simply more elbowroom to introspect and think deeply, strategize and only then implement. This firstly means that managers must learn to let go of their inhibitions, ghosts and fears before they can truly scale up. And unless managers scale up they will not be able to overcome their ego and attain what Abraham Maslow calls self-actualisation. This is the hallmark of excellence and it is up to Strategic HR interventions to make it happen.

10. The Strategic HR Expert wears several hats in performing his/her task of developing teams that will achieve organisational excellence. He/she must be technologically savvy and yet be a people' person who exudes trust. He/she must be a taskmaster with a genuinely sanguine and humane disposition. In the language of Blake and Mouton he/she must be at least a 5.5.person and yet consciously aspire to become a 10.10 person. He/she is thus a challenger, contributor, communicator and collaborator all rolled into one. That is what makes the Strategic HR Expert an indubitable part of the journey towards organisational excellence.

To conclude, this short diagnostic paper, the author has merely pointed out what goes wrong and why organisational non-excellence is brought about. But a doctor who diagnoses a patient and cannot recommend a cure is not worth much. Hence the second part of this paper highlighted the role of People Management in bringing about organisational excellence. And one must remember that people management, is always predicated on strong values (Wipro, Godrej and Thermax) and good governance (Infosys, Tata and NDDB). Both of these attributes combine to produce excellence and excellence in turn is defined according to the accepted norms laid down by the corporate leadership. For instance, the concept of excellence for the Ambani Group may differ from that of the Aditya V Birla Group and what may be quite acceptable to Tata Motors may not find any takers in SAIL. Nevertheless such notions of excellence could be superficial and real excellence does manage to shine through like a bright sun through the dense forests of ignorance and corruption.

Prof. Jayashree Sadri
Senior Visiting Faculty in
Senior Visiting Faculty in Human Resources Management and Business Ethics
Indira School of Management Studies
Tathawade, Pune

Source: E-mail March 22, 2006


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