Are people always the biggest asset

I was listening to Tom Peters on the Future Generali India Life hosted webinar last week and I was mostly nodding along agreeing with him. Until he said something like how business owners ought to mortgage their houses if required to retain their people during the lockdown. I couldn’t quite agree.

Here’s why. In the three-legged stool of organizational design/transformation the three pillars are People-Process-Technology and the weightage varies depending on your business. If you are an Uber, or Amazon or Practo, you undoubtedly have a lot of talented people but your differentiator is the process and technology which they have created. The expertise is embedded not in the people but in the process and technology. When you go to a large retailer it is a bonus if the person who does the billing is personable and knowledgeable but the billing function is driven by the process and technology and it does not require a great deal of training to learn how to do it. Expertise has to be transferred from people to process and technology in order to scale, to be efficient, and to drop the cost.

The exception is services which are intended to be personal or custom and where the distinction is how tailored they are to the individual. In these situations people are indeed the most valuable asset of the business. Before automation became so prevalent most businesses were people-dependent, and hence the narrative around talent being the only differentiator. Map out what makes your business unique – is it what you do, how you do it – and does the differentiation lie in the people, the process, or the tech? This will give you insight on what to cut, what to invest in, and what you can outsource.

On Whatsapp groups one of the most popular themes is “does anyone know someone at prestigious bank/insurance/telco/consumer good manufacturer/travel aggregator I need help with service. Why does customer service so often suck in India and how is it linked to people-process-technology? As I mentioned earlier, expertise moves along from people to process, to technology. When the expertise has not been fully transferred but people are hired with lower skillsets assuming that it has, we have a recipe for failure. The systems may have data silos, not be synched in real-time or cover only 80% of the scenarios, but the people are not empowered to over-ride this chaos. In under-penetrated markets the penalty for shoddy customer service is low as new customers outnumber existing ones, and the number of choices is low. Moreover India is a price competitive country so there isn’t much margin left to price in customer service. We get what we pay for. Which is why those with extra money ought to invest in a concierge service to take care of these troubles for them.

Back to people. Not only should businesses figure out where in the PPT model their uniqueness lies, but anyone in business should run the same exercise for themselves. If you are operating a process or technology without actually contributing expertise to its creation or enhancement, then your value to the organization is limited. And you should be worried. At least a bit.

When I started working the company provided you with whatever they thought you needed to do your job – a calculator, a pen, notepad, stapler, a car or chartered bus service, even a nice suit. And a Rs 7 lunch (at Infosys). Later on we were provided with a laptop, and then with a mobile phone or BlackBerry. Then the tide turned and you were expected to get your own phone. Then your own laptop. As we move into WFH as a more durable model, I expect we’ll move from BYOD to BYOO – Bring Your Own Office. If you want a fancy space to work, it might be your responsibility to provide one.

On the other hand most of you will be amongst the top earners in the country. I found it interesting that to be amongst the top 1% of India -and with 13 million people it isn’t as exclusive as it sounds – you need an annual income of $77K, compared to say, $488K for the US.

Before I go, I’d like to ask you for a favour. I’m putting together what I hope will be a useful resource both for clients of PR firms as well as for the firms themselves – an easy way to find the agency best suited for their needs. For this I need y’all to spend 7 minutes to complete a little form. It’s good karma! If you are are PR Agency it is here and if you are a client it is here.

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