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'HR professionals must be fair and firm.'

 

… says, Professor Vasanthi Srinivasan, faculty at IIM Bangalore, who teaches the core course on Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources Management. In an interview with Kalyani Majumdar, Professor Vasanthi shares her learning and talks about her teaching experience in Indian and international B Schools.

 

Tell us a bit about your academic journey and why did you choose HR as your area of specialisation?
After my graduation I was working for a not-for-profit organisation that was promoting blood donation in Bangalore. It was during this job that I realised that people can be such a source of making a difference in the life of a corporation. Also, as I interacted with various professionals and HR people of different companies, it was then that I knew I wanted to work in HR.Someone at my work place had mentioned that XLRI is the place to study HR, and the next thing was for me to take the exam for XLRI. After completing my PGD in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations from XLRI, Jamshedpur, I went to work with Wipro and in some time I realised that one needed to specialise in HR as one couldn’t just be a generalist. By then I had figured that my passion was in learning and development.
Also, I realised that to get into a role of corporate HRD, it required more in-depth understanding of the subject. So, I did a Fellow Programme in Management (PhD equivalent) from IIM Bangalore and I went back to consulting, but I also did a little bit of teaching. And whenat IIMB my professor fell ill and I stepped in and that’s how I ended up in academics.

At present you are teaching HR at IIM Bangalore. What is it that excites you about teaching HR?
There is always something new to learn while teaching and especially when you are teaching a subject like HR, that most people think is common sense, there is a certain excitement to see that “aha” moment in the class when you getthe students to think differently about the subject. It is always exciting to help the students to discover that there is a science and an art to it.
HR is a very comprehensive subject with so many facets to it. It is about how to develop the human capital of the organisation for long term sustainability.

You have also designed and delivered, Tanmatra: Women in Leadership. Tell us about that.
In 2013, when the Companies Act came into being where it states that the listed companies should have at least one woman on board, organsiations were trying to find women leaders. So, the idea of designing a women in leadership programme came from there.
So, Tanmantra is a women in leadership programme and is aimed to build leadership competencies among senior women leaders in business. So, what we have is a network of women from a variety of organisations who are nominated by their organisations to attend this programme.
The challenge is in creating leadership development programme that equip them with competencies that enable them to lead more effectively when they go back to their organisations.

What do you feel are the aspects of HR that has changed with the advent of digitisation?
Digitisation is impacting the HR-function itself. We are always talking about transactional HR and transformational HR. Now with digitisation it is really going to make it easy for transactional HR. That’s one space that is changing very quickly with automation.
In case of transformational HR as well a lot of AI, big data, analytics is coming in. So yes, both transactional and transformational HR is impacted. So, the question is, how much and how far should technology be integrated in everything? So, Tech versus Touch is the biggest debate that is going on across the world.
 I think the sense that we are getting is that as tech increases, touch has to increase even more. Now, let’s look at the role of a line manager in HR. As more and more departments use technology, the skills that are needed for running the new age technology are not available in the existing employees.
So, you need to up skill the existing employees,  bring new talents from outside which means, all of these dynamics are changing with the line manager because they are responsible for ensuring that people are delivering the products or services every day.
So, the HR has to upskill itself but also up skill everybody else in the organisation.
For transformational HR more expertise will be needed in the future as automation and AI interventions increases. When the human and machine ratio changes with more machines and less humans we don’t know what is the scope for the manager in such a situation, but we do know for sure that it will change in a big way.

Do you think MBA education and the present curriculum is ready to evolve and recalibrate itself because of digitisation?
Before the student receives the training, the bigger question here is, are the industries and the faculties thinking about the implications of this change and ready to act on this methodically? I am not too sure that these conversations are happening.
Till the industries begin to share the positives and the negatives of automation and how they are coping with it, it is very difficult for the academics to know what is happening.
In the past two years there has been a flurry of excitement as everyone is talking about robots, chat bots and machine learning, but we are not even getting enough insights from the industries, so that is where the real challenge is.

You were the Chair Professor for Corporate responsibility at the HHL Graduate School of Management Leipzig, Germany. How was the experience teaching there?Are there any major differences between teaching MBA in India and teaching MBA abroad?
Yes, there is a big difference. So, while teaching in Germany, I observed that the motivation of the student is not just oriented towards marks and grades. Apart from that,they come prepared to class, they do their homework thoroughly, and they do their own research on the subject and get an insight and have an opinion. That is the major difference.
Opinion is one of the most critical point. You need to have an independent opinion as a professional. In India, the students are more worried about their grades and how the courses will look on their CVs, rather than the need to take the learnings from the course or to think how to apply it elsewhere.
Whereas, abroad, most of the students join MBA, because they are passionate about that subject and would like to invest their time in it. Also, the students who come for management programmes have many years of work experience, thus the level of engagement in the class and the extent of clarity in terms of their prior experience that they bring in and their willingness to engage with difficult problems is higher.
So, if you have never worked in an organisationand you don’t know what it looks like how would you be able to appreciate it in a classroom? That I think is the biggest difference.
Also, abroad the B Schools have more live projects, thus the overall study experience is more engaging.

How important are live projects and industry sessions?
From a pedagogy perspective, management is an applied science and therefore you learn through application, thus whether it is case studies or classroom discussions, whether it is participation in a simulation, whether it is role playing and so on,  it has to have a strong application orientation. And therefore, all of us need to use a combination of methodologies for it to be successful.

Many students can’t decide which field to choose in the second year of their MBA programme. Any suggestion on how to decide?
You must have a little bit of work experience before you apply to a B School, and the reason is because at least then,you would know what you don’t want.
So, knowing what you don’t want and what you don’t like is very important. It is an advanced degree and not an under graduation degree. Thus, know exactly what you don’t want!
Also, I have observed that some students select a subject because they prefer that professor. Students must keep in mind that there are some courses that are very critical and help them to be effective managers in the future,  so, they should have those courses under their belt and ensure that they have covered them in the programme.

What kind of aptitude and interests one should have to excel in HR?
There are few stereotypical things about the idea of HR that I think we need to re examine carefully. First one is the belief that if you are not good in math you should choose HR. Honestly, there is a lot of number crunching in HR. Please if you are not liking numbers that should not be the reason for you to take HR.
Second myth is that if you are in HR, you have to be nice and friendly. That is absolutely a wrong notion that people have. That is the biggest myth that is going around. HR is about being fair and firm. Because you will be unpopular because you will have to say things that people don’t want to hear. HR is in the business of helping business and to build a sustainable company. New technologies are arriving and the HR needs to know the implications of those.
You need to have an understanding of the marketing function because a large part of HR is about branding. So this notion that you have to be soft and loving people is a myth.

Do you have any suggestions for MBA aspirants?
Keep an open mind and stay engaged don’t treat it like a certificate as it is not just a degree. It is an application of your knowledge, skills and attitude in terms of how you are going to perform at work in the real world. It is an appreciation and is not an undergraduate class and therefore the degree of application will seriously determine what you take away from the programme. Also, learning through peers is very important. 
The programme brings in students from diverse backgrounds in the classroom but the question is, are you learning from them? 

Transactional HR
Transactional HR functions cover administrative activities such as documenting operational processes and maintaining employee records. Transactional HR activity is usually concerned with day-to-day dealings and is usually very narrow in scope and for relatively shorter duration. For example: processing the payroll, conducting appraisals, induction, etc. are all examples of transactional HR.

Transformational HR
Transformational HR covers functions that are essential drivers in the process of transforming your organisation, putting significant time into future-focused activities such as talent management (ensuring the right people with the right skills will be available at the right time) and using tools such as the latest software and technology to better use the data available.