The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Chief Global Member Engagement Officer China Miner Gorman returned recently from leading a delegation of senior HR executives to India. These are her impressions of the people, the culture and the HR profession as it is practiced in India.
Not too long ago, I returned from leading a delegation of senior HR leaders on an eight-day study trip to India as part of the U.S.-India Executive HR Exchange program led by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The goal was to gain an understanding of how HR is practiced in India, learn its place in the Indian business context, and experience some of the cultural riches that India has to offer.
The experience is fresh in my mind, and the lessons are powerful.
At the SHRM Foundation Thought Leaders’ Retreat in October 2009, Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor professor of management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources, said that he believed that the most innovative and cutting-edge HR anywhere in the world was being practiced in India.
Having met with Indian business leaders including CEOs and CHROs, HR leaders and practitioners, top academics and graduate students in HR, I agree.
But first, there are many cultural images in my mind as I think about our experience, which underscore the contradictions that are India:
Women wearing brightly colored saris working in the fields as we drove through the countryside on our way to Agra.
The awesome beauty of the Taj Mahal as the sun rose through a thick layer of smog.
Traffic in Delhi comprised of trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, tuk-tuks (small three-wheeled taxis), camels pulling carts, pedestrians, dogs and cows wandering through the flow—all moving slowly (sometimes), but safely like a school of fish.
The faint and ghostly light of televisions emanating from individual homes in the slums late at night.
The surprise of seeing elephants loaded up with goods as if they were walking trucks, moving alongside the road.
Catching a monkey along the rooftops out of the corner of my eye.
The warmth and openness of everyday people—when was the last time you walked through a busy city and nearly everyone you passed met your gaze, smiled and said, “Good morning?"
Construction sites of tall modern office and residential buildings surrounded by the one-room shanties of the workers building the project.
The dignity of those living in poverty and trying to support their families.
Northern India is truly beautiful, and its people are warm and engaging.
From the business and HR perspectives, there are experiences that stand out to me as well:
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not a program. CSR is how Indian business leaders run their operations. We heard many CEOs and CHROs speak about their CSR activities in the same breath as their financial plans and growth objectives.
National pride in their country’s emergence into the global economy and their organization’s place in that emergence were consistent.
A focus on economic development with social justice was part of nearly every discussion.
There is a strong supply of talent but a lack of deployable skills.
Women’s progress in business is about 30 years behind the United States. We heard discussions about the challenges being faced by women leaders that were reminiscent of the conversations being held in the U.S. in the late 1970s.
Education is a strongly held value, but there are not enough places for every student who wants to attend graduate school—acceptance is hypercompetitive.
HR graduate students in many programs are working side by side with finance and marketing students to solve real-world business problems. Equal collaboration between functions starts in graduate school!
Case studies are being replaced by scenario-planning exercises.
Academic research is being focused on “India appropriate” (or Indian-centric) technologies and research.
In addresses by significant business leaders, we not only heard about CSR and addressing the skills gap, we heard quotes from poetry and sacred writings. A metaphysical underpinning to leadership seemed consistent.
Current leaders are concerned about whether future leaders in India will keep the “Eastern heart” that is uniquely Indian as a key leadership value.
The cultural and business immersion that the delegation experienced created a learning lab that would be hard to replicate. We came away with a good understanding of the issues India’s organizations are facing as well as some of the solutions that are being developed.
China Miner Gorman is SHRM’s Chief Global Member Engagement Officer.