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Navigating Through Orbit Shifts in the VUCA World: HR's Role and Importance

Article based on  keynote session at SHRM HR Tech APAC 2019 by Sharad Sharma, Co-founder of iSPIRT Foundation on orbit shifts, how some organizations thrive while others don't and why orbit shifts specifically matter to HR professionals. Here are the key insights from his address.  

Understanding 'Orbit Shifts'

"If we look at the production and distribution of the electrical system, it has not changed materially since the times of Edison. However, if Alexander Graham Bell were to come back today, he will not recognize these handheld devices we carry around. As recently as 1995, the phone system was not very different from the time it was invented. In the last 20-25 years, the system has changed dramatically. This is a classic example of an orbit shift," says Sharma.

Orbit shifts are the rapid and large numbers of transformations that happen in a short period (7-10 years) in a certain sector that are higher than the number of changes that have happened in the past (40-50 years). Telecom is one sector that continues to undergo orbit shifts. The car industry in the U.S. is expected to enter the orbit shift period soon where the sector will see voluminous and tremendous changes over the next 10 years.

"One of the first orbit shifts happened with the transistor sector and resulted in the creation of the Silicon Valley," explains Sharad. "AT&T Bell Labs owned all patents to the transistor and were willing to not assert their patent rights if a U.S. entrepreneur wanted to use the transistor circuit to commercialize it. When William Shockley quit Bell Labs and commercialized the product, he moved to the West Coast out of fear that Bell Labs would clamp down on his company with patents if he made high profits. Though he was a brilliant inventor who hired the best people, Shockley was not a great manager. People who worked in his company kept quitting and starting their own companies; 64 such companies were formed as a result! One of them was Intel and Silicon Valley was created as a result of these cascading effects of various non-linear changes during the orbit shift."

Orbit shifts in India

In 1987, there were 34 TV towers in India covering major cities and leaving out most smaller cities, towns and rural areas. In 1988, the launch of INSAT (Indian National Satellite System) led to the advent of the cable TV industry. India's only TV network at the time, state run Door Darshan, also began to allow private programs (Hum Log, Nukkad, etc.). The TV audience that had taken 25 years to create since 1965 (when TV came to India) grew 25 fold between 1987 and 1995. "This is an example of the earliest Indian orbit shift. This orbit shift is playing itself out all over again. The most-watched YouTube channels globally are T-Series followed by Sony Entertainment Network and Zee TV. This has been made possible by the rapidly growing internet penetration rates and cheap data which are enabling the average Indian of Bharat to consume entertainment on his or her phone," adds Sharma.

Today, India is seeing orbit shifts that are causing larger societal changes. The accessibility and affordability of phones and internet connectivity are enabling Indians from all walks of life to leverage the power of the internet, thereby democratizing the telecom industry.

India is also undergoing an orbit shift in the financial services sector. "The introduction of Unified Payment Interface (UPI) and other players in the payments sector has had a democratizing effect," says Sharma. "India's UPI transactions are soon going to exceed the global transactions by leading banks across the globe. This is because a vast majority of the users of UPI are not from the privileged, white-collared sections of Indian society who are already serviced with credit & debits cards and banking access. UPI has created a public infrastructure to reimagine and revolutionize the status quo and has essentially democratized payments and banking for the unbanked millions."

India is at the cusp of several more societal orbit shifts in the credit access space, healthcare services and other industries. It is key to remember that when such orbit shifts happen in India, they will happen at scale.

HR & orbit shifts

Orbit Shifts must be understood in terms of unbundling, layering, re-bundling and experimentation that happens in the industry or sector. "There were enormous disruptions during the orbit shift in the computer industry. Companies went from vertical stacks to horizontal stacks. This resulted in the emergence of specialized players who wanted to do one thing and do it well and in turn led to the formation of IT services industry. The sector grew but there was turmoil within," he adds.

"Orbit shifts are loved by customers and rightly so. The orbit shift in the telecom industry in India led to a sharp drop in call rates and practically free data. At the same time, it is tumultuous for employees and organizations in sectors undergoing non-linear changes and enormous disruptions."

Those organizations where HR and leadership understand this and acquire, engage and retain the right talent are the ones that will thrive amidst the turmoil.

How should HR professionals navigate through orbit shifts?

Sharad lists the following points as guidelines for HR professionals to help their organizations effectively navigate orbit shifts:

  • Understand orbit shifts at a deeper level than what is happening at the surface. "If you understand what is happening, you can understand which players will survive and which ones will thrive, as well as your role in that kind of an environment. How should you manage a career or help a company thrive in such an environment?"
  • The VUCA world needs HR professionals, employees and leaders who embrace change and take big risks. The biggest responsibility for HR is to enable organizations to bring in and hone such talent. They must strive to change the performance assessments, learning and development and employee engagement to meet the current needs.
  • HR professionals must become strategic business partners in the organization. They must support the organization in changing the policies, workplace culture, manifesto and leadership mindset while developing a sound framework for change management.
  • Organizations must summon their conviction in non-traditional ways. Traditionally, Indian businesses look at fitting in rather than disrupting the status quo.
  • Transformations in the organization must lead to monetary benefits and provide first-mover advantages to the company.
  • In the VUCA world, exerting control and experimentation instead of making predictions are key. Most importantly, HR leaders must unlearn and relearn.

The accelerated advent of technology has made change the only constant in the highly disruptive world of today. As a result, the ability to effectively deal with and manage the rapid and non-linear changes is most critical. Organizations that have effective leadership and change management frameworks can retain the right talent and are visibly thriving today. HR professionals, therefore, have the superpower to shape the future in the VUCA world.


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