Sustainability, as a concept, has of late gathered a lot of momentum and associated efforts towards the same have been stepped-up by the global business community.
In the earlier days of Capitalism, the essential (and almost sole) purpose of the business was to create ongoing profits. This has, over a period of time, undergone a fair amount of transformation, resulting in making sustainability as an equally essential (if not more) factor in running business. In the Post-Modern era of today, the kind of world we will create and leave for the future generations has assumed very high importance and from that perspective discussion on sustainability becomes critical.
At a micro level, when the going is good for the business organization, predicting whether such prosperity will continue for long, and if not, how long, is normally not easy. In contrast, taking a benefit of hind sight, when we closely look at some of the giant global organizations that are now merely a part of history, we can almost accurately pin point factors that caused them to perish! But even just before they actually vanished, nobody had ever predicted such a fate. And why go so far? In the last decade of the last century, when the Indian skies where opened to competition, didn’t we observe emergence of some seemingly strong players, who seemed to like real solid long-haul runners? But many of them didn’t survive even that decade!
Sustainability, therefore, to my mind, won’t just get created as a casual by-product of good management practices in action. Organizations have to consciously work out clear and long-term plans to build sustainability.
One other point that must be made on sustainability right away, and that is, sustainability is neither a mere business imperative nor is it something “Good to have” kind of an initiative. Sustainability is a serious responsibility of every business organization and is non–negotiable. Businesses do not run in a vacuum or in isolation. They draw resources that are limited and diminishing and therefore it becomes their responsibility to utilize those in an optimal way.
Sustainability strategy clearly has three pillars -- principles, processes and people. What makes the whole thing complex is that these pillars are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The potential expanse of a full scale debate on this issue itself is humongous. However, the focus of this article is limited to only highlighting key aspects of managing people for sustainability and that is why such a fleeting reference to the pillars of sustainability.
It is an established fact that people employed within the business (or indeed ‘talent’) are the key differentiators in successfully fighting competition at the marketplace. Similarly, I would like to argue that the same is true for the businesses that have well structured sustainability approach. Just think about a business with high employee attrition and what does it do to the entire business eco system. It leads to steep challenges in managing customer satisfaction. It results in a continuous sense of not-so- stable kind of feeling in the minds of employees. It also puts a lot of strain on maintaining seamless and rhythmic business continuity and so on. And now let’s imagine a business that employs people with long term plans to stay, are fully engaged who take accountability for the organizational growth etc. Isn’t it an apt example of creating sustainability from the people stand point?
And now the moot point, how do we really do it? Again here, it is better to remind ourselves that just the good people practices by themselves may not necessarily lead to sustainability. We will have to do more and different and that is not going to be necessarily within our comfort zones i.e. only the newer ways of people management, questioning even the approaches that may have led us to success in the past etc., will show us ways to sustainability. But, we will have to embrace those with right earnestness. I have a strong belief in what someone once said “Everything that you want in life is waiting for you, outside your comfort zone and inside your effort zone”.
So what are these people imperatives?
• Stay relevant
Taking a cue from the observations made above, we may not necessarily be able to predict or even have complete control over factors that can help us achieve long term sustainability and this is precisely where the issue of staying relevant comes into play. It has been eternally true that what is relevant has stayed and what is irrelevant has died. Specifically from people perspective, de-training of the obsolete skills and re-training on the emerging skills, habits and behaviors will keep the workforce continuously galvanized. A conscious inflow of external talent and equally importantly, exiting misfits where necessary, is also going to be very critical.
No truth is absolute and no principle is immortal in the ever changing world of business! The world is constantly evolving and so will have to be the people practices. Thick and hardbound HR manuals that were once treated like holy books will have to give way to newer practices. What was thought to be rightfully appropriate, will have to be questioned, changed or binned, where necessary. At the advent of the internet, we all in our wisdom thought, that a liberal internet access to employees will only distract them and bring down the productivity and therefore imposed a lot of restrictions on its usage. And hasn’t the situation transformed just within a couple of decades? Can we think of a modern day global business organization that has similar restrictions in place? Moreover, haven’t we realized today as to how business-enabling it is to grant such accesses to lay employees? That’s the power of resilience.
Downsizing became a politically incorrect term and that led to the birth of a new phrase—rightsizing. Now even this has turned out to be an excessively used term today. And in any case these terms, in a way, had a unidirectional connotation. But in reality, the cylicity of businesses requires a 360 degrees flexibility. We will have to, therefore, put in place flexible network of organizations that will be willing to coincide their structural reformations to reflect the business needs of the core organization from time to time.
Fatter the organization, difficult it is to move and respond with speed and agility. That’s why, staying trim is very critical. Continuous efforts in exploring creative ways to delayer supervisory chains of command and maintaining optimum (yet stretched!) spans of control will enable organizations to stay fit and active. Here again, giving up older principles (such as unity of command) and making ways for the newer (such as shared resources) ones will be important.
• Employee Engagement
Employees will continue to invest their efforts in organizations that provide them a definite sense of purpose, equip them with right training, provide them appropriate functional autonomy and timely reward and recognize good work. Instant returns for instant karma, is going to rule the new order. Annual cycles of rewards revisions, low frequency recognition events etc will be looked down upon as too slow and non-stimulating.
Given all the above, if one were to write a Stop-Start-Continue prescription for the business executives, it will look something like the one detailed below:
STOP: Excessive focus on transaction management that tends to get into realms of micro-management.
START: Developing strategic focus, ergo, proactively concentrate on work that produces fundamentally new/different and sustainable business results. Define ‘core’ business activities and separate them from the ‘peripheral’ ones—thereby create environment to outsource peripheral activities and attain long-term business continuity. Benchmark internal practices opposite the best-in-class external norms; thereby ensure the culture of continuously challenging the status-quo that has a tendency to set into the organizational DNA.
CONTINUE: Feeling pulse of the employees, deploying as many channels of communications as possible to capture the voice of employees, building organizational cultures that set them apart from others (i.e those falling in the competitive arena). And most importantly, continue to reward performance and potential of employees.
All that has been stated above seems a bit daunting—given the scope, expanse and dynamic elements of the work involved. But, in my view, sustainability gets created only when one is able to develop an eye for the right moments to act—no matter how adverse the circumstances are. As someone has rightly said that when the winds of change blow, some people simply build walls and others build wind mills! Now, do I need to really place an observation on record that the wind energy is the other name for the sustainable energy?