Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Global Talent Hunt

Keeping global knowledge workers happy

From The Statesman

“It’s foolish to believe today that the smartest people are in one nation,” said Henning Kagermann, chief executive of SAP (Germany) in an interview with Steve Lohr of The New York Times. SAP has 3,000 software engineers in India.
And thank God there is no quota and reservation system in the private industry in India. A global company can select the best. But the question is how do you keep them since competition for headhunting is severe.

In a piece, Beyond the Information Revolution, published in The Atlantic Monthly (1999), Peter F Drucker, the management guru, said that “bribing knowledge workers,” who are leading the Information Revolution, with stock options and other incentives may in the long run prove nonproductive and even disastrous for the United States in the 21st century. We need to revamp the status of the class of workers who have many career choices.

A strange fate hit the Victorian England, where most of the technologies of the Industrial Revolution were developed, Drucker noted. Because of the British class system which valued a “gentleman” more than engineers, traders and entrepreneurs, the industrial leadership passed on to the United States and Germany as early as 1850s. England bred Cecil Rhodes, Robert Clive, East India Company (a trading rather than a manufacturing venture) and commercial banks but no venture capitalist, like JP Morgan in the United States, a person “who has the means and mentality to finance the unexpected and unproven.” Drucker’s observation about the 19th century England might be questionable, especially when you consider that with the crushing of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 (or the First War of Independence, as some Indians are calling it today), Britain had become the master of the world, almost. The British lords and ladies could not hug their sweaty traders and technologists into their bosoms; instead they sent them overseas to build an empire for her Majesty. Their “mental geography” had become a captive of the empire, not of the railroads as it had happened in the United States.

Drucker was right about the venture capitalist who has been mostly responsible for the information technology growth in the United States, though we should not forget the role of the federal government because initially The National Science Foundation and the Pentagon financed the development of the Internet. More than the venture capitalist and the blossoming e-commerce, it is the idea of the Internet — open standards and communal sharing of software — which has bred the Information Revolution.

Drucker wrote that at the heart of the Information Revolution is not the computer, which at best is a tool to routinise information processes; nor is it software, which is nothing but “the reorganization of traditional work, based on centuries of experience, through the application of knowledge and especially of systematic, logical analysis.” It is the creation of knowledge that is fueling the current wave of the Information Revolution. It is time to re-evaluate what social position knowledge workers should occupy and what recognition should be given to their value system. If the United States treats knowledge workers as England treated its engineers and traders, as social inferiors, the 21st century, warned Drucker, would be the beginning of its decline and fall.

About two decades ago, Paul M Kennedy of Yale issued a similar warning in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Economic Powers (1989) that since the United States had become a global cop and was spreading its economic resources too thinly, it too would meet the fate of the earlier imperial powers, which had declined by overextending themselves. But instead of economic and political decline, the United States has been going through one of the most unprecedented economic growth periods in human history.

And since Professor Kennedy’s forecasting, the US has continued to be the sole superpower with $13 trillion plus growing economy, in spite of terrorism and the Iraq war. Although it is important to study the past, history cannot predict the future.

The future economic growth, Drucker wrote, would not come from the booming stock market and Internet industry; rather from those industries where knowledge worker would be more important than the financier or the capitalist, such as in biotechnology where the gestation period is long and rewards for workers cannot be stock-market driven. He suggested that since “performance in these new knowledge industries will come to depend upon running the institution so as to attract, hold, and motivate knowledge workers,” we have to do something else, something symbolic. Call knowledge workers “fellow executives and partners.”

But the problem will not go away with symbolic gestures. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tamara J Erickson, the president of the Concourse Group (Boston) and Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, recognised that finding and retaining top talent is tough. Companies must communicate to their highly mobile footloose employees, “what it means to work here,” by providing them “signature experience,” something more than compensation schemes, health care benefits, “a visible, distinctive element of an organisation’s overall employee experience.” It is “bringing distinctiveness to life,” along with attractive salary and fringe benefits that can “dramatically improve employee engagement and performance” and also retain them.
Nonetheless, in the knowledge hubs of the 21st century there will be “hired workers.” You may call them principals and partners and give them flexible work hours or freedom to work-wherever-you-go with BlackBerrys, iPhones and wireless laptops. But there will still be the need for command and control and the need for a corporate vision that holds global knowledge creators together in a digital beehive. To paraphrase JM Barrie, the Scottish playwright, there will always be hewers of wood and drawers of water from the digital well.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University, USA)

No comments:

Post a Comment