1. India is changing and so is the business environment in the country. From a country with few large local enterprises supported by the government and select few multi-nationals till a few decades ago, India has emerged as a country on an ‘overdrive’ – fast-paced growth, inflow of foreign investments, strong and sure industry ‘footprints,’ enabling business environment, ambitious aspirations by local organizations, and a hectic entrepreneurial activity. This has put the spotlight on the most critical resource – talent. When you ask Indian CEOs to list their biggest challenges, ‘developing future-ready talent’ almost always shows up in the top three. 

2. While the business context gets ever-more complicated, thanks to the Volatile-Uncertain-Complex-Ambiguous (VUCA) world, rapidly changing technology, and disruptive business models, enterprises continue to innovate in order to sustain growth. CEOs have done a good job to not only ‘survive,’ but also ‘thrive’ in the current complex environment. But they have not been getting the required support from the human resources (HR) function. CEOs claim that their HR function has often not been able to keep pace with business – unable to innovate, strategize, partner or execute to business leaders’ satisfaction. Recent years, therefore, have seen a fair number of business leaders switching careers to head up the HR function. Interviewees across the region highlighted that the HR function in general, and senior HR leaders in particular, are not ready for the future! Only one in five leaders claimed that their HR function (in Asia) is future ready.

3. HR leaders in India pointed at three trends that are ‘around the corner’ but may ‘sneak up’ on them over the next decade. There is a global trend towards freelance workforce; next generation of employees may prefer to remain ‘free agents,’ selectively associating with different organizations. The workforce of the future will be more gender-balanced, multi-cultural, multinational, and multi-generational, and these groups have different work styles, preferred workflows, aspirations from work, engagement drivers, and flexibility requirements. And finally, thanks to new age enterprises, there is a strong trend towards fat organization structures. The three trends – freelance workforce, increasing diversity, changing organization structures – while only ‘likely possibilities’ for now, may sneak up on HR rather rapidly and ‘trip’ the function. 

4. Business is not expecting HR to just ‘assist’ them with talent management. Increasingly, more and more business functions are looking at HR to ‘add value’ to what they are doing; not only advise business about talent strategies, but also to execute strategic projects; not only to manage fixed annual talent processes but also to innovate to elevate overall employee experience. Five things CEOs expect of CHROs: ‘speak my language,’ ‘teach like a CFO,’ ‘add value, earn credibility,’ ‘break the HR silo,’ and ‘help shape the culture.’ 

5.HR leaders were unanimous in their view that the function will evolve into a very different ‘avatar’ 10 years from now, especially around the broad role HR will play, deliverables it will be held accountable for, and the delivery model. HR leaders opined that while at the fundamental level, HR will still be responsible for people related processes, the function’s role will become much broader. The lines between the HR function and other business functions will blur further. HR’s responsibility set in the future will broaden, and become more multidisciplinary, as hard lines between different functions will diminish. And, the delivery model of the much leaner future HR function will depend heavily on technology and outsourcing/shared services. 

6.Incumbent CHROs and thought leaders highlighted three development areas that the HR community needs to work on – technology and analytic skills, since HR is rapidly evolving from a pure-play people orientation to a function with a strong technology and analytics backbone; ‘true’ partnering with business, for which, HR leaders need to understand organizational dynamics, business environment, critical drivers/levers of business, and have the experience and maturity to have ‘equal eye’ dialogue with business leaders; and, multidisciplinary skills, owing to the blurring of lines between different functions.  

7. The career path of future CHROs will be similar to that of current CEOs. There will be a premium on key skills and capabilities such as understanding of technology and analytics, familiarity with multiple disciplines, ability to manage change and commercial acumen. Three key profiles of heads of HR are likely to bubble up over the next decade, on the basis of career paths, background, and experience the incumbent leaders have over the next few years – ‘global business partner,’ an HR leader who has a well-rounded HR and business experience; ‘business consigliere,’ someone who has moved from business to HR; and, ‘new-age avatar,’ an HR leader with a perfect mix of business-technology-HR skills. To get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ in terms of capabilities, HR leaders will need to think differently, build a different skill set, and get some critical experiences under their belt. 

8. To prepare themselves for the future, Indian HR leaders will need to make serious efforts to change their perspectives around learning new-age skills, owning key tasks and responsibilities, and value-add to businesses. To be even ‘relevant’ in a decade from now, HR leaders need to get better at their understanding of technology. While they may not need to master the technical terrain, they need to appreciate technology, understand how it can help improve HR processes and have a point-of-view on available technology options as well as vendors. Future-ready HR leaders need to tweak their responsibilities and roles to suit the future business environment. In particular, they will need to view themselves as less of ‘process champions’ and more of ‘guardians of employee experience.’ As lines between HR and business functions blur over the next decade, heads of HR in India will be expected to play a ‘trusted’ business advisor role, or a ‘doctor’ role. 

9. Since we are considering the scenario of an uncertain future, HR leaders opined that incumbent leaders can best prepare for the future by forming up their fundamental competencies such as learning agility, influencing ability, collaboration skills, resilience and strategic intent. 

10. So what can a next generation HR leader do to become future-ready? Where should she invest her energy? What experiences will accelerate the development of the future-ready CHRO role in India? Research indicates five experiences that are must-have to be future ready. One, stakeholder engagement; two, participating in new initiatives; three, going through crucible experiences; four, pursuing non-obvious career paths; and five, cross-cultural experiences. 

11. With the speed at which business dynamics are changing, HR leaders may not have the luxury of time to learn, internalize and deliver. HR leaders need to get themselves and their team prepared for handling ambiguous assignments at times and still deliver results. Senior practitioners provided eight pieces of very pointed advice for next-generation HR leaders. One – rotate out and spend a few years in business (if possible), two – do not shy away from hardship positions and crucible roles to polish your skills, three – try and get global experience under your belt early, four – get used to ambiguity, five - demonstrate agility to get quick business credibility, six – balance digital and emotional connect, seven – be courageous, and eight – lean on ‘people sciences’ a little more. 

12. ‘The role of HR is all-pervasive and without an expiry date.’ While some thinkers predict that the HR function will cease to exist in a decade from now, it is unlikely to fade away. It may, however, look very different. People responsibilities will stay, albeit the workforce may become leaner. Building organization culture will be critical, especially with bots, machines, and flexible work arrangements in the equation. And, organization capability will have to be built, even though organization structures may undergo transformation. If anything, HR function of the future, irrespective of whatever it is called, will continue to play a critical role in the enterprise of tomorrow. 

Author: Sunil Puri, Asia-Pacific Director of Research, Innovation and Product Development, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)

This excerpt was taken from the executive summary of ‘CHRO 3.0: Preparing to Lead the Future HR Function in India’ research study jointly published by Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and The National HRD Network (NHRDN), Bangalore Chapter.