The challenge is to attract talent and retain it

"People should not be constrained or restricted in their ability to contribute to the organisation," says Rackanchath Nanda as he elaborates on what he believes employee engagement is really about. That's pertinent, coming as it does from the head of human resources at Tata Chemicals, a professional who has spent 27 years learning and understanding the nuances of HR and how the function can improve the health of a business. Mr Nanda, who moved to the organisation from Tata Communications in May 2012, started his career with the Murugappa group, where he spent nearly 15 years in a variety of roles. He joined the Tata group in 2006 after a brief stint as the HR head of the Dubai-based Landmark group. Mr Nanda gets talking in this interview with Philip Chacko on a wide range of HR issues, among them the challenges Tata Chemicals faces on this front and how the function has changed over the years.

What is the overarching philosophy that guides the HR practice at Tata Chemicals?

We are a company that is caring and known to be so, that provides a good working environment for its people, and one that promotes talent from within. These three attributes define, from an HR perspective, who we are as an organisation.

What kind of HR challenges does Tata Chemicals face, and how have these challenges changed over the years?
The principal challenge stems from the fact that many of our manufacturing sites are in remote areas, which makes it difficult to get the right people to work at those sites. The challenge here is of attracting talent and retaining it.

Has this challenge got more acute in recent times?
To an extent, yes, because it's a more connected world now and people are more aware of what they are missing. The challenge is about meeting aspirations. When a person passes out from a management school or a graduate training school, the first choice is to be in a city. Our plant locations are far away from key metros, so one challenge is about making our sites more attractive.

Retention is another challenge and it is a greater challenge than it was, say, a decade back. Many of the people we hire from campuses get married after four-five years, and the spouse most likely is a working person. In the circumstances, employee engagement is crucial for Tata Chemicals. We have to understand the drivers of employee engagement in current times so that we can manage and make them consistent across the organisation.

Typically, the more important engagement factor is the immediate manager; this person becomes a key determinant. We try to ensure that we train managers to be sensitive about their job requirement and not just their task requirement. Most such training in the past involved individual soft skills, but now we are putting an organisational play to it. A combination of the individual and the organisational will help the engagement quotient of the company; what we do is strengthen the linkage.

Tata Chemicals is now a global entity with operations in different parts of the world. What sort of HR issues does that reality throw up?
Only one part of the Tata Chemicals business is global and that is soda ash. But even here, in the different arms of the business, they are fairly insulated operations, whether in Wyoming in the United States, in Magadi in Kenya, our European operations or Mithapur in India. We have had only a handful of people moving across locations.

That said, cross-cultural sensitisation is a key element. You have to understand what is workable in a culture and what is not. Fortunately or unfortunately, we don't have a large number of people moving across our plant locations, so there isn't a big issue with integration and the like.

What we have to deal with is something that is peculiar to the chemical industry, where production facilities are far flung from city life. That's not how it is with information technology or engineering. Also, with chemicals, because of the nature of the process and the distinct regulatory environment at each of our locations, HR norms are different at our sites. It makes sense, then, to be bound by a common framework rather than to enforce a common HR policy. That's because work levels are different, salary structures are different, etc. We cannot have a global standard, but what we try to do is make sure that we have in place a common framework that can be applied globally.

We are clear that with HR we will be region specific. The stray cases of people moving from one location to another, we treat these as exceptions for a specific purpose. They have an assignment to finish and they will come back to the parent. That's the way we have structured it.

You have been in HR for long years. How has the function itself changed during this time?
When I started my career in HR it was focused on industrial relations. Opportunities were limited; it was an employer's market. You could decide how and when to recruit and the options open to anybody joining were limited. But there has been a sea change over the last 15-20 years, with many new sectors and many new opportunities.

There was a time when people who spent a decade or more in manufacturing would stay through their working life in manufacturing. But now people leave and take up another vocation. You may have a very good plant manager saying that infotech is where his or her future lies. Consequently, companies have had to reconsider what they are doing. The environment has changed, the economy has opened up and the focus has shifted from industrial relations to managing your workforce in a manner that makes it competitive in a globalised world.

What is different now about shop-floor management?
For someone in production and doing day-to-day work, the aspirations are not all that many. If he has an issue, he must know who to approach and how to get it resolved. If it gets resolved in a reasonable period of time — in best-case scenarios, as soon as it is raised — he will not have any ground-level issues. Problems arise when the issue is not settled quickly.

Also of relevance is the increasing level of automation and the influx of new technology. This means that the shop-floor worker has to be able to expand the range of his skills continually. He may be very skilled in an old method, but if you automate the line, the skilled become unskilled.

What is the Tata Chemicals method on leadership development?
Our journey here began some time back and we have built on it over the years. Most significantly, we have a programme where we identify people of a particular age and job-level bracket and expose them to multiple modules, running for almost a year, where they get a perspective of how to run a business and inputs on personal behaviour.

When you invest in such people, you need to ensure that some of the other processes in the organisation facilitate upward mobility. You cannot create aspiration without having the requisite outlet to release that aspiration. Not everything happens together but an employee understands that over a given period there will be certain opportunities available to him or her.

Recently Tata Chemicals was looking at moving into a new category and some of us got together to evaluate the people within our system who could be moved to assignments there. This is the kind of situation that comes up when you have to fashion the new. The question that emerges is: do you have people in the organisation who are willing to take something that does not exist today and build it to a considerable scale?

How does employee engagement pan out at Tata Chemicals?
By and large, engagement is something you can sense when you walk into an organisation; it is the look and feel of the place and it's not something you can use a tape to measure. How are people reacting when you walk around, how are they involving themselves in their work, what conversations are they having, what about other interactions, and is that laughter you are hearing? There are easily evident signals to be found here.

Most people who come to work are not concerned about issues outside of their work. People should not be constrained or restricted in their ability to contribute to the organisation. That's how I see employee engagement.

What kind of employee concerns have you had to deal with?
At Tata Chemicals we take care of our people, as I mentioned earlier. In the last couple of years we have wound up our biofuels and fresh produce businesses. In both instances, we did not see the people we had in those enterprises as less capable because the business itself was shut down. Instead, we have provided a large window for them to get redeployed.

There definitely are opportunities for growth within the organisation no matter what the circumstances, but people need to be willing to relocate, to pick up a fresh set of skills, and so on. That's what needs to happen.

What is the equation on work-life balance at Tata Chemicals?
My experience tells me that an organisation cannot mandate your work-life balance; it is an individual thing. You have to look at what affects you most and then decide how it should be balanced. The organisation can help if there is an inherent process that is weak, in which case you can strengthen that process. If you see that people cannot complete their activity in a given period of time because of factors outside their control, then you need to intervene. And the best method of rectification in such situations is to have people do the job.

An important point on this issue is when you work in roles where you have to deal with an environment, typically external, where many things are out of your control. You have no way of predicting it or understanding the pattern in which it happens. The solution on this is to have people in that particular role who do not get hassled by sharp spikes and demands on their time. The organisation has to understand which kind of person it needs to put in a certain kind of place.

This balance is not just the work part of it; it's also about giving employees opportunities to fulfil their own ambitions, to pursue their hobbies, and so on. And that we do to a considerable extent.

Is it more problematic these days when it comes to recruiting?
It is more difficult now than it was, say, 20 years back. There is a clear gap in quality because most educational institutions are not preparing students to be employable as soon as they are out of the classroom. These students may be good from a theoretical standpoint, but the skills that a business enterprise requires are not all there.

It is vital, in this context, for organisations to partner educational institutions in crafting the curriculum, and there are multiple ways this can happen. We have to offer adequate internship and exposure opportunities; we have to work with institutions to make the curriculum more job-oriented; and we have to get practising managers to spend time visiting and interacting with the talent pool that is being groomed for employment.

What's the deal for Tata Chemicals, from the HR perspective of business, from here on?

We hope and expect to get better in matching aspiration to opportunity from a career point of view. Because we are in multiple businesses, we are able to offer plenty of opportunities to our people, especially as we enter new areas. As an organisation we have to stay engaged with employees and get even more collaborative

About Tata Chemicals

  • Tata Chemicals is the second-largest producer of soda ash in the world. It is India's market leader in the branded and iodised salt segment as well as urea and phosphatic fertilisers. The company's plants are located in India, the United States, the United Kingdom and Kenya.
  • Consolidated revenues of Rs139.73 billion in the financial year 2011-12.
  • Number of employees: 5,000 plus.

This interview is a part of the cover story of the April 2013 issue of Tata Review in which human resource heads of eight Tata companies speak about developing and taking care of their talent pool: