Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Of deep-specialists and jumping around

This post is on one of my favorite topics : 'deep-specialist' roles in internal HR. Please see here (Specialist roles in internal HR - An endangered species ?) and here (Business alignment of specialists) for previous posts in this domain. The first post explored if these deep-specialist roles are becoming fewer in number. This post is about another related dimension : the average time that these 'deep-specialists' spend in a particular organization.

When we say 'deep-specialist' roles, we are talking about those roles in internal HR that require deep specialist skills/expertise in one of the functional areas in HR (e.g. organization development, reward management, leadership development etc.). It takes many years to develop skills/ expertise to this level. Often, this would also imply that

(A) Very few people can become deep specialists in more than one area

(B) Deep-specialists are high cost resources to hire/ maintain.

If we combine (A) and (B) above; it can lead to some interesting scenarios. (A) would imply that most deep-specialists would find it hard to find another deep-specialist role that they can move into within the organization. (B) would imply that the deep-specialist would have to maintain a very high level of contribution/value addition to justify his/ her cost. For this to happen there has to be a very close match between the the skill/ expertise area of the deep-specialist and the needs of the organization. Now the problem is that in many organizations the 'needs' (that necessitated the hiring of the deep-specialist) change - often quite quickly. This could happen because of many reasons - including those related to the changes in the business and/or those related to the HR strategy/structure/operating model. Now if the the 'original needs' (that necessitated the hiring of the deep-specialist) don't exist any more, that puts our deep-specialist in a peculiar situation : he/she can't maintain the high level of value to justify his/her cost and also he/she can't move into another role in the organization. So this could force the deep-specialist to leave the organization/look for another organization that provides a better fit. However, it could just be a matter of time before the same story gets repeated in the new organization. Again, if we assume that the above changes in business/HR happen frequently, 'logically speaking', this should lead to relatively shorter tenure for deep-specialists.

Since I know that a purely logical approach might not always lead to correct conclusions, I decided to do some sort of a 'reality check'. I spoke to some of my friends (who are deep-specialists) and asked them what is the average tenure they look at when they take up a new job. The answer : about 4-5 years in terms of aspiration and about 2-3 years in terms of the likely result. I feel that these (relatively small) numbers and especially the gap between the 'aspired figure' and the 'likely figure' for tenure, seem to support the inference/line of reasoning regarding the 'relatively short average tenure for deep-specialists'. Of course, this is far from being any sort of conclusive proof ! May be (since I am a 'deep-specialist at heart') I am just looking for excuses to jump around frequently !

What do you think?


Ritika said...

I tend to agree with you when you say that such deep specialists - due to the nature of their profiles - would have a very short or relatively short tenures as compared to the generalists. Also, I perceive them - at the cost of sounding too wordy - as more of 'strategic interventionists'. In my view , in many situations the main role of such deep - specialists is to fire-fight or bail-out in tough / critical / challenging situation and then take a back seat in the business-as-usual kind of scenario. Here in UK, for example, I see many individuals playing such roles of deep-specialists , for example , Strategic Change Management Consultants who lead huge organisational transformational intiatives and who operate more or less as independent contractors. It is an interesting trend that I have observed here which I guess is a long shot for it to happen in India as of now.

Hope you with my views in some ways ..


Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Ritika.

Yes, I agree that the 'deep-specialists' are required mainly for solving complex issues in their domains. Usually, these issues don't occur all the time in a particular organization and hence it is highly possible that the deep-specialists within the organization are not utilized 100%.

However, it might not always be optimal to hire external consultants/ independent contractors as deep specialists as and when required. Often, 'great solutions' require a combination of deep-specialist skills/ expertise and a high amount of context specific knowledge. This is especially true in the people management domain, where the 'informal organization' (i.e. how things really work in the organization, as opposed to how they are supposed to work) has a huge impact on the implementation effectiveness of any solution. Often it would be very difficult for an external consultant to develop an adequate understanding of the 'informal organization' in a short period of time. So there could be a case for retaining a deep-specialist, even if the utilization is less then 100%, if there are high impact/high leverage issues to be solved/addressed. However, this has to be a conscious decision after doing a detailed cost-benefit analysis.

By the way, as far as I know, most of the top OD professionals in India are either independent consultants or part of very small consulting firms.

Scott said...

As ever with many of these issues it all depends on the context. If an organisation is going for all 3 legs of the Ulrich stool then they are likely to have a requirement for deep specialists for a significant period of time. These will be deployed in areas such as the shared service centre or in a particular CoE.

As an HR consultant in the UK myself I tend to play a short term role within these organisations where I will for example help by setting up the L&D, OD etc COE. Consultants are in a good position to do this, given their breadth of experience with a number of client companies.


Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Scott.

It is interesting that you mention about deep-specialist roles based in the SSC in addition those based in CoEs. Logically, this makes sense. However, I have seen that this (basing some deep-specialist roles in the SSC) often get into trouble - especially with 'HR power-politics'.

Usually, when the HR SSC is being set up, it is positioned (to the existing HR staff) as a unit that would handle purely transactional work (partly to minimize fears that 'high-end' jobs would get migrated to the SSC - resulting in job losses to existing senior HR staff). So, any attempt to create deep-specialist roles in SSC (other than in those areas in which deep-specialist roles do not exist at present in the HR organization - like HRIS/Human Capital Analytics for example) could face a lot resistance - especially from corporate HR staff.

Considering that the number of CoE jobs are already shrinking (as organizations increasingly rely on external consultants like you for these tasks) any further encroachment in the CoE territory (by moving some of these jobs to the SSC) could be viewed as a threat by the corporate HR staff.

I have found that in most organizations, corporate HR has much more political power as compared to Country HR. So moving tasks/jobs from country HR to the SSC is much more easy as compared to moving jobs from corporate HR to the SSC (especially if the SSC is based in a country other than that where most of the corporate HR is based). Of course, there are additional challenges of building and sustaining deep-expertise in the SSC.

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