COVID-19 advanced the growth of technology and the pace of its adoption by a few years, if not decades. Access to different aspects and kinds of technologies has allowed us to resume work and life, but their very nature is undergoing a transition. In this trend of rising artificial intelligence, how do we ensure a proportionate rise of human intelligence? And how do we face the changing realities of the present, while preparing for the future? Here is Rajeev Dubey with some answers and many questions.
It’s been more than a year since COVID-19 was characterised as a pandemic. While experts have been studying and debating its origin, spread and ramifications, its effect has been felt in most, if not all parts of the world. Many people lost their jobs, and many others were forced to take up vocations that they were not prepared for. But one thing that has made life, work, and health somewhat possible in these precarious times, is access to technology.
In today’s podcast, we’ll discuss questions on the features and qualities of organisations of the future, and the nature of work itself.
We’ll be hearing from Rajeev Dubey, who’s currently the non-executive Chairman of three Mahindra companies—Mahindra Insurance Brokers Ltd, Mahindra Steel Service Centre Ltd and Mahindra First Choice Wheels Ltd. He is a Director on the Board of Fifth Gear Ventures Ltd and a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization in Geneva. Rajeev Dubey has formerly been the Group President (HR and Corporate Services) and CEO (After-Market Sector), Member of the Group Executive Board, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd.
A respected leader in the realm of business and human resources, he believes that leadership is about empowering people to unleash their potential and reach their best self, both professionally and personally, in the pursuit of the organisational purpose. He tells me that the role of leadership is more crucial in our current reality of fear and uncertainty, where the number of COVID-19 cases in India is creating personal, social and economic havoc.
Thank you for joining us today, Mr Dubey.
I’d like to begin by asking you how you think we should recalibrate our approach to work. The pandemic showed us the interconnectedness of the world; while technology connected us earlier and made the world seem like an oyster, COVID-19 made it smaller.
I’ll give you an answer that is a bit philosophical. The interconnectedness of things has many ramifications, and one of them is that for our own survival and growth, we have to show concern for our other stakeholders. Because the way we look at, treat and behave with others has repercussions on us, both as individuals and as organisations. So, to me, this is a fundamental thing. The other repercussions are more obvious—that technology is connecting us, people can work from home, people don’t have to travel long distances—there will be all kinds of changes in the workplace. But what the interconnectedness of things means to me is that we have to start addressing the triple bottom line —of planet, people, and profit.
We cannot only be driven by the micro purpose of profit maximisation if this means that we ignore other elements in an interconnected system, because all this impacts how we treat each other in an interconnected system, how we treat our customers and how well we understand them, how we treat our own employees and how well we understand them, how we treat our suppliers, how we treat our communities and how well we relate with the government. And of course, shareholders have always been there. But I think the primacy of the shareholder as compared to all other stakeholders is going to get questioned heavily. And the role of purpose, values, empathy, and distributed leadership is going to come to the fore.
Could you elaborate on the phrase you used, “Distributed leadership”?
In the current scenario of the pandemic and the “New Normal of VUCA” accompanied by push-back from stakeholders, we need to have quick decision-making all along the value-chain of an organisation. If you have a leadership structure which is very command and control-oriented—where every decision has to travel through a hierarchical chain—then the speed of decision-making, the understanding of the reality and the ability to be proactive, will be severely impacted. Therefore, one of the defining characteristics of tomorrow’s companies and leaders that are successful, will be the ability to create distributed leadership. This means that you empower people at various levels and places in the supply chain to take decisions quickly, without having to refer up all the time.
So, yes, there would be an overall framework, a purpose, some guidelines perhaps, but a huge amount of empowerment has to be given. This will ensure that people can act as per the changing business realities and take decisions quickly. So, the old model of a command and control structure with rigid budgets and strategies, where any deviations are frowned upon, will have to completely change in this New Normal. There will have to be a new paradigm, and therefore, a completely new mindset, that people will need to have.
Could you elaborate on how we can prepare ourselves for work and the workplace in this scenario? Especially those of us who are in the early phases of our careers?
Let’s look at what’s going to happen to work, worker, and workplace. It’s a convenient classification, and when you look at all three, you will get the complete picture. When you talk about the Future of Work, I think you’re asking —what will work look like, what will the worker be like, and what will the workplace be like—at least these three aspects.
I would say that clearly, technology—and by that I don’t mean IT alone but all other technologies (like biogenetics, for example) that will use the power of IT (through Artificial Intelligence, BlockChain, Machine Learning, Internet of Things, etc.)—will become a very important part of work. So, people will have to change their mindset and their skills and competencies so that they can work with technologies and machines. And you have to be in a state where you keep upgrading, learning, unlearning, relearning. This is one aspect of the workplace.
As the second aspect, work itself will get redefined because there will be so much technology that will be coming in and changing. This will lead to changes in the nature of work, work design, organisation structure, and so forth. The only way to prepare for this is to keep on learning, unlearning and relearning. Skills, competencies and mindsets will play a great role. Those who don’t have a growth mindset and the ability for continual learning, will be severely disadvantaged. This is a huge task ahead starting with the schools and the educational systems, to teach our people to think and be ready to reskill ourselves.
And the workplace, I think, will be hybrid. I don’t think we can ever move to a fully work-from-home system because people will find it difficult. Depending on the nature of the job, of whatever jobs are left, the degree of the work-from-home element will vary.
This is something that’s already happening, especially the importance we give to the ability to learn and think, not just at school or university, but also at work and in public service. What kind of skills, in your opinion, will safeguard careers in future crises? Do you think one needs to be a generalist or be good at a few things, as opposed to being a master of one thing, to ensure security and growth?
When people start their careers, they must specialise in something. They may wish to specialise in more than one thing over time, if that’s possible. But if you’re just a generalist, who has no specialisation, that will be a disadvantage. But the path to becoming a good, meaningful generalist is through having been a specialist in more than one field.
It’s not an either-or, an argument of specialist vs generalist. You ultimately need to be both specialist and generalist—one who has skills, understands the interconnectedness of things and is able to frame the situation properly.
Right, that makes sense.
Could you elaborate on the worker in your classification? What do you think jobs in the future will be like?
I think you will have a mix of work contracts in every organisation—permanent, contractual, and outsourced. The word ‘gig worker’ is becoming very common. Of course, in India, the gig worker has always been there since 93% of the workforce is informal or self-employed (which is largely gig), with the organised sector being only 7%.
It’s a huge challenge for an organisation where there are workers with very different work contracts—especially in managing them, creating a culture, motivating the people, making them collaborate, etc. And then there are people working from different geographies, assignment-specific teams, and those who you may never meet except virtually, how do you create the working conditions and the culture for the best results? By the time these conditions are met, the assignment has been completed and the team will disband. These are all big challenges for leaders to manage a workplace with workers of different tenures, levels of security, and motivation.
True. Teams curated with their particular ability to collaborate become redundant when their objectives are achieved. Can we say the same about physical offices and workplaces? What do you think will happen to the heavy real estate investments of large and even small organisations?
I would reserve my judgement on this because it’s alright to say that we worked remotely for a year but I also know the toll working from home has taken on people. I’ve been hearing from a lot of people that they wish to go back to their offices, especially those living in small flats, with little children, and it’s been particularly difficult for women and mothers.
My own guess is that even those companies that will have policies for work-from-home, will have some kind of a hybrid arrangement. Otherwise, people will be subject to physical strains and mental stresses, both of which are connected. In the short term, there could be a fall in demand in real estate, but as the economy grows, more demand will be generated. In other words, we have to wait and watch, to see how things pan out in a two to three year period.
Yes, a hybrid arrangement seems more realistic now, but then again, we can’t know for sure.
While so much about work and how we approach it is being changed, how do you think the management of people and work should evolve? How should their competencies or deliverables be measured?
What you take as KRAs and how you use the performance management system along with its structure, processes and metrics, is coming up for serious review. To use a cliche, the jury is out. A lot of what we thought were sacred truths, are being severely questioned. This is not from any esoteric desire to question, but because of realities of business and of the universe; after all, business is just one part of the universe, it is not the be-all and end-all.
This is where the role of leadership, intellectuals, and the education system comes in. What are we teaching students in our primary and higher educational institutions, including our Business Schools? Are we only teaching them to pray at the altar of rote learning and profit maximisation, or are we teaching them how to perceive and think of the New Normal with its amalgam of changing technologies, demographics, migration, climate change, geo-political shifts, etc. in an increasingly interconnected world? Because it is what people and leaders think that they turn into reality.
In a sense, the pandemic is telling us what may happen. I know I sound like a doomsday soothsayer, but I’m simply saying that a lot of questions are being raised. Those of us who are well off do not think beyond themselves, the car that they are going to buy or the locality they are going to live in, but that’s not sustainable. And that’s what the pandemic has taught us.
Right. It’s about time that sustainability becomes an important factor, right? Not just about what’s possible in the long-term, but also what’s the best way for everyone and the planet.
You mentioned that the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn will better prepare us for the future. But only 21% of organisations, as per the ‘Future of Jobs Report 2020’, were able to support their employees through upskilling and reskilling. What are your thoughts?
One belief is that human beings or labour is a short-term cost to be minimised, so that you can get the maximum profit. This belief leads to certain behaviours, strategies, metrics, structures, and so forth. The other belief is that people are—the greatest appreciating asset, not a cost to be minimised. The question then is —how do we make sure, given our cash flows and strategies, that we are able to get the full benefit from our people in terms of innovation, competitive advantage, and productivity?
These two fundamental approaches translate into very different leaders. Those leaders/managers who believe in the second approach—believe that people are our assets which will differentiate us and enable us to outcompete—will deal with their people very differently and try to invest in them. The last thing they will think of when cutting costs will be to fire their people. Whereas, for the first kind of management, people are the first cost to be cut. But I don’t know if this is the right approach for the long term.
I clearly belong to the second approach. Let’s take the question of cash, because that’s a big issue. How do you generate the cash to survive? When you’re looking for what to cut, it’s good to realise that cash and cost get consumed in many things, not just people (working capital, capital expenditure, infrastructure cost, etc.). It’s helpful to conserve costs that don’t involve throwing people out. During the entire lockdown, I know of many SMEs who said that they would not throw out their people and would manage their finances. If there were salary cuts, they all took cuts; and if the guys getting much bigger salaries were to take a cut, they would allow many more of their workers to survive.
But, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. So, I say, let us at least question our assumptions and be clear about our approach to our people, and then we can decide about skilling, upskilling, and whatever other investments are required.
You’ve said previously that the future of work looks more dystopian than utopian, especially if we don’t create enough jobs. But Artificial Intelligence and automation pose an obvious threat. At the same time, they’re also inevitable. How do we continue on the path of post-modernity while also providing for livelihoods?
First of all, the march of technology is inevitable, so I don’t think you can stop that. But what you use that technology for and how we use it, that’s where the choices come in. For sure, we know that the number of jobs created has gone up over the long-term, but there are periods of transition, when there have been fundamental shifts in technology—of the kind that are taking place right now—where there are huge and painful losses of jobs. So, we cannot wish away the problem.
I think we have to be aware that it is a problem. We have to be aware and not take the stand of letting the market decide, because that will be a disaster.
I know answers are given that technology will create more jobs than it will destroy. This will happen ultimately, but there will be a huge period of transition where a lot of people will be without jobs, and that’s a challenge. This brings me to the question of social security, which we don’t have in this country. So, if large numbers of people are going to be without jobs, and they have no means of sustenance, what’s going to happen to the social fabric? And when there is a social upheaval, it will immediately reflect in the politics and the economics. While some people may think that they will sit in their fortresses and air conditioned rooms and not care what happens outside, it is not true anymore; this will affect everybody just as the coronavirus is affecting everybody.
I’m sorry if I’m painting a dismal picture, but I think there is a role for people to come out and say that we need to intervene and try to create a future world order which is sustainable, fair, and inclusive. So, our philosophy, values, morality, business models, business behaviour, the KRAs that we choose, the way we behave in our everyday lives, are all interconnected. And the wellspring of all this is what people think is the Purpose of the organisation, the world order that we’re trying to create and what we’re trying to achieve.
And everybody can’t say that it’s not their job. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” is a very pertinent question.
We are so caught up in “I want to do well”, which is good, “I want to get more money”, which is good, but we need to ask more questions and increase awareness about: how we will achieve these goals, to what end, what is our role, what do we give back, why are we working, what does life mean to us?
That’s very powerful. I had made a poster of the quote you mentioned and stuck it on the wall at my parents’ home. It serves as a good reminder to take initiative and contribute, especially in these times, right? And I’m also very comforted to know that you think values will remain important in this future world.
Values will have to occupy center stage but they are not enough. They have to be translated into action, encompassing strategy, structure, processes, metrics, behaviour, the culture of the organisation.
Right. But the future seems really bleak from where we are right now. How can we ensure that there is a proportionate rise of human intelligence and humanity?
Well, by each one of us, acknowledging how important humanity is, by saying that ‘I will put myself in the shoes of the other person’. We must remind ourselves of the ‘Satya’, that is the truth, as we see it; we must be committed to ‘Prem’ and have compassion; and ‘Seva’, which is the ability to give even as we take so much, because everything is interconnected. And because business is ultimately derived from purpose, values, philosophy; and every business decision is a philosophical decision. Also, work is not something that is separate from the future of humanity, and the future of the planet. Yes, it requires numbers and structures, but where do they come from? What is the origin of all that?
We have to be aware and not willing to let ourselves be mindless cogs in the machine, and to not allow that machine to make a few people rich and disenfranchise, disempower, dismember everybody else. Each one of us has a role.
That’s a very inspiring call-to-action. Would you like to leave our listeners with any final message?
If I’ve sounded like a soothsayer of doom, I only intended to say that we have to be aware that there are risks and problems, but we can overcome, provided we engage with awareness, hope, vitality, and the determination, that “I can make a difference and I will”—that’s the message I’d like to leave you with.
Thanks so much, Mr Dubey. This was a very thought-provoking and insightful conversation.
Thank you, you’re very kind.
It’s an understatement that times are bad. But my takeaway from this conversation is that each one of us matters, and can make a difference. And how do we do that? Well, by cultivating awareness and asking the right questions.
Thanks for tuning in. Take care and stay safe!