HR as a Chief Culture Architect of The Organization, with Abhijit Bhaduri

This article is a lightly-edited summary of the key takeaways from our speakers’ appearance on our podcast, “The Shape of Work.” If you haven’t listened to our show yet, be sure to check it out here. These speakers have an incredible stable of startup experiences to draw from, the kind of stories that are unbelievably helpful for HR/people managers to hear.


We welcomed Abhijit Bhaduri, Founder & CEO of Abhijit Bhaduri & Associates to our podcast series, The Shape of Work. Abhijit is a recognized Human Resources Thought Leader, a Linkedin ‘must know’ author, and consultant. Forbes named him “one of India’s Most Interesting Globalists“ and he was voted as the “No. 1 HR Influencer on Social Media” by SHRM in 2018.

Abhijit believes in creating human connections and experimenting with different facets of the mind. His passion for connecting with people and helping them succeed is evident. He talks about how leaders and organisations should reinvent themselves given the digital wave in this boundaryless world that is sweeping everything around us.

Abhijit Bhaduri is a former Chief Learning Officer for the Wipro group. Before this, he held HR leadership roles at Microsoft, Pepsi, Colgate and Tata Steel and worked in India, South East Asia and the US.

Abhijit is passionate about theatre and has acted in plays and in the movie, “Apna Asmaan.” He is also an amateur cartoonist and uses sketches to capture key learnings across various fields. He has been blogging for more than10 years. For  deeper insights into other facets of Abhijit Bhaduri, please visit www.abhijitbhaduri.com

A passion for storytelling and languages

Abhijit’s passion for storytelling and languages began at an early age and developed throughout his childhood. He describes how as a child he enjoyed creative writing. Since his father was in the railways, they travelled a fair bit. He shares that he would go around different places, and write about those to his grandparents. Usually, it would either be a funny incident that would have occurred, something that caught his eye or simply a little piece of trivia. He shares that he grew up having access to a very large number of powerful storytellers. The first language he learnt through reading was Bengali, followed by English and Hindi. He developed interests in each language because of the storytellers that he came across. The writing and narrating styles of storytellers like Munshi Premchand, Shirshendu, Tara Shankara, etc.,  influenced him a lot.

The value of an organization is shifting from tangible to intangible elements

On being asked on how his book, Dreamers and Unicorns”, and the five shifts described in it are relevant in today’s context, he replies that today, the value of a firm is created more by intangible elements such as the organization’s brand, trust, leadership and reputation. These aspects should be able to attract potential hires. For example, If you’re an engineer or an artist, you may want to work in a specific kind of place.. Hence, the value has entirely shifted from predominantly tangible things like the amount of land or size of the factories. All of this is available on tap. This means that the leaders need to create business models out of emotions because data and logic do not always lead to action. Therefore, organizations have to understand emotions in their workplace.

Today is about the ability of the organizations to become boundaryless

He explains this by giving an analogy of the online and offline stores. The online stores are good at transactions] and are seamless. You can pick up something and pay for it with just a few clicks. However, if you go to your neighbourhood Kirana (essentials) store in India, they may not have an app or a smooth payment system, but they have a tremendous ability to know the customer and to maintain a good relationship with them.

Abhijit created a post for LinkedIn on how Kirana stores have not just survived the pandemic, they took a dip. In reverse migration, the system of credit cards really impacted them badly. However, they bounced back by turning the offline business into online with the help of applications such as Hindustan Unilever and Reliance.

These apps made wholesalers and distributors the storehouse, economize in that space and build a deeper relationship with the Kirana store owners as they know their customer’s family members and their preferences. This can only happen when you have the utmost trust in someone.

Therefore, the retail industry is driven by trust which is one of the most powerful drivers of the business. This may change as people think that this is the new normal. However, based on what we are experiencing now, there is nothing called a new normal. This will keep changing constantly. Therefore, the perpetual beta will be the way we will get used to living.

The talent pool is boundaryless

Abhijit shares that when businesses talk about talent, they’re actually referring to only full-time talent. But in today’s world, the best talent may not be on the organization’s payroll. Hence, organizations don’t necessarily own all the talent, regardless of being large or aspirational.

There is a huge range of talent available with different degrees of engagement models. If we assume office means everybody has a uniform workspace, or consider part-time or freelancing to be the only exceptions, we are absolutely wrong. In today’s context, everyone is in a unique workspace:  your workspace is your home, and you have your own rules. There’s no such concept of one uniform set of rules to work anymore.

We are going to see that the number of people on the roles of the organization is actually going to drop and we will find a lot more organizations engaging with talent as and when they need. So there will be talent on tap and evident growth in the gig economy.

The amalgamation of Specialists and Generalists

“We will see more specialists outside of organisational systems.”

He explained this with a simple analogy. We do not go to a root canal specialist every other day but probably go to a dentist (generalist) more often. Relating this to the present day’s working model, we often need help from a specialist when we are aware of our problem. Otherwise, a generalist comes into the play and directs us to the specialist. Therefore, we might see a lot more generalists working with specialists as they bring them on board and let go when the work gets done.

Reimagine Learning and Development experiences

Anoop asks Abhijit how learning platforms can start working towards being more vocal than a push and changing their design? Abhijit replies that Google’s annual “Year In Search” report talks about a very interesting shift. Earlier, people would browse YouTube to watch a film clip or song, while now they routinely use it for getting information on how to fix something, and to learn a new skill, languages or cooking etc. So, it has shifted from being just entertainment to a learning platform as well. This shift is not a one-off, but we see a lot more sustained continuation. Hence, we see more engagement on a niche topic rather than a fleeting one now. So, watching film clips is one extreme as there’s nothing fixed. However, doing a course on a hobby is a transition point. And then, comes the learning models of the course.

“If you think that learning has always been kept separate from entertainment, it will never be fun.”

Abhijit says that people who design learning content aren’t that well versed in the skills of storytelling or visuals. We should understand that it’s the visuals that first gets a reader’s attention in a piece of content. If the visuals don’t captivate attention, the person is not going to read your content.

Teachers need to leverage technology to create content that they can use in the classroom to make every lesson come to life. They must see their role as designers of learning experiences and not just transferring of content. Content is free and commoditized. 

In addition, over a span of time, the number of options in the same space surged at par. Today we can use our devices(phone, laptop and Ipad) not just to learn, but to play games, watch movies, and more.  Entertainment and learning have blended together. This is making people find learning and work boring over all of the other productive things they could do through their devices.

Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, says that their biggest competition is sleep. Abhijit says that from the Learning and Development team’s point of view, their biggest competition is Netflix and Amazon Prime, and all other OTT platforms.

The right culture makes dreamers become a unicorn

“HR is the Chief culture architect of the organization”.

HR is fundamentally a specialist function where you help the business achieve its objectives by bringing in a set of skills and perspectives about how people work better together. So that’s essentially what HR does. Therefore, whether it’s a performance system, web design, organizational structure or even the layout of the place, these can completely change the way the work output happens. But the most significant role that HR has to play is of the company culture as the culture will turn a dreamer into a unicorn and a unicorn into a market shaper.

When a startup welcomes more people to be a part of it, it’s very common for the existing employees to feel like the place has changed. The workspace seems impersonal with too many people and managers. Hence, it becomes important to create proper systems and processes.

However, when the systems and processes become engaged by the founder of the organization, it becomes bureaucratic. That’s exactly where the role of HR comes into play. Leaders wish to work on these things personally. It is like saying that health is very important, I will take care of myself. But, in reality, you need to go to a doctor when you’re unwell.

Unfair treatment, inequities, and all the people and business sides of it need to have the boundaries set up by HR people. They are not going to be apologetic about setting boundaries and will be able to create fluidity, where the boundary is a guideline.

Technically optimized HR

Anoop asks Abhijit about the things that the HR department of today should watch out for. Abhijit replies that all the functions are necessarily tech functions today because of the tech element attached to them in some way. He strongly feels that the HR function has become more complex than it was earlier. He says, considering the possibilities, HR people should be informed about cybercrimes. They should be prepared to deal with nuances such as employee data ending up on the dark web, phishing messages disguised as CEO emails or a strange video of the C-suite.

They need to be extremely curious about technology, and the media. Abhijittalks about two big chunks, which according to him, HR never dealt with. But these are the pieces that are waiting to explode and catch everyone unaware. He feels labour laws, and as a matter of fact,  the workers themselves are undergoing several changes in the country’s social structure.

The talent pool is moving from just being completely 100% on your roads to being a lot more of your free-floating

These are things that did not exist to this extent five years ago.  However, it has grown to be a business reality today.

HR must focus on building the attraction of the brand for good workers to be able to come and work in the organization.

Machine vs Humans

Abhijit thinks that many things can be done better by machines. He remembers writing a little piece called the “Citius Altius Fortius Jobs Will Go Away” which refers to the Olympics mottos; Citius, Altius, and Fortius mean faster, higher, and stronger respectively.

Things that go faster than what the human capability can, it’s a machine’s task

Higher is where we can use a rocket to go across to different planets.

Stronger is when you’re able to disengage a ship that has got stuck sideways in a canal. So, all these problems require a certain kind of skill to be solved.

Jobs following the “faster, higher, stronger” principle will progressively be taken over by machines. It is easier and faster to program the robots to do something repetitively. Not only can robots do the work faster than humans, but they also do not have Monday morning blues. They do not seek vacations nor do they object to working on weekends. They can go through mountains of data in a moment, identify anomalies, are better legal assistants than humans. Any job that is faster for machines to carry out makes it uneconomical to be left to humans. That means we will have many of these jobs carried out by robots replacing humans.

Whereas, jobs that involve dealing with ambiguity, human emotions and dealing with changing rules are still best left to humans.

Even though we now have the best systems that generate insights through data, the role of HR will be to set boundaries for how the data will be used

He describes this with a simple analogy. He said, “If I’m working with a company and there is a case against me,  does that record carry on with me once I leave it or it stays with the company They probably have no use for my back record, unless they want to hire me back again, in which case, they could ask for it again. So who owns that data? What kind of data would they use? If there was a charge level against me, which was not pre-approved, they keep that on the record. The choices are always going to be coming up with organizations. Hence, the opportunity to be able to address many of these are really going to be very powerful opportunities for HR to be in. Nevertheless, understanding the algorithm of the automated systems is the foremost task of HR because who else would employees go to? Therefore we need to create boundaries between what the machine does and what human beings do to make the workplace fair and fun.”

Right personality traits of HRs

HR is curious about people & technology, has a high degree of empathy and is technically & politically savvy, where politically savvy means to be able to get their ideas implemented through a number of people.

According to Abhijit, people who have been successful in building trust in the organization and working with people across the strata, have embodied the traits of being curious about people, empathetic, tech-savvy and politically savvy.

The truth is that nobody is going to come and implement your ideas because it’s a good idea. For example, we’ve been cribbing about the vaccine, but when there’s a vaccine available, so many people are not sure whether they’re going to take it or not. We need different ways to motivate and persuade others. That’s what politics is all about.

Follow Abhijit Bhaduri on LinkedIn

Priya Bhatt

I cover Employee stories at Springworks.

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