There is something about youth that is irrepressible. Energy and enthusiasm
and sometimes if you’re lucky, a certain amount of non-conformism–traits
that individuals and companies strive to hold on to as they get older. But it
isn’t always easy.
Companies, like people, tend to grow old. They get ossified in their own
systems and with growing size, ‘procedural proprieties’ often replace the
ability to move fast and quick and dirty.
Hemant Sharma’s brief when he joined as head of HR at Sun Microsystems
India in November, 1999 was to prevent just that. Sun needed a larger setup in
India that however retained the verve and flexibility of a small organization.
Hemant’s job – to help the company grow up but not grow old. "When I
joined, Sun India had 11 software engineers and 21 support, systems and sales
executives— a grand total of 32," says Hemant. Two and a half years
later, that number has grown 15 times to 540 people. And so far at least, the
company hasn’t lost that often-elusive elixir— the attitude of youth.
Sure, little things count…
It shows in numerous ways — both big and small. If you walk into Sun’s
sixth floor office in Bangalore, you’re quite likely to hear loud cheers,
music or shouting from various cubicles. Or the dress code. At a time when most
software engineers have taken to ties and formal shoes, at the Sun office,
T-shirts and jeans are just fine. Even an occasional employee in shorts doesn’t
make people scurry for their protocol officers. (That’s only the software guys
though. Marketing and sales executives still have to wear the customary tie and
But these are the small things. A hangover, one might argue, from the early
days of the industry when a bohemian environment was the rule, not an exception.
What really makes Sun’s HR policies interesting is its ability to match its
business goals and attitudes with its employee philosophy. Sun has always been
the industry rebel for instance, placing its unwavering faith on specific
technologies while most industry majors preferred to hedge their bets. It has
also deliberately chosen to be the recalcitrant upstart, which has taken almost
all dominant players head on at various points of time. To maintain a position
like that without requires a matching employee culture within. Essentially — a
very open one.
…But big things matter more
Globally, Sun’s HR policies have been designed to meet this need. Says
Hemant, "We have a very flat structure. There is very little hierarchy and
employees are encouraged to take their own decisions and risks." Within Sun
India for instance, there are only two kinds of HR positions — the individual
contributors and the people managers. Contrary to industry norms, seniority is
not a function of how many people you manage but how much business you bring in.
As a result, people with greater seniority are often independent workers while
their juniors may be managing a couple of people under them.
Another result of this is that there are very few layers from top to bottom.
Sun India’s marketing head, KP Unnikrishnan for instance, is just five layers
removed from CEO Scott McNealy while Hemant and Sun India MD Bhaskar Pramanik
are a mere four levels below Scott. This translates to a very quick decision
making process – there aren’t too many layers of approvals to go through
before geography-specific decisions are taken.
Even so, there is a great deal of autonomy in local decision making. For
instance, a few months ago Sun India decided to take on IBM servers through
flyers in a campaign reminiscent of the Coke-Pepsi slug outs. Sun had never done
that before in any geography and the Asia South office that India reports to,
was a little chary of such a campaign. Says Unnikrishnan who spearheaded that
campaign, "Finally, however, the decision rested with us. If we believed
local conditions allowed us to carry off such an exercise well, we were free to
do it. And we did."
Staying slim and trim
The obsession with fleet-footedness has also directed how Sun India has
managed its growth. Explains Unnikrishnan, "We do what we do best. And the
rest we outsource. It keeps us small and fast like a guerilla force." The
HR and training department for instance, consists of only four people. There is
a vendor who coordinates all recruitment and another who coordinates all
training. Says Hemant, "Even internally, employees in the human resource
department act more as consultants and advisers. The actual day to day
management of HR issues is the job of line managers. They are after all the
actual people managers who have to deal with and drive their team members."
A lot of other functions are also similarly outsourced, from IT
infrastructure (to AT&T) and finance to a significant amount of marketing
initiatives that include event management, database marketing and customer touch
programs. "There are eight agencies who solely or largely handle Sun
marketing for us," says Unnikrishnan. This said, however, it isn’t as if
the company doesn’t have extensive systems and procedures in place–it does.
The difference really is that these systems are designed to keep the company and
its employees on its toes.
Put your money where…
Most human resource policies generally fall into three categories. The first
is the unstated policy that is however clearly observable and impacts employees
on a day to day basis. Acceptable dress code and office behavior for instance–can
you or can you not walk into your boss’s office or his boss’s office or do
you need to take an appointment with his secretary first?
The second part consists of handbooks on how to apply for leave or time off,
file for benefits, book tickets for official travel, and the like. Most IT
companies today have e-enabled this process as has Sun and added a few more
interesting features in the process like creating local interest groups within a
company and allowing for better communication between employees.
The last part consists largely of homilies meant to create a ‘company
culture’ and to assess and tweak employee attitudes. For the latter, numerous
companies in recent times have started what is called a ‘360-degree Appraisal’.
That is–employees get appraised not just by their bosses and seniors, but also
by their peers and subordinates. Most often, it stops there. Employees are told
what their peers and subordinates think of them and told to deal with any
attitude issues they may have.
Says Hemant, "It gives me great confidence in the management of the
company and the appraisal system when the big boss, the chief executive officer,
announces his weaknesses to the whole company." And that really is the last
big test of a good HR policy–how much do your employees trust you? As of now,
Sun India seems to have little to worry on that count.
Sarita Rani in Bangalore