The High Task Imperative



At
a recent seminar in New Delhi organized by the National Foundations of
Engineers, there was an absorbing discussion on the ‘Leadership Challenge for
Continuing Value Creation’ in today’s tough business environment. This
discussion, featuring some leading academicians as well as consultants and IT
professionals, inevitably veered to the less optimistic projections for the
software industry that are now being tossed around by Gartner and other
thinktanks.

The consensus that emerged was that now is the time, as never before, when
tough leadership is called for to ensure that business results are achieved and
teams energized to meet new challenges. The previous decade was lucky to see
four waves of technology changes that continued to provide opportunities for
software businesses. The decade started with the move from mainframe to client
server and networked systems; careened frenetically to the implementation of ERP
packages in various industry sectors; made way for the big offshore legitimizing
opportunity that was the Y2K bug fix; and closed on a high with more and more
dot-coms, flush with VC funding and urgency, to get to the market offering large
fees to e-commerce solution developers.

In these times, particularly the second half of the nineties, nothing could
go wrong. Body shoppers thrived, so did ERP implementers, Y2K and offshore
maintenance providers and every form of software exporter. And then, within the
space of less than a year, the bottom seems to have fallen out of the infotech
industry, with the dot-com fiasco bringing even the Internet and e-commerce into
the realm of doubt, the only superpower plunging into a near recessionary
slowdown and no revolutionary technology in sight to provide succor to software
exporters.

In such times, the only organizations that will succeed, even survive, are
those where leaders are prepared to take tough decisions. In an industry where
the biggest challenge was to manage attrition, and organizations and their CEOs
bent over backwards to pander to every whim of their software prima donnas, this
new environment–which needs much more attention to sales and delivery
management–is calling for a new style of leadership at all levels. This style
could and should continue the high relationships that have characterized
successful software organizations in India, but now also need elements of a high
task-oriented approach that shows the entire organizational spectrum that the
CEO means business and will not condone slackers or weak team players as he goes
about addressing new market and customer challenges.

The Hthr approach for industry segments

The ‘high-task high-relationship’ approach is valid not just for the
software exports industry struggling to maintain its growth records, but also
for other segments in the Indian information technology industry. The user
segment will inevitably feel the pinch of dwindling IT budgets and will have to
maximize productivity from available resources to ensure that information
systems goals are met without exceeding budgets. High-task orientation at the
team level and high relationships with peer departments and functions will be
essential to meet these aggressive goals. Service providers in the cybercafe or
hardware maintenance trade may have to maintain extremely strong relationships
with their customers.

The computer education industry is probably the one where the HTHR approach
is needed most acutely. In the environment of general pessimism that pervades IT
today–especially with newspapers and magazines falling over each other to
report the impact of the US slowdown and thousands of youngsters staring
unemployment in the face in the US–it is little wonder that the appetite for
computer training is at its lowest level in the last 20 years. In such a market
situation, it is not just the 18-year-old who thinks many times before asking
his parents to cough up tens of thousands of rupees in fees for a career course,
even the wannabe US or Europe aspirants shy away from doing the three-week or
three-month short technology courses that are normally seen as the passport to
instant success!

The recent fiasco of a well-known name in computer education reneging on its
promises to students and franchisees alike has brought up the old bogey of
government control on private training institutes. While this would clearly be
counter-productive and slow down the pace of curriculum design and deployment in
a compulsorily dynamic technological environment, incidents like this bring into
focus the lack of uniform quality that plagues large and small computer training
companies.

How should HTHR deployment take place in the training sector? There are many
areas asking for strong task focus, from counseling quality to curriculum design
and new course rollout, from franchise management to faculty training and
certification. At the same time, relationships with individual students and
batches, as well as potential enrolments and their families, becomes crucial to
assuage fears for the future and ensure that they get the quality they deserve,
not just in the course delivery process but also in career guidance, placement
and every aspect in the value enhancement chain from the first visit of the
prospective student to the counseling desk.

Building the HTHR culture

The recent seminar also came up with an interesting hypothesis for making the
new leadership paradigm work in new economy companies. This hypothesis looked at
three steps to build new success stories:

  • Moving the CEO from the top of
    the organizational pyramid to the center of the action. The days have gone
    when leadership could be exercised through systems, directives and control
    mechanisms. The true leader has to be out in the field with the troops,
    shaping the organization’s destiny rather than sitting at the top, barking
    orders;

  • Revitalizing planning, monitoring
    and control systems across the organization. Continuing with normal
    fortnightly or monthly reviews would be akin to locking the stable door
    after the horse has bolted. In a tough market situation, reaction times tend
    to be extremely short and it is crucial to shorten planning and control
    cycles to capitalize on every possible opportunity and minimize the
    likelihood of slip-ups; and

  • Building style flexibility in
    leaders and managers across the board to enable them to deal with each
    situation in an appropriate and not a premeditated manner. This may well be
    the toughest step, since most managers have had their responses conditioned
    by a decade of plenty and will need to sharpen their senses and develop new
    skill-sets to become task-focused and demanding without losing the respect
    and goodwill of their teams and peers.

The information technology industry in India is going through a tough phase
at present, but this is no different from the cycles that most industries and
even countries have experienced before. The newness lies not in the problem, but
in the responses that follow. There is little doubt that India is a resilient
country and all of us are capable of providing an adequate response to any
situation–otherwise, the software industry would not have grown in less than a
decade from a few million dollars to its current status of $6 billion-plus.
There are a number of steps to be taken to continue without wavering on the
$80-billion path, and building the HTHR organization is just one of those steps.

Ganesh Natarajan is deputy chairman
and managing director of Zensar Technologies.

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