Nepali Times
Strictly Business
Growing a human face


Most general-interest business books are written by management consultants, who need to produce such tomes to reach out to business executives and to land consulting assignments. Often, the process they follow goes like this. They visit companies, interview senior management, interact with the employees, survey the industry landscape, pore over numbers and then eventually come up with some grand-sounding theme that tries to tie up their disparate findings.

The results-whether 'management by walking around' or 'the secrets of Microsoft' or 'reengineering works' or 'turning your front-level staff into mini-leaders'-are often no more than common sense. But they are smartly packaged, perhaps stamped with the logo of a big-name business school press and priced to burn a hole in one's pocket.

Indeed, reading most business books, one gets the sense that one is being taught swimming by those who themselves learnt to splash around by watching instructional videos.

How refreshing then to skim, read and re-read Jack Welch's Winning. Welch joined General Electric (GE), one of the world's biggest companies, in 1961, spent his entire career there, rose through the ranks by working in different divisions and retired as the company chairman in 2001. In between, he says that he made plenty of mistakes, hired, coached and fired thousands of people, got out of struggling industries, exploited new business opportunities, drove costs down and made money for shareholders. This book is filled with answers to questions that audiences around the world asked him when he went on a tour with his first book a few years ago.

Of all the lessons that the book imparts, the one that has stayed with me is the importance of human resources (HR) for any company.

Most top-end Nepali companies do have human resources departments but they are managed only around a flow of paperwork. Employees get their time sheets punched, receive information about leave days and find out about the company picnic through messages from HR. Such paperwork, though necessary, ultimately makes HR look as though it were a mere bureaucratic body there to rubber-stamp managerial decisions.

Besides, since it's seen to be not involved in the core business of selling products and building brands, HR is perceived to be a weak department-not worthy of senior management's attention. These help explain why those who have studied HR management have a hard time getting and keeping jobs at Nepali companies.

But Welch writes that one of his biggest achievements at GE was making that global company's HR department a formidable force in recruitment, training and retention of talented employees. He elevated HR by giving it resources and by involving himself in interviewing candidates and evaluating employees. One result was that, by the time he left, many of his top-level colleagues also left GE to run other Fortune 100 companies. Looking back, Welch credits his HR department for turning GE from a producer of, say, jet-engine turbines, into a producer of business leaders who could competitively adapt to rapid changes in any industry.

Welch's emphasis on HR is important for us in Nepal because it underscores that, in today's world, products and processes are becoming commodities that anyone can produce and sell. To stay competitive, whether in tourism or hydropower, what seem to matter more and more are adaptability and the innovation that talented employees bring to tasks at hand. That is why, the sooner the top-end Nepali companies see themselves in the business of tapping employees' brains for opportunities and align their HR processes accordingly, the more likely they are to be better prepared for business challenges.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)