TRANSFORMING THE MSME EMPLOYEE – THE HOLY GRAIL!

Not the best material to start with

It is a fact that young men and women who come for employment to MSMEs do so, not so much as a matter of choice but because they perceive they have no choice.

Normally it is because they have fairly poor academic qualifications, with very little, if not zero job experience and from an underprivileged background. If they do have job skills or knowledge of a discipline it is fairly rudimentary; just enough to get by.

In selecting the best out of admittedly poor raw material, the entrepreneur or HR executive has no option but to treat subject knowledge or skill as the prime, if not sole requirement. As the chances of getting all-round desirable character traits and other qualities are minimal, it is often ignored or given the go by. It is rationalized that for the relatively cheap price one pays in terms of salary, this is about the best one can get.

Employees needed to propel growth

The employees are thrown in at the deep end with the normal MSME entrepreneur’ feeling that except for the briefest of briefings or some perfunctory training by a supervisor an employee has to learn on the job. After all, who taught the others? Or for that matter the entrepreneur herself or himself?

In the case of medium sized companies, the chances of an employer being innately more progressive are high. In the case of such companies where the entrepreneur has soaring ambitions for the company, she/he is also likely to understand that the present crop of employees may lack subject knowledge/skills and a variety of other so called soft skills, which in the olden days one would call ‘upbringing’.

This can be partly overcome, by now paying, attracting and recruiting employees who do not have the limitations of the earlier crop. But that is easier said than done. The fact remains, that the best young people go Abroad or take up employment with Multinationals or large Indian Companies, and MSMEs come last in the pecking order.

What is training for MSMEs?

In most cases, there is no conception of training as an ongoing process, nor any budgetary resources set aside for training. It is all rather adhoc, with training being one among many activities competing for the employee’s time and normally accommodated with much heart-burn.

The training is also ad-hoc, in the sense that there is no planned assessment of training requirements for each employee, followed by a search for the right fit, in terms of the course or Trainer. It is more the accidental discovery of a particular training program and then the ad hoc assignment of employees. This is based on perceived requirement and the organization’s ability to spare the employee for the duration of the course.

So, people in accounts will be routinely sent for Advanced Tally training or GST, those in HR will be sent for programs on Labour Law or ESIS or PF and those in Sales for courses in Negotiation or How to close a Sale and so on. Other perennial favorites are the soft skill Personality Development courses etc.

It is difficult to know how much these courses truly contribute to making the employee better equipped to handle her/his job, as also advance their career prospects within their company or outside. There is no before/after evaluation which is done, much less a long-term study of the usefulness of such courses. It is simply presumed that the employees have benefited and by extension the company.

What are the usual grouses of entrepreneurs?

Apart from poor domain know ledge or inadequate skills, some of the complaints entrepreneurs often voice regarding their employees are:

– Not a self-starter. Has no initiative

– Poor communication abilities

– Simply does not report. Have to dig it out of her/him.

– Lacks social skills and confidence

– Poor at problem solving

– Doesn’t think

If we are honest with ourselves, we will accept that entrepreneurs in general tend to come from the more privileged class in this country, not necessarily in terms of money, but in term of caste, educational and cultural background etc. The employees, again in general, come from far less privilege social, educational and economic backgrounds.

If we list the contributory causes to the deficiencies it would be somewhat as follows:

Parents and family in general with poor or zero educational backgrounds.

Education in schools with low quality standards of teaching and infrastructure.

A social structure in which expectations and ambitions are low.

Very little travel or exposure to society at large, other States, regions etc.

Poor exposure to culture in the form of books, music, dance, drama.

What is the consequence?

It is common and routine for most entrepreneurs to see the paper qualification or a particular skill, say welding, as mainly defining the employee and to carefully test the employee in this regard. Of course, there are brief questions asked regarding the family, extracurricular activities, other skills and interests. But this is more a matter of routine and to make sure, along with any references produced by the employee, that there is no risk in hiring her/him.

The surprising thing is not how often this ad-hoc hiring fails but how often it succeeds!

Youth, along with native intelligence, curiosity and the stimulation of a new environment normally ensure that the new entrant takes to his job like fish to water and climbs the first few rungs of the job ladder without problems. So long, as the entrepreneur and the company remain fairly stable without any great highs and lows, the employee remains comfortable.

It is only when things get rocky for the company or the entrepreneur sets his sights high that problem starts surfacing. The people whom the entrepreneur started out with, who slogged for long hours, worked loyally and implicitly followed every order and direction of the entrepreneur are no longer enough.

To get out of the rut the company has fallen into or to take the company to the next level, cannot be accomplished at the level of the entrepreneur alone. The stage when things could be achieved through blind obedience and sheer loyalty are over.

What growing companies need?

As the company expands rapidly, it needs to add up products, set up systems, infuse dynamism in marketing/sales, improve quality standards, ensure quick turnaround, slash costs, spruce up management information systems and speed-up decision making.

All of these need not only greater depth of domain knowledge, but the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

A good part of the human resources needed will be from new hires, but in the Indian setup where hire and fire is not possible with workers and there is a definite cultural reluctance to fire even staff, there is often no option but to forge ahead with a mixed bag.

In fact, though the Company is growing rapidly, the fact remains that the best employees in the job market continue to give MSMEs the miss.

To “upgrade” the existing employees what most MSME companies end up doing, is to send employees to a variety of one/two-day Workshops and Seminars. This is done, both to spruce up their domain knowledge and their soft skills. While it is not fair to categorize the latter as sheer waste of time, it is always not very effective in bringing about any real change in the employee.

It is a little like applying an overcoat of paint without scraping off the existing crumbling, flaking old coat. For a short period, the overcoat stands, then the imperfections of the older layer start affecting the new coat.

What is the solution?

The real solution lies in providing MSME employees, consistent, long- term Transformation oriented training to overcome many of the deficiencies in their education, family and social environment. Apart from training in domain knowledge or skills, there will be need for a sustained training program, preferably in-house incorporating the following:

Thinking is something taught in our school which not only emphasizes rote education which requires one to vomit information on paper which has been learnt by-heart. Not only that, students are virtually taught that there is only one correct answer.

No wonder employees exposed to more than a decade of such “thinking” become incapable of original thinking, forget thinking out of- the-box or lateral thinking.

They are mentally handicapped in performing the smallest “problem solving” and require constant assistance and guidance.

Lacking the ability to think logically and sequentially makes it hellishly difficult for the employee to prioritize or to furnish a sequential, sensible report which is so crucial for decision- making in marketing, for example.

Behavioral Science in a very basic way needs to be taught to instill sophistication in interaction which is so important, both within the company and with customers, vendors and others outside. Many behavioral defects are due to lack of knowledge of the role played by the Belief System in our lives.

The first step is learning that the beliefs inherited from our parents, elders and peers can be changed by us. That we can take charge of our lives. That we can pause our Belief System so that we do not reflexively and negatively interact with others.

As simple a thing, as understanding the Parent- Adult-Child structure of our behavior and utilizing that knowledge to ensure that we behave like a Parent with one who is in the Parent state, like a child with one who is in a child state and so on to ensure harmonious interaction with others is immensely useful learning.

Greater maturity is nothing else but an improved Belief System leading to refinement and a better understanding of oneself. This in turn, contributes to better understanding of others, such as peers, superiors and customers. It also leads to less unrealistic expectations from the employer.

Communication skills are mistakenly thought to be the “gift of the gab”. Actually, there are two parts to it. The most essential part which hardly anyone talks about, is the ability to think. Before one says something, one must have “something to say”. There is a structured way one can think on any subject, which is then followed by the more mechanical part of voice modulation, speech preparation techniques, delivery and so on.

The same communication skills are brought into use for reporting, in-house or external. Negotiation requires one to marry thinking, behavioral understanding and communication.

Attitude & Motivation

While the process of acquiring these skills by the employees requires the entrepreneur to play a key supportive role, nowhere is it more needed than in providing motivation to the employees and inculcating the right attitudes.

Quite apart from remuneration and ‘gratitude for learning’, the best motivation for the employee is to harness him or her to a higher goal to which all employees, including the owner-entrepreneur are visibly subordinate and committed.

So, the employees of Space X are not necessarily motivated simply by working for Elon Musk. Rather the employees and Elon Musk are together harnessed to a great dream… of the development and manufacturing of advanced rockets and spacecraft for missions to and beyond Earth orbit.

Obviously, all of us are not Elon Musk, nor our companies Space X.

But within the confines of whatever business we do, whatever service we provide or whatever product we manufacture we have a compelling dream. Somewhere along the way that dream could have become a little tarnished or begun to look impossible.

But every enterprise in the world, small or big, has begun as a mere dream in the entrepreneurs’ mind. It is that dream which he has to periodically review, renew and communicate to his employees to transform them into partners in a great adventure.

Author: Seshan Ranganathan

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