Same old story, different place and time

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review (a venerable magazine that I have read over the years and continue to devour from end to end) that Indian management types are now adopting “employee first” practices and are anecdotally accounting for this shift being part of their country’s successful emergence as a global force in commerce over the recent years.

Wait a second, guys – this has happened before. Companies yo•yo between Customers, Shareholders and Employees at different stages of their evolution and at different times in the economic cycle. In times of start•up and growth, the rallying cry is “Customers, Customers, Customers – let’s grab market share and damn everything else”. When markets get too hot and job hopping for higher pay becomes de rigueur, the mantra changes to “Employees, Employees, Employees.” And when markets are stable and both Customers and Employees are behaving responsibly, then it’s time to focus on those fickle Shareholders, just in case they dump their investments and go looking for higher returns.

Indian companies, particularly those doing outsourced work for western companies, are running employee turnover rates in excess of 30% at present – no wonder they need to focus on “Employees, Employees, Employees” at this time! But as the jobs•decimated West tries to repatriate all those call centre, software development and other “global” jobs back to their shores, and as compensation rates in the hot•job economies in South Asia shoot up due to opportunistic job hopping, I’m wondering whether “Employees, Employees, Employees” will lose its shine and “Customers, Customers, Customers” will return to the top of the table in India. And this time around, the hunt for customers will be in the newly affluent and customer•abundant domestic and regional markets instead of in the elusive Western ones who tend to close their gates when the going gets rough, and whose populations are reducing because of lower reproduction rates.

From my vantage point in North America, I remember the ‘80’s of Tom Peters when the Customer was king in the West. I remember ‘90’s and Hal Rosenbluth’s cry for the Employee, and the glory days of the new millennium when Jack Welch roared on behalf of the Shareholder. I’ve seen the ascendance of Marketers in times of growth and their replacement by the Accountants in recessions, and more recently the rise of the Risk and Compliance guys during these times of corporate bad behaviour (aka greed).

Putting down my copy of Harvard, I felt a sense of déjà vu. The cycle is starting to reverse again, this time in another part of the world, where western•educated and newly minted MBAs are recycling old concepts that have been tried out here.

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