N V Balachandar, is currently President-HR, Communication and CSR at Ashok Leyland. He is a member of the key leadership team providing functional leadership to all manufacturing plants and divisions across all geographies. He is a collaborative HR leader with proven capability in delivering people objectives in line with the business strategy. An HR professional with versatile experience in the Services / FMCG and the Manufacturing sectors.
In an exclusive chat with People Matters, the industry veteran shared the key changes that COVID has brought in the learning space. He also pointed out how the world will change in the coming years and what Ashok Leyland did in order to stay relevant in the business.
What are the new workplace learning paradigms that COVID-19 has pushed into the spotlight?
COVID has fast-forwarded a lot of things while also making certain things irrelevant and even obsolete. Additionally, almost everything has moved to virtual space, except for the core manufacturing processes and of course, R&D. Working in a team is a learning experience, which helps individuals grow professionally. With everything being done virtually, we had to ensure that the same level of engagement and learning continues.
With this virtual world, comes its own challenges and newer areas of learning. Within the automotive sector, there has been a steady shift towards the software side of things, from traditional manufacturing. If you see our range of products and solutions, you would notice that digital technology is playing a big role. For example, our new modular, AVTR range of trucks, can be configured using a pad and our factories know it as soon as the customer finalizes it. Even after the product is sold, there is a gamut of digital solutions that we offer which helps our customers to manage that product through its lifecycle. With COVID hitting all of us, these solutions become more important as it enables access of information virtually. And to manage all of this remotely, our employees too had a steep learning curve in the past few months.
In terms of areas of learning, COVID has acted as a catalyst for us and fastened our technology upskilling in areas of AI, Machine learning, block-chain technology, and Industry 4.0. For better engagement and motivation, we have ensured that there are more platforms where our senior leaders interact with teams and employees. We started a leadership series and sessions were organized.
Using various tech platforms, we also assigned well-curated learning programs at all levels across the organization. We used gamification and simulations for junior and middle-level employees and video-based learning for senior management.
How has the pandemic highlighted the need to invest in L&D?
As an organization, we have always focused on Learning & Development with several initiatives and programs to help our employees grow professionally. With COVID, yes, the focus has become even more intense and we have made more choices available for our employees.
Any ambitious professional would want to add skills to her/his profile for a secured future and also to be relevant in the future, which is so uncertain. We have taken it upon ourselves that we must do whatever is in our capacity to fuel that ambition. With virtual learning being the only practical option, we have managed to do this seamlessly, over and above our existing L&D platforms.
As it is said, data is the new oil, a lot of focus is on how we can interpret the data and help our customers even better. For example, our telematics solutions, DigtAL Nxt, which helps our customers in tracking their vehicle and also do pre-emptive checks, is a very useful solution. Our teams have quickly upskilled themselves and are helping derive out more from our vehicles. There is an increasing demand for analysts who can read and interpret data that help businesses and also understand our products. These are unique skills which we are developing to stay relevant in the future.
How will the way we learn and deliver learning initiatives in an organizational context change?
Certainly, digital is the way forward. Even if the vaccine comes soon, digital learning will be relevant as it has multiple benefits. It solves the problem of commuting, saves time and location constraints. For example, a lot of our employees were keen to be part of our CSR program – Road to School but for multiple reasons, couldn’t do so. Now, as the CSR program has moved to digital learning, they are able to contribute by taking classes for multiple students, in a regional language, on WhatsApp Group video calls.
Today, videos and online learning modules have also become very interactive. One can learn at their own pace and suitable time. Access to leaders and other teams have become easier. Learning on Whiteboards and brainstorming on Mind mapping applications seems to be the way forward for another year at least, till we become comfortable with the new normal. While classroom learning does have several benefits, learning should never stop. In fact, we have witnessed that our employees have been able to learn more and have more certifications to their names than before.
Have you revamped your L&D strategy? Or are you looking to? What are the key learning priorities for your organization as you prepare to bounce back from a crisis?
While a crisis like this forces one to think about life and what really matters, we took this as an opportunity to try to answer these questions at an organizational level. We deployed three pillars of Compassion, Collaboration, and Contribution, or 3C. Whether it is our HR policies or our L&D programs, the 3C approach is weaved into everything that we do.
First C stands for Compassion – we drive all our engagement initiatives with Compassion. The second C stands for Collaboration – we encourage greater Collaboration in L&D as well as day-to-day work. The third C stands for Contribution – we move away from performance to the contribution, giving a higher purpose to their role in the organization. This approach is helping us stay together and more connected in these trying times. This has helped us stay on our course, making us more resilient as an organization.
How is the role of L&D professionals changing?
In my view, L&D is no more about focusing on a particular sector or domain. It has to be more holistic and flexible. There is cross-pollination happening across industries and L&D must also adapt to this need. It is not just for managers or new joinees, it has now become a necessity for the entire eco-system within and outside the organization – from the mechanic to the leadership. Besides championing using the digital platforms, L&D professionals must expand what they teach in context of the digital world that we are now living in.
As talent leaders, reimagine workplace learning, what are some of the non-negotiables?
A thorough understanding of the Microsoft Office Tools is a fundamental requirement, along with domain expertise. Empathy and people management skills have never been more important. COVID, climate change crisis, and our commitment to Sustainable Development Goals have hastened the process to look beyond the basics, making them non-negotiables.
In terms of domain expertise, we are constantly exploring automation, blockchain, and Artificial Intelligence. Understanding of designing E-mobility vehicles, Battery Technology and Data Insight Analysis (Big Data and Hadoop) is also a big focus. All this, without shifting our focus from the core subject, i.e. engineering. We are expanding our horizon to be a stronger organization and to achieve our vision of being in the Top 10 Global CV makers.
The pandemic has brought learning & development to the forefront and has opened a plethora of new-age learning opportunities, not only for the employees but also for the organizations. How do you see the larger picture of L&D and skilling initiatives across organizations and how the employee L&D strategies have evolved in the last few months?
The pandemic has certainly brought forth a slew of L&D opportunities for anyone who wants to learn. As an organization, our job is to break the clutter and take up what is best for us. It is very easy to get swayed into learning irrelevant things. A lot of courses were made free for access but it is the organization’s duty to identify and recommend what is best.
We also understand that the current generation is more driven with purpose, their ability, and zest to learn more. It becomes the organization’s role to keep them engaged, not only at work but also in helping to expand their mind with newer learnings. Learning & Development teams think of COVID as a blessing in disguise, as it has presented the teams with an opportunity to re-design the way organizations teach and impart learning. As an engineering company, we can look at the utilization of Augmented Reality and Virtual reality to explore the simulations, learn engineering fundamentals, and experiment with the new technology using these tools.
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