The inaugural episode of Hireside Chats features an interesting conversation between our host SatJ, and IT industry veteran Mr. Ramkumar Ramamoorthy about what it takes to be successful in the current IT recruiting landscape.
Mr. Ramkumar Ramamoorthy is the founder and partner at Catalincs LLP, a tech advisory firm that enables small tech companies to rapidly scale and grow their businesses. Ramkumar has over 30 years of professional experience working with two of the largest private employers in India, Tata Consultancy Services, and Cognizant – who together employ over 10 lakh professionals today. He has been on the academic leadership board of several universities and national academic bodies like the Chennai Mathematical Institute and has had long associations with several professional and trade bodies in India including AICTE, IT/BPM Skill Sector Council of NASSCOM, and the CII.
Mr. Ramkumar shares with us his unique insights, drawn from his years of professional experience, on the importance of data-led hiring decisions. He,
- Emphasizes leveraging talent intelligence gained from a wealth of data and putting that into practice to build the workforce of the future, and;
- Explains how to effectively curate talent for specific needs in an organization through analysis of internal data and external data and by driving actionable insights from it.
- He said, “It’s all about identifying the right data and filtering out the noise to drive successful talent decisions.”
The lively and insightful conversation clearly nailed the significance of being armed with talent intelligence with examples that can be implemented by organizations and talent teams to build a smart workforce for their organizations!
Be sure to catch all the interesting anecdotes from his personal experiences of talent decisions that were elevated with the use of metrics and talent intelligence.
Mr. Ramkumar also announced the release of the Diamondpick 2023 Talent Strategy Playbook, which outlines innovative strategies to navigate today’s changing talent landscape.
Hireside Chats Episode 1 – Talent Intelligence-Driven Recruiting
SatJ: A few words from you on your initial thoughts after reading the 2023 Talent Playbook.
Ramkumar: A lot has changed in the talent landscape in the last three years, in part driven by the pandemic, and a playbook like this is very timely. Also, in my long corporate career, I’ve never seen editorials and raging debates on so many interesting topics on talent in recent years.
I found the playbook quite comprehensive covering 10-11 broad topics of great relevance in today’s scenario. Including topics like hybrid hiring, talent networks, recruitment marketing, service design thinking, etc. It also covers many new trends. I was a little surprised to see conversational AI and Metaverse in the playbook, and these together are driving the re-imagination of the entire talent acquisition process. What I would prefer to call it the five Ps people, practices, processes, platforms, and partnerships.
I found the insights in the playbook to be quite incisive and data-driven, but more importantly, the takeaways are quite actionable. The fact that each topic is covered in a capsule format makes this entire playbook imminently readable as well as digestible.
SatJ: Can you share with us a little bit about Catalincs, how it came into being, how is your advisory model different, and what’s the early success you’ve had in scaling and growing your portfolio of companies?
Ramkumar: After spending a little over 22 years at Cognizant, when I stepped down, I wanted to get back to my first calling, which was academia or higher education. That’s where I spent the first six years of my professional career as a lecturer. I took a role with a world-renowned institution, the Chennai Mathematical Institute, and spent considerable time with a fledgling university, Krea University, as its Vice Chancellor for professional learning, primarily focusing on the MBA program. I should admit that the clock speed of academia hasn’t changed in the last 25 years. I had so much more time on my hands. That’s when the idea of Catalincs came about. I realized that given my long years of experience in the tech industry, I didn’t want the learnings along the way to go to waste.
I joined hands with some wonderful colleagues of mine from Cognizant, and we collectively founded Catalincs. Our vision is to coach and mentor small tech companies and enable them to grow at an accelerated pace. Despite the tech industry having been around for 50+ years, we only have a handful of tech services companies from India with over 1 billion dollars in annual revenue but we have 100s and 1000s of companies under a hundred million dollars in revenue. So as a team of practitioners who have built several billion-dollar practices at Cognizant, we thought, why not help smaller companies build those muscles needed to get to a billion dollars or more in revenue over a period of time?
But as we started, we realized that many of these companies, given their size and the fact that they were transitioning from the inception phase to the growth phase, that didn’t have the wherewithal to pay us a salary. So we came up with this unique commercial model that we later called Grow First Pay Later. Where the companies that we work with pay us if and only if we hit aggressive milestones in terms of revenue within a given timeframe. And if we don’t hit those numbers, we get paid nothing.
We have about three clients today specializing in digital engineering, cloud and data, and digital commerce. If you want me to call out success, it’s early days yet. But then what is heartening is we are seeing this model resonate very well in the market.
SatJ: Let’s talk about the times we are going through. The talent game is changing as we speak, and there are so many new challenges that are coming to light as a result of today’s dynamic market scenario. What are you seeing in the recruiting landscape at the moment, and what is it that organizations are doing to be successful with the challenges out there?
Ramkumar: Sathish, if you look over the last few years, I think hiring has become more specific. Catering to very specific talent demands. And as a result, jobs are more distinct and the skills required for these jobs are multidisciplinary.
But unfortunately, the practices and processes that helped companies to be successful until now are longer in sync with the newer requirements in the market, whether there is the added challenge of a widening skills gap, or fewer full-time employees, with more and more people needing greater flexibility, and the pressure to deliver talent solutions in an increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable business environment.
That, I think, is a big shift in the talent market. But having said that, I think this new normal provides companies and talent acquisition leaders an opportunity to reimagine ways of sourcing, attracting, hiring, and onboarding the most appropriate talent for a given role using innovative hiring tools. Whether these are newer technologies and platforms, talent intelligence, service-oriented, design thinking talent, community networks, etc., and many of which the playbook actually covers, all this can be done while driving unique candidate experiences.
SatJ: In your opinion, what’s the secret sauce to winning the war for talent?
Ramkumar: I think the holy grail for any company is to get the right candidate at the right time and at the right cost. And if I may qualify the right candidate a bit, it includes the right cultural alignment with the larger organizational purpose and the DNA of the organization. It’ll be difficult for me to call out one thing as a secret sauce or a silver bullet.
I would highlight an important emerging area – implementing a digital platform strategy. A digital platform that covers the entire hiring journey from creating profiles to sending in the application followed up with interviews and onboarding that’s fully aligned with the business capability management, demand management, resource forecasting and management assessment. I think there is a crying need in today’s context. And as the talent market grows in size and complexity, the different silos that exist across a talent continuum, that will have to come together to reduce complexity, increase efficiency, and also provide that much-needed personalized experience with candidates.
So from a hiring standpoint, having such a platform that integrates the different channels will enable both buying as well as shaping the talent of the future, while giving the ability to measure that experience, drive the needed agility into the process, and to also ensure repeatability and institutionalization. Given that attrition even within the HR teams is quite elevated, I think that repeatability and institutionalization become even more important in today’s context than before.
SatJ: With so much uncertainty, especially around jobs in the tech industry and the future of work and skills, companies are being tasked to adapt quickly if they want to hire and retain the best talent to thrive. However, they must adopt innovation and new strategies that serve the current and future needs of the organization, its people and its customers.
Now, one such topic trending in the recruiting circles and like you rightly mentioned, is talent intelligence-led hiring and how it is fast becoming the most effective way for companies to recruit top talent, retain top performers, and rescale their workforce.
Why developing a data-driven recruiting process should be a high priority in this current state talent landscape?
Ramkumar: Today talent acquisition leaders have access to rich talent data which wasn’t available as much earlier. And this comes from various systems, both internal as well as external. And if you look at the external systems these would include job boards like Naukri, LinkedIn, and learning platforms like NPTEL or SWAYAM along with the EdTech platforms that are there in the marketplace, campus portals like the Global Campus Portal, Piazza, as well as certification partner engines, amongst several others. Now this data helps talent managers get better visibility of the talent pool and also to identify pain points, whether these are skill gaps, talent, demand, etc, to make very informed hiring decisions. So with intelligence one can diagnose those talent patterns and also create actionable insights. And these could be using market insights, demand insights, supply insights, demand insights for example include geographies, business units, service lines with the highest hiring propensity.
Let me give you an example in today’s context. Up until last year when the going was great, a lot of emphasis was on discretionary spending and today with talk about a potential downturn, I think the focus has shifted to ‘lights on’ business as usual software activities, which means that there is going to be a sudden shift in the profile of capabilities skills that are needed in the marketplace. Now, this intelligence has to be picked up both from within as well as outside. You can get this information even from listening to the earnings calls of your competitors, because that can be a lead indicator about the intelligence that comes from within the system, purely based on the business pipeline and the closure.
Second is supply insights that include talent and skill availability based on a given location, based on demographics, etc. I told you that I did spend some time with this new university, Krea University. There are a little over 300 state private universities that have come about in India just in the last few years. From Ashoka to OP Jindal, Asim Premji to Shiv Nadar here in Chennai, Krea University, etc. and the profile of courses and the combination of programs that they offer is amazing. It’s important that we probably look at the data and intelligence that emanates from these institutions. Because today you can do a combination of computing or computer science with anthropology. You can do it with data science and history, etc. A talent pool that was not made available in India over the last 30, 40, or 50 years!
3rd is obviously the labor market insights which include compensation trends, candidate preferences, and so forth. Once again, just look at the last one year. Look at the flip flop or the yo-yo-ing that we have seen. Until a few months ago, given the elevated attrition companies were paying what the candidates asked for but today we believe that there is a moderation that’s happening in the marketplace. So I think some of this will have to be looked at very closely by the hiring manager.
SatJ: What are you seeing in terms of talent data-led hiring, and how do you think people can effectively leverage it to make smart, hiring decisions?
Ramkumar: I think one aspect that hiring managers need to understand is that smart hiring decisions directly result in smart business decisions and vice versa. Let me give you an example, about 15 years back, Cognizant decided to look at tier two cities for expansion, and we homed in on Coimbatore purely on the basis of data and intelligence. Data was available to everybody, but I think the added intelligence is what flipped the decision in favor of Coimbatore. We looked at student throughput from some reputable engineering institutions there, and neighboring Kerala. Kerala did not have a thriving tech ecosystem then so the ability to attract from places like Palakkad and Cochin was also a very important dimension that we looked at. Second, we realized that we needed more women in the workforce. We looked at the number of women graduates and their active participation in the workforce, which is quite low. Another very interesting facet of talent intelligence – Coimbatore has historically been a great manufacturing base known for industrial engineering, and precision engineering and one of the largest producers of pumps. So many of the candidates that we were able to hire were open to working two shifts because they’ve actually seen their parents work in two shifts.
We also realized that internally, many of the mid-managers in Cognizant hailed from Coimbatore and were happy to get back to their base. So it was a win-win situation by looking at data and intelligence both from within as well as outside.
And today, if you look at it, Cognizant is perhaps the only company I hope I am right. And I would like to stand corrected if this data is not true. It’s probably the only company to have over 15,000 employees in a tier two location in India, with 50% of the workforce being women employees, relatively lower attrition and a terrific infrastructure and cost leverage because we are able to operate two shifts.
So this is a classic example of how you can curate talent for specific needs in an organization through internal data, external data, and by driving actionable insights from it.
SatJ: What are some of the talent intelligence-led interventions that will help diagnose talent needs?
Ramkumar: I think it’s not just about diagnosing talent needs, also diagnosing organizational needs by looking at talent that is available. I believe that there can be multiple talent intelligence interventions. One is to drive strategic workforce planning, which is aligned to business priorities, which I think is extremely important in any organization, especially when they are carrying a strategic bench.
Effective compensation and benefits benchmarking – I have seen in my experience, suddenly, you bring in a large proportion of people at a given level, at the 90th percentile of the grid, what it does to inflate the cost of doing business for an organization? More importantly, the cascading effect that it can have on the organization, subsequent promotion cycles, etc.
Third, it can provide valuable insights to campaigns and job promotions, which help you target the right people. And finally, I think it also helps you, going back to the Coimbatore example, understanding the location feasibility and selection. In fact I was in one of the government meetings where they were exploring areas to promote IT based on the available talent. Interestingly, Trichy came up in that conversation and if you come to think of it, I’m actually surprised as to why financial services companies haven’t made a beeline for Trichy. With so many well-established educational institutions that can produce finance professionals fit to be Finance Minister of India. The college can produce a wealth manager or an asset manager also. So I think it’s important for people to look at some of these opportunities that have been quite untapped. And I can tell you there’s one healthcare company that made a big impact on Trichy – Omega healthcare. They have several thousand employees in India, and they have ramped up fairly quickly. I’m told that they have 5,000 employees in Trichy today, all in double quick time. Just imagine the amount of intelligence that’s available and which can be leveraged by both sides the organization as well as by the talent.
SatJ: So Ram, very often what I realized is whether it is the talent organization or the HR organization, they create a lot of MIS reports intelligence a lot of that input is not utilized or not even seen by the users. How does one best identify what data and talent intelligence is required to track and how do you think it can effectively drive hiring actions?
Ramkumar: No, I think there is a big movement in literature where they used to call it the art for art’s sake movement.
I don’t think we need to look at technology for the sake of technology or data for the sake of data. Unless they are relevant, it doesn’t make sense for us to go after every piece of data that’s made available. So I think it’s very important to identify what data is required to drive important decisions, and also identify the key parameters.
There’s so much data out there that HR leaders need to understand how to distill them and separate signal from noise. So what are the key elements for hiring one, is it to do with supply? Is it to do with demand? Is it to do with the cost, or is it to do with competition?
I’ll tell you a fascinating thing that’s happening in the last 6-12 months in Coimbatore. I gave you the example of Cognizant establishing its presence 15 years back, right. Outside of Bosch and Cognizant, we didn’t have too many large players there. Ford set up a captive unit there and a few other activities happened.
In the last one year, close to half, a dozen to a dozen companies have actually entered Coimbatore and established a fairly large presence. Just by understanding the competitive landscape in terms of talent that’s available, whether it’s Accenture, Mindtree, L&T Infotech, IBM, etc.
Some of the biggest of the big majors are gravitating to Coimbatore which clearly is some kind of an indication that they have identified the right data and looked at that while distilling the noise or filtering out the noise. So I think talent acquisition leaders must leverage insights like the demographic ratios, the preferences to determine what the talent spread is, what the talent density is for a particular job or skill requirement. For example, is talent too widely spread for a specific job family, or is a preferred talent available locally? Then they need to use some of this data to craft whatever is the most optimal workforce strategy for the organization.
SatJ: Can you share a couple of examples of a recruitment or a talent strategy that was elevated with the use of metrics and talent intelligence? Anything that comes to your mind?
Let me give you one very concrete example with metrics and the other one is soft intelligence. It’s just not hard intelligence. Because I think HR managers also need to look at the softer intelligence aspects. Data science today is perhaps one of the hottest skills in the marketplace.
Every other report seems to put data science right up there in the picking order. So if you look at the history of analytics talent in India, actually, we had pure play analytics companies in the 90s in India, you had Market Rx, you had Market X, you had inductors. All are headquartered in the NCR region.
All three companies got acquired, one by EXL, one by WNS, one by Cognizant and at that one point in time that was seen as the breeding ground for good analytics talent. Then it got a little spread out fine where Mumbai and Bangalore got added to the list.
Now suddenly there is a lot of attention on Chennai today, both latent view going public, Tiger Analytics, crayon data, Matt Street, several of these data analytics companies with their large operations here in Chennai. Over and above, the large players who’ve always had Chennai as a great location for their data warehousing business intelligence, corporate performance management, as well as the analytic space.
So if you dig a little deeper, that is where data and intelligence get separated. For horizontal analytics, you have talent across India by horizontal analytics I mean customer experience analytics, sales and marketing analytics people analytics that cut across multiple industries. That’s a pan-India phenomenon.
But if you look at domain-specific analytics, that is one of the reasons why companies that are headquartered in Bangalore and Mumbai are also looking at Chennai. Once they look at analytics capability, the intersection of a given industry, an analytics capability, whether it’s fraud and risk in the area of financial services, whether it’s health analytics in pharma or healthcare. So I think this level of intelligence is extremely important to figure out where that level of talent is available and outside of it see, it’s not that we probably have a million data analysts out there for people to hire.
A lot of the data analysts are also being shaped directly from educational institutions, so that’s one of the reasons why people also need to look at not just companies but also ecosystems. So if you look at the ecosystem here in and around Tamil Nadu, which is the reason why suddenly we are seeing a significant focus of this market is Great Lakes, as you would know, about 10 years back, launched a very highly successful business analytics program.
IFMR used to run a program under Nachiket Moore for quantitative analysis and financial mathematics, a very highly successful program. Recently I attended an event, at the Chennai International Center, CIC, where Dr. Kamakoti, the current director of IIT, was one of the speakers. He made a very interesting observation he said after 50 years of IIT Madras they have 11,500 students in their campus pursuing all disciplines of bachelor’s, masters’, PhD, post-doctoral research, etc. About a year back they launched BSc data science. At the end of the third year, you can get a BSc. Guess how many students are currently pursuing it? 16,000 students in data science. So I think it’s extremely important for people to understand where this talent is available at the incubation period, at the mature period and at the specialist period.
The one other big opportunity that people are looking at is cybersecurity. In fact, in one of the recent earnings calls Accenture CEO Julie Suite, in her prepared remarks, she made a statement that Accenture has about 10,000 security professionals.
And I think it’s not that they could have probably recruited 10,000 people from the market because a market for such talent just did not exist. They actually shaped talent. I’ve been having this conversation on how do we increase the throughput of cyber and forensic professionals in the market.
In one such interesting conversation a topic that came up and I’ve been researching on that there is enough literature that’s available even if you go to Google search, see whenever there is a new capability, what you do is you look at existing capability and see who all can potentially be trained or cross-trained into the newer capability, right? From Java to Python and then from Java and data science and so on and so forth. And if you look at it here, it’s not such a technical skill, but probably a soft skill. I know of a few organizations that want to build out the cyber security capability who are looking internally within the organization to find out how many of them are chess professionals, find people who have some ranking in this body called FIDE.
And see if they can be leveraged and shaped into cybersecurity professionals. So if you look at in the game of chess, it’s very similar to the activities in the cyber world. Players must outsmart their opponents, they capitalize on their weakness in a timely and strategic manner, and think numerous steps ahead of them. So it’s all about having a strategy. Mastery of tactics. Determine what the opponent will do next by getting into the opponent’s mind, if you will, and ensuring that these things get done in double quick time. If you do not move fast enough, then the opponent will get an advantage.
As such, it’s all a question of sense and response and deciding whether you want to probably go down the defence path or the offense path. So I think it’s important for people to also look beyond the traditional hard technical skills. Also look at what soft skills will get people to take on certain job roles that are opening up in the marketplace.
If you look at the World Economic Forum, the skills of the future, they talk about earning agility, they talk about advanced creativity, so on and so forth. Now, I think these soft skills also come into play in a meaningful fashion. When you look around for Talent.
SatJ: Before we sign out, I’m sure our listeners would like to know, what’s on your radar in 2023? That wasn’t in 2022?
Ramkumar: Once again, there’s probably more from experience given that many of us were exposed to the financial meltdown, the 2008-2009 time frame.
I think organizations and talent leaders will have to play a kind of counterintuitive role during troubled times. And my recommendation would be to hire ahead of demand. During the downturn, some of the best candidates across levels who are otherwise not available in the marketplace for hiring are usually made available today. And I’m sure that we are all reading reports of people being laid off from some of the best-known companies in the world, and I’m sure that they would’ve hired some of the best talent in the last 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, I think it’s probably the finest time to hire both locally and globally. And I know it’s cliche, but I nevertheless go ahead and then say it. As I say, I’d never waste a crisis!
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Also don’t miss Episode 2 – Swipe Right to Hire Right: Matchmaking in the Modern World an interesting take on matching making in today’s modern world and how it translates to talent success.