In these times of retrenchments, are specialists in peril?

November 6, 2020 6:59 AM

Everything is a commodity, and if it can be done cheaper, that’s the best way to do it

Specialised skill sets will suffer here, with crisis being a way of lifeSpecialised skill sets will suffer here, with crisis being a way of life

By Abhishek Joshi

What is transpiring in our lives resembles what happened to Josef K, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial — he was arrested one morning for no explicable reason. Absurdism and hopelessness reign supreme in a post-God world, where there is no final arbiter of truth or justice. Isn’t that how Covid-19 hit us plebeians — bound, resigned to the forced physical distancing and social alienation?

How did the corporates respond? Office spaces given up due to work-from-home; projects shelved; and vendors fired. Many shut shops. Most interesting is the carnage around headcount costs, as everyone and their dogs exploited this lever to stay afloat.

Managing retrenchment

What is that secret sauce, the unpalatable vinegar that organisations have had to gulp to engender the ungodly task of retrenchment? One must look beyond the P&L and deliberate on qualitative factors, too. Not counting the behemoths whose bench strength could dwarf the population of Bangladesh, fungibility is key to survival from the point of view of the well-meaning, tightly run shops. Is it that one is looking for a mix of sales, finance, HR, analytics, technology, product, admin and janitorial services? Hope not, and the facetious argument aside, isn’t it likely that the once much-celebrated specialisation could be one’s undoing? Jack-of-some-trades could be more cost effective than masters-of-one? The more esoteric the role, the lower the fungibility, the greater the risk?

Is this, then, an era that heralds the rise of generalists and the decline of specialists? Sticking to the universe of well-meaning, tightly run shops, it depends upon the lineage of the clan that is calling the shots.

Where do you fit?

Family office clan: Daddy earned truck-loads; sonny paid his way through Harvard; got his AI start-up bankrolled. Because the intelligence was only artificial, Covid-19 hits them badly. Too proud to book losses, they pump in more until the senior clamps down and shows the progeny their place. A specialised skill set was never safe here. The brag value of having geeks around diminishes as fast as it had risen.

Traditional business clan: They cannot tell an Excel from an Oracle. Everything is a commodity, and if it can be done cheaper, that’s the best way to do it. Specialised skill sets will suffer here, with crisis being a way of life.

Maverick genius clan: The one who walks the talk and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. A visionary, has created and exited from several start-ups, leaving a legacy. Having risen from the ranks, empathise with those with the technical skill set. If they don’t get washed away by their grandiose, they are most likely to tread with an unwavering vision, leading everyone to resounding success.

The most dangerous, a confused mix of the above: A bemused management that lives by the day, and function heads who function as rulers of individual tribes trying to peacefully coexist. Here, it’s only a matter of ‘that day’ when the decision of downsizing is taken. Whoever is good at sophistries will come up trumps; ends up being a ‘my people versus your people’ kind of a discussion.

Theorising apart, what about the socially awkward geek who is a great coder, a statistician with rough soft skills but models to kill for, or the potent data extraction guy who has poor grammar? Their fungibility is low as they specialised in their current roles, and their boon could be their torment, if they end up in the wrong part of the above quadrant.

Josef K in The Trial is never told his crime. When he confronts the authorities and claims he is innocent, pat comes the question: “Of what?”.

The author is VP and head of business intelligence unit, PAYBACK India

Read Also: Ghazal Alagh of Mamaearth on life beyond work

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