(Published in Aurora, September-October 2009 issue)
By Jahanzaib Haque
The growing complexity of large business organisations has led to a process of internal specialisation within departments and of their roles, and a peek into the offices of Pakistan’s telecom industry will show no different.
Catering to a market of over 90 million subscribers (Source: PTA), the five major telecom companies have a large network of offices across the country making organisational structure paramount. In order to stem the pitfalls of bureaucracy, the trend in some of these companies is the merging and overlapping of various departments with the objective of making them function as a single unit working towards a single goal.
Corporate communications typically works closely with public relations, while accounts and human resources are integrally linked, but these have long been standard, acceptable integrations. Now companies like Telenor and Mobilink are taking the first steps towards breaking the boundaries between marketing and HR with the introduction of branded HR initiatives aimed at making both functions work holistically. Such is the scope of this new organisational structure that other functions such as PR, CSR, image building, etc., can also integrate cohesively under the HR umbrella.
A case in point is Telenor’s HR-led, ‘Creative Management Workshops’, which have so far been held in 20 universities this year and are aimed at giving students practical lessons on how to apply for jobs, interview techniques, CV writing skills, and more.
According to Haroon Bhatti, Director, People Excellence & BPI Human Capital Division, Telenor, the workshops address multiple functions:
“Our passion is to develop the human capital of Pakistan. If we can aid this process by elevating people’s capacities we will enable them to contribute not just to our organisation but to others… I am not opposed to calling this image building, but I think you really have to know the intent behind the initiative.”
Similarly, Mobilink’s ‘Student Development Workshops’ fall under HR, but serve many functions.
From a purely HR perspective, both initiatives are closely linked to academia, which allows for effective cherry picking of future staff. Simultaneously, the exercise meets a CSR objective in terms of “giving back to the community.” Latently, it serves as an image building and marketing exercise.
While Mobilink denies there is any commercial aspect to such initiatives, Bhatti is willing to grant that there may be an underlying commercial perspective, although he does qualify this.
“The day our intent becomes to push our products through these channels will be the day that some of the aspirations I am talking about will be lost.”
The aspirations Bhatti is referring to is utilising the basic marketing concept of meeting the needs of the target audience in order to create a win-win-win situation for the community, HR and marketing, as exemplified by Telenor’s ‘Ambassador Programme’ (branded internships).
While offering the usual opportunities any internship provides, Telenor also stays in touch with these interns after they leave, and continues to build the relationship by reaching out to them, their families and professors.
As Bhatti explains, such an approach to a standard HR function builds goodwill (CSR), draws in job candidates (HR), and creates the impression of a caring employer (image building).
Last but not least, generating such top of mind among internees, students and their extended circles has a ripple effect by establishing a powerful relationship with the company’s products and services. However, Bhatti re-emphasises that the success of the Telenor’s Ambassador Programme is due to the fact that “great care is taken not to commercialise this relationship; the intention of such a venture is the sharing of knowledge and experiences.”
The example of Mobilink’s HR focused media campaign in 2006 titled ‘The Passionate People at Mobilink’ is another example of how HR and marketing can work together to deliver tangible results.
According to Syed Ali Zulfiqar, Director, Human Resources, Mobilink, not only was the response to the campaign useful in hiring better qualified staff, its follow up campaigns ‘Live Success’ and ‘A Proud Team of Individuals’ resulted in an 80% plus growth in registered users on their web portal.
There is an even wider scope to the function of HR in marketing which has not yet been explored locally, and this is to use HR to develop and transmit brand values aimed at exemplifying not only the corporate image, but that of its products, services and their promotion.
In this context, internal audiences (employees) are seen as a vessel for developing and communicating brand values as they and their circle of influence are treated as a subset of the larger market. In marketing terms, the development of products and services and how to promote them can be defined by that subset, and then launched on a mass scale.
However, in an environment where most telecom brands compete on the basis of price alone, there are marked differences between the culture being promoted by HR within such organisations, and what is being presented through their advertising.
“I think there is a level where the convergence takes place, but there is also a level where the two aspects will continue to be separate considering the audiences we are talking to,” says Bhatti.
In the case of Telenor, not all segments of the larger market are targets for the company’s values. However, Bhatti sees “tighter convergence” coming in the future and cites Telenor Persona as one brand which features Telenor’s internal corporate value of ‘keeping it simple’.
However, endowing the HR function with overlapping marketing functions (not to mention corporate communications, PR, et al.) is both a challenge and a headache. At its worst, such a holistic approach can amount to disarray and cannibalisation, with departments competing rather than coordinating to take on each others functions.
According to Bhatti, “It is no walk in the park. It can be difficult to convince professional managers of the benefits, as they are going to look at multiple dimensions; they are very keenly aware of the cost, the culture, the extensions.”
So is Pakistan likely to see HR departments making use of marketing concepts to develop a holistic approach to the functioning of big business? Will marketers have to rethink the HR function and take it on board (to some degree) when it comes to developing products, services, brands, campaigns?
The concept is an ambitious one, and while the telecom industry may have begun the process, it remains to be seen whether other industries will follow suit. Such a paradigm shift not only requires large amounts of investment, time and overhauling of old systems, it also requires the overhauling of the deeply embedded concept of departments within one organisation being separate entities with distinct functions that do not interrelate.