The Chief Human Resources Officer of Grameenphone, Syed Tanvir Husain has been with the company since mid-2013, heading departments of L&D, Center of Expertise and Shared Services of People and Organization before taking up the role of CHRO in June 2018. Tanvir also holds experience of working in the USA for KBR and Aramark. After 20 years of career, an MBA graduate from IBA, University of Dhaka, Tanvir stands as a classic example of role models shared in business classrooms, starting as a management trainee in British American Tobacco Bangladesh and progressing to become the Head of HR in Citibank N.A and CHRO of Airtel Bangladesh in his previous organizations.
Recently, Syed Tanvir Husain conversed with Sajid Mahbub, Executive Editor of Bangladesh Brand Forum for an exclusive interview, excerpts of which are following.
Bangladesh Brand Forum: Digitalization is changing the way we operate, not only in our daily lives but also in the way we run our businesses. How do you see human resources adapting to this change?
Syed Tanvir Husain: If I talk about people, they are very adaptive to any change and that in itself is fundamental to the survival of the human race. Digitalization is making our lives easy, simple and making us more productive which in turn is allowing the economy to grow. Jobs are created not because we have automation, but because the economy itself is growing. We frequently ask whether robots will overtake our jobs. What we need to keep in mind is that these robots are created by humans, the applications and all other digital services are designed by humans and we are the ones monetizing this. Companies like Amazon and Apple, for example, have developed voice assistants that we have become so familiarized with. These digital services have seamlessly fit into our lives. If you look at companies like Tesla and Google, they have already invested significant time and capital into autonomous vehicles. We see a revolution in the IoT products and markets. This means that we are taking our lives in the direction of complete digitalization. There will come a time when in developed countries you will see parallel co-existence of autonomous mass transportation system with regular human-driven cars. If you take existing high-end vehicles in the market like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Volvo, they have cameras and sensors mounted all over the cars that allow owners to use features like parking assistance – the car parks itself without any person at the steering wheel! These innovations are happening as we speak, and no longer a science fiction. This gives us a glimpse into how technology is starting to integrate into our lives and how we are adapting to these new technologies.
You have gathered over two decades of experience both from here and from abroad. When thinking in the global context, do you think Bangladesh is ready to adapt to these technical skillset requirements?
Let me begin by sharing a perspective. We all know about the government’s commitment to digitize Bangladesh. When the government initially started campaigning with the dream of a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ few could fully grasp the gravity of the dream. 9 years since then, you ask anyone about Digital Bangladesh today, you will hear a similar line of thought. The idea of a digital Bangladesh has been embedded in the minds of Bangladesh’s citizens to a great extent and I can proudly say that the telecommunication sector has played a vital role by facilitating internet connectivity to the remotest of locations of the country leading to the democratization of information and knowledge.
Coming to the question of whether we are ready, we’ll have to go through certain statistics. Think about how many engineers India, China, USA and the Scandinavian countries are producing. Now compare that with the number of coders, web developers, engineers or computer science graduates we produce from a population of almost 170 million. Unless we come to a level were a comparison can stand between us and the countries mentioned before, we have a lot of catching up to do. Because of the sheer size of our population, percentages may be misleading but in absolute numbers we are probably ahead of many Scandinavian countries. To get the full benefit, I think we need to focus on education. If you asked me, do we have the spirit and drive? Then the answer is a definite yes! If we look into the explosive growth of Uber and Pathao, youth who were previously unemployed are now adopting different models of employment. If we take Pathao as the model, anyone with a motorcycle can become a part of the ride-hailing service and earn a sustainable income. That tells you that we no longer have the typical ‘educated unemployed’ youth. Many among our youth are not even looking for jobs but rather choosing to become entrepreneurs.
In that thought, there is a big boom in the startup culture. The startups run across Bangladesh are not run by people who chose it as an alternate to not getting jobs but by the innovators and the dreamers who do not find themselves fit in a traditional corporate structure. Startups today are mostly leveraging technology in solving problems via services people are willing to pay for because of the value they provide
So yes, we are on the right track – we have the right mindset, the government is providing necessary interventions with a2i and similar platforms of nurturing an explorer mindset. If you ask me, I will say we have a very bright future. The fact that we are more youthful in terms of population demography, compared to many developed nations, further works in our favor.
Can we compete with the global market to stay relevant in this age of digitalization?
In this age of connectivity, anyone and everyone from Bangladesh should be able to compete in the global market. Crowdsourcing has become pretty popular, so for example, you can be in a village in Dinajpur and work as a virtual project member for a Silicon Valley firm. Technology transcends beyond borders and communication is no longer a barrier. All we need is to have the right skillset. We are very competitive in terms of the salaries we demand and I think Bangladesh Bank has a role to play here. Right now, we are able to bring in money and developed countries are able to use our resources, but we have to figure out a dynamic where it can also work the other way around. We have companies who need these resources that are not available in Bangladesh as well. It doesn’t seem sustainable to only give our resources to foreign companies. Our economy does not depend only on the crowdsourced developers, but also on established companies which need to stay relevant and competitive to fight with the global market. I think some reformations need to be brought about in the regulations and policies not just for remittance but to think about the economy in a broader perspective.
Will machines take over the job of humans in the near future?
Machines are manufactured or produced with some set purposes. It is mostly jobs with a repetitive nature that are automated. A computer can employ algorithms to say a yes or a no, understand the logic and do most of the auditing where discretion is not required; if it is within the set logic, the computer can accomplish the task. Then you have machines in the manufacturing sector and they are replacing some of the routine jobs as well. You have machines used in warehouses, in the agricultural sector, machines coming in and replacing call center agents through IVR, Chatbots and NLP. This is what is happening right now. So, are they replacing some of the jobs that were run by humans? The answer is yes. There are cases I have read about where humans are reporting into machines when it comes to quality control. At the same time, more human resources are required to make more robots. So, the nature of the jobs is shifting and this has happened before. If you go back in history, before the refrigerator was invented we were dependent on the ice factories. The moment the concept of refrigeration was developed; the ice factory industry was impacted. Now, the people who worked in the ice factories possibly started working for the refrigeration companies and possibly more jobs were generated because refrigerators were available in more places than ice factories were available in. So, there will always be innovation and this will create disruptions; the end of one job may create two more. The thing is, we have to adapt and learn new skills to stay relevant. The need for intellectual skillset, brain and the bandwidth required is in high demand. New fields have already emerged that didn’t exist two decades ago like user interface and user experience developers. This is now a big thing because more apps are being developed and interfaces are critical for their success. Roles have already started to evolve and most of the MNCs in Bangladesh are talking about user experience. User experience is not just about commercials. In Grameenphone, every HR product that we have been working on are going through user experience and user interface testing. I am not worried about machines taking over our jobs, I think we need to be aware of emerging opportunities and get ready for them.
What are your key criteria or skillset that a person needs to possess if you are recruiting someone for Grameenphone?
I think the future will be radically different from what we have seen in the past. Now we are looking into more techno-commercial interactions. In the past, a business graduate worked in sales, an engineer worked in manufacturing. That was the norm. But now, I see so many engineers even within our company moving from core engineering jobs to roles in commercial functions.
Our clients are not looking to see our product demos but the solutions that our products can provide. This means that the day of sales pitches are gone. Our sales representatives need to have solid technical background so that when they hear about the client’s concerns, they can connect that to the solutions we offer and even customize accordingly if required.
We are now living in the era of SaaS and PaaS, if you don’t understand what these jargons mean for you and your customers, then you clearly don’t have the right competency. In the age of 4th Industrial Revolution and beyond, we need more techno-commercial minds for the businesses to survive. This may translate to recruiting more engineers and then giving them the commercial knowledge or recruiting business graduates and giving them the required technical training. There may be mandatory 5 to 7 trainings that recruits have to go through and then they will be conversant because somebody with the hunger for growth and learning, will be willing to learn.
There is no drawn boundary between technical jobs and jobs like HR. So my suggestion to the students would be to be versatile, open to new knowledge and stay relevant.
Digital transformation is changing the way we see certain positions operate. What steps are you taking to train these employees?
In the past, we had a rigid training process. All trainings were conducted on company time, date and based on a calendar. These trainings were available to a limited number of people because resources were scarce and trainings were expensive. Now, we have access to over 10 thousand e-learning modules including certification courses and these are all from global platforms like Lynda and Udacity. Licenses are made available to all Telenor employees so that they can take any courses at their own time. To encourage our employees, we have given them a 40-hour challenge, where each employee has to go through 40-hours of training to earn a bonus. Grameenphone is one of the few companies that give out bonuses to employees for completing training. Courses in these platform range from photography to ensuring cyber security. I have seen employees taking courses that are relevant for the field they are working in and I have also seen employees that complete courses that are more in line with their passions. It is now a mixed bucket of soft, core functional and future skills training. We reward individuals who spend the most amount of time in trainings and appreciate their efforts from the top managerial levels.
How is this digital transformation impacting the lives and livelihood of people across the country?
Digital transformation is creating a lot more jobs now. Going back to the example of Pathao, it is in its own way addressing multiple unemployment problems. If you think about crowdsourcing, if you know how to code, if you have been working in different projects, you are globally marketable. If you are still a student and have these skills you don’t even have to be a graduate to earn. So, the workforce has shifted from a traditional all-graduate workforce to a more versatile workforce. I think more money is circulating in the economy than ever before in Bangladesh and that has been possible because of this transformation.
How is Grameenphone helping build the digital ecosystem in Bangladesh?
Grameenphone is contributing to this area through a different dimension I would say. We have reached 71 million subscribers, of which more than 50% use the internet. To make internet more accessible, we have 4700 4G sites and by next year we have plans to bring it to 10,000. If you look inward, we have multiple innovation platforms for both our employees and external. For example, through the GP Accelerator program we have partnered with Startup Dhaka to groom startups and connect them to investors to help them accelerate and scale up much faster. This has helped the community and the youth. On top of that, we also have a knowledge sharing platform called Whiteboard, where we bring in subject matter experts to educate internal and external audiences while also showcasing our upcoming and ongoing projects to them as part of knowledge exchange. We have recently launched Digital Ninja and we are looking to engage with developers and coders through this alternate recruiting model very soon. Let me share how the idea of Digital Ninja came up. Say you are a coder and I need 10 coders for my project. But, you don’t enjoy the structured nature of a full-time job and I perhaps don’t have the scope of expanding my regular employee headcount. So, how do I create a win-win situation? We thought what if we post the details of the project on an online platform so that interested coders can register to showcase their portfolios? When an opportunity comes up, our recruitment team will match the skills and interest areas to onboard the most suitable candidate. We tested this idea as an MVP and I am glad to share that the feedback was so positive that we are now looking to implement this in a wider number of projects across the organization. So you see, by addressing the real scenario from both the recruiter and talent market perspectives, we were able to come up with an agile recruitment solution hosted in a digital platform moving one step closer to reducing unemployment. This, like many other initiatives from Grameenphone and the industry are continuing to contribute to the nation’s collective dream of Digital Bangladesh.