Wednesday, October 12, 2011

People first

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

Barring any act of God, forces of nature, and other unfortunate events, human resource managers from all over the country will converge at The Atrium of the Limketkai Mall in Cagayan de Oro City at 3:00 in the afternoon today for the annual conference of the People Management Association of the Philippines. The event is the biggest gathering of people managers in the country. This year marks the 48th year that the association is mounting the conference.

There are a number of interesting issues that the conference is tackling but before we get to these issues, allow me to tell you about how particularly challenging it has been to put together this year’s conference.

First, there were the problems brought about by the visitation of the trio of unwanted visitors, namely Pedring, Quiel, and Ramon. The frustrating part was that we actually chose to hold the PMAP conference in October this year (it used to be held regularly in September every year) precisely because everyone said typhoons usually visited the country during September so holding it on October would be wiser. Of course we now know that global warming has really altered whatever weather patterns we’ve been accustomed to in the past. Lesson number one: There is no longer such a thing as a typhoon-free month in this country anymore.

Unfortunately, everything comes to a halt in this country when there is a typhoon. Electricity goes kaput, transportation systems go haywire, prices of food go berserk. Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez has his job cut out for him if he truly intends to put the Philippines in the map as a conference destination.

When we announced that the PMAP conference was happening in Mindanao this year, many heaved a sigh of relief thinking that the conference would not be affected by weather disturbances. Mindanao is an island rarely visited by typhoons. People figured that unlike the other year when hundreds of conference delegates got stranded in Manila because of Typhoon Ondoy, at least people wouldn’t have to go through a similar scenario in Cagayan de Oro. Lesson number two: There is no such thing as a typhoon-free place in this country.

We now know Mindanao is not typhoon-free anymore. As I write this piece, Typhoon Ramon is threatening to wreak havoc on the Northeastern part of Mindanao and Central Visayas. We are storming the heavens with prayers that flights coming out of Cebu and Manila would not get canceled because this would definitely affect the conference as most participants and speakers will be coming in from the two key cities.

But the most frustrating challenge that we had to respond to, and which gave us the biggest headache, was the Philippine Airlines fiasco. It would require more than one column to narrate the many stories of woe that our participants had to go through in the last few days trying to make sense of or find fixes for canceled or rescheduled flights.

As human resource management professionals, we empathized with the situation of our colleagues at PAL and tried to make allowances for glitches brought about by the labor strike. Many of us chose to stick it out with PAL despite availability of flights in other airlines because we truly wanted to help the flag carrier project the impression that it is “business as usual” despite the difficulties. Still, we couldn’t believe the extent of unpreparedness that most of us witnessed in the last few days. It was as if there was no contingency plan in place. In many cases, check-in time took 30 minutes for each passenger. Lesson number three: Anticipate all kinds of scenarios, including a labor strike.

At any rate, we hope to be able to hold a successful PMAP conference this year, particularly since there is a lot weighing on in this event. It’s the first time that a major conference is being held in Cagayan de Oro and we truly wanted to showcase the city’s potentials as a conference venue. They are building a bigger and hopefully more modern airport, which they will share with Iligan City, and it is expected to be operational next year. There’s a lot of infrastructure being built around the city—flyovers are finally being built in strategic intersections to manage traffic better. And the tourism attractions of the city are unique and more sustainable (think white water rafting, ziplines, and forest canopy walks).

The theme of the PMAP conference is Tao Muna (People First), which is a reiteration or re-statement of what is probably the most overused cliché in management literature, which is that people are an organization’s most important or most valuable asset. The reality, however, is that while many organizations profess to put premium on people, far too many simply do so because of social guilt; they feel it is their social or moral obligation to do so.

There continues to be a wide gap between theory and practice particularly in terms of effective talent management. Many organizations don’t see people as capital; they think it is products, or technology, or facilities that underpin business success. Many organizations continue to consider payroll as overhead cost, benefits as superfluous, and training and development as perks rather than as investments.

Over and above the philosophical issues of what and how people should be treated in business organizations, there is the critical need to develop sound and sustainable strategies to manage people in the emerging business environment.

There is very little doubt that the world has changed and is still changing radically and yet there is very little being done both in terms of crafting national strategies or promoting best practices to protect, nay, effectively harness, Filipino talent as the main source of the country’s competitive advantage. For example, we all know outsourcing has become an inevitable business reality but we don’t really have a strategic plan that will guarantee sustainability of jobs or promote equity in the long run.

What we have at the moment are various knee-jerk responses from everyone. Most of the proposed laws that impact on labor that have been filed in both houses of congress are tragically either reactive or irrelevant, are designed to promote protectionism which renders them unsustainable in the global business environment, or have potentially disastrous consequences in the long-term. Government seems content in doing a balancing act—trying to establish a middle ground for the various conflicting needs and interests. Business and labor are often left to their own devices and try to make things work, but unfortunately, there’s just a lot of ideological issues that get in the way.

“People first,” the theme of the PMAP conference is therefore timely. It is also an urgent call to action. People are our only lasting source of competitive advantage. We need to craft better strategies, promote best practices, and encourage more proactive collaboration to better harness Filipino talent. Indeed, Tao Muna.

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