HR Tech Interview with Nanda Rackanchath, Chief of Human Resources at Tata Chemicals

Journey into Tech

Hi Nanda Rackanchath, welcome to HR-tech Interview Series. Please tell us about your journey in the HR industry. What inspired you to start with HR?

I have been associated with the HR function for nearly four decades now and have had the opportunity to experience varied sectors like manufacturing, trading, retail, consumer durables, FMCG, telecom and services. My career with the Tata Group began in 2006 when I joined Tata Communications and later moved to Tata Chemicals in 2012, where I am currently overseeing the global functions of Human Resources, General Administration, CSR, Business Ethics and Communications.

From a qualification perspective, I must admit that I got into the Human Resources field purely by accident. However, what cemented my career trajectory in Human Resources was the guidance of some great bosses under whom I have had the opportunity to work in my initial years. I had the rare opportunity to work hands-on on several pioneering assignments, encounter and learn from some failures and explore the various dimensions of HR across a range of industry segments all of which have stood me in good stead to date. 

While I have had the experience of handling roles outside of the HR function too, I personally believe that my biggest contribution in these roles was my people management skills which enabled me to bring out the best in those teams. 

As a CHRO in a modern tech-driven world, could you tell us how you use HR Technologies for your various HR tasks and operations?

I began my career in the era when everything was manual and computers were just the large intimidating mainframes housed in some specially designed enclosures typically called the EDP Room. The first wave of use of technology happened in the late 1980s with the introduction of bulky desktop machines which at first were mostly used as a replacement for manual typewriters. From the late 1990s onwards the pace of adoption of technology has been fairly rapid and today we are realizing that effective human resource management is a crucial source of competitive advantage for a business. Every aspect of the HR function from hire to retire can be made more agile and customer-centric with the use of the right HR systems.

At Tata Chemicals, we have always worked towards science-led innovation and R&D, at the core of which is new-age technology. Hence we believe that adopting an integrated tech-based platform is an important step for business transformation. Today when we look at digitization in HR, we are guided by 2 basic principles – first, does it offer a superlative employee experience and secondly does it make life easier for the HR teams without having to struggle with multiple and disparate systems that most often do not sync with each other.

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Could you tell us which technologies are you most keenly following for your business and why?

Employee priorities are constantly evolving in the current environment, with talent management and employee engagement becoming the key differentiators for business success. We are constantly scanning for those new-age technologies which can enable our workforce to become both “future-ready” and “future-engaged”.

New methods in L&D that enable acquiring the right skills and competencies needed for the future are areas that we will be investing in,  as we adopt newer technologies with higher levels of automation across our operations. Our focus will continue to be on ease of access – with the ability to use all services and features across a range of devices round the clock.

How have HR trends evolved in the last 20 years? What made COVID-19 such a huge disruptor for the entire HR ecosystem?

HR has changed dramatically over the last 2 decades and in a good way. The major credit has to go to technology and its adoption in workplaces. Today’s HR departments spend their energies managing employee engagement and strengthening culture in addition to focusing on personnel management and administrative tasks.

The Covid-19 situation became such a huge disruptor since it impacted almost everyone within a very short timeline when people were least prepared for it. However, most companies discovered their own method of adjusting to the situation within a few months.

According to KPMG’s COVID-19 HR practices survey report, 75% of organizations have re-defined their communication strategy to boost employee engagement, with virtual team meetings and leadership briefings for employees being the top two leading engagement strategies. We’ve all seen a significant trend towards remote work, as well as the acceleration of “digitization”, and now the introduction of new Hybrid Work Models. 

Almost all processes that were designed to work well in a physical environment needed to be reset, to accommodate the changing workplace standards, by making them streamlined, transparent, accessible, and inclusive. A comprehensive change management procedure had to be in place prior to deploying the changes. 

What key lessons did you learn from the pandemic? How are you planning to build a better future for your workforce using these lessons?

As an HR professional, the agility to quickly adapt and act upon new situations has been the biggest learning. COVID 19 has also reshaped the role of human resources in businesses.

Yes, the job still requires being accountable for the efficiency, productivity, and performance of the workforce, but we now have a greater responsibility to recognize and comprehend the issues that employees encounter in a remote working setting. Moving forward the aim will be to focus on people and their development and on maximizing each employee’s individual strengths. 

At Tata Chemicals, the crisis served as a reminder that business is essentially all about managing people’s concerns and aspirations for continued business success. Employee well-being continues to be our top priority as we strengthen our efforts into maintaining business continuity. In line with the Tata Group’s ethos, we aim to establish an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment, which has only got further accelerated during the pandemic.

We have come a long way from only speaking about gender gaps and equality at the workplace to now giving opportunities to every individual. Tell us more about your amazing initiatives in D&I. What are the pillars of your D&I framework at Tata Chemicals?

Tata Chemicals, over the years, has remained committed to building and sustaining diversity in its workforce and strengthening the culture of inclusion. This is based on a strong foundation and framework by focusing on 5 main pillars of diversity – Gender, Differently Abled, Disadvantaged Regions, Disadvantaged Communities, and LGBTQ. We undertake various programs to drive diversity across race, sex, and age. Some of the key highlights of our initiatives are:

  • We have created a support structure at our manufacturing facility in Mithapur which enables women to be deployed across all three shifts thereby positively impacting our ability to hire more women into the workforce. We are among the first manufacturing facilities in Gujarat to undertake such an initiative
  • Our programmes are focused to improve the quality of life of socially and economically disadvantaged sections, particularly the SC/ST communities
  • We are preparing a roadmap for differently-abled inclusion by building an Accessibility Audit that covers a broad range of needs including the visually impaired, hearing impaired, cognitive disabilities, mobility impairments, learning disabilities and more
  • We are tweaking our medical policies to provide for cover being extended for Same Sex Partners and towards costs for gender reassignment surgeries

Indian HR environment is very different from its US and other western counterparts. How does your D&I framework align with the global benchmarks?

Tata Chemicals is a global company with operations in India, Europe, North America, and Africa. A significant portion of our workforce (of 12,000+) both direct and indirect – is employed in manufacturing facilities.

While the basic framework remains the same – the programs and processes will vary to contextualize them to the local cultural practices and priorities.

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How do you see your new D&I initiatives setting new standards for the whole industry with better leadership and training for employees and managers?

At Tata Chemicals, the presence of diverse perspectives is enabling problem-solving and innovation across the organization, equipping us to grow and strengthen global operations. We undertake programs such as Tata LEAD and Tata Affirmative Action alongside employment, entrepreneurship and education initiatives to drive diversity across race, sex and age. 

We also invest in particular interventions for women managers, such as immersive diversity and inclusion programs, the future leaders’ program, and team management competency building – all of which are part of our leadership development process. We have a Diversity Council, led by the Managing Director that assesses our progress and strategies on a regular basis and ensures that resources are allocated as needed to keep up the pace in this area. We also believe that this is an area where we can not only share our experiences with others but also learn from the best practices that others have implemented since everyone can benefit from the combined efforts. 

Your take on the growing adoption of Artificial Intelligence and Automation capabilities for HR tasks and processes- Does AI make your work easy? 

Organizations and employees were compelled to adapt to events beyond their control as a result of the pandemic, devising measures to stay afloat, retain jobs, and avoid the loneliness of social isolation. However in 2022, employees are eager to regain control of their futures, and they are betting big on technology to help them for the same. According to a study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 55% of the global workforce would be more likely to stay with a company that uses AI to support career growth. This number is even higher among workers in India at 82%.

I have great expectations for the integration of AI and automation in the workplace, particularly in HR.

The idea, while still in its development stages, solves a lot of generic problems with the increased sophistication of the technology. In the coming years, I see more and more organizations adopting AI as an accelerator that allows them to increase the employee’s efficiency as well as monitor employee wellbeing at work which can be extremely critical where the workforce is deployed either in remote, hazardous or routine transactional tasks. The use of AI to enhance productivity at workplaces is expected to be one of the leading trends in India’s HR industry this year. Along with automating repetitive administrative tasks and setting up a chat-bot to answer FAQs, AI helps HR managers make time-sensitive and data-driven decisions that can be devoid of human bias. 

However, there needs to be a balanced approach since while dealing with people’s issues,  not everything can be left to AI and technology to handle. There will be situations where human interventions are most required and ideal to create an organizational culture where employees feel valued because of the way they are treated. 

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What do you think about the hiring marketplace and what advice do you have for HR managers looking to tap talent from tier-2 cities in the country? How is Tata Chemicals leading the path in this direction?

A year after several organizations adopted a ‘work from anywhere, Tier 2 cities have emerged as talent hubs. Hiring from locations other than the cities where companies have offices has shot up to 35% from just about 5% in the pre-pandemic times, showed a recent survey by recruitment firm CIEL HR Services. 

HR leaders need to take interventions that are inclusive and are adopted keeping in mind the increasing diversity in their workforce. 

While this may be an important factor for other companies for us it may not be of the same scale of impact since a significant portion of our workforce is in the manufacturing operations where most part of the work process does not lend itself to remote working.

Your predictions for the future of workplace culture in 2022

Remote working or otherwise, significant changes in the workplace culture is going to become real in the years ahead. Tomorrow’s workforce will look for companies that offer them greater work-life balance, score high on sustainability, and reliance on technology and state-of-art work practices with opportunities to constantly acquire and upgrade their skills. Every organization will be forced to learn to adapt and adjust to the new normal if they need to be successful.

Thank you, Nanda Rackanchath! That was fun and hope to see you back on  HR Tech Series soon.

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Nanda Rackanchath is currently the Chief of Human Resources at Tata Chemicals Limited, based in Mumbai. Tata Chemicals is an 80+ year old Tata Group company with interests in Basic Chemicals (Soda Ash, Salt, Sodium bicarbonate, Bromine, Cement etc) & Specialty Chemicals (Agri Chemicals, Nutritional ingredients, Advance Silica) with manufacturing facilities spread across India, UK, USA and Africa.

Mr. Nanda has been associated with the Tata Group since 2006 when he joined to head the Human Resources function at Tata Communications Ltd. In May 2012, he moved to Tata Chemicals and is a member of the Executive Committee, overseeing the global functions of Human Resources & Administration, Corporate Communications, Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility.

Tata Chemicals Logo

A part of the over US$ 110 billion Tata Group, Tata Chemicals Limited, is a global company with interests in businesses that focus on Basic Chemistry Products and Specialty Chemistry Products.

The story of the company is about harnessing the fruits of science for goals that go beyond business. The company’s Basic Chemistry product range provides key ingredients to some of the world’s largest manufacturers of glass, detergents and other industrial products. Tata Chemicals currently is the world’s third largest producer of soda ash with manufacturing facilities in Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. The company has a strong position in the crop protection business through its subsidiary company Rallis India Ltd.

Tata Chemicals has established world-class R&D capabilities with a dedicated band of research and scientific personnel working at its facilities in Pune and Bangalore in the emerging areas of material sciences, nutritional sciences, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and agri sciences