HR challenges in the CRO industry- glimpses

HR challenges in the CRO industry- glimpses


M A Mukund,
Director-Human Resources,

Quintiles Research India.

The CRO industry in India is barely more than 10 years old, yet has evolved as a provider of various services to the global pharmaceutical industry, broadly in the domains of clinical trials, data management, biostatistics and laboratory services. Unlike the pharma sector, which also depends on plant and machinery in addition to people, in the CRO space, human resources are pivotal to its existence and growth. The market value of the clinical development assignments outsourced to India is approximately $100 million and expected to reach close to approximately $1billion by 2010. Hence, there is indeed an opportunity on the horizon for the CRO industry in India. However, in today’s age of high technology and digital pace, one of the few significant differentiators between organisations in the CRO space is talent, collaboration, speed and process efficiencies and effectiveness at local, regional and global levels.

Talent resides in people, and is in limited supply. Sources of talent are now accessible to all the players in this field. There seems to be no exclusivity remaining in the talent sourcing arena. The same sources of recruitment–educational institutions, web-portals, recruitment agencies and headhunters are available to all. In addition, companies naturally tend to source experienced talent from each other. A common scenario today is movement of human resources between companies as a constant measurable flow, with the smaller CROs grabbing ready talent from the larger ones with the lure of money and positions. Attrition continues to be a major trend that threatens to erode the competitiveness of any organisation in this industry. If this trend continues to increase in magnitude, employee costs will skyrocket, which might threaten the competitive edge that the CRO industry in India currently enjoys.

Getting the best out of people continues to remain an evergreen challenge and only those who adapt, survive and flourish. Attraction, engagement and retention of people continue to be key challenges in this industry. Large, established CROs do seem to have a distinct edge over the smaller ones, but the latter are doing their best to catch up. A high-pressured business environment, with demanding clientele in the healthcare industry translates to outsourced work that needs to be executed to perfection at lightning speeds by any CRO. One has to also view this need for speed and perfection from the perspective of the regulatory framework that lends itself to volumes of process details.

Stress was never as high in the twentieth century as it seems to be in the twenty-first. However, from a positive angle, stress reflects the fantastic growth story of the CRO industry. Managing the aspirations of the upwardly mobile young workforce today (who wield the power of choice) and keeping them motivated, committed and emotionally engaged and retained in the organisation is one of the biggest challenges for business leaders and HR. This is the defining point of partnership between business and HR, where the latter aspire to become “strategic business partners”. As described by “The Great Places to Work” Institute, which conducts a survey by the same name annually across the world, the leading indicators of an ideal workplace are trust, pride and camaraderie in the workplace. HR has a key role to play as a partner to the business in building a culture that clearly demonstrates these dimensions.

However, this is easier said than done. Generating an activity wish-list for HR towards the above ideal is only a small part of the solution. Active support and participation by all levels of leadership, in partnership with HR will make a positive difference in this direction, towards the desired results. Articulating and actively seizing every small or large opportunity to symbolise organisational values, demonstrating transparency, especially pertaining to decisions that affect employees and their careers and lifestyles and striving to create and maintain a conflict-free congenial work environment are steps in this direction. Constant communication–upward, downward and lateral- within and across boundaries is a given. In a digital world, facilitating employee-touch and creating opportunities for people interactions with minimal cost will be highly valued. Recognising effort and rewarding performance and achievements certainly contribute to an employee feeling valued by the organisation. Involving employees in projects or initiatives outside of their routine tasks, seeking feedback from them and acting on their suggestions and giving them credit for their inputs are simple ways to make the employees feel that their views matter and are valued. Helping colleagues achieve and maintain an optimum level of work-life balance will ensure that the organisation does not fall into the trap of becoming a great place to overwork. Making career paths and actionable career options within the organisation visible to the employee during his tenure in the organisation as well as recognising and celebrating individual uniqueness is also extremely important in retention. , In all these facets of organisational life, the role of line management assumes significant importance.

In India, we have a huge supply of manpower in the management pool, but are sadly deficient in people management expertise. Ultimately, line managers have to own the responsibility for their employees and teams, in all respects–their work assignments, performance, well-being, commitment, ensuring recognition and rewards, coaching and providing constructive feedback. These are areas where HR can help the line manager refine his or her skills to perform the managerial role effectively. The career journey for an employee in an organisation begins on his first day in the company and hence on-boarding becomes a very significant and critical dimension. Ensuring their engagement and emotional commitment to their jobs and the organisation through their lives is the next major challenge that business managers and HR people face. Line management involvement in these spheres is crucial to building a truly great place to work.

Summing up, the organisations of today and those that are gearing up for the future will continue to face people challenges and tumultuous times. The emerging new generations will have kaleidoscopic aspirations, views and mindsets and organisations will have to rapidly evolve their people practices to cope in terms of retaining talent.

Recognising the challenges, and with the objective of preparing for people management challenges in the future, HR departments of a few organisations in the life science domain in India across pharma and CRO spaces have come together under one umbrella to form the “National Human Resources Life Sciences Forum”(NHRLSF). Its objective is to address HR issues that are common to the life-science industry and share best practices, represent with one-voice in industry forums as well as partner with academia in a spirit of collaboration.