The Issue: A Blueprint for Attracting Talent

How did the global consulting company respond to the challenge of hiring tens of thousands of workers in India in just six years?

Accenture hasn't always been a global outsourcing giant. In 2001, the strategic consulting and high-tech services company had only a few hundred employees in India, while its India-based competitors had thousands. These outsourcing firms had been in the market for years, had close relationships with local recruiting firms and universities, and were well-known names to graduating students in India's exploding economy.

Accenture (ACN) needed to grow—and fast. "Clients were demanding that we have more of a presence in developing countries," says Jill Smart, now Accenture's chief human resources officer. "We needed to remain competitive." To do that, the company faced a huge challenge: Grow from a few hundred to tens of thousands of employees in India in just six years.

Hiring that many employees at one time doesn't just mean hiring engineers for client jobs. To start, the company needed a corporate infrastructure in India—enough HR, legal, and other corporate employees to go about hiring massive numbers of employees from software engineers to chartered accountants for client work. The problem? "These were in themselves hot skills, and it's very hard to get a lot of experienced HR professionals [in India]," Smart says.

Pooling HR Resources

To help solve the problem, Accenture created a partnership with XLRI, an MBA program in the city of Jamshedpur, to help fill the pipeline with potential HR managers. The two-year program, which Accenture says is the first of its kind, trains students for a career in human resources, with a focus on the info-tech industry.

Once it began building that infrastructure, Accenture could begin recruiting. The company had long relied on executives in the consulting and services business, not just those in HR, to do much of the recruiting and interviewing. But on this scale, says Smart, "we just didn't have enough executives to actually do that." To help free them up from some of the administrative functions of hiring—résumé screening, background checking—Accenture created a "shared services" HR group that would pool resources and perform these more basic functions across all the businesses.

Each Emerging Market Is Different

Other mass recruiting efforts were perhaps harder. While its competitors had established brands, Accenture's wasn't well known to many graduates in India, and the company had to launch a big marketing push to remedy that. In addition to traditional campaigns, it focused on communicating to incoming employees the benefits of working at Accenture—its fleet of vans that help workers commute, extensive free training in technical skills. "Word travels very fast," says Smart. "One of our best marketing campaigns was to create a great work experience for people we did hire."

Today, Accenture has 37,000 employees in India and continues to grow. While Smart says one of the biggest lessons was that each emerging market is different—what works in India might not when scaling up in, say, the Philippines. The company is using what it learned by building an "employer brand," centralizing HR work, and priming the pump with HR managers in other countries.

"We have to be flexible to the approach we take," says Smart. "You can't have everything standardized. The pool of candidates each has priorities that may not be the same as people in other countries."

The author of Talent on Demand talks about what the consulting company did right in ramping up in India, and what it could have done better

Accenture's story is important in a lot of ways. Having to go to a new country or a new market and ramp up very quickly is something that a lot of companies are facing today. Sometimes it happens because you go to a new market where you haven't been before. Having to go to a new country or a new market and make changes to your talent pool is something a lot of companies are facing today.

This is different from 20 years or so ago, when demand was quite predictable. Then, you could more or less forecast 10 years out and determine what you were going to need on the talent side. Now these things change very quickly, and companies have to ramp up very quickly and scale back very quickly. It places huge demands on forecasting.

I think Accenture did a good job of getting up to speed very quickly in India. They did a lot of things right: They reached out to the community in various ways in terms of branding. They created their own human resources academy—a way to get the infrastructure necessary to get a lot of people in quickly and move them up. And they centralized their operations to get some scale economies and avoid duplications. All that is good.

The Cost of Being Wrong

There are some other things companies can think about. The first is to think about the difficulty in making these forecasts. These are huge bets and the human capital issues are a big part of it. Rather than just guessing and saying, "I think our best estimate is going to be we need this many people," a good idea is to develop some scenarios; some alternative versions of what we think we're really going to need. Often, we're guessing. We don't know for sure what demand is going to be. How many people do we think we're going to need? What are the odds of getting this many people? What happens if this assumption is wrong or that assumption is wrong? You end up tracing out something like a probability distribution, and saying, "Here are the odds it will be this much or that much." As a result, you get a much better sense of what the real demands will be, and you're less likely to make big mistakes.

The other way is one that comes directly out of supply chains. This is what I've been working on with my book, Talent on Demand. This is thinking about things like the cost of being wrong. Think about what happens if we have too many workers. What happens if we don't have enough? There are costs on both sides, and you want to try to minimize both of those.

I think another thing Accenture did that's interesting and that all companies need to focus on is different ways of attracting employees. They focused more on hiring people, but there are other approaches to getting employees which are more inspired by "just-in-time" supply chain logistics. It's more expensive per unit, but it helps you reduce the uncertainty. Relying on temporary workers and contract workers can help you close the gap with a little less risk.

Managing Bottlenecks

Another part of this is not just bringing people on—it's also getting that many people up to speed once you bring them in and developing them inside the company. Centralizing here is a good approach. Often companies have different units that are each hiring, and each unit makes mistakes. Maybe this unit has too many people or this one has too few people. If you're centralizing all this, you can use a portfolio approach. Some have too many, some have not enough. It cancels out.

I think there's another supply chain issue as well—managing bottlenecks. How many people can we actually bring on at one time? One of the ways companies can get better at this is to try to smooth out the process of bringing people in rather than hiring everyone all at once, say, right at graduation time. To do that, you need a huge capacity of onboarding for helping people get up to speed with the company's culture and for training and developing them. If you could hire even twice a year, then you need only half the capacity, half the training positions, half the supervisory time. Thinking about talent management like a supply chain, and bringing in some of a supply chain's lessons, can apply to moving people in and out of an organization.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.