Lessons from Anthropology for HR

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M. N. Srinivas was eminent social anthropologist of India. He explained phenomenon of social change through process called as “sanskritisation”.

Caste system is seen as most rigid form of social stratification, mobility (horizontal or vertical) is almost impossible. But in practice, mobility across hierarchy did take place.
Lower castes used to imitate the practices of higher castes (ex. Vegetarianism, giving up alcohol, rituals) and over a period of time make claim for higher status than was normally given to that caste. M. N. Srinivas called this process “sankritisation”. Caste that was imitated was generally the dominant caste of the region.

HR too has come up with similar practice; it is called as “benchmarking” for best practices. HR tries to imitate best practices in the industry and incorporate them in organisation. Magazines publish “best employers survey”, HR best practices awards etc. By imitating these practices the organisation goes up in ranking and after some time stake claim for being among top “10/20/50 employers”…
…something yours truly did while heading employee development team at Patni- placing it among top 20 employers and win some awards at World HR Congress.

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But sanskritisation also resulted in imitating those practices which were not necessarily good; among lower castes/tribals the status of woman was better than that of woman in higher castes. Sanskritisation resulted in lower status of women in “sanskritised” caste, plus they were burdened with practices like dowry, infanticide, being confined to four walls of home etc . In fact, they were imitating practices which upper castes themselves were getting rid of.

Same can happen in case of benchmarking/imitating best practices. You may end up imitating practices which the benchmarked company may be getting rid of, while abandoning some of the good practices which may be unique to your organisation ex. Many companies copied GE’s vitality or bell curve, while GE itself was getting out of it. Besides they did it selectively i.e. they copied vitality curve in isolation, ignoring other practices in GE like investment in leadership development, six sigma etc.

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