Lessons from Egypt for Indian IT companies

The revolution in Egypt is a historic event. A ruler of 30 years was overthrown by angry youth. who were not even born when Mubarak became President. These youth did not come under a common banner, nor did they have a leader. The despair was building up perhaps, for years.Social media like Facebook and Twitter helped them to find that there are many who felt the same. Some courageous young men like Google employee Wael Ghonim came out in the open. They got support from elders like Mohamed El Baradei and even the oldest political group, Muslim Brotherhood. The repressive Mubarak govt, tried to curb them by arresting Ghonim, blocking Internet and banning Al Jazeera to telecast news etc. Yet, these young people took control of Tahrir square and without worrying about the consequences were able to overthrow Mubarak in 18 days.

The anger and frustration of this youth emanated from many sources. Firstly, they felt stifled and did not feel free. Secondly, despite so many years of freedom, the unemployment was running high and their economic lot had not improved. Thirdly, their ruler Mubarak and his cronies around him had amassed huge wealth and stashed them abroad. Fourthly, the geriatric rulers just could not feel the pulse of the youth.

Before the Internet era it would have been necessary for these angry citizens to meet, discuss, organise themselves and then plan a revolt. Meeting even secretly and organising themselves in a dictatorship like Egypt would be at great risk to life and property. Thanks to the social media, it is possible for people to meet virtually, just as they are going about their jobs and yet plan for a revolt of the kind Egypt saw.

Indian IT services companies today are large with the big ones having employees of more than 100,000 each. These companies thrive on a very young employee base. Average age of employees in many of these companies would be around 27 years. The average  employee of these IT companies is part of the Internet generation.

Most large IT companies, as per company policy, do not allow access to any of the social networking sites. The stated reason is to maintain confidentiality of client information and to improve productivity. The unstated reason is not allowing their young employees to connect, form unions and express dissent of any kind.

Yet, employees are active on the social networking sites using their smartphones, home computers or even wireless modems on their laptops. When 3G will be launched India wide and gains popularity, this will become even easier. Being young they are, many might be today using them only for dating and generally socialising, but if the despair builds up these networks can easily find other uses.

Although, the despair among the employees in IT companies is nowhere near the boiling point reached in Egypt , there are a few areas which need attention. Firstly, most companies particularly the older ones are very heirarchical and do not allow the young employees to complain or give suggestions. They are just expected to take orders. Dissent is not encouraged and often punished. Secondly, the top management is from a different generation and often quite disconnected with the aspirations and frustrations of an average young employee. Thirdly, the CEOs reward themselves with huge salaries and commissions even during recession, when the salaries at lower levels are frozen. This is noticed and employees just gripe about it. Fourthly, cronyism is rampant and meritocracy is just for lip service. Their legitimacy is often questioned by the young employees, in private. Lastly, just like Mubarak’s focus to keep US happy , the top managements are focussed on keeping the analysts and shareholders pleased, even at the cost of employees.

The HR departments of most IT companies are just efficient recruitment engines. They are quite occupied doing routine administration and processing. They just do not have the understanding nor the capability to manage the large human communities these organisations have become.

The HR managers will be found wanting if an Egypt like revolt erupts in  their organisation. They will have to go hiding behind their pile of PCMM certificates and 360 degree appraisals.

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