Reliance, One Of The Largest Companies In India, Takes HR Very Seriously

We just completed a two-day strategy meeting with Reliance Industries, one of the largest and most profitable companies in India.

The company runs the world’s largest oil refinery, operates the fastest-growing retail network (groceries, clothing, and electronics), and has launched the world’s biggest 4G VoLTE network Jio.

It’s a fascinating company that innovates, executes, and grows like no other company I’ve ever seen.

As I spend time with the senior leadership team, one thing becomes crystal clear: people and HR are core to the company’s success. Let me explain.

Who is Reliance Industries?

Reliance is a well-known company in India, originally founded by Dhirubhai Ambani in 1973. Today, led by his son Mukesh Ambani, the company operates a broad conglomeration of businesses, each of which is growing at astounding rates. The company’s tagline is “Growth is Life,” and this is truly the way Reliance operates.

In 2019 the company generated $89 billion in revenues, a 44% increase from the prior year, with profits around $5.6 billion (13% year over year increase). If you look at analyst projections for the company, one expects the company to grow to $124 billion in revenue by 2024.

How does this company perform so well?  Well, the story of Reliance is the story of India: as the Indian economy evolves, Reliance is there to accelerate growth. In fact Reliance’s most exciting business, Jio (the 4G telecom company that provides an entire range of services for digital life), has the potential to be one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world.

How does Reliance create such success? Many business schools teach the importance of focus – yet Reliance operates in hydrocarbons, retail, distribution, and digital services. How can it do everything so well?

Well, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with the Chairman and HR leadership team many times and the secret is very clear. This is a company that thrives on smart ideas, bold bets, and investment in people. And when these three things come together well, we find a company with unstoppable power to grow.

Let’s talk about smart ideas first. Every time I meet with Reliance they ask me about innovative new ideas in organization design, rewards, pay, and growth. The leadership team understands the need to build a flattened, highly empowered organization, and they have experimented with this year after year. Today, the Jio business has been designed around a “fractal” organization model – one which empowers thousands of local sales and service teams to reach into Indian markets with a “one-stop” service for all products.

As far as bold bets, Reliance has built the world’s largest and most multi-functional refinery in the world. The company has dug a deepwater oil well, the first in India. And at the time Jio was conceived, built the largest 5G network in the world. These “big bets” come from the Chairman and his leadership team, and they don’t just bet, they bet smart. They spend lots of time thinking, studying, and researching how to make these bets work, and then with engineering precision (the top executives are engineers) they launch, iterate, improve, and grow.

In the area of investments in people, Reliance takes every aspect of HR and management seriously. While the company is a demanding, hard-working place, the leadership team is constantly looking at new approaches to pay, goal-setting, rewards, and benefits. Reliance has been implementing OKR’s (a form of goals), agile team-based management, and continuous learning. I feel honored to be able to advise them on many of these ideas, but the company does relentless research before they do anything.

Josh Bersin Reliance

And I’m not talking about a company that is “good to its people.” It goes much further than this. Reliance is relentlessly focused on employee productivity and support, relentlessly looking for new ways to manage people. Its telecommunications and retail operation is designed with a “fractal” organizational model, enabling small business units to make decisions quickly with real-time information. To support its employees the company has built an entire HCM platform that rivals Workday and SuccessFactors, based on a new micro-services architecture.

While many of these businesses are enormous in scale (more than 500,000 employees work in these businesses), the company is committed to building a “team of teams” operating model. We have discussed this topic many times with the team, and Reliance is aggressively pursuing new performance management, development, and goal setting tools to help the company stay fast-moving, growth-oriented, and efficient.

Constantly Improving HR

Learning is core to the company’s growth. Not only do Ambani and the leadership team constantly study new business models and industries, they want to learn everything. In one executive meeting the Chairman mentioned to me “I’m taking a course on Python.” I asked him why?  He said “I need to understand AI and advanced analytics – I cant ask my people to do all this work if I don’t know what it is!” How many global Chairmen think this way?

This company is fast-moving, innovative, and focused on execution. Every business area is growing at hockey-stick shaped rates, and hiring people fast. This means HR must quickly hire, onboard, train, and support people everywhere, leading to a very aggressive focus on making HR world-class.

One example of this is the “fractal model” for operating the Jio business. Jio sells phones and services in thousands of small towns all over India. Typically this organization would be designed as a massive matrix, with local managers, district managers, regional managers, and so-on. The Chairman looked at that idea and rejected it. Decision-making would be far too slow.

Instead, Reliance designed a network-based operating model, where each small sales and service team operates independently. There are regional and country managers, but they get sales, support, hiring, and financial information in a real-time dashboard. If an employee or local manager needs information on product shipment or features, they just go online, bypass the entire hierarchy, and interact with a real-time operations center.

The operations center for people is like the NOC (network operations center) for the network. It uses home-grown tools (SAP is the core backbone) to see and serve people for every need they have. And every possible service is automated. When the company was initially building up the network the CHRO Sanjay Jog showed me the new hiring and onboarding app. New employees could pick up a phone, click a few times, scan their government paperwork, and get hired in a few minutes.

There Is A Lot to Learn from Reliance

Every time I meet with Reliance I come back with something to share. To help you really hear this story in detail, we will be developing an in-depth video-based case study in the Josh Bersin Academy, and Vaibhav Goel, the head of HR technology and services, will be speaking at JBA Live!  (June 8-10 in Los Angeles.)

Vaibhav Goel

But the biggest learning of all is to “be bold.” At Reliance the team avidly studies best-practices and technologies, scans the market, and then sits down and says “can we do this in an even faster, easier, and more service-centric way?” The result is a constant stream of innovation (new tools for performance management, learning, hiring, etc.) and a culture of “let’s just build this ourselves.”

Which leads me to my final point. In today’s new world of digital business and our digital personal life, you can’t just “buy the best solution” in HR. Of course, vendors like Workday, SAP, Oracle, and others have wonderful products. But none of them are perfect, none of them do everything, and your employees need something easy to use that works. You have to be a systems integrator and designer in HR these days, driving the need for many new skills and what I call the “Full-Stack HR professional.”

Reliance is the most amazing company I have ever visited. I encourage you to come to JBA Live! this year and hear this story. Not only will it teach you a lot about strategic thinking and bold HR practices, you’ll learn about one of the most fascinating companies in the world.