I love exploring footnotes of history or mythology. They may sound academic, but priceless information and timeless wisdom can be gleaned from the footnotes. Google search and now ChatGPT have made this literary exploration easy.
Delving on the footnotes:
Let me delve into one of the footnotes in the epic Mahabharata. On the 13th day of the battle, the Kauravas killed Abhimanyu, the teen son of Arjuna. On the 14th day, the battle was fierce with Arjuna hellbent on revenge — to kill Jayadratha, Abhimanyu’s killer, and the son-in-law of the Kauravas. The hunter’s rage was matched by the determination to save the hunted.
The death of Abhimanyu made the war personal for Arjuna.
The above narrative is well-known to most.
But what is relegated to the footnotes is the contribution of Arjuna’s chariot to his mission. The charioteer was Krishna, and it was drawn by four white horses, named Saibya, Sugriva, Meghapushpa, and Balahaka. These horses were considered divine and said to possess extraordinary speed and strength.
It is said that Krishna took great care of his chariot horses. He treated them with love and respect and ensured that they were well-fed and rested. Krishna would personally brush the dirt off their coats, groom his horses, pick out the hooves, and feed them with the best grains and grass. He would ensure their well-being by ensuring they had enough rest and water during the long rides.
Recognizing the untiring efforts:
The chase of Jayadratha exhausted Arjuna’s horses. The rage of the father losing his son blinded Arjuna about the physical state of his own horses.
Krishna admonished Arjuna that the parched and tired horses needed water, and he should be cognizant of that.
Arjuna reflected, paused the chase, and shot an arrow into the ground, causing water to gush out for the horses. The horses thus got hydrated, refreshed, and resumed their pursuit.
Well, where is this story going?
Relevance to the present day:
In mid-March 2023, I attended a conference in Delhi, an important (and rare) one where neurologists and technologists had a collaborative workshop. The logistics for the travel was arranged by a fellow colleague, not a trained administrative professional as our fledgling organization did not have one. When in Delhi, to my shock I was told at the reception, that the hotel reservation was for 1 day and not the 2 days we had asked for.
This was a blunder. Somehow the matter was resolved by my fellow traveling colleague, who graciously made makeshift arrangements himself and got me my two nights stay. Painful it was, but it had to be done and compromises had to be made.
Logistics for travel is seen as something given and we do not realize its importance is not realized till something goes wrong. This is what happened above. The importance of the office administration as a role is oft lost in the organization charts sometimes as a “footnote.”
These office roles are sometimes designated as “staff” functions, only to be realized when things go awry. When the office boy does not get the room arranged, or the tea for a conference does not come on time do we realize the significance? Otherwise, these functions are lost in the din of office activities.
Do we realize that to run an organization these roles however insignificant they may look, help streamline the work that gets done? Think about the scheduler’s role in planning the day for the head of state.
Making travel plans for meetings is always an arduous task. Boarding, lodging, and transport facilities all have to be done with impeccable orderliness. The meeting dates and times are planned in advance, the venue is set. If there are misses, then opportunities could go abegging. There have been instances when flights have been booked wrong with the flight timings being PM instead of AM when we do so without specialized help in these tasks. We rarely give due credit to the professionals who do this with accuracy and timeliness to make the office run efficiently.
Someone rightly said that they are like the Pinky, the humble fifth finger whose utility is not obvious, but if one loses it, it can result in a loss of about 50% of his hand strength. Just like the Pinky gives dexterity to the hand, the “staff” functions bring orderliness to the office!
Are we giving them the due credit, if not, we ought to.
The chiding that Arjuna received from Krishna when he ignored the untiring efforts of the horses in the face of his singular goal, was not misplaced. The fact that Arjuna was able to make deep forays into the enemy lines on the battlefield, was due to the unheralded effort of the faithful horses. The recognition of this contribution is vital.
Transporting to the corporate world, we have Saibya, Sugriva, Meghapushpa, and Balahaka engaging in the interest of the organization. How many times do we remember them by their names?
Recall my column on “Rumpelstiltskin manoeuvres” (September 11, 2022).
Pausing, stepping back, and recognizing these efforts, which appear insignificant in the larger context is super significant if we want organizations to work as a piece of well-oiled machinery.
In organizational management, staff functions and line functions refer to distinct types of roles and responsibilities within a company or organization.
Line functions are those directly involved in achieving the organization’s primary objectives, such as production, sales, and customer service. These functions are responsible for conducting the core activities that generate revenue or fulfill the organization’s core mission. They get prime visibility, the spotlight, and their efforts directly help grow the organization.
On the other hand, staff functions are those that support the line functions and help them achieve their goals. Staff functions may include administration, human resources, finance, legal, and IT. These functions provide support and expertise to the line functions and help ensure that the organization is run successfully on a consistent basis.
In most organizations, staff functions are considered support functions because they do not directly generate revenue or produce goods or services. However, staff functions are still critical to the success of the organization because they help ensure that the line functions have the resources and support, they need to operate effectively. Their behind-the-scenes work is equally important to the organization’s success.
We risk inviting mission failure if staff functions are consigned to the “footnotes.” Saibya, Sugriva, Meghapushpa, and Balahaka need to be remembered along with Krishna, Arjuna, Bheeshma, and Duryodhana. Wouldn’t you agree? _________________________________________________________________