You could call HCL the company that forgot to be Infosys. The Noida-based group founded in a Delhi barsati by Shiv Nadar in the 1970s was happily playing the sleeping hare in the ‘hare and tortoise’ fable, even as it grew through the next two decades, largely because it functioned as a close-knit, less ambitious, somewhat contented organisation. It lacked two things: a desire to pitch it high and turn into a glamorous brand for the stock markets, and a tendency to underestimate the significance of ‘employee power’.
Employees First, Customers Second tells you, in a confessionally theorising way, about the manner HCL went through a corporate makeover after it found itself to be a relative laggard. In this tale, Vineet Nayar, a hardworking blue-eyed boy who has risen in Nadar’s stable to become the CEO of group flagship HCL Technologies, is achieving many purposes at once. HCL is firmly in the league now with Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services. But all that is incidental to the systematic wisdom that Nayar spews in this book on how it makes sense for an organisation to put its employees first.
But first, the why. As Nayar argues, the Industrial Age is passé, and it is more so for an information technology services company in which high-skilled, knowledge-driven employees are the ones dealing with customers. They are the ones innovating and serving the people who sign the fat cheques. The big bosses are better off as facilitators than overarching authorities in the process. The shift, therefore is a necessity, and one best sold as a virtue.
The CEO’s headache lies mainly in change management. Nayar’s details lie in the way he compares the company with the family, deftly mixing anecdotes, management theory and intuitive observations as he moves from episodes to insights. I kept thinking of Chak De! India and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (both, incidentally written by former IT professional Jaideep Sahni) as I read through the book because Nayar’s romantic recollection of painful change has the elements of a ‘feel-good’ movie with strikingly comparable situations.
The fairy tale ending for HCL was the way it beat Infosys two years ago to acquire the British group Axon for £440 million — the largest overseas acquisition by an Indian IT group so far. If Nayar’s book talks about innovating to change the way an organisation inverts its traditional pyramid structure, Rishikesha T. Krishnan’s book, From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation, theorises from a more academic perspective as the professor of strategy at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, sets out to unveil the mystery of the Indian economy, where everyday makeshift innovation, ‘jugaad’, contrasts the historical absence of a culture that spawns heavy-duty patents and intellectual property.
Krishnan looks for the missing pieces in the game in which bodies like the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have sat on top of a state-managed culture, while private businesses have often been lacking in encouraging innovation. That could be in the past, because the Tata Nano and other new products are creating a bolder India. But Krishnan dwells well on the key linkages that could make the country as a whole innovative in spirit.
This involves aspects of public policy, finance, casual improvisation, small businesses, each of which matters in its own way. The demystification of innovation (process versus product, small changes versus big jumps) giving much needed clarity that could encourage entrepreneurs to gain confidence.
The hero’s tale of Nayar’s book and the big picture theory of Krishnan’s work have a common thread running through them. Both books illuminate a new kind of hunger and ambition in a country that increasingly believes in itself.