July 2015 | Christabelle Noronha

A business of gender

In January 2014, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) launched a first-of-its-kind ‘all-women business process services’ (BPS) centre in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. The centre is expected to create jobs for up to 3,000 women and will initially serve ‘anchor clients’ Saudi Aramco and General Electric (GE). Michele Lemmens, BPS centre director, Saudi Arabia, TCS, explains the different facets of the operation: the idea behind it, the challenges faced by the team, the collaboration with clients, and more.

What was the idea behind setting up the all-women BPS centre in Riyadh? How challenging was it?
As part of Saudi Arabia’s focus on developing a diversified economy, the government has invested significantly in education, especially for women. Taking this to the next stage demands the creation of employment opportunities for women, which in turn will develop a more skilled workforce. In July 2013, GE and Saudi Aramco selected TCS to set up and launch the all-women BPS centre in Saudi Arabia — TCS and GE, respectively, own 76 and 24 percent equity in it — to initially serve Saudi Aramco and GE as anchor clients.

The depth and breadth of TCS’s experience in setting up new delivery centres globally and also the knowledge of operating in the region for 13 years were invaluable. One of the positive outcomes has been the sourcing of talent. We found that Riyadh has a great pool of qualified women keen to take up the roles and careers we were able to offer. There were challenges, of course, and one of these was managing growth. Our initial business plan outlined 100 contracted associates each from GE and Saudi Aramco, but at the end of the first year we had in excess of 450. This was a good problem to have, but it did mean a lot of work around the number of transitions and trainings required.

What have been the highlights?
My background is in transformation and change; complexity is a given in that equation. But this has been one of the most rewarding and challenging things I have ever done. Our team has put in tremendous efforts to get us to the stage we are at. The ongoing contributions and support of management across all the three organisations involved have been vital in ensuring our success.

The memories that stand out for me have to do with seeing the progress of our associates and hearing about their ambitions. We are creating something unique that not only makes business sense and offers personal growth, but also adds a social angle that is exceptional.

What are the expectations from such a centre? How do you see it helping Saudi businesses?
We believe the model is unique not just to Saudi Arabia; we believe it is a first-of-its-kind venture in the world. The centre takes advantage of an untapped talent pool of women while also establishing a sustainable new industry. It supports Saudi Arabia’s diversification and localisation strategy and also enables businesses in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries to improve their operating efficiencies. Alongside, we want to create 3,000 skilled jobs for Saudi women.

This venture has always been about much more than business. The model provides qualified Saudi women an opportunity to realise their potential while working in a competitive and fair environment, and, by doing this, effects changes in perceptions of the family. The environment is such that it provides women with the chance to excel and grow while not compromising on their cultural and traditional beliefs.

The centre delivers services in finance and accounting, human resources, supply chain management, information technology and enterprise data management. These services were originally planned to be delivered only in Saudi Arabia and a few countries of the region, but are now being delivered globally for GE. Further growth has been evidenced with a major Saudi telecommunications company joining GE and Saudi Aramco in November 2014 in supporting the growth of the centre.

What are the challenges of operating an all-women centre in Saudi Arabia?
Understanding employment processes, laws, and the talent base in the region was the first step towards establishing the centre. The norms governing women’s employment had to be considered so as to be able to set up a business that would adhere to legal as well as cultural requirements. For example, the constraint of not being able to include photographs on identification cards was addressed by adopting a biometric system of access control.

The women-only setup plays a critical role in the success of the centre; many of our associates would not be able to work in a mixed environment. This is an important distinction for the families of our associates. Also, some of the nuances of operating in Saudi Arabia include restricted working hours, mothers and fathers being heavily involved in the decision to take up the job, as well as managing certainty of delivery during religious holiday breaks.

How many employees did you start with and what is the strength currently? How many jobs will the centre create down the line?
Three of us from TCS arrived in Riyadh in September 2013 to kick things off. In January 20104, we employed the first lot of 20 Saudi women. The centre currently has 450 associates, with around 350 of these being Saudi women. The immediate target we have is 3,000 women, but I’m sure that number will get much bigger.

What sort of training are the women provided with?
Given the nascent stage that women’s employment in Saudi Arabia is at, availability of skilled resources was a known challenge. We adopted a model of hiring fresh local talent with little or no experience and investing significantly in training them. Our associates commence with an initial learning programme that introduces them to a corporate working environment and focuses on developing their communication, teaming and solution skills. They then undergo specific domain training, followed by role-based training to seed the required skills. Since commencement we have run 14 ‘initial learning programmes’ to induct and coach new associates and we have delivered more than 97,000 hours worth of training.

What are the qualification criteria for those who want to apply?
Initially the centre focused on employing university graduates to ensure successful delivery of the services being offered. We also have a fair number of associates who are postgraduates and others who have studied abroad. Good command of written and spoken English is also a prerequisite.

Tell us about the outlook of the women working at the centre.
There are a couple of factors that have enabled us to attract talented women to the centre: the nature of it being a women’s-only business and the in-depth training associates receive before starting on the job. Our associates understand that the environment allows them to develop their skills based on potential and aspirations, without the constraints and competition of a mixed environment. Our goal is to have Saudi Arabian women progressively become part of the leadership team at the centre. In this way we can work together to develop and grow the organisation and the business.

How does the collaboration with GE and Saudi Aramco work to your advantage? What role does Saudi Aramco play, apart from being an anchor client?
Integral to the success of the venture has been the collaboration among the three parties involved. This is a fantastic opportunity for all three organisations to assist one another in realising our respective strategic goals. For Saudi Aramco this opportunity is, more than anything else, about promoting employment of women in Saudi Arabia.

What is the significance of this centre to TCS?
With this new venture TCS has established a platform to deliver business growth in the region, one that is aligned to our ‘new growth markets’ business strategy. The venture also helps realise the TCS vision of collaborating with key partners in establishing the BPS industry in Saudi Arabia and promoting the employability of the country’s women. Finally, this deepens our ties with one of TCS’s longest standing customers, and now partner, GE, which is fully committed to this venture.

This initiative also strengthens TCS’s corporate social responsibility foundation by encouraging and enabling women to make a greater contribution to the Saudi workforce and economy. The centre will help young women to achieve their potential and will influence the lives of current and future generations of women in Saudi Arabia.

This article is a part of the special report on the Tata group's operations in the Middle East and North Africa region in the July 2015 issue of Tata Review:
Tata Sons: An enriching relationship
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