June 2015 | Christabelle Noronha

'Focus is on customer'

Natarajan Chandrasekaran — or N Chandra, as he is better known — is an avid marathoner and his responses to queries about the present and future of the company he heads reflects this facet of his personality. For the chief executive of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), the longer term is at least of as much significance as the turn around the corner, one leading to the other and the two combining to throw up opportunities and challenges.

Mr Chandrasekaran speaks here about the success that TCS has been so familiar with, the vast and talented workforce the company has at its command, the digital future that is upon us all, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

It has been yet another year of breakneck growth and success for TCS. What has kept the machine purring and are there any spheres where you think the company could have done better still?
There is no one simple reason for the success. We have had the right strategy and a strong focus on the customer, not just in terms of doing what the customer wants but also being organisationally enabled and having the structure to be customer centric. And we have executed very well.

Our focus has been on remaining close to the customer and staying relevant. Growth, as a result, has been holistic and broad based across markets and industries. In terms of our talent strength, we continue to attract great talent in the key markets we operate in. As an organisation we continue to become more diverse in terms of gender, nationality and age. We employ 100,000 women and we are proud about that.

We are positive and happy about where we are and we see great opportunities in digital transformation. We are investing significantly in digital capabilities, digital studios, digital recasting tool kits and automation platforms. Our customers are partnering us as they reimagine the future.

In terms of what we could have done better, there are many areas. To name two: we need to improve our presence in China and we also need to accelerate our growth in platforms.

You have constantly made the point that agility and speed in embracing change is the key for TCS. What factors have made it possible for the company to stay on its toes?
The organisational structure has to be agile. The moment we feel that we are not responsive enough, we work on our structure and tweak it. It’s all about teamwork. How can a group be structured better? When we meet customers, we are always thinking about how to get the best of TCS to make an impact on their situation. Similarly, when we are brainstorming internally we are thinking of which customer will benefit from our solution. It’s never about one person; it’s always about the team and playing well together.

Agility is not just about teams running faster; it’s equally about removing roadblocks. We have proved that we are able to run faster as small independent units, so the structure has been built to drive empowerment, agility and nimbleness at all levels. It’s also about letting people aspire and not putting artificial goals before them.

TCS would have hired more than 50,000 new hands by the end of this financial year. How tough is it to undertake such a task efficiently, and what does it take to handle a workforce in excess of 300,000?
Attaining scale has been part of the journey. Every milestone — of crossing 50,000, 100,000 and 200,000 associates — has required us to think about the future and put structures and systems in place. With the new digital technologies, operating with more than 300,000 people will be different. We also believe that it brings a huge advantage to our unmatched intellectual capital.

What is TCS getting right on innovation that other Indian enterprises, and the country as a whole, are struggling with?
Our research and innovation efforts are viewed through the customer lens because this enables us to understand our customers’ latent needs and deliver innovative solutions in a rapidly changing technology landscape. For a streamlined delivery of innovation to business we have built a ‘4E’ innovation framework: explore, enable, evangelise and exploit. Path-breaking ideas are ‘explored’ by research teams and those with market traction are ‘enabled’. The most promising of these are scaled up for business consumption or ‘exploit’ programmes. Customer feedback and market insights are constantly provided to our researchers by the ‘evangelise’ team.

The research and innovation team also looks at out-of-the-box ideas from outside TCS. We are working with some of the top universities in the world in areas such as genomics, quantitative finance, supply chains, information systems, software engineering, intelligent city frameworks and service design. We collaborate with start-up and emerging technology companies around the world through the ‘TCS co-innovation network’.

You have said that digital, which includes big data, cloud and customer experience, will be a multi-billion dollar business for TCS. Is that the frontier the company is most keen to conquer in the coming years? What about other avenues?
We live in a world where the default is digital. Therefore, the way to look at digital is that everything is on its way to evolving into a digital platform. Of course, the opportunity is in many billions of dollars, but there will be different components based on the combination of digital forces like big data analytics, cloud, social, customer experience and new composite technologies such as the ‘internet of things’, hyper-localisation and 3D printing. One thing is now clear: a digital strategy is not about building mobile apps or using the cloud; it’s about building new business models; it’s about changing the whole way of working as well as the products and services you offer. As companies go through their digital transformation journey, TCS is well positioned to help make them successful in the new digital economy.

How much of space is there in the TCS mindset for India and business prospects in the country?
For a long time India has been a market with great potential. It’s now time to realise that potential. Programmes like ‘Digital India’, ‘100 Smart Cities’ and ‘Make in India’ will give a fillip to technology spending in the Indian market. Over the years we have done some landmark technology-led projects in the country, but with the emergence of digital technologies India has a great opportunity to emerge as ‘smart’ nation by re-imagining governance.

Being a high performer means having to do better than before, year after year. What are the instruments used by the company to keep burnout at bay and a lid on the relentless pressure of unending expectations?
Companies that have strong opportunities need to always push themselves and continuously focus on higher levels of performance. To keep our employees driven and motivated, we have started programmes on health and wellness as well as community uplift. These platforms help people reenergise themselves and be active in their communities. They enable us to remain fresh and motivated in our jobs.

How good is TCS in sustainability in comparison with its global peers, and how would you rate its community uplift initiatives?
True to its Tata heritage and values, TCS is extremely committed to the welfare of the communities where it operates. Our aim is to impact through empowerment. The core areas for our corporate social responsibility programme are education, health and environment. The choice of education as a theme flows from TCS being in the knowledge domain. Similarly, attention to the cause of health acknowledges that this is a vital precondition for promoting social good. Concern for the environment is in line with our belief that this global cause demands our attention to ensure a sustainable and productive planet.

In India we have been working in the area of education in an attempt to help correct some of the biases that exist in society. We do this by, for example, conducting programmes to enhance the employability of youth from different social backgrounds. Skilling programmes such as ‘Udaan’, launched with the National Skills Development Council of India, and the ‘BPS Employability Programme’ are designed to promote employment for and the employability of rural youth. These programmes have helped train over 50,000 youngsters across the country in the last three years.

Since 2000 TCS has also been using its expertise in IT to conceptualise and develop modules that enable Indian adults to become functionally literate. Our ‘computer-based functional literacy’ software is available in nine Indian languages and three foreign languages: Northern Sotho (South Africa), Moore (West Africa) and Arabic. The programme has lifted more than 200,000 beneficiaries out of illiteracy since its inception, it has helped marginalised communities in remote areas experience the power of IT, and it has even been conducted in prisons in Hyderabad, New Delhi and Lucknow.

In the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia we are working with many stakeholders, including governments, schools and nonprofits, to help them attract more young students to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths — the STEM fields — where there is a talent shortage.

In North America, for instance, TCS is working to create a robust framework to promote awareness and interest in STEM through its flagship programme ‘goIT’, which includes career and awareness workshops and hands-on technology education to high school students. Since its inception in 2009, goIT has impacted some 7,000 students across 40 schools. Not only do TCS project teams work on these programmes, they also volunteer.

In addition, TCS has forged national-level partnerships with leading STEM organisations such as US 2020, Million Women Mentors and nPower. In the United Kingdom we engage with non-governmental organisations in schools, colleges and universities to increase awareness of technology education. Similar programmes are also underway in Canada and Australia.

The company has launched a unique volunteering platform called Purpose4Life, which is designed to channelise TCS’s corporate sustainability efforts and leverage our extensive geographic spread. This is a platform to motivate, enable and aggregate the efforts of TCSers in community projects, thereby scaling up our volunteering efforts in a structured and inclusive manner.

In the area of health, TCS uses its core competencies in technology to create sustainable solutions. We have chosen to work on cancer, cleft palate and the general rural community health, specifically with organisations such as Impact India Foundation, Operation Smile, Cancer Hospital, Chennai, and Tata Medical Centre, Kolkata. We have built systems and software that help these institutions impart a better quality of care for their patients and treat a higher number of patients.

We are supporting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan initiative to create sanitation facilities for girls in schools across India. Our objective is to promote better health through infrastructure and education about health and sanitation.