September 2006 | Cynthia Rodrigues

Grooming global managers

Tata Consultancy Services' Learning and Development centre prepares new recruits to take on the formidable challenges that lie ahead. A look at the fascinating programme, and how it helps shape young graduates into professionals

A casual observer, strolling in the sprawling 58,000-sq ft campus in Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram, would easily mistake it for a modern university complex. Bright young engineers attend seminars and workshops, work on computers in their classrooms, exchange notes with their colleagues in the audio-visual rooms, or listen intently to their lecturers.

The observer ould not be far off the mark, for the state-of-the-art training centre of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), set in an idyllic environment — where students can at times hear the roar of the waves, or even the chirping of the birds — is as good as the best university campus anywhere in the world.

TCS' Learning and Development (L&D) centre at Thiruvananthapuram

The Learning and Development (L&D) centre was established in 1998 by TCS, a company which invests about four per cent of its annual revenues in training its workforce. It has 18 classrooms, a library, an auditorium, a conference hall, discussion rooms, and about 300 personal computers connected to servers.

The centre has the capacity to train nearly 650 people, and has been a training ground to a very large number of TCS campus recruits since 1998. Whenever there is a larger influx of trainees due to an increased demand, the training is replicated at other locations.

Initial learning programme
New engineering recruits undergo a six-week 'initial learning programme' (ILP) at the Thiruvananthapuram facility operated by the company. The ILP aims to transform engineers from diverse disciplines into software professionals and to initiate them into the TCS way of life.

Says Dilip Kumar Mohapatra, global head, L&D, "TCS L&D activities are totally competency-based. Since the business is driven by competency, learning, which involves acquiring competency and bridging competency gaps, becomes a prime mover for the company's revenue. Our recruits come from higher learning institutions and we enable them to blossom into potential consultants during this programme."

In the past, ILP was conducted at the company's branches at different locations. While this served the training needs of the new entrants, there was no consistency in the way in which training was imparted. Dr F C Kohli, then deputy chairman, TCS, decided to conduct the training in one place.

K Lalitha Prasad, delivery head, Corporate Learning Centre, says, "Thiruvananthapuram was chosen because of the serenity of the surroundings at Technopark, which ensured there would be few distractions. The learning ambience too was good."

Dr Seenivasagam Neethi, program director of Global ILP, emphasises the importance of this induction training, "Because there is a gap between what academia produces and what is expected from recruits from the professional point of view. We have to create a process orientation, a discipline where they create software from an industry perspective. Also, while each project may require different skills, they need a common minimum programme that will equip them for any kind of project. They also have to know about TCS processes and the TCS work culture."

The ILP has been designed as a programme that can serve primarily engineering recruits, no matter which project they are allocated to in the future. There are plans now to offer further training in about five pre-identified streams with the desired focus on specific competencies.

Different strokes for different folks
The L&D centre also takes care of the training needs of people who join corporate group HR. These recruits undergo a programme called Pit Stop, which takes them through all TCS processes. Management graduates, hired for a sales career, go through a separate induction programme, which trains them on the TCS business, its practices and the business life cycle. There is another induction programme for people recruited for the BPO business.

At TCS' Learning and Development (L&D) centre

New recruits move to Thiruvananthapuram for a period of six weeks, during which they are groomed to shed their 'campus frivolousness' and assume their new roles as professionals and corporate citizens. For the freshers, this is a heady period during which they learn a new language, acquire professional skills and are taught to conduct themselves in different cultural settings.

For instance, the Life Skills segment of the curriculum enables participants to appreciate other cultures and handle survival situations. It includes tips on personal grooming, global business etiquette, table etiquette, oral and written communication and technical writing and presentation skills. Recruits are taught to cultivate interpersonal and team-playing skills in a multicultural environment.

Global careers
Says Dr Neethi, "Almost all our associates now opt for a global career. So we have to prepare them for that mindset. They should be sensitive about cultural differences."

The ILP is quite different from a traditional teaching programme. Lectures, though important, don't dominate the sessions. Role-plays and other mechanisms are used to make them interactive and lively. Communication includes a lot of listening drills and getting used to accents, besides experiences and anecdotes. In addition, the students study German, French or Japanese.

The challenge here lies not only in teaching Indian associates about the culture of other countries, but also in teaching non-Indian associates about the culture of India and other nations. The programme naturally needs to be customised for the audience.

For example, in the US there are differences in the way the curriculum is offered, depending on the location, either on the East or West coast. The programme takes into account the university that the associates have come from and the curriculum they have undergone. Interestingly, the medium of instruction is always English, even in non-English speaking countries. This is because of the trans-national nature of the English language in which the world does its business.

The soft skills element forms 30 per cent of ILP. The technical component comprises 50 per cent, while TCS orientation and processes form the remaining 20 per cent of the curriculum.

Resource persons
ILP has a permanent faculty of 30 members, who act as resource persons. Of these, 10 have a technical background, 17 are specialists in soft skills, and three are in administration.

Engineers working on different projects are also invited as visiting faculty. "The idea," says Lalitha Prasad, "is that the best people to teach TCS processes are those who have gone through the training themselves. Between projects, these people are brought to Thiruvananthapuram. They take up courses depending on their strengths and the kind of projects they have worked on. They share their experiences and talk about the technical side of the business."

The permanent faculty take up Life Skills, and also function as mentors to a batch. They deal with all kinds of issues that participants might need help with, including personal ones.

At the Learning and Development centre

The L&D group in TCS, however, does not consist of ILP alone. It also includes the Continuous Learning Programme (CLP), the Foreign Languages Initiative (FLi), Leadership Development Programmes (LDP) and the Academic Interface Programme. CLP caters to the entire workforce base of TCS. It has mainly two streams, technical and processes related, and domain-specific and functional. The LDP has several modules that are intended for leadership development across three levels and across several verticals.

"As part of their appraisals, associates are supposed to fill up a personal development plan," elaborates Prasad. The information is then consolidated and forms the basis for deciding what sort of courses are to be organised.

Even though the programme has been designed in a standard structure for participants from IT and non-IT backgrounds, the ILP team reviews it periodically. "Our programme managers handle need analysis and propose courses to fill any gaps based on the feedback received," explains Dr Neethi. "Customised programmes for individuals are not possible as the scale of training is a minimum of 10,000 recruits a year." The course content also evolves as the nature of the business changes.

Changes in the offing
There are other changes in the offing. As the number of people recruited overseas increases, it may be necessary to have induction spaces at overseas centres. Already TCS has four ILP centres in the US, China, Budapest and Uruguay. These centres have their own faculty, but the ILP team still looks after the curriculum and tracks the overall progress.

The Thiruvananthapuram centre cannot cater to the needs of all the new recruits. The team has, therefore, worked out alternative arrangements in cities like Bhubaneshwar, Coimbatore and Hyderabad.

The ILP group is currently awaiting the completion of Peepul Park, a huge complex of 3.5 lakh square feet adjoining the present centre, which, once ready, will cater to more than 2,000 recruits. The needs of ILP, however, cannot wait.

Since campuses alone cannot fulfil its needs, TCS also sources its people directly from the market. While nearly 10,000 raw recruits are trained by November, the last quarter of the year is reserved for training such direct recruits. Apart from this, experienced professionals are hired to fulfil specific needs. These lateral hires get some TCS orientation but they quickly move into project-specific acclimatisation, sometimes at the project location.

Clarifies Mohapatra, "We are now trying to get into a mode of co-creation of capability, which involves a rigorous process of consultation with the business units and the customers. L&D people actually sit with the business people to discuss the learning needs and jointly evolve content, design, delivery mechanism, etc."

Meanwhile, the ILP team has introduced Professional Value Add (PVA), a novel initiative to assist recruits in their desire to become good professionals. The team encourages recruits to add value to their batch by behaving professionally or engaging in an activity that helps others. Participants are given certain guidelines on how to behave.

Individual victories become group victories. And if an individual defaults, the group's synergy suffers. At the end of the training, the best batch is rewarded. The success of PVA has prompted the ILP team to consider introducing Learning Value Add, through which participants will be encouraged to share learning.

It is said that the man who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after. New entrants in TCS' growing family are learning the truth of these words, thanks to the efforts of the ILP.

Bonjour, Monsieur l'Ingénieur

The Foreign Languages Initiative (FLi), an L&D process, takes care of the language training needs of all TCS recruits. Currently it offers a choice of three languages, Japanese, German and French. Says Mohapatra, "In a company like TCS, which is so large and where allocations and deputations are so complex, it may sometimes be difficult to proactively identify a group going to Hungary or Germany well in advance and conduct focused training. This is taken care of by introducing FLi at the ILP stage."

"The courses offer a first-level sensitisation to the language," says Indubala Ashok, head, Global FLi. "They provoke curiosity about the language and culture, and enable participants to interact in basic survival situations. These include things like introducing oneself in a personal and professional setting, greeting rituals, fixing and cancelling appointments, issuing, accepting and refusing invitations, leave taking, apologising, etc."

After the course, participants can choose to enhance their learning at the Language Corners, which are extensions of the library, at the branches. These contain language materials, CDs and audio aids, dictionaries and culture videos, meant to reinforce what was taught in the ILP. Most branches also hold refresher classes.

Based on the business needs, associates receive further orientation at the project site. This includes more Life Skills related to that specific culture and advanced language learning.

As the numbers of associates going to a particular country increases, the knowledge is ploughed back into the language learning and life skills sessions. Ashok has introduced different mechanisms to reinforce language learning, including help with foreign language translations for TCS. She has also encouraged some campuses to introduce language teaching so that the chances of their students being recruited by TCS are improved.

One heartening initiative, true to the Tata spirit, has been the initiative to teach English to Tamil-speaking engineering students in rural Tamil Nadu. These students, who lacked English-speaking skills, were given a backgrounder course in the English language.

Later, some of the students enrolled in another course with the British Council and successfully got through the certification exam. Even though only a fraction of these students were finally recruited by TCS, it was a matter of pride for the company, and the FLi team in particular, that their career prospects improved significantly, thanks to the new language skills. The new skills will enhance the prospects of their being hired by other IT companies.

At ILP, foreign languages are being seen as an instrument to ensure cross-cultural sensitivity and tolerance, and respect for other cultures and people. The attitude will help enhance the TCS global culture.

Ultimately, as associates travel to foreign countries and seek to transform themselves and those around them, they will learn that the limits of their language are the limits of their world.