As a child, Raghunath Kale’s summer holidays were spent accompanying his father, an applied research professional, on his visits to various research labs, project sites, factories and manufacturing plants across India, seeing up close inventions and gadgets — a television that made the little boy jump out of his skin in awe, a telescope that had him wonderstruck, a computer that had him fascinated, magnifying glasses and more such things that whetted the child’s curiosity and also showed him a world beyond the theories he was taught at school. On these unique holiday ‘experiences’, he developed a lifelong passion for understanding the application of knowledge, of making knowledge work, as it were.
Indeed, the constant need to understand how things work (and how to make things work for people) and the pursuit of ‘systems’ that work behind things have ensured that his life and career are full of interesting stories of his various experiments with knowledge. Like the time he devised a simple but ingenious contraption that helped him keep track of time as he developed black and white photographs in the bathroom-cum-dark room of his childhood home. “It was simply applying some physics principles I had learnt at school that helped me come up with a pendulum to measure exact time.”
Years of tinkering about with gadgets to know them inside out have made him comfortable with handling various equipment and technology related to his field. Together with his remarkable ability to assume multiple roles, this makes him a man for all reasons: be it training his lens on a subject in the most effective way, editing film to get the right impact or composing a piece of music that perfectly complements the story, he is adept at all of it and continues to be as hands-on as he was the start of his career.
Fresh out of management school, Mr Kale chose to take up a job as a trainee with a Mumbai-based engineering company, responsible for communication and marketing support, as he was clear that he wanted a career in communication. Six months into the job, he was almost running the show as the head of the department. And before long he found himself wanting to set up his own advertising agency.
But he was once again restless to move on because the agency had such a great delegation of responsibilities that within a short span of time, he had little to do but oversee the business — and that, obviously, did not fit into his hands-on philosophy at work. “I told my team at the agency that I was ready to move on and learn new things and figure out “systems” that work in organisations. That’s when someone suggested if that was what I was so keen on, I should consider joining a company.”
An inside view
At Tata Honeywell, with its 150 business units and vast operations, Mr Kale had all the systems view he could have asked for. The early ’90s also saw the group take its first steps towards adopting quality and excellence, which called for an urgent need to communicate the message across the rank and file of the group. That’s how he moved on from Tata Honeywell to the Public Relations Department (as Group Corporate Affairs was then called) at Bombay House.
A firm believer in the power of communication to bring about change, Mr Kale went about implementing his brief with single-minded focus and conviction. What followed was a string of definitive steps in the direction of excellence: the first group-wide CEO meet, comprehensive studies on why the pursuit of excellence was important for Tata companies, the establishment of communication channels such as an intranet to drill down the message, and such other initiatives. “Those were interesting times and we had a systems view of the whole communication process. Eventually I found myself in very close proximity to witness and play a role in the Tata group transformation story, seeing the formation of the Brand Equity and Business Promotion (BEBP) programme and Tata Quality Management Services (TQMS),” he recalls. “BEBP was formalised in March 1998 and soon after I received a letter saying I was being moved to TQMS with retrospective effect from January 1. That’s how I joined TQMS!”
The Taj story
But he threw himself at the challenge with gusto, working smart and achieving more for less. Internal communication systems, processes and manuals were put in place, a robust intranet brought all employees across the globe onto a common forum, stunning corporate films were churned out by his multi-tasking small team. The result being that communication at the Taj is often referred to as two distinct eras: BRK (before Raghunath Kale) and ARK (after Raghunath Kale).
Looking back, he himself considers these as smaller challenges compared to what he had to face later. The most painful being the terror attacks on The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The shock, panic and pain caused by the tragedy posed unprecedented communication challenges. But there was a job to be done and the communication fabric that he had created along with his team, came handy during the time of crisis. Mr Kale (who was in London en route to New York) ensured that relevant and timely information was made available to employees. “We went through stages of communication: from understanding the panic to arresting it, then providing a sense of direction and finally echoing the hope and optimism expressed in Chairman Ratan Tata’s promise of building it ‘brick by brick’.”
What he also realised was that if he did not document the experience and memories attached to that incident, “we would lose them forever”. So he and a handpicked team collected 70 stories narrated by 130 employees and put them together into a document now stored into the Tata archives titled “Seventy Accounts of Defining Moments”; his team also compiled first-hand accounts of over 100 colleagues on video.
The recent redefining of the Taj brand architecture is the latest task on his plate. With the new architecture creating four different value and service propositions — from the most luxurious to the no-frill — he is engaging with how consistent communication will support building a culture and a brand personality for distinct brands internally. He acknowledges that it’s going to be a long haul.
Ever the multi-tasker, he has agreed to shoulder one more responsibility: that of guiding and building the Tata group’s excellence movement in North America. The journey just got more exciting. Lights, camera, action!