Media Interviews

Let employees lead

05 July 2010 | Source: Business Standard
Business Standard

Conventional wisdom says that companies must always put the customer first. HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar, however, thinks otherwise.

He says that in any services business true value is created in the interface between the customer and the employee. So, by putting employees first, one can bring about fundamental changes in the way a company creates and delivers unique value for its customers and differentiates itself from its competitors. The following excerpts from Nayar’s new book, Employees First, Customers Second, talk about how employees can drive organic transformation within the organisation to produce better results.

One day during the winter of 2006 I caught my first glimpse of what the starfish HCL Technologies might look like. The CIO of a global customer was visiting our offices in Delhi to meet with his technical team. I made a point of stopping by to say hello a few minutes before the meeting got started.

“How is everything going?” I asked the CIO, who was working on his laptop in the conference room where the meeting would be held.

“Very well,” he said. “The team is handling everything to our satisfaction.”

“Fantastic,” I said. “Then, if we don’t need to discuss your current project, I’d like to tell you about a new service approach we’re working on.”

“Of course,” the CIO said. “Please.”

“It’s called Business-Aligned IT, or BAIT,” I said. “The goal is to much more closely align our services with our customers’ specific business processes. We’re working on a pilot right now, and we plan to roll out the full program to all our customers in the next few months.”

“I know all about BAIT,” the CIO said.

“What?” I said. I was taken aback. “How could you know about it? It’s an internal pilot. Only a couple of customers and a few employees know about it.”

“Your people told me about it. My HCLT team. How else could I know?”

“But we haven’t even rolled this out internally. Your team hasn’t been through the training yet,” I said.

“Well, not only does the team know about BAIT, they’ve already put it to work for us. They identified our three most critical business processes. Analyzed them. Determined how to align them with HCLT solutions. And estimated the amount of money we can save over a twelve-month, twenty-four-month, and thirty-six-month period.”

I did not know how to react. I was a little concerned that the team was using the BAIT process before it had been formally introduced throughout the company. On the other hand, I saw this as an example of the responsibility for change being transferred, without any involvement from me or the office of the CEO. It was happening organically.

At that moment, the team entered the room, ready for its scheduled meeting.

“I have just been telling Vineet about our work with the BAIT process,” the CIO said to Tarika, the team leader. She looked a little abashed, not sure how I would react.

“Yes,” I said. “And I am very interested to learn more about it.”

Tarika (name changed) went to the whiteboard and grabbed a marker. Over the next ten minutes, she and her colleagues, with occasional interjections from the CIO, sketched out flow charts of the customer’s three business processes, described the solutions in detail, and went through the cost savings analysis. I could not help but be infected by their enthusiasm and excitement.

What Tarika and her team had accomplished was pretty amazing, considering that our BAIT framework was not an official offering for us yet and, even more important, that these people were engineers, not business analysts. Their skills lay in implementing technology solutions, and they had little experience in dissecting strategic business processes and reducing cycle times. The last time I had checked in with the team, they had been working on a very straightforward application development.

When they finished their impromptu presentation, I asked, “So tell me how you made the shift from a technology solution to thinking more broadly about business strategy.”

Tarika told me that she had heard about the BAIT pilot through one of her colleagues in a different area of the company. He had described it to her, and she thought it could be very helpful to the CIO’s company. However, the HCLT consultants who were expert at BAIT were all too busy with the pilot project to help Tarika and her team. And besides, she knew that the customer didn’t have any extra budget to pay for a consultant.

“So,” Tarika explained, “I said to the team, ‘Let’s see if we can learn this on our own.’ And everybody agreed to try.” Over the next three months, in off moments and after regular business hours, the team members educated themselves and gained a much better understanding of the use of IT in driving change in core business processes. Once they thought they had sufficient knowledge, they asked an HCLT business consultant to do a workshop for them so that they could learn more about how to use the BAIT methods and tools.

“Then we applied the framework to the information we had gathered about our customer’s business processes,” Tarika said, “and made our recommendations in a business transformation report.” She held up a thick document. “In it we describe what changes we would implement and how they could save several millions of dollars each year.”

I shook my head. “This is fantastic work,” I replied.

“Especially since you have done it on your own time with almost no help from the formal organization or your managers.”

Tarika and the team members smiled and tried to look as if it were no big deal.

When I left the office that day, I kept thinking about Tarika and her technical team. They had made a fundamental shift in the way they worked and how they added value for the customer without being directed to do so by me or any superior. The responsibility for change had been transferred, almost unconsciously, because of all of the efforts that had come before.

I thought: this is how EFCS [Employees First, Customers Second] can become adaptable and sustainable as HCLT grows. Men and women, like the members of this technical team, will take on the responsibility for change. They will see the CEO differently, not as the source of all change but as a kind of stimulator and enabler of change.

How could I recast the role of the CEO to make that clear to the entire organization acheter cialis en ligne and to accelerate the transfer of responsibility for change to HCLT employees around the world?

Toward self-direction
I have a very personal and long-standing argument with hierarchy. Perhaps that is why I am so intent on rethinking the role of the CEO and getting others to share the responsibility for the work of the company.

I was fortunate that the teachers in my school operated in the role of enablers of learning. They wanted to transfer the control of our education to the students, as early in our lives as possible. They did not think of themselves as CEOs of the classroom.

In our family, there wasn’t much hierarchy either. My father died young, when I was a teenager. So the traditional command-and-control structure that he might have followed simply did not exist in our household.

Over the years, I have watched and studied other institutions, from philanthropic organizations to religious groups, searching for clues and models that might be applied to business. I have concluded that when people feel passion and responsibility for what they do, not only can they transform a company, they can also transform themselves.

Once we transfer the ownership of our collective problems from the supposedly all-powerful CEO to the employees, people want to transform and deal with their professional and personal lives in a very different way than they ever did before. Suddenly, they see the company as their own enterprise. They start thinking like entrepreneurs. Their energy quotient leaps up. And when that happens with a critical mass of employees (usually, 5 or 10 per cent is all you need) throughout the company, it creates a kind of fusion — a coming together of the human particles in the corporate molecule that releases a massive amount of energy.

So, the ultimate goal of all of the initiatives I have described in this chapter goes beyond the recasting of the role of the CEO; it is the creation of a self-governing, self-organizing company. We are not there yet at HCLT. Give us a few more droplets and a little more time.

Many managers within our organization have become flag wavers for our efforts to shift responsibility for change away from the office of the CEO and for the quest toward self-governance. “But it’s not always the easiest way to get things done,” they have often admitted to me. “Then again, the easiest way usually isn’t as much fun.”

Indeed, I have seen people flounder as they struggle to make decisions and take responsibility for themselves and for their organizational units. I myself have stumbled many times. We have seen as many failures as we have successes. At many forums, I have debated the issues that surround the transference of responsibility to employees as well as the entire EFCS concept. Sometimes I have been unable to do full justice to our ideas and have probably failed to convince some of those who were engaged in the conversation.

Nonetheless, we have continued to successfully walk the path of Employees First, Customers Second. What has made it possible, and what has personally given me the strength to continue, is the faith and passion of employees throughout the HCLT organization — those people who are the essential droplets of change — who put so much of their minds and hearts into our company and its transformation.

Without them, we would long ago have slid down the hillside and found ourselves looking up at a mountain too high for us to climb.