Tatas learn to innovate

14 Jun 2010 Sandeep Mehta

 I really enjoyed this article in the Business Standard on innovation management in India –Tatas learn to innovate:

While this is aimed to lift the inhibitions that failure can cause, TGIF realised that several employees are afraid to question conventional wisdom. Thus in the works is a series of seminars called Courage to be Curious and Question. “The Tata Management Training Centre is working on it. This is to tell people how to ask questions without being intrusive and offensive. We will do the pilot in the next two or three months,” says Gopalakrishnan. 

I guess this is an important problem in most corporate cultures – lack of questioning or open debate.  But I found India to have a tendency towards top-down management cultures.  I do believe that the culture is changing.  I talked with the CEO of a large Indian conglomerate and was very impressed with his approach to make sure decisions are as much bottom-up as top down.  It will be interesting to see how Tata achieves the change in culture…

Below was another impressive paragraph.  Tata attempted to define Innovation and baseline initial level of innovation before proceeding with change.

Before any effort to boost innovation, it is essential to know the state of innovation in the company. The treatment will emanate from this. After much deliberation, TGIF has adopted the Innometer developed by Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School. It measures the innovation process and culture on a scale of zero to five, and can be run on the whole company, a unit or even a small team. So far, about ten Tata Group companies have gone through it. The scores, of course, are confidential. “We are medium to upper-medium. We are not on top. It’s a 5-point scale, and I haven’t seen a 4.9 score. But I have seen scores between 3.6 and 4.3,” says Gopalakrishnan. 

This was another impressive paragraph.  I am not familiar with the Innometer, but I hope to check it out soon and post about it.  Unfortunately, Prof. Birkinshaw’s website does not appear to have any material on it.The only page with information I find is from Tata itself.

Another barrier to innovation was that the various Tata companies wouldn’t talk to each other. There was always scope for collaboration, but seldom was it exploited. This was because large group companies like Tata Steel, Tata Chemicals and Indian Hotels Company were run like independent fiefdoms. Ratan Tata, when he became chairman in the early 1990s, eased out powerful chieftains like Rusi Modi, Ajit Kerkar and Darbari Seth. A cohesive group identity was forged, but collaboration still did not happen. So, TGIF decided to set up InnoClusters — groups of companies that could work together in different areas. There are four such clusters: Nanotechnology, plastics & composites, information technology and water. At the moment, the biggest cluster, of ten companies, is around nanotechnology.

Finally, TGIF has setup an innovation market place and they seem to have a good plan for staged implementation…

TGIF has come out with a web-based open innovation initiative called InnoVerse. Employees can post a problem on the intranet, to which anybody can provide a solution. People can bet on ideas with the 1,000 karma points they get. If the idea is accepted, your pile of points goes up. More than that, this will show which solutions are popular. A pilot is being run at the moment. Can all 300,000-odd Tata Group employees access it? “Not all, but most can,” says Tata Quality Management Services Vice-president Ravi Arora. “You must remember that a large chunk of these employees (almost 40 per cent) are from TCS, who are all net-savvy.

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