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Updated: November 4, 2010 17:26 IST

Innovations through employee engagement

D. Murali
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Title: Build it with them to Boost Growth, Productivity, and Profits. The Power of Co-Creation. Author: Venkat Ramasamy
Special Arrangement Title: Build it with them to Boost Growth, Productivity, and Profits. The Power of Co-Creation. Author: Venkat Ramasamy

As enterprises embrace the concept of engaging their employees through co-creative organisational processes, they begin to see the positive effects of reduced dependence on top-down processes, write Venkat Ramaswamy and Francis Gouillart in ‘The Power of Co-Creation’ (Free Press). They find HCL to be an example of such a transformation, built around the ‘employees first, customers second’ (EFCS) model.

The HCL story

“Founded in 1976 by Shiv Nadar, widely regarded as an industry visionary and pioneer, HCL is one of only three computer hardware companies of the 1970s that still exist today, along with IBM and Apple,” the narrative begins. “But HCL has had its difficulties. In the 1990s, HCL slipped behind, as it delayed getting into software and services…”

A turning point was the reorganisation of the company, in the late 1990s, into two components, viz. the India-facing HCL Infosystems, a company focused on hardware and software integration, and HCL Technologies, a global IT services company, the authors recount. Another turning point was the appointment at the helm, of Vineet Nayar, who believed that in order to thrive, the company needed to improve the way it interacted with customers, and that this would best begin with employees first.

“He formulated a multipronged turnaround strategy, with the rejuvenation of the job experience and empowerment of employees at its core… He viewed his organisation as ‘pivoting’ around the interactions that his employees have with his customers – the ‘zone of value’ for the people-intensive service business…”

Continuous transformation

While the inverted management pyramid, of starting with frontline employees, may seem contrary to conventional wisdom, what Nayar works at is ‘the co-creation of employee experiences,’ so essential to ‘sustaining the continuous transformation of large, high-turnover services organisations,’ the authors explain.

Apart from initiatives such as ‘Mirror, Mirror’ (inviting employees to candidly discuss their daily experiences in the organisation), ‘Young Sparks’ (a communications and marketing team of about thirty young people), and the EFCS brand mantra, Nayar launched U&I (for You the Employee, and I the CEO), an intranet-based platform to engage in open dialogue with his employees and begin engendering ‘trust, transparency, and management accountability.’

Any employee can log into the intranet and pose a question to Nayar that can be read by everyone in the company, the book notes. “This engagement platform opened the floodgates. Questions poured in, about 400 per month. Nayar personally responded to many of them, emailing his thoughts and inviting responses to be publicly posted. In addition, weekly polls gave a sense of how employees felt about various issues.”

Empowerment, transparency

What also find mention in the book are Nayar’s blog (where he shares his strategic thoughts with the entire organisation), videoconferencing (to frequently engage in dialogues with employees), and ‘Directions’ (live, town hall-style meetings with employees). “The presence of these multiple engagement platforms created what Nayar refers to as a ‘common language and shared vision and actions across the company.’ Soon he was beginning to change how employees experienced the company and how they got work done.”

A daring initiative discussed in the book is the ‘Smart Services Desk,’ a ticket-based system that allows employees to flag anything they think requires action in the company (from ‘my seat is not working’ to ‘my compensation is off-kilter’ to ‘issues with my boss’), and importantly these tickets can be ‘closed’ only by the employees themselves, who can watch what actions are being taken for resolution. The result was not only better transparency but also employee empowerment.

Cultural transformations such as EFCS are long-term processes, instruct Ramaswamy and Gouillart. Not surprisingly, therefore, HCL continues to come up with newer programmes. One learns, for instance, about ‘Unstructure,’ a new engagement platform to spark the creativity of ‘intrapreneurs’ within HCL by connecting them with mentors from beyond the walls of the organisation.

“These mentors, who include global thought leaders, engage with HCL employees on topics such as… ‘How to cater to the needs and dynamics of Gen Y?’ and ‘How can social technologies energise the business ecosystem.’” Such discussions, the authors observe, recognise that the employees collectively are the main source of the company’s future intellectual capital.

Innovation in Infosys

The story of how Subu Goparaju – the vice president and head of SETLabs (Software Engineering Technology Labs), the internal R&D arm of Infosys – enabled innovation co-creation is a must-read section in the book.

“Several clients had approached Infosys seeking help to identify and pursue new innovation opportunities and to augment the capabilities of their organisations to keep up with the breakneck pace of IT change. Kris Gopalakrishnan, the current CEO of Infosys who was then COO, encouraged SETLabs to engage the sales and delivery constituencies within Infosys on the topic of co-creation.”

To focus specifically on co-creation, Goparaju set up an Innovation Lab within SETLabs, with a team that immersed itself in research, practices, and strategies for the purpose. The team created ‘a model for innovation co-creation that shifts the core tasks of brainstorming and problem-solving outward: beyond individual proposals to co-creative interactions, beyond features and processes to engagement experiences, and beyond the networks of a particular firm to a wider community of co-creation.’

Five pillars

The authors describe the model as having ‘five key pillars,’ as follows:

•Access to contextual knowledge and information (because next-generation innovations now occur predominantly at the intersection of different cultures, domains, and technologies)

•Collaborative network of experts (because diverse competencies do not often reside within a single department or organisation).

•Integrated methodologies and tools (for idea generation, simulation, and evaluation of innovations).

•Engaging events and experiences (in the form of mind-stretching exercises for divergent thinking, experimentation, learning and enhancing creativity, and making the innovation experience exciting and fun).

•Integrated and co-creative technology platform (providing various tools for visualisation and communication to enable the company and its clients to co-create valuable experiences with their customers and stakeholders).

Ideas for a bank

To illustrate how the approach worked in practice, the book cites the case of ‘a large banking organisation in North America that sought to enhance its innovation capabilities during the 2008 downturn.’ Central to the exercise were ‘co-creation workouts’ that Infosys set up, between the client account teams and partners, and between consultants and the client’s internal stakeholders.

“As innovative ideas were generated, Infosys helped all parties visualise the experience of new, cutting-edge technologies and services (e.g., mobile banking services). More than a hundred new ideas were generated in this fashion, cutting across the experiences of opening an account, transactions, funds transfer, and small business services, in some cases enabling new types of co-creative experiences for bank customers.”

For example, one idea was about an easy-to-understand yet comprehensive representation of an individual’s financial health through an indicator that constantly monitors banking transactions and contains alerts about certain events (such as hitting a specific balance), the authors inform. “For B2B customers, a strategic idea was to enhance their ability to offer new services to existing clients: for example, helping business consultants build cost statements and invoices with data that a client provided them.”

As the authors highlight, what is more important than the fact that these ideas are interesting is the achievement of ‘innovation co-creation capability’ through an engagement platform which enabled the realisation of value from ideas emerging from the collaborative process.

Packed with insightful cases.

**

Tailpiece

“We have provided our employees with spherical cubicles to facilitate a 360-degree view, and…”

“Large screens, too?”

“Of course, to see the big picture!”

**

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Keywords: HCLInfosys

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