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Innovation on the edge: David in a world of Goliaths

Zafar Anjum | Feb. 27, 2015
“We are like David in a world of Goliaths,” says Tri Pham, the Chief Strategy Office of Tata Communications, in this exclusive interview with CIO Asia’s Online Editor Zafar Anjum. He explains how his company is encouraging the culture of innovation and fostering a startup mindset among its 8,000 employees across the globe to achieve competitive edge in a field dominated by the big boys like AT&T, Verizon and BT

The 8,000-people startup

I asked Pham how he drove innovation in a vast MNC such as Tata Communications. "Tata Communication is an 8,000-people startup," he said, emphasising the management's commitment to developing a culture of innovation at the communications company.

How exactly does he foster a culture of innovation, I asked him. "One of the things that we do is to organise contests to attract new ideas," he said. Once a year, Tata Communications invite all employees to submit their ideas that could potentially help generate million-dollar revenues over the next few years. Participants are asked to present their ideas to senior management responsible for identifying the top five brightest and most innovative ideas and encourage their owners to develop them further. To help the top contestants progress, the company would bring in outsiders to help them gain the right perspectives and obtain information to help them build a business model.

"Then we bring them all to San Francisco where we put them to the final contest," he said. "We have not only managers but we also have private equity guys coming from the Silicon Valley to be part of the judging process. While they are there, we also send them on visits to other innovative companies to see what they are doing, places like Google X Lab and Tesla laboratories."

The whole idea generation programme is methodical and extensive. Initially, about 100 to 150 ideas are submitted in a cycle by teams of two to three employees each. These ideas are narrowed down to 20 and then to between five and seven through an in-house selection process. Those who are finally selected are flown to San Francisco for their final presentations in front of a board. Out of those, the company finally chooses one or two ideas. In this funnelling process which lasts two to three months, the participants get to refine their ideas as they progress.

This internal idea generation is open to all the 8,000 employees of Tata Communications and this "experiment" has been going on for a year and a half now. "We have done three of these contests and each year we chose two winning teams," he said. "We have a team managing and incubating these projects. Hopefully some of these will end up being very successful businesses or if it is different enough it could be spun off as a separate business unit. For example, they are doing an M2M project in India but instead of using GSM type technology, we are using ultra narrow bands. It's a different spectrum, much more energy efficient, much less expensive."

According to Pham, this process gives the participants "the feel of a startup." But it is a mixed experience. "Because if they fail, it is not the end of the road for them," he said. "They are going to come back to their jobs. The fact that they have gone through this experience is beneficial to us in the long-term."


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