Lessons from the House of Tata on Technology and Innovation

There are increasing signs of breakthroughs that could provide disproportionate returns to Tata companies.

One question that I am asked frequently by companies that have launched innovation programmes is: “How do we sustain interest and commitment from employees across the company?” In other words, how do we keep up the momentum?

After attending the final presentations and awards ceremony of Tata Innovista 2015 recently, I realized the Tata group has found an answer.

This year, Tata Innovista, a “celebration of creation and innovation within the group”, had more than 2,700 teams participating from 65 companies across 18 countries. Thirty thousand people have participated in Innovista since it was started a decade ago. I don’t know where to look for comparative statistics, but it’s reasonable to assume that this is one of the largest corporate innovation events in the world.

Innovista is just one of the initiatives of the Tata Group Innovation Forum (TGIF), a group of CXOs across the Tata group that evangelizes innovation. Innoverse, another TGIF initiative, is a crowd-sourcing platform; 16 Tata companies are active participants; 685 problems were posted last year resulting in 45,000 ideas, 513,000 conversations and 2,400 ideas taken forward.

While the TGIF itself meets as per a calendar, it has a team working behind the scenes to keep up the momentum of these initiatives. This team is housed in group-wide Centres of Excellence like Tata Quality Management Services and Tata Management Training Centre.

Ratan Tata provided the initial impetus for all these initiatives. He set an example for the group through his close involvement with the development of the Nano, and other innovations like the Tata Swach and Ginger hotels. But his lasting influence may well be the creation of the TGIF under the leadership of Tata Sons Director R. Gopalakrishnan with the mandate of building an innovation culture in the group.

With Ratan Tata’s support in the background, Gopal has been the force behind TGIF. At this year’s Innovista, he was felicitated on the completion of 10 years of TGIF. In Gopal, we have the answer to the question I raised at the outset—a committed executive sponsor with an effective corporate support structure can make all the difference.

Gopal’s Takeaways

Gopal, who has passionately backed innovation activities over the last decade, had some interesting takeaways to share.

The first was to revel in stories, as these are the best ways to share the hope and meaning of human progress. I couldn’t agree more. This is why, inspired by the Heath brothers Chip and Dan, Vinay Dabholkar and I centred our book 8 Steps to Innovation: Going from Jugaad to Excellence (HarperCollins, 2013) around stories. Stories, and even myths at times, play a crucial role in overcoming the fear of failure, one of the biggest obstacles to innovation. One of the world’s most innovative companies, 3M, does this wonderfully well when it encourages storytelling about the hundreds of inventors within the company who went on to succeed at last in spite of failing many times on the way.

Revel in stories, as these are the best ways to share the hope and meaning of human progress.

The second was to focus on the innovation and not the innovator. Gopal gave the example of Tim Berners-Lee, considered one of the fathers of the World Wide Web (WWW), who has steadfastly refused to hog credit for the WWW, always insisting that many different people played a role. If Gopal was trying to point out that very few innovations are the outcome of a single person’s effort, it’s difficult to disagree with him. But, stories usually centre around individuals and not teams, so I wonder how to reconcile this insight with the first one.

Focus on the innovation and not the innovator

Gopal’s third point was that an idea is no innovation. In fact, according to Gopal, it is the struggle to nurture and deliver the idea that is innovation. This point again has strong resonance with what we have seen—the road to developing an idea, seeing whether it works, refining it, combining it with others, making the process as robust as possible and finally delivering value or benefit is at the heart of innovation. This is an important lesson for youngsters, in particular, who tend to find the creative process of ideation far more exciting than the rocky road to execution.

It is the struggle to nurture and deliver the idea that is innovation.

“Rely on the compass, not on the map” was Gopal’s final point. If you think about this carefully, you’ll see it’s quite profound. Innovation tends to be an evolutionary process, with many twists and turns. Traversing existing roads will result only in incremental change. Bigger impact will need trying out the road not taken, but you have to get the directionality right. This last point is particularly salient because, in the corporate context, an innovation that lacks alignment with corporate strategy is unlikely to reach fruition. This lesson seems to have been absorbed well in the Tata companies—I found a close fit between innovation and strategy in most of the innovations I saw.

Rely on the compass, not on the map

What’s Next?

Ever since open source software became successful, the social “bazaar” has emerged as an alternative to the corporate “cathedral” as far as innovation is concerned. Coupled with the explosion of information, and the wide dispersion of creative efforts across the globe, this has induced companies to open up their innovation processes. Some Tata companies have embraced this idea with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), for example, having pursued the concept of a Co-Innovation Network (COIN). Tata Innoverse that I mentioned earlier already provides one possible platform for collaboration between group companies.

But, the strength of a group like the Tatas lies in the diversity of competencies and markets that it encompasses. Foreigners who visit India are struck by this even if we take it for granted. Some past Tata innovations—most notably the Tata Swach water filter—have demonstrated the power of such collaboration.

A big challenge is how to encourage collaboration between independently managed companies with their own stakeholder groups. Tata Chairman Cyrus Mistry referred to the importance of such collaboration in his concluding remarks. But my own sense is that the key to unleashing the next wave of innovation in the Tata group may lie in fostering such collaboration not only with other group companies but with the wider world.

Tata companies are on the cusp of a major jump in innovation. Earlier, “invisible” innovations in processes resulting in efficiency improvements were the mainstay of innovation. But there are increasing signs of technological breakthroughs that could provide disproportionate returns to Tata companies. Two big acquisitions that Ratan Tata made—Corus (now Tata Steel Europe) and Jaguar Land Rover—already possess the capability for such technological innovation. If they can be harnessed as role  models and mentors, the Tatas may well be able to set benchmarks for technological innovation just as they did for employee welfare a hundred years ago.

This article was written for FoundingFuel.

Building a great product takes time and happens over a number of years…

Getting patented has immense aspirational value for product developers, but it is a long drawn process and takes normally anything between 5-8 years. Our story this time is about how a bunch of very intelligent individuals, who got together to build a product and have it patented within two years.  If it is aspirational to have a patent against one’s name, it is certainly inspirational, the time frame in which it was achieved.

We got talking to Anand, who is based out of Bangalore, and was only 15-days old at Vigyanlabs  handling the marketing activities there. The passion with which he spoke, belied his short stint and seemed as if he had spent his entire lifetime in the organisation. Shortly thereafter, we were joined by Srini & Vatsa, the founders of Vigyanlabs. Hugely experienced, cumulatively they both have 50 + years (Vatsa 30 + & Srini more than 20) of building products and software architecture in very large organisations like HP, IBM & Hughes Network Systems.  Both had held senior positions in HP, where Vatsa was the Chief architect, and with Srini later, went on to hold Senior Technical Positons at Dell-Perot, just before starting Vigyanlabs. Vatsa had also worked in Processor Systems India, where he did some very innovative and cutting-edge work. These would prove to be building blocks, someday. A very potent combination indeed, which helped file 9 Patents. Slowly but surely the spirit of building an Indian product was taking shape.

Early days:

After  calling it quits with their present employers, the duo spent two weeks in just defining Vision & Mission of the company that they would build, and establishing short-term & long-term goals. This brainstorming session helped them in creating the DNA : It was going to be an innovative Science & Technology Organisation; it would focus on green technology and social responsibility to be a key driver. All this would be achieved by harnessing the power of teamwork. The customer and his needs would be primary to all business concerns. A deep-dive helped identify the three major problems that the world was facing: Food, Environment & Energy. The seeds were sown – it would be a Science & Technology company where IT would play a vital role.

Vigyanlabs would primarily focus on : Consulting, Architecture & Design and aim to solve problems related to food, environment & energy.   The name itself was very Indian and spoke of the future, The “Science” of it, being right here. Vigyan.


After much study and prior experience, the team soon identified a “hole” in the market and a plausible approach to address the same. Efficient power management was still not very popular in India. The existing solutions were not upto the mark and this was evident, the way laptops consumed power. The battery would get heated and run out sooner than desired, putting user at a disadvantage. The higher income group consumed a lot of power through a freakish number of gadgets and electronic devices. The wastage was huge and put immense pressure on the environment as a whole.  This was early 2009, and out of an Incubation Centre in Mysore, was born the idea which took shape and one day be the product IPMPlus.

The concept that was used to build this product had widespread usage and would be extended to other industries as well. In the US markets, patents were filed for something similar, but not so India. It was built around power consumption and its optimization in laptops – all this without causing any obstruction in the normal flow of work.  Intelligent Power Management Plus was about maintaining user experience.   

The Passion:

For Srini and Vatsa, it was always about building an Indian product which aimed at fulfilling the vision and mission of the company. They found obvious role models in the likes of Ratan Tata and Sir M. Visvesvaraya, who is also a Bharat Ratna awardee – the doyens of innovative thinking in this country.  

Wow Moments:

The Beta version itself helped a customer save 40% on energy cost and the need to come out with a marketable version was even more palpable. Within two years of filing for patents, the founders  got it done, a record of some sorts, which normally takes anything upto 5 years or even more.

Marketing Outreach & Strategy:

The stretch has been to create a global footprint and get the product onto the AppStores so it can be used with Android, Apple and Windows applications. The other initiative, is integrating with device OEMs and capture a major chunk of the market.  On the Enterprise segment, tablets and servers opened a whole new world of opportunity. Just to give an example of how big the problem really is, the amount of power consumption in large organisations is enough to even run a small town, cited in a recent NYT article. Large businesses have 50 – 100 data centres and do not have many tools which harness power optimisation.

Key Learning:

Building a great product takes time and happens over a number of years. The gestation period is long and during this time patience and sustainability is what really matters. Unlike the Valley, the market in India is not so matured and there is an initial resistance to try out Indian products. Somehow product developers should aim to break that.  Finally good products come through good people – who are technically sound, who you can trust and who have the business acumen too.