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Harvard taught Zensar’s Natarajan to think out of the box, plan strategically

Harvard taught Zensar’s Natarajan to think out of the box, plan strategically
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First Published: Tue, Feb 24 2009. 12 58 AM IST

Business benefits: The friends Natarajan made at Harvard have helped him get business worth $20 million.
Business benefits: The friends Natarajan made at Harvard have helped him get business worth $20 million.
Updated: Tue, Feb 24 2009. 12 58 AM IST
Pune: A 10-week stint at Harvard Business School in 2006 was enough to transform the management philosophy of Ganesh Natarajan, chief executive of the mid-size software services firm Zensar Technologies Ltd, who credits the time he spent in class there for the strides made by the company.
“I walked into Harvard Business School thinking I knew everything there was to know about running a business and in less than three days I was eating my words!” says Natarajan, who is also chairman of the industry body National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom).
Business benefits: The friends Natarajan made at Harvard have helped him get business worth $20 million.
Natarajan credits the strides made by his company in innovation and strategic planning to Michael Tushman, a professor of innovation at Harvard whom he calls his guru. “His class taught me to think strategically and out of the box and now that is the cornerstone of the way the company is run,” Natarajan says.
But more than that, says Natarajan, he made lifelong friends. In a class of 140, he is still in touch with 120, a list that includes one of the biggest investment bankers from Japan, the chairman of Bulgaria’s stock exchange, and the CEO of a Peruvian company who invited him to climb Machu Picchu in the Andes mountain range with him.
“That stint at Harvard has given me business worth $20 million (around Rs98 crore) in the last couple of years and it is still growing,” Natarajan says.
Natarajan will be off to New York soon to negotiate a deal with a prospective client—the tip-off came from one of his Harvard classmates and if it materializes, it is expected to be of a significant size at a time when demand is drying up in the face of recession in the West. His connections in Japan have also helped in adding to the company’s client list.
Also See G Natarajan’s Profile (PDF)
“In Japan, I have got two vociferous supporters of India’s IT capabilities in my former classmates from Harvard, and Zensar has snapped up business in this very difficult market,” he says.
Natarajan’s firm belief in innovation as one of the key drivers of business has resulted in Zensar implementing a number of projects that foster innovative thinking across all levels of the organization, including fresh hires who remain largely unseen and unknown in the corporate hierarchy.
At Zensar, project Vision Community is an annual exercise where employees are invited to throw up ideas on almost anything that will benefit the company—either in terms of business growth or in the way the company is run. The ideas are brainstormed and shortlisted; senior managers then mentor teams of ideators who are brought together to work out the details of the project, including budgets and timelines.
Last year’s theme of Operational Excellence, for instance, threw up the idea of Talent on Demand. This allows the company to cut to three months the eight- or nine-month period that it usually took for a fresh recruit from an engineering college to be ready to take on projects at Zensar, says Lavanya Jayaram, head of the corporate innovation group.
To implement the idea, Zensar took the training that new recruits got after joining the company to engineering colleges. It has tied up with 14 engineering colleges across Pune and Hyderabad, where it initially worked with teachers in the final year, training them on Zensar’s proprietary “business process modelling framework”. The colleges select around 20 third-year engineering students who are trained in this framework by the teachers. In addition, the students have access to a pool of middle managers who spend a few hours every week, remotely guiding them and helping them solve problems. A handful of these students are later recruited by Zensar.
“A group of engineering students under this project is currently building models to automate reward management programmes that can be deployed in banks and it is astonishing how much they can achieve with a little handholding. These students are ready to take ownership of projects as soon as they are recruited into the company,” Jayaram says.
The Vision Community project, meanwhile, has caught the eye of faculty in the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B), where it is being taught as a case study as part of the strategy course. Towards the end of last year, David Garvin, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, visited Zensar during a leadership development programme for the RPG group. During the visit, Garvin met a group of young Zensar employees who mingled with the senior management during a formal meeting.
“He was impressed with the way the youngsters rubbed shoulders with seniors, freely expressing ideas. And when he heard that they were part of the Vision Community project, he stayed back to learn more about it. This year Garvin plans to come back to spend time and prepare a case study which he wants to present in his class at Harvard,” says Jayaram.
The global economic slowdown and the resultant slowing in the technology business has had little impact on the company’s executive development programme, says Natarajan.
While CEOs in the RPG group, of which Zensar is a part, get to go to Harvard Business School, the next level, which Natarajan calls CEO aspirants, get three-eight-week stints at the London School of Business, IMD, Lausanne; and Stanford and Wharton in the US, which prepare them for general management. Senior management go to the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.
Natarajan says that every year the company spends Rs4.5-5 crore on external training and an equal amount on internal training programmes with in-house trainers. “This year, we are likely to spend a little more on training,” he says.
Natarajan is convinced that more executives and managers will be able to benefit from developments in the field of management if global names in executive education are able and willing to make their courses available in India.
“At $40,000 for a 10-week stint, not many executives can manage to go to Harvard for the course. The solution lies in these courses being offered here, but (in) my private conversations with prestigious schools, I can gauge that they are concerned about (the) dilution of their brand, among other things,” he says.
The company, meanwhile, is in the middle of a project that will soon have around 1,000 middle managers at Zensar getting lessons in ethics and values from Ranjan Das, professor, strategic management, IIM Calcutta. “We are in the process of working out exactly what the content of these lessons will be and how to deliver this to our employees. We will launch this programme in the coming fiscal,” says Natarajan.
Corporate governance standards and ethics are being debated in the industry after the Rs7,136 crore fraud at Satyam Computer Services Ltd.
Natarajan says the larger plan is to extend the values and ethics project to other Nasscom members to communicate the importance of transparency, values and ethics to employees. “This industry has a very high rate of youngsters entering the workforce and it is critical that we are able to engage with them on issues such as ethics, values and corporate governance.”
sudha.m@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Feb 24 2009. 12 58 AM IST