The conversational technologist3 min read . Updated: 14 Mar 2010, 08:44 PM IST
The conversational technologist
The conversational technologist
A 50-inch flat-screen TV dominates a wall in the office of N. Chandrasekaran (or Chandra, as he is popularly known), the CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). “There is not a single day that I don’t use it to videoconference with colleagues," Chandrasekaran says.
Digital nomads (such as myself) are knowledge workers who have shed the confines of a Dilbert-esque cubicle to work from home, according to current management lexicon. By welding individual skills with modern wireless gadgetry, nomads can carve a professional existence out of their home, garden, automobile, or anywhere else. Neo-nomads, the cutting edge of this breed, even use holographic conference technology to communicate with the outside world.
Until recently, I could not imagine that such “nomads" could be considered employable by corporate stalwarts, such as the Rs27,813 crore (by revenue) TCS, which I felt was firmly anchored in bricks-and-mortar office blocks, with 149,000 employees in 42 countries around the globe.
Chandrasekaran is clearly open to injecting a dose of nomadism into pyramidal hierarchy.
His office, on the second floor of a stone-clad, 1920s building in Mumbai’s historic Fort district, is a curious blend of classic and cutting edge. Maroon leather sofas, a round marble-topped meeting table and an L-shaped wooden presidential desk reveal the Tata group’s pre-independence pedigree. Tall windows overlook Azad Maidan, where an afternoon game of cricket is in progress. The soporific country-club atmosphere is, however, quashed by a profusion of gadgets on the credenza adjoining his desk and the mammoth flat-screen TV.
These seemingly contradictory attributes are in sync. Chandrasekaran believes that elegant heritage architecture makes an important statement about the company, conveying solidity and a detail-oriented outlook. “It is easy to build a modern building. All that you need is the utility and the technology to conduct your business. But by protecting and preserving what is special, and what has been very elegant, you are imbibing a very important value. You always have to take the next step by leveraging what you already have," he says. This philosophy is consistent with TCS’ organic growth strategy, its highly contextual approach to architecture, and Chandrasekaran’s own reaction to his office. Having inherited it in October from S. Ramadorai, his long-serving predecessor, he is resisting a knee-jerk urge to make over the space, preferring to mull over the design that will best serve his purpose.
Tech at the top
Equally, he is forthright about prioritizing technology over all other considerations in workplace design, emphasizing its importance in connecting people. “We need all the tools and technologies that are required to connect. I’m a big mobile user, a big BlackBerry user, big Web user, big videoconference user," he states, but quickly warns of the perils of 24x7 accessibility, saying “the idea is to have multiple tools and use the right one for the right occasion" so that users are not overwhelmed by excessive emails or phone calls. This philosophy of “right-tech-right-time" is one that he has turned virtually into an art form, possibly inspired from his experiences as TCS’ global sales head and a default laptop road warrior.
For short reviews with a few participants, videoconferences are ideal, he believes. For large-scale communication, an online synchronous chat works best, where he can simultaneously reach out to all employees and answer previously polled questions.
One of his “favourite and most productive routines" was to take Lufthansa’s Wi-Fi-enabled flight from Frankfurt to New Jersey, “get on to the aircraft, switch on the laptop and open up 10 chat sessions with his direct reports and close all outstanding matters over the next 5 hours". Lufthansa cancelled the service some time ago, he rues.
It is little surprise then that on my tech-savvy scale (where 0 equals dictating emails to an assistant, and 10 means building an excel model oneself), he modestly rates himself “on the higher end of the scale".
The only personal objects in his Mumbai office are a collection of miniature Ferrari cars, all of which he says belong to Ramadorai, and a tennis ball signed by Martina Navratilova (“Ram and I have one each").
He clearly has specific ideas for his space, just like his thoughts on TCS’ future business strategy—TCS, he agrees with me, is likely to transform in scope, with “next-generation business models". He invites me back to see the office when it’s redone, and I find myself wondering if it too will transform in scope. Will holographic technology replace the rarely used presidential desk?
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, will meet heads of organizations to investigate the connections between their workspaces and their working styles. This is the first of a monthly series.
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