In the early 1990s, when the first wave of liberalisation started, one of the early companies that felt the impact was Wipro. It was a leader in the domestic hardware business with a line of indigenous products. These products came from its R&D department, which consisted of about 80 engineers. The group was an inward-looking, technology-focussed, cost centre. It was clear to me that with the advent of multinationals, it would not be possible to keep a group that could amortise the cost of a design based only on the strength of domestic offtake. It either had to be repositioned to design for the world or be closed down. The challenge, therefore, was to push it to become an outward-looking, customer-focussed, profit centre.
It was easier said than done. As its first chief executive, I needed help. R&D folks have strong likes and dislikes, and it is not easy to get them to embrace a new way of doing things. This was even more pronounced when you asked them to listen to business folks, who they usually look down upon as inferior life forms. I thought, therefore, of getting K.R.S. Murthy, who was then director at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore. He, I figured, would be a non-threatening choice. In his understated manner, he delivered a message that is alive in my mind even after a decade. Murthy asked the group to recall the names of the current and two previous Japanese prime ministers. No one knew their names. Murthy explained that it was a question most people could not answer, and that was of no surprise or consequence. On the other hand, he said, if anyone on the street is asked to recall the names of three Japanese companies, the response would be a flood of familiar names.
Therein lay the message. Gone are the days when political leadership was the icon of a nation. Today, a country’s pre-eminence in the comity of nations is directly related to how many institutions it has been able to build. Names like Sony, Matsushita, Honda, Epson and Mitsubishi are not just companies any more. They are institutions. Building institutions is not an accident. It is a slow, laborious process. People must recognise it as a larger goal and relate to the over-arching vision. Today, companies like Infosys, Ranbaxy, Jet Airways, The Taj Hotels, TVS and Wipro are no longer just places of business. These symbolise India’s achievements and aspirations.
The typical Japanese work ethic is central to their institution building. The average Japanese worker goes to work for a career, no doubt. But they are also known to be acutely aware and proud that their work and output is linked to keeping Japan high in the esteem of the world. Japanese workers are known to have a mental sequence of what constitutes a priority. It is country first, company next and individual last. Contrast that concept with the way we have been brought up in the last 50-plus years of independence. Our sequence is – myself first, my company next, and last comes my country. That pecking order is probably a legacy of a survivalist past, and, to some extent, the history of imperial rule. To go forward, we need a change in mindset. People who build institutions need to think in longer terms and make many personal needs subservient to the larger process.
Today, when an average Indian disembarks at any international airport, by default, his or her occupation is set as a software engineer. India is synonymous with the knowledge industry. While going forward, India’s ability to consolidate that position will depend on building companies of international stature.
I heard a simple story long ago. Two men were laying bricks. A passer-by asked the first one: “What are you doing?” He said he was laying bricks. Then he asked the second one. That man said: “I am building a temple.” Building a temple requires different perspectives of architecture, structural strength and visual sensitivity. Above all, it requires ‘oneness’ with a need that is very different from here and now, a need for personal survival and self-definition.