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Nupur Singh Mallick

At the heart of the Tata Consulting Services (Tata Group) is a corporate story like no other. Out of what the west dubs an emerging market has risen a multi-faceted, dynamic and colossal business tour de force, that is competing across an astonishingly diverse range of sectors. Jason Spiller interviews Nupur Singh Mallick, HR Director (UK & Ireland).

Nupur, Give us an idea of your early life and why you decided on a career in HR?  

It was mid-1990s, I was looking for a route into business, and HR looked interesting – and a pretty essential element in any business. It was just as businesses in India were becoming more and more talent-driven, and I was applying for different courses, got into a business school that had a course on Personnel Management and Industrial Relations and I took that course and applied for and got a job at Tata Consultancy Services. It was through a campus placement as an HR officer, and I have been with the organisation ever since. This was in Mumbai, and when I joined we had 7,500 people in the organisation. Today, worldwide, we have 300,000 employees, which really gives you an idea of the extraordinary growth of the business.

A lot of people will be interested to learn about Tata, tell us about the organisation, and how it operates.  

Tata Consultancy Services is part of the Tata Group, one of India’s largest and best known brands, and the Tata Group’s history and values play a huge role in our company culture and the way we behave as a business. The Tata Group was founded in 1868 and it has always had community and philanthropy at its heart and TCS itself was established in 1968 as a division of the business. We are very proud of the Tata heritage and that legacy, and the values first instilled by the Tata Group founder Jamsetji Tata, have always been central to how we operate. Today, TCS has over 300,000 employees based in 46 countries worldwide.

It must have been a palpably dynamic and ambitious business, what sort of areas were you involved in?  

Yes it was, and is, a highly entrepreneurial organisation and I was very lucky to be literally thrown in at the deep end as part in the team that really helped to shape the future of the organisation. At this time, my primary function of the team was resourcing and resource management, really getting to grips with the many different projects that were planned in the many different business sectors and geographies, which have propelled the rapid momentum of the business. Of course, myself and my colleagues had to be right across the personnel piece, which was constantly frenetic, what with recruitment and contracts and rapidly getting new personnel on-boarded. It was constantly busy and I actually stayed in the resource management function for a long time.

It was very dynamic, and it was stressful – positively so I would say – but it was the type of role in a department where there was never any end to a full roster of tasks. They would just refresh the agenda and you would have to hit the boards running again. But the best driver of all is when hard work starts to have an impact, and suddenly the company was buzzing, succeeding and most notably, growing at a phenomenal rate. And the ethos of the business was that it drew a direct line, a correlation between the business progressing and succeeding, and meeting the aspirations of the individual too, so there was never a feeling that you were succeeding just for the company alone. Also, the importance of HR in this company in the mid-1990s was never in doubt. It was a very important function and a true business partner, whereby I never considered myself playing a postman role, delivering good or bad news. I always realised the role was significant, impactful and was making a difference.

Looking back, what were the main drivers of this incredible growth that Tata Consultancy Services was able to achieve?  

The organisation was way ahead of the curve when it came to IT. At the time, in the early 2000s, businesses were only just getting to grips with IT. This made TCS really stand out as something different, and a lot of businesses really wanted TCS to get them up to speed and so the consultancy aspect of the business, in terms of IT knowhow and the business efficiency that it could yield, was in tremendously high demand. It became obvious that if you were being left behind on IT, your business would be increasingly compromised. In 2001, the business was growing so quickly that we realised that we needed to find a way to do this at scale. Digitisation was critical to getting this scalability and so, again, being at the cutting edge of IT was a major advantage for us.

Give us an idea of what it was like in business in Mumbai at this time of great change?  

It was an incredible era in the city, in terms of doing business on a global scale. It was just opening up, and it was exhilarating and very compelling. People were coming out of colleges armed with a business qualification, and they were hungry and eager to take full advantage of what was happening. All the young people were bustling and chatting about what X company was doing, how much you could earn at Y and the types of careers that were on offer at Z, and TCS was at the absolute centre of that. What was most memorable, and still is, was that people came into the business in Mumbai so determined to take advantage and most notably so work-ready.

Growth is of course what business is all about, but it has to be on firm foundations.  

I couldn’t agree more, and what I vividly remember from my early days in this organisation was its deep-seated values; leading change, with integrity, respect for the individual, excellence, learning and sharing. They were not just words on a board, but really deep values we instinctively knew we had to follow. And it says something about the organisation that, today, with 300,000 people across a myriad of business sectors, that culture is still the same.

Explain how you have developed as an HR professional during your time with the business?  

My college studies in HR proved to be a good grounding for the basics, and I joined TCS with a surprising level of know-how that gave me some confidence to look at, as they say, the bigger picture. Call it the enthusiasm and bravado of youth but anyway, it conveyed to my colleagues and peers a certain confidence, and I was given a lot of responsibility; primarily a key role in resource strategy, looking at what talent was needed where, and working on how to get that capability where it was needed. Needless to say, with the rate the business was moving, this lent a good deal of pressure. Here, I experienced the reality that recruiting for talent can be a bit hit or miss, whereas building talent from within was a longer term view for sure, but it meant that you could really get to know people and their capabilities and plan their future, in alignment with business plans, with some confidence.

Readers might be surprised that a Mumbai-based, 1990's ambitious business would have such faith and conviction in HR.   

Readers might be surprised to learn that there is a much greater understanding and adoption of good HR in India than perception would have you believe. Certainly, I never had to force my way into the business strategy. In fact, I was given full support in everything. It was made clear from day one that the leadership put a very high value on good HR, which was aligned with the company’s values completely. This meant that, in all the hectic activity, I felt that I was playing an important role, and the impact our team made was being felt and recognised. This period was all about talent management, and ensuring the business had the highest technical knowledge possible. HR in this organisation has never been just a support function, it is the life blood of the business and crucially, much of the success and incredible growth of the business has been down to TCS being a superb developer of people. So much so, that this was an element I was able to bring to the UK. The business was expecting significant growth in the geography, and they wanted to send someone who understood the policies, the procedures, industrial relations, and so on. And, in fact, if you read employment laws in India, they are very similar to the UK.

What was it like to come to the UK, particularly as this was a secondment with senior authority?  

I was intrigued, ambitious and, most importantly, buoyed with confidence from what had been achieved so far. People are people, and that cuts across nationalities and cultures, and if you talk to them in the language of employee relations, it’s a pretty universal language. Certainly you need local knowledge, but it’s surprising how quickly you adapt. There were cultural differences and differences in practice, of course, but what surprised me was, I was able to bring what I knew and make some differences. To begin with, that focused on the development of people from within. I noticed one of the differences with the UK was a much greater readiness to recruit for talent, which is a perfectly laudable strategy of course, but I really wanted to change the onus somewhat, change perceptions of talent, so that people looked at the talent within, and really promoted the culture and knowhow for identifying and developing talent.

What made Tata Consultancy Services' talent strategy so compelling and transferable?  

One of the things I noticed in the UK was, the connection with schools, colleges and universities is stronger in India. There is a real connection with education and a lot of engagement with students. Businesses like TCS even consult on subjects and how they are taught; ensuring that what’s being taught will be of relevance when students go out to the jobs market. They engage with students at schools, and even train teachers; showing them the future, and helping them understand what students will need for tomorrow. The programme is extremely strong, and we play an important role in levelling up talent. That’s one thing I really believed we could bring to the UK, particularly as for a long time there has been a great deal of concern around a lack of skills, in key areas such as IT and engineering. So I hope that we can help improve the talent pipeline from education. We are engaging students in the UK with a number of projects; for instance, getting them to come up with ideas for apps and help them in programming. We believe that if you promote a culture and perception that you can make technology, rather than just using it, then that is a pretty powerful and compelling proposition.

Running a business is very different today than even ten years ago, what is it that makes a business like Tata Consultancy Services tick in 2014?  

If you look at the world, it’s changing more rapidly than ever before and it’s all about technology and the adoption of the digital revolution. We’ve been talking and thinking about 2020 for a long time, when the new generation will be the leaders, movers and shakers and what that will look like. We have built our own social network for employees and 60,000 of our people log in every day and talk and collaborate. When you can give voices to all 300,000 people, that is a massively powerful proposition. We are a multi-generational business and, despite the size of the business, we have a surprisingly customised solution to learning and development, but it’s also a platform to find out what people are thinking and discussing, what they are asking for, their aspirations. It could be about IT, or about food or art. It’s like a constant, 24/seven, international employee survey that just keeps updating itself. I think it brings transparency, visibility and accountability, and it continues to support and promote our ethical values, which is never easy on such a massive international scale.

This can present many challenges though, insomuch as, not all 300,000 employees will all be happy and fully-engaged.  

I see it as a good challenge for HR in the future. I think there’s enough evidence to show that this way of operating opens businesses up to opportunities that were, in times gone by, hidden or inconceivable. It’s like, if you only learn that employees are disenfranchised by the results of surveys, that realisation is all rather late. If you are doing as much as you can to place people at the heart of the business in all the ways we know how, you create a momentum that is compelling and engaging. These communication platforms are essential for building that momentum, and crucially it’s about building up trust. You don’t need HR to control this, indeed I don’t think it could if it tried – it’s all become pretty much self-governing.

What is the next stage and how is HR being prepared to fulfil the resourcing and talent needs of the business?  

The UK is up and running, and the strategy is continuing to be rolled out in different geographies. And that is, to reiterate; having a hand in talent management right from education, through to constantly challenging people to not only think about optimising their current post, but also thinking about how and where they are going to develop. That’s what drives engagement; avoiding complacency. It consistently keeps people right at the cutting-edge of knowledge and capability, whatever discipline they are involved in and whatever generation they are and whatever point they are at in their career.

There's a lot of talk about new Gens and their short-term view of a career, is that going to present a challenge?  

In reality, not much has changed. If, as an employer, you give people compelling reasons to stay with you, then you will buck the trend. I think what lies at the heart of that is listening to what people want, and being agile enough to change and not just accept the status quo. If your systems are sensitive enough and you’re reading the data correctly, there is no reason why you cannot adapt quickly. What I find really encouraging about the new Gens is their moral fibre. They have a much greater sense of the world and what is right and wrong, because they have been exposed to readily-available information to hand, all of their lives.

Also, what is compelling is that, what drives and engages younger generations is significantly different to older generations. In particular, money is not the driver. It’s much more about opportunity, experience and learning, flexibility and the contract of trust. They also want to get involved with good causes, and we readily encourage participation and offer support in that.

It seems to be working, Tata Consultancy Services ranked as the Top Employer in Europe by the Top Employers Institute, for the second consecutive year. That is truly impressive.  

Yes it is, and I think what it says more than anything else is the fact that successful business is not just about sales and efficiency, it’s about the importance of people, and that’s where HR is, of course. That will never change. But you know the worst thing you can do is win an award or two and sit back and be complacent. In fact, it’s just when you’re in the spotlight, attracting attention, that you have to work even harder at it. But for me, I’m so glad that the very values that took root at the inception of the business, a long time ago in a place far away in Mumbai, are the same ones that have provided a robust and reliable framework for all the expansion and diversification, in which some 300,000 people work towards our next set of goals and objectives. So, more of the same, preparing for the future and meeting resourcing needs with the best talent for the future.

Readers will be familiar with the phrase emerging markets and surprised to learn that you are bringing better practice, in some instances, to the UK.  

You know, these things are contextual, yes India is an emerging economy, but in some ways this has meant that policies and procedures don’t have a legacy to shrug off. It was built up in a modern era with new thinking and capability behind it. For example, career paths were so predictable in the past, nobody really changed disciplines, but that is one thing that has propelled TCS and kept people fresh, focused and engaged. As the business openly encourages people to think outside the box, when it comes to careers, the choice is with the individual and that’s something that attracts the young generations, it makes you better, more enriched, you experience more cultures, and you grow professionally and personally.

When you look back over your life, are you surprised how your career has panned out?  

Life was very simple when I was a child. I grew up in a small town, we lived in a house in a hospital campus and moving to Mumbai was an incredible culture shock. How I compare now and then is, India is open up to the world and the world is open to India, and the people have global aspirations, and you see people that are willing to work very hard to achieve their goals. It’s always been a colourful and vibrant place, but people today have the world at their feet and if they choose to take advantage of it, there’s nothing to stop them, other than their own aspiration and capability. I feel I was very lucky. I was and continue to be in the right places at the right times. The pressure and the speed of the business is so compelling, and even though you are just one in 300,000, the sense of belonging and sharing common causes are truly guiding influences. What’s making that stronger and stronger is the myriad of cultures around the world, which is a celebration of human endeavour and commercial success.

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