Why Tata Communications Sends Employees to Silicon Valley

By Scott Kirsner |  April 27, 2016

The mission for innovators inside the conglomerate Tata Group, headquartered in Mumbai, India, is all about growth.

“Being a $100 billion company is good — but we want to be a $500 billion company in 10 years,” says Alex Pelletier, Head of Innovation at Tata Communications, a telecom operator that provides network capacity to mobile and fixed network operators around the world, and also carries about a quarter of the world’s Internet traffic.

That kind of aggressive growth target, Pelletier says, “calls for external growth by M&A, and also internal innovation to keep up with the pace of a market that is changing very quickly.” Tata Communications, with about 8,000 employees, is one of more than 100 operating companies that make up Tata Group.

A central element of the internal innovation program at Tata Communications is a program called Shape the Future. Pelletier, who is based in Paris, explained how it works.

1. “We’ve done three waves of crowdsourcing ideas,” Pelletier explains. There isn’t a theme or focus to each wave, but the company is hunting for ideas with the potential to generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue, and tie in to one of Tata Communications’ core competencies. Ideas get screened by a cross-functional jury. “Typically, out of 150 ideas, we’ll present 15-20 for rapid-fire pitches to our senior management, and they’ll pick five to bring into the final stage. We give them extra attention — an executive mentor/coach, and I am working with them on a daily basis.” The first three waves produced over 460 ideas from more than 600 employees; applications are still being accepted for the fourth wave.

2. Those five chosen teams, typically representing between 10 and 15 Tata employees, travel to Silicon Valley for “an immersion week.” Tata Communications works with RocketSpace, a technology campus in San Francisco, to organize the immersion week.

3. The internal innovators spend the week “working on telling their story. We put them in front of real startups. How do they present their idea? What is their focus?”

4. The group then goes to visit tech companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, and Tesla. “The whole purpose of this is to look at how these guys work, and try and understand why they’re so innovative. We want to show people that there are different ways of growing a business, defining customer problems, and becoming more customer-centric. In the old telco world, that is historically not so true. We want to get them thinking, ‘What is the customer problem, and what solution could we bring to the market?’ It’s a change of focus and a change of cultural approach.” When the teams offer feedback afterward, Pelletier says, “they compare it to a mini-MBA. It was a big discovery about how you think and behave like a startup.”

5. Upon returning from California, the teams “present their ideas to our CEO, CMO, Chief Strategy Officer, and a couple more senior execs. We invite partners from firms we work with to be external judges.” Teams do a 20 minute presentation, followed by 20 minutes of Q&A. Then, the CEO and that “selection board” will pick a few ideas they want to see incubated.

6. Employees on those chosen teams “can leave their full-time jobs, and work on the concept full-time for an incubation period of 9-to-12 months,” Pelletier says. “They deliver a prototype or proof-of-concept that validates or invalidates what they were thinking. Some, if not most, end up pivoting. They create a budget for consultants or tech resources they need. They get a lot of attention from the CEO, like a quarterly one-on-one meeting, to see where they stand and ask the tough questions.”

7. Shape the Future participants learn the “lean startup” methodology. “We teach them to validate the solution-market fit, and go through the lean process,” says Pelletier. “We constrain them, even though budget is available. We put them out of their comfort zone. We get them to choose one thing, rather than [doing] two things in parallel.” (At right, Pelletier with immersion week graduate Jayesh Sharma.)

8. Projects from the third cycle of the program have recently begun incubation, including DiViNiFiA, which provides WiFiservices in 10,000 rural Indian towns, by installing infrastructure at temples, mosques, and other religious structures.

9. Going forward, Pelletier thinks that there is an opportunity to form larger teams and “dig deeper into an idea, with more research,” before the teams head to Silicon Valley for an immersion week that “is more specifically focused on their theme or idea.” As an example, he says that an Indian team working on a healthcare-related project spent time with several healthcare startups in Silicon Valley, “talking about big trends, and user experience and user interface, and it had much more value. That team came back and changed completely how they were working.” He sees the Shape the Future program evolving more from a “bootcamp” about entrepreneurship in general to a more tailored “acceleration phase” designed to help projects move forward.

Pelletier says that Shape the Future has proven to be “a great way to uncover our most creative people. In the past, sometimes they were creative but somewhat hidden.” And the company is finding that “the innovators who have been through [the program] become mentors to next generation.

For more slies about Shape the Future, visit our Resource Center.