Guest AuthorPavan Soni

What makes Wipro an entrepreneurial powerhouse?

By | Pavan Soni, Research Fellow IIM-Bangalore & Innovation evangelist

What is common across the following firms-  July Systems, Mindtree, Indiaplaza(earlier fabmall),  Jamcracker,  Pramati Technologies, e4e Labs, Microland, Insta Health Solutions, IDG Ventures India, and EduSports? As you might have guessed, all these firms had their seeds in Wipro, and this is not even a partial list. Wipro is arguably the largest generator of entrepreneurs in India, and reconcile this with another fact that Azim Premji owns a lion’s share of the company.

I had spent a memorably six years and one month at Wipro and, believe me, I wouldn’t have left Wipro but for joining IIM Bangalore to pursue my higher studies. In the interim, I was lucky to have worked with some of the most wonderful people, includingSangita Singh, Vikesh Mehta, GS Nathan, I Vijayakumar, whom I owe a lot of my aptitude and attitude to.

There was no reason for me to leave the company for another one, for, in my mind, Wipro was not a company! It remains an institution. Allow me to explain.

My explanation of Wipro not being a company also offers insights on what enables Wipro to keep churning entrepreneurs in numbers unparalleled by any other Indian enterprise. The cue is ‘culture’.

Here, I identify three most salient cultural attributes that have enabled Wipro to contribute massively to Indian economy, apart from the gigantic contribution the promoter- Azim Premji- has made towards education.

Operational autonomy, with financial accountability

One of the signature strengths of Wipro is autonomy. I, for one, remained confused for a long time on whether what I was experiencing was ‘hands-off’, or ‘eyes-off’ kind of management. But, when I experienced the power of autonomy, I realized what made people grow and thrive in Wipro. It is taking initiatives.

The one management dictum that best fits Wipro’s style of management is – ‘better to ask for forgiveness than to seek permission’. Many activities, owing to not being centrally coordinated, lead to enormous duplication, but as the laws of nature depict, quality comes from quantity and that constant variation leads to evolution.

In the words of Abhijit Bhaduri, Wipro’s Chief Learning Officer,

“The most distinctive feature of Wipro is giving people the freedom to fail. We have the ability to bet on people for the kind of work that they would have never done in past. We routinely take bets on people who have had no prior experience in a field and put them in leadership roles. That enables them to think in radically new ways. That is the only way to leverage the power of the novice in driving innovation.”

But this level of operational autonomy and license to make mistakes can as well result into chaos.

In order to contain the chaos, the organization also maintains a tight financial discipline. Often it’s observed that Business Finance Managers (BFMs) are a significant part of almost anything, and I have learnt that it is more of enablement than a constraint. Remember, creativity is about solving constraints. The following statement by Azim Premji puts things in perspective.

In a statement published in Wipro’s Annual Report of 2000-01, Premji notes:

“We believe that any significant growth requires investment, and, very often, the growth that we see is linked to the level of investment that we make. A challenge, though a tough one, is to manage the conflict of investing in building the future without diluting the current results. We will measure our business progress through profitability and cash flow generations, and invest for the future keeping the same parameters to measure our success.”

The operational autonomy fuels talent, and financial discipline guides it towards productive outcomes.

Unyielding integrity, in deed

The cornerstone of Wipro is integrity. In almost all the discussion I have had with Wipro’s leaders as a part of my PhD research, the recurring reference was to Wipro’s unyielding integrity. One can of course ask that in today’s hypercompetitive world how does integrity help? Or, isn’t integrity a given in business?

Looking at the corporate scandals and the massive economic and social impact that follows, you can’t ever be convinced that integrity is just a hygiene. It has to be a business ‘priority’ at all times.

At Wipro, integrity has remained at the core since its very beginning, and I have felt it all through my career. The beauty of working in an environment high on morality and human values is that it lets you focus on important things.

Think of integrity as the ‘rules of the game’. Once you and your opponents are clear about the rules of the game then only you can play and improve upon your game, else you are always second-guessing your opponents and even your team.

On how Wipro’s focus on integrity helped it attract some of the most brilliant people around, Subroto Bagchi, a long timer at Wipro and the co-founder of Mindtree, shares:

“Premji stood out as a patriotic and ethical businessman. That’s what attracted outstanding people to Wipro. They stayed with the company, as the integrity of the organization was invaluable. People were in awe of this company and this man. The chairman of the company talking to every single employee that we talk only in black and white, and not gray, as there are many shades of gray. This a classic example of good be getting good.”

Frugality, in practice

Lastly, something that Premji is enormously famous for and drives his lieutenant to believe in is frugality and simplicity. Frugality and value for money reflects in almost anything that Wipro does and that’s one reason why the company remains Antifragile. Right from the modesty of its leaders to the campus and the salaries (which are by no means poor), the firm has a sense of fairness.

Think of how Premji defines innovation, as he states:

“Innovation is necessary to satisfy new customer needs and create new revenue streams. Innovation is required to stay ahead of the competition – consistently. Innovation is necessary to create higher value for customers. Innovation is the basis of both survival and success.”

The ‘Value for Money’ is, in fact, a core tenet adopted by Wipro in 1998 when it defined the Wipro Way, the other three principles being – Human Values, Integrity, and Innovative Solutions.

Because Premji and his next in line spend countless hours sharpening the axe and not splurging, the Wiproites learn to live in their means, a very important entrepreneurial trait. Remember, it’s not just about having a great idea but is the discipline and grit of taking it all the way that makes the difference.

Wipro teaches the importance of frugality at a very early stage.

Finally, I can’t overemphasize about how great the firm is as a ‘marketplace of talent’. I, for one, moved across three functions in my six years at Wipro- marketing, knowledge management, and innovation. The firm allowed me to explore my talent without necessarily having to look outside, and that’s why I love the firm so much.

The aspect of marketplace allows the best person for the best role and with minimum transaction cost. The impact it has on entrepreneurship is immense, because, for starters, you learn to sell your talent.

I love the ‘idea of Wipro’ and thank Azim Premji for fostering such a great institution.

Pavan Soni 12

Pavan Soni is an innovation evangelist by profession and a teacher by passion. He has consulted for dozens of organisations including Café Coffee Day, Capgemini, GlaxoSmithKline, Infosys, Mahindra, Marico, Tata Steel, Thermax, Titan, and Wipro. He also collaborated with the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, CII, and European Business Group. Currently, Pavan is pursuing his PhD from IIM Bangalore.
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