In just two and a half years, Dr. Vishal Sikka has harnessed the power of purpose not only to accelerate the transformation of Infosys, but also to make a difference in the world beyond its campuses.
When Dr. Sikka took the helm at Infosys in 2014, he quickly realized that the large information technology and business consulting firm could no longer afford to remain in the constricted space of “doing as it’s told,” depending solely on cost-arbitrage, and reacting to client problems.
The business model that had set the stage for Infosys’ success as a global player in the IT services industry since the early 80s was no longer viable over the long-term. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems were beginning to perform significant amounts of the work that had traditionally come to Infosys and others in the industry.
For Dr. Sikka, the path forward was clear – the company faced an urgent need to harness the dual forces of automation and innovation. Automation drove more productivity at work, freeing capacity to focus on innovation, both for Infosys and its clients. The foundation for this was to be the company’s culture and values – especially its focus on life-long learning.
To transform Infosys into a next generation services company, Dr. Sikka set out to realize his vision of a company where AI software would amplify people, and imagination would empower employees to be innovators and help clients achieve unprecedented results and benefits. Dr. Sikka characterized this journey as one of going from “being reactive problem-solvers to proactive problem-finders.”
Shifting the course of a company with more than 200,000 employees globally is no easy feat. For Dr. Sikka, the first step was to generate a renewed sense of purpose across the organization and help employees realize their individual and collective potential to make a difference. He started equipping the workforce with the skills and tools – and most importantly, the belief that it is possible for them to create the experiences and things they wish existed. This culture shift has had a huge impact not just on Infosys employees, but on its clients as well.
The results, thus far, have been impressive. In the two and a half years since Dr. Sikka began to put a purposeful focus on innovation and value creation at the heart of Infosys, client satisfaction scores have soared to their highest levels in 10 years. Meanwhile, employee retention rates have improved as well as more begin to see Infosys as a platform to bring to life their ideas for a better world. Through frequent workshops for top performers with Dr. Sikka (aptly called “Meeting of Minds”) to discuss and hone their Zero Distance ideas and projects, significant focus was brought to their aspirations, ideas and projects.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that the future does not have to be an increment of the present,” Dr. Sikka says. “The reality is that we can construct our own futures. It doesn’t have to be bound by whatever happened in the past.”
How do you translate purpose from aspiration into action?
While many large enterprises are still ideating and innovating within “innovation departments” and labs, Dr. Sikka realized quite early that this often fails to produce winning ideas at scale.
A new approach was needed: to internalize innovation so that everyone in the organization, at every level, finds a deeper purpose in their jobs, is motivated to realize that purpose, and as a result innovates as part of the job. This would establish a new ideas-based culture aimed at going beyond the scope of client briefs and eliminating the barriers between Infosys and its customers in a new philosophy dubbed “Zero Distance.” This initiative has become the culture – bringing continuous grassroots innovation to every project at Infosys.
The Design Thinking approach forms a strong base for Zero Distance by putting the customer and their needs at the center of all innovation. Zero Distance employs a simple but universally applicable innovation framework to find and then resolve problems that have not been identified by customers. Employees are encouraged, and rewarded, to look outside their domain to learn from other projects and search for opportunities to improve efficiencies or create new value.
Through a company-wide transformation, Dr. Sikka encouraged the workforce to discover previously undiagnosed problems and then pitch their creative solutions in meetings with him face-to-face.
“When I arrived at Infosys, the idea of cost-oriented delivery was something that had taken a deep hold on the entire industry,” Dr. Sikka says. “Work was happening because it was cheaper, not based on the value that was being created nor the innovation that was being brought in.”
After assessing feedback from clients, he realized the firm’s work was being undermined because it was failing to understand its clients’ need for help with strategy and innovation.
“The first order of business was to ensure that we change our mindset from doing what we are told, to doing things that nobody else can.”
Dr. Sikka’s changes were designed to encourage teams to apply their own initiative to find and solve the problems that clients face. This new sense of purpose was also prompted by an awareness that AI was taking over some of the firm’s traditional work streams and that “the best human frontier is the ability to imagine,” he says.
“In a very deep sense, this idea of imagination and innovation was something I felt is at the heart of the transformation that we needed to carry out here,” says Dr. Sikka.
That imagination and initiative has extended beyond the office. Ideas can come from anywhere – and the benefits can flow everywhere.
Even the smallest ideas can have a positive impact. For one retail client, an Infosys team realized that when shoppers brought an item to the point of sale with no price tag, delays would ensue while employees searched for the correct price. “If it’s a crowded store, you get fed up,” says Infosys Senior Vice President Gopikrishnan Konnanath. “We came up with an idea that enabled the store assistant to simply type out the brand, the size and the color code, to get a price right there and then to check-out the item.”
How can purpose empower your people?
Today, 120,000 employees have been trained in Design Thinking and their learning and knowledge has been instituted as a constantly evolving training module at the company’s corporate university in Mysore.
Starting in 2014, each of the company’s project managers was urged to identify at least one idea that was beyond the boundaries of their contact with their client. This unleashed a torrent of 12,000 ideas – of which nearly 7,000 have been discussed with clients, and more than 1,000 have already been implemented. The successful ideas have had widely different applications ranging from streamlining sales procedures in client businesses to changing supply patterns.
Since the inception of the program, Infosys has held 24 Zero Distance sessions, with employees presenting their ideas to Dr. Sikka.
“The motivation levels of employees, because they are focusing on the core of the work and they are actually being mentored and guided by none other than Vishal, creates a lot of excitement and a sense of interest in them,” says Konnanath.
By empowering its employees, Infosys is building a more responsive, client-centric organization.
“And this has brought us closer than ever to clients. And made us their true partners in purposeful innovation,” he adds.
How can purpose help build long-term value?
Well-integrated purpose helps people make decisions about what to do, as well as what not to do. This can often mean choosing to make a short-term sacrifice that will lead to long-term gain. The shift toward systematically seeking to deliver additional value for customers has meant facing situations where greater value for customers has meant less revenue for Infosys in the near-term.
These short-term sacrifices have helped to strengthen Infosys’ relationships with clients, which in many cases has led to deeper, more purposeful longer-term engagements.
“The importance of taking such tough decisions is that the client’s respect for Infosys as an organization goes up exponentially,” says Konnanath.
How can purpose turn potential into reality?
A railway optimization idea, presented to a nationwide postal service, led to the streamlining of the delivery of parcels to sorting offices, doubling the number of packages delivered.
Another idea involved improving the online offering of a hi-tech consumer electronics organization.
Konnanath says: “For one of our clients, we realized there were certain features missing – including a process to deal with orders when stocks were low. Within a couple of weeks, we produced a prototype, showed it to the client, quickly tweaked it with feedback received, and within a week we won the project to implement it.
“In the past we never thought about ideas beyond the defined scope of work, like this,” he adds. “Now, we have a lot of feedback from clients who can see that Infosys is transforming itself.”
Infosys Delivery Manager Shobha Mangalpady, who handles project delivery for the insurance industry, says, “There was one case where we were working on a particular ticket-handling procedure and there was a set of repetitive tasks being executed by different users. We found that we could bring in automation and free people to do more creative and higher value work.”
Nitin Bhatt, Risk Advisory Leader, India, Ernst & Young LLP, says that organizations are more likely to embrace disruption and transform their business models when innovation is nurtured at the grassroots.
“Over the last several years, the pressure on Indian IT companies to deliver value beyond the traditional cost arbitrage has increased tremendously. As a result, organizations now need to address a critical question: ‘How do I become more relevant to my client’s strategic agenda?’”
“This gives rise to two innovation imperatives. The first relates to delivering existing services more efficiently and in ways that have not been envisioned before. The second requires companies to reimagine their businesses so that they can become strategic partners in their clients’ digital transformation journeys,” says Bhatt.
Dr. Sikka sums up the firm’s progress as part of a greater mission for the company to shape its own future.
“We still live in times where innovation is somehow viewed as a kind of mystical thing,” he says.
“We see that the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg innovate. But the reality is that innovation is no more than the ability to see something that is not there. And we can all learn to do it.”
“The more I look at the world of AI, the world of intelligence systems, the world of innovation, it is very clear to me that people have to deliver value. People have to innovate,” says Dr. Sikka.