Tata Consultancy services (TCS) has recently been Highly Commended in the Coffey International Award, as part of BITC's Awards for Excellence 2011, for their work in addressing the Millennium Development Goals. The Adult Literacy programme, is developing a cost-effective and innovative solution to an age-old problem: adult illiteracy. TCS has created the multimedia e-learning system to help 150,000 illiterate adults to access equality of opportunity by teaching them functional literacy in just 40 hours. In this interview with Malcolm Lane, we learn more about this innovative programme and other creative projects from TCS.
1. Malcolm, can you explain in a few words the targets of Tata Consultancy’s sustainability strategy?
Our target is to ‘build the nation’ wherever we operate. It is more than targets with numerical measures, although we have those too; for us it’s about how we have always approached sustainability, going back to Jamshetji Tata the founder of our parent company, Tata, and its chairman from 1887 to 1904. He said:
In a free enterprise the community is not just another stakeholder in our business but it is, in fact, the very purpose of its existence
2. What do you think about reaching the Bottom Of the Pyramid (BOP) as a new market opportunity? Do you think that most of the companies are developing hidden PR strategies so as to reach long-term new market opportunities in the BOP? Is this the case of TCS?
I cannot speak for other companies but I can tell you about our approach. To quote Ratan Tata, our current chairman (from 1991 to 2012), “We are not doing this for propaganda. There are companies (outside the group) who may do it for the sake of publicity. We are doing it because we really wish to (by choice).”
There are three models in business:
1. In business for business
2. In business for business and with an impact on society
3. Identify needs in society and then work out the commercial model
In TCS we do all three. Our innovation labs have identified and developed examples in the third category, such as mKRISHI (empowering India’s 80 Million farmers), Swach (water filter) and the Adult Literacy Programme (ALP) which is teaching the 350 Million illiterates in India and South Africa using IT capability without the need for a professional teacher. The most visible Tata example is the Tata Nano car. Tata observed that four people on a motorbike, which is quite common in India, is not safe so they set about creating a more affordable car. If we were doing this for PR purposes this would seem to be a very heavy investment. So, no, we do not do it for PR, we do it to meet needs in society, which is good for society and good for business.
3. Why did you decide to focus your corporate strategies in water purification and literacy programmes? Is literacy essential for turning the BOP into potential consumers?
The water filter came out of some work in our innovation lab whilst working on related IT projects in the chemical industry. Coincidently we identified a cost-effective solution for water purification but we are not chemists or experts in product design. We therefore collaborated with Tata Chemicals and Titan (watches) and the result is a low cost water filter that sold 500,000 in its first year.
As regards Adult Literacy, we are doing this because we can, and want, to share the benefit to help ‘build the nation’ as responsible citizens of the planet. We have identified an efficient way for people to learn to read within 40 hours using low spec IT technology and without the need for an expert teacher. There are 350 Million illiterates in India and, just as we would work in the UK on health and education projects to address needs in society, it is the same in India albeit the scale is in a different order of magnitude. This in itself brings creativity and innovation to meet the scale of challenge in society. Our strategy is primarily to meet the needs of the community in accordance with our founder’s statement.
The Adult Literacy Programme (ALP) is just one component and cannot be said to be essential to turning the BOP into potential consumers; that would be a very long-term strategy indeed and reliance on an initiative such as ALP would not realistically in itself produce consumers. It is but one step, although a key one, along that path. What ALP does is to enable parents to read their children’s school reports, read their newspapers and thereby know when vaccination clinics etc are taking place, in addition to so many other things that those of us with the ability to read simply take for granted.
4. In relation to the MDG’s, why do you think TCS is committed to fulfil these goals? Is it essential that big companies engage with the MDG’s?
Tata is a member of the UN Global Compact and the Business Call to Action. In Tata, companies including TCS have been addressing the MDGs long before they were defined as the eight goals under that title. To achieve the MDG targets, companies are probably the best chance of achieving positive results with scale. More so than NGOs, companies have the scale, reach, capability and expertise to drive major change management programmes. BitC was started some 28 years ago when businesses realised that if they didn’t support society, there would be no market with which to do business. The MDGs simply raised this standpoint to a global level which is the level at which large multinational companies operate.
Our business model of placing charitable trusts as the majority shareholder of the company at 66% creates a model that drives ‘impact on society’ not only from the trusts but also throughout the 100 companies, including TCS which it effectively owns.
5.What advice would you give to other businesses that are looking to develop programmes to address the MDGs?
If a company does not have the same founding ethos and continuous drive such as TCS but wishes to develop a programme to address the MDGs it would probably need to identify a rational business reason to do so. It is not sufficient to rely on the drive of an individual or the company chairman; it needs to be consolidated into a code of conduct.