Like automakers collaborating with suppliers to improve the parts for their cars, Indian outsourcing firm Wipro Technologies is working with customers to transform wonky computer engineers into well-spoken technology consultants.
Wipro and clients who are participating in the new training program say their collaboration is mutually beneficial. The clients, including media company Viacom and printer manufacturer Lexmark International, say helping the Bangalore-based technology outsourcer will lower their costs to design and maintain computer systems.
Wipro, meanwhile, believes its training program is the latest step in a long-term strategy to upgrade its image from low-cost Indian outsourcer to high-end technology consulting company.
“We had core customers who were very satisfied,” says Supriti Bhandary, Wipro’s head of talent engagement and development for the Americas. But those customers now have higher expectations. They want Wipro’s engineers to go “beyond the stated work,” Bhandary says.
Their cooperative approach is similar to a longstanding trend among businesses, particularly within manufacturing, to work with clients to address common needs.
“I think it’s good for any company if they have a partner to work with them,” says Wipro customer Cindy Fogg, an IT manager with Lexmark.
In spring 2009, Wipro asked Fogg to travel to Wipro’s campus in East Brunswick, New Jersey, to help teach engineers the soft science of managing business relationships. About 60 engineers participated in the pilot program.
Lexmark, which makes printers, has outsourced much of its internal computer-run business operations including HR and customer management software systems. The company hired a consultant to help design a solution; Wipro was later brought in to implement and operate those systems.
By helping Wipro train its engineers, Lexmark felt it had something to gain. It could eliminate the inefficiency of having one consultant design a system and another build it. Fogg estimates the potential savings of hiring Wipro to be both consultant and implementer at $100 to $150 an hour. The arrangement reminded her of the way Toyota works with suppliers at a manufacturing plant near Lexmark’s headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, to reduce costs and improve the quality of the parts it buys.
“I know quite a few people at Toyota,” Fogg says, “and I know it’s something they do and they are invested in. That made this decision seem like it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.”
Beginning last spring, Fogg traveled to New Jersey once a month for four months. She met with engineers and took them through a list of expectations American clients have of the services they want and how they expect engineers to take a more active role in providing them. The big picture was simple enough: Lexmark wanted Wipro engineers to constantly help Lexmark refine its various business software systems.
“We expect them to get more involved in the business and help them drive change in the business,” Fogg says of Wipro. “It’s a different role we need.”
Wipro’s engineers had the technical skills; they just needed to learn the softer skills.
As subject-matter experts, Wipro’s engineers have both technological expertise as well as knowledge of the industries of the clients they serve. They know how to build software systems that optimized supply-chain capabilities of retailers or an HR system that streamlines a company’s onboarding system.
Wipro engineers are less capable, however, of articulating ways that their clients can improve those systems. They are not as good at promoting their expertise and getting their clients to trust them, Fogg says.
“If someone asks for a three-legged chair you don’t give them three-legged chair,” she says she told the engineers once. “You give them a four-legged chair and you tell them why.”
She told the engineers that they needed to understand their clients’ needs, not simply give them what they asked for. If a better solution existed, engineers were expected to speak up and be heard. She talked about active listening and being able to recall what a client says. She explained to the engineers the nuances of body language in American culture.
She told them how to manage expectations. She emphasized that deadlines matter. If a problem exists, it is better if a client knows about it early.
She also advised the engineers, all of whom worked in the U.S. but are from India, to speak slowly and articulately. She described how to manage a meeting by engaging the audience, and how, afterward, it’s a good idea to lunch with the client, develop rapport and learn how to talk about things other than business. Maybe, she said, they could watch some American football as a way to bridge the cultural gap.
Fogg, who based her suggestions on her experience working with several India-based outsourcing companies and not just Wipro, urged engineers to continually stay abreast of technological developments and trends in the industries in which their clients work.
Vinay Kulkarni and Om Prakash, two Wipro engineers from India who now live in New Jersey, had heard some of these points before. But hearing a client like Fogg voice concerns about how Wipro employees conducted themselves made a strong impression.
“In other training programs you don’t get a chance to interact with business leaders,” Kulkarni says. “We realized during the training program the right approach is to give clients multiple options, discuss it with them and give them a solution.”
Kulkarni has worked the past four years in the U.S. as a software engineer who helps other companies implement computer systems to run their businesses. His clients have included Scotts Miracle-Gro and Royal Dutch Shell. Kulkarni and Prakash currently consult for pharmaceutical companies and have developed knowledge specific to that industry.
Both say they have provided so-called end-to-end solutions for years. The training program is “more enlightenment,” Prakash says. The two finished their six-month program, consisting of 15 daylong sessions, in September.
“The client doesn’t want to have surprises,” Prakash says. “That is something that stuck with me. Whether it is small or big, the way you communicate that surprise to the client never occurred to me. That was one of the biggest learnings I could relate, at this point in time.”
Prakash says clients often ask the engineers to tell them if the company’s IT strategy needs to be changed.
“It’s definitely the expectation of the customer,” he says. “The difference now is that we can’t wait for the customer to ask us; we need to be proactive.”
Just as customers helped shape the curriculum of the training program, they also helped inspire it. Raja Ukil, delivery head of Wipro’s Enterprise Application Services Group, said clients surveyed to gauge Wipro’s performance noted that engineers could do a better job asserting themselves.
“Some people are very shy about their ideas,” Ukil says. “The client expects we give [those ideas] to them even if it means a sea change in the way [engineers] operate.”
While engineers like Kulkarni and Prakash appear comfortable asserting themselves, Bhandary says the engineering culture, with its focuses on analytics and details, can be an introverted one. The company wants their engineers to be more outgoing and assertive so they can build consensus to solve problems.
In the past, Bhandary says, “a CIO or VP of a certain business would have to step in to drive consensus. You don’t want them to come in at every level.”
Evan Rosen, author of The Culture of Collaboration and executive director of The Culture of Collaboration Institute, a think tank in San Francisco, says that when organizations collaborate, each must get something in return.
“Wipro is smart to engage its customers early on in training its people,” he says. “Clearly, involving customers early on can create incredible value, because the customer is much more likely to embrace the service later because they’ve participated in developing the talent.”
Ultimately, Rosen says, collaboration is worthwhile only if it creates value for both companies.
Joe Simon, chief information officer at Viacom, agreed to help train Wipro employees, in part because doing so could save the company money in the HR administration and payroll management systems Viacom uses. In the past, Viacom would pair a Wipro employee with a consultant from Hewitt Associates.
“We’d like them to get more on the advisory side,” Simon says of Wipro. “They have a lot of experience on the solution set we were implementing, but they took very much a back seat.”
Simon hopes Wipro employees can provide the higher-end consulting services as well.
“It’s kind of stupid to have too many handoffs,” he says. “With the economy in this state, we’re trying to streamline everything we do.”
It will nonetheless be a challenge for Wipro’s employees to compete with other technology consultants. Ultimately, the quality of the work will come first, despite Viacom’s desire to help move Wipro up the value chain.
“If they don’t do it well,” he says, “we’ll go to someone who does it better.”