There is no workforce like the Indians. There is an amazing desire to learn...that power has to be harnessed

Updated: Mar 29 2005, 05:30am hrs
Vivek Paul went to the US as an MBA student and rose to the top job in GE, after being recruited by none other than the legendary Jack Welch. Then Wipro chairman Azim Premji offered him an opportunity in India and the low-profile Paul has been vice-chairman of Wipro since 1999, widely credited with transforming Wipro Technologies from a $150 million software developer into a $1 billion force in offshore outsourcing. He tells Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, on NDTV 24X7s Walk The Talk, that although hes sometimes frustrated about Indians setting the ambition bar too low, yet he feels blessed to be able to create value for his stakeholders and his nation.

Its always nice to come to Wipro. In fact, I keep saying that like Americans have different names for their cities, like Sunshine City, Bangalore should also be called the Feel Good city.

Unfortunately, it feels that way much more inside the campus than outside. I think once you face that traffic outside while coming here...

Some senior foreign journalists were pointing out this contrast....Wipro and Infosys, and you go out and spend 40 minutes just waiting at the next traffic intersection.

We communicate to everyone that everything that we create ourselves we do well with, but what we create collectively, as a society, we struggle with.

Things like this become an enclave

Thats right, and as a result because it becomes secluded in some sense. They begin to feel like they are cut off. But the interesting thing is that you would assume if you have so much in an enclave, people would be jealous and say thats not right. But the actual reaction is, if its do-able, why cant we do it on a bigger scale

Are these things setting a new benchmark

Expectations are rising. As you create through IT and through the growth you can see both economic empowerment, as well as the ability to get exposure to all the different systems around the world.

Also, through a kind of discipline and competitiveness which we never thought existed in India.

If you work hard, you demonstrate, use your brains and you can create a lasting value.

Also shows Indians have punctuality, discipline and creativity, there was no doubt about that.

Yeah, Ive seen that. Ive run workforces in Japan, workforces in France, workforces in the US, but there is no workforce like the Indians. They are really dedicated. People here want to achieve something. The second thing is the amazing desire to learn. They desire that intellectual expansion which is very tough to get outside.

And if they dont know the copybook way of doing it, they find another way the jugad as they would call it.

Yes, the jugad exists. The process in the system is unpredictable. And so, as a result, you have to have some back- up. No doubt about that. There is a little story. The US airforce came for a joint exercise with the Indian Air Force in Gwalior. They came with their big aircraft. We had our bunch of Mirages. The station commander said I may have a gap in terms of technology, but I have the good old Indian jugad and as things happened, the Americans were outscored.

India has an amazing power and that power has to be harnessed. Our population is an enormous asset and not a massive drag. But if we dont do all the right things, the situation will be back.

But you are are not just the poster boy of Indias IT industry, but the poster boy of modern, resurgent India. What do you see when you go overseas in terms of the position of India compared to 10 years ago. What opportunities do you see now

Its a mixed bag. We were in a meeting in Switzerland which had a whole bunch of IT CEOs and we were talking about Chinas and Indias success. The topic wasnt on how to make India succeed, but on how to make all the other countries the same. How do you use the same formula So when you come around to India, you look at the problems, you are scared.

There is so much to do. On the flip side, when people talk about China, there is an edge of fear, but there is none of that feeling about India. People think yeh mera chhota bhai hain but that one I better watch out.

So you say there is awe for China, but kind of patronising attitude towards India

I wont call it patronising. We dont need to worry about these guys.

But its not a nice thing.

No, its not. At the end of the day, if you think of India as a confluence of civilisations, we are there. We have our own culture, literature, music, but we still dont get that respect. With the amount of workforce we have, we havent been fully utilised. Its a shame, a lost opportunity.

So we are a country of under-achievers

We havent grown economically as the rest of the world. In todays world, the score card is economics....The question is about the future, an anticipation of the future.

So are we losing time

I think we are losing time. In some sense, we are declaring victory too fast, because the service industry is taking off on the export plane. The reality is, the service industry is 2% of the total workforce of the country. India has to inflate its domestic economy. Because out there, there is a sense of optimism, optimism is important. In fact, optimism is the better currency, because it fuels both spending and investment.

Are Indian kids better or different from others

Smarter and better and ambitious. They say, give me a chance and I would show that I can add a lot of value. I know economic growth for me would follow. Im willing to work hard and Im willing to spend. So now youve got this consumption engine going on and if you now remove the hurdles to the production engine you have the ability to create a massive domestic economy. Now you have domestic consumption, domestic production overlay on that, the global advantage we have in multiple areas. Wow.

But you do keep saying that India is losing opportunity everyday.

The reality is, by inching forward. Its a race, ultimately all the top spots will be taken. Today, everybody says China 200-300 years ago was 33% of global trade. Its only 6-7% now. It will soon get to 33%. Why arent people saying India was 25% of that trade and we will get to that figure now Do we set the bar too low

Absolutely. Ill draw a parallel from Wipro. When I joined Wipro, we were timed to keep our execution going. Once we had readiness, we launched the vision that we can be global players in the world. That was a shattering vision for a lot of people. India is in a similar position. If you have the readiness, things would be different.

Theres something in Indian psychology that sets the bar too low.

I think it is because of repeated disappointments. I love that song, Chhoti si asha, everytime I hear that song, I love it. Somebody explained that it described India. Humari ashayen chhoti hoti hain.

Well, you think that describes our psychology, that we are happy to have little ambition and we are satisfied

No. If you talk to individuals, absolutely not. If you talk collectively, then yes.

If you talk collectively, you find the government of India saying 7-8% growth. Why a limit to growth...

I think they should say what does it take to be 25% of the global economy by 10 years, or pick another goal. In my speech at Wharton, I said our goals should be that within 50 years our per capita income should be as high as anybody else in the world and in 25 years it should be as high as anybody today. These are not unachievable. When you set that goal, you would be forced to reshape every institution and everything in the country.

The world is different. You talk to kids in the Wipro campus and you get a sense of unending optimism. They tell themselves that I am as good as they are, I can go toe-to-toe with them, and if thats the case, then why is my road not as good as theirs Why is my house not good as theirs Why arent my buildings good So, at an individual level, there is enormous expectation. You mess up with that draft, you will be disappointed.

And you are talking about 40,000 people.

Yes, and those 40,000 are reflective of many others. Now you talk about young kids with B.Com degrees making it big in the BPO industry, upstaging engineers. They are saying, I know what I can do. In some sense, the management of India is generationally divided from the people. The management gets older and older.In Wipro, we talk about this a lot...that maybe our value system is not reflective of the fact that the average age of our employee is 27.

The young people you hire do not come from privileged backgrounds

If you look at the population you are hiring, there are a lot of people who need training in English. These are engineers who get good grades but they are not comfortable with the language. We teach them the basics. But the fact is, they are still coming here. In the first couple of years, they used to be surprised at what they can do, today it is their entitlement the day they walk in. That is what they expect from very beginning.

Do they come with fire in their belly

Absolutely. We were talking about the view of Indian workforce way back, when I used to run the Wipro-GE joint venture. We set up a unit to export medical equipment. We did everything by ourselves.

People assumed for a long time that Indian manufacturing work process is incapable. We can make good quality products. This workforce is fabulous.

But there were restrictions. Describe the scene when you first came to India.

Then, there was darkness before liberalisation. At that time we formed Wipro, we wanted to sell and make ultrasound equipment and CT scanners, and we needed export components, but we didnt have the kind of foreign exchange, so we almost changed the name... ghee, kuchh to bechne ko milega. So we started with that darkness. Then liberalisation came and we were able to get all the technology and components we could get and we took off. Its not the exports that are the only thing. We improved the healthcare situation in India. We domestically manufactured medical goods at a price others would not have offered.

Tell me about the circumstances in joining Wipro. You were a hotshot in GE. Had you stayed on, you would have made it to the top. But you made the decision to move, how did that happen

I had done pretty well in GE. I was running one of GEs successful product units in GE medical systems. Jack Welch was my boss. It was a great environment. But when Azim called me, he said, I think we are in the cusp of an opportunity. What he said was that you have the opportunity to either build another skyscraper in Manhattan, or do something great in India. Having lived here, you always have heartstrings which get pulled. So I took the challenge and its been a great ride. You never regretted it

Never. I feel blessed. How many have the opportunity to create value for your employees, your shareholders, your nation You know, Im blessed.

Youve seen Jack Welch, you are working with Azim Premji. Compare the two.

On the personality front, Jack is a very spontaneous person. With Jack, it was unpredictable. He was brilliantly incisive at the way he looked at things. Azim is equally focussed with what he wants to do with business. But his whole thing is relentlessness. He will prepare a plan step by step. Both achieve success through different means.

Like Tendulkar and Dravid.

Yeah, (laughs) great batsmen, different styles. And yes, they hate to lose.

So, now, how do you look at the future

Well, I think that were right now only one-eighth of the way through this journey. This is not the time to make big strategic moves. Our view is that we have to continue to better ourselves. We have to keep investing in quality process, keep investing in consumer focus and make some changes.

Ive heard you saying that the Wipro workforce should be a lot more international, which is different from the script you read elsewhere.

Its purely a business need. So you never want to do something on idealistic basis. Business is business. If you look at the next stage of our evolution, customers initially told us here what they wanted to do, then they said what do you think should be done Now they say, this is my business problem, I should prepare my technology solution. Now, I need more people who understand local business and not just technology.

You were talking about Jeff Mason, who was in the country for a while and he said no other country in the world had such a wide gap between the quality of its manpower and the quality of its infrastructure....

There is a clear limit. I was talking to these bankers who had come to India with high expectations and they said that they were forced to take a cow path from the airport at 3 a.m. It hurts the cost structure. So if I say we are going to be worldwide manufacturers and we factor in higher costs of transportation, higher costs of raw materials and electricity, we put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. Unlike China, where the government drove whatever it did, Indias competitive advantage came from wherever the government receded.

Tell me about yourself. Where do you see yourself in future

Again, Ive been very fortunate. I was here through the liberalisation phase. I brought the first wave of investment into India, through GE medical equipments, I brought the change in the global business mindset towards the country. Those are wins. To me the question is, is there another big hit waiting for me out there The key to my life is: continue doing better and better, improve and improve. Sometimes, somewhere, there will be roads you will have to take.

Do you believe in philanthropy, like others in the industry

At this stage, what is important is focus. You should know when to move the needle. Handing out money is plenty, but the issue really is to pick a topic and make a change.

What is No.1 priority for Wipro and for India

The No. 1 priority for Wipro is to manage its growth, continue to scale without any problems. You dont need to be brilliant. And the Number 1 priority for India is to inflate the domestic economy. Once you do it, the expectations will change, the mindset will change and the economy will grow.