Making the Elephant Dance book review: Jumbo run

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October 25, 2015 12:09 AM

Making the Elephant Dance is a lesson in management told through the transformational journey of one of the country’s largest conglomerates

Making the Elephant Dance: The Tata Way to Innovate, Transform and Globalize
Sunil Mithas
Pp 342

MAKING THE Elephant Dance: The Tata Way to Innovate, Transform and Globalize sets its pace in India’s economic history. And, why not? The Tata Group is 147 years old and has journeyed along with the multiple evolutions of the Indian economy—starting with structures during the time of independence when India became a democracy modelled after the British system and later in the 1980s when it took, influenced by the Soviet Union, a socialistic path. However, not to forget, author Sunil Mithas does talk of the capitalist economies of the West that India retained.

Mithas, who is a professor at the Robert H Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in the US, quickly gets into the constructs of the Tata Group after outlining a brief history of its founder, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata.

Within the first few pages, the book takes you from the founder to JRD Tata, perhaps the most famous of the chairmen of the Tata Group—a company that grew from R280 crore in 1939 to R14,092 crore in 1992. From 14 companies, the Tata Group became a conglomerate of over 50 companies, selling anything and everything one could lay one’s hands on—from salt to software, as the group is famously defined.

However, the bulk of the book is centered around Ratan Tata’s time, who took over from JRD as the group chairman.

Mithas talks about the post-liberalisation era and how the group took decisions (globalisation, forging partnerships to form joint-venture companies, and acquisitions) that changed its companies. In 2000, the Tata Group bought England’s Tetley Tea, but the real big thrust on globalisation started only in 2004 and, by 2008, the group spent $18 billion on 37 cross-border acquisitions.

Mithas further talks about business excellence in the Tata Group, which is internally termed as Tata Business Excellence Model (TBEM). The book soon shifts to the impact of business excellence and takes one business at a time, like Tata Steel, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Tata Power and Tata Jaguar Land Rover, and discusses the business models at length, making the chapters quiet boring and a drag at times.

For businesses that have lived longer than the people who created it, like Tata Steel, Mithas talks of the various leaders and how they steered the company in phases. For example, he talks of how in the 1980s and the 1990s, the equipment at the Tata Steel plants was old, and that McKinsey & Co even said the company should exit the steel business, but how its chief JJ Irani implemented TBEM to transform the company, which also laid the foundation for subsequent growth.

The books also delves deep into the building of TCS—which eventually became India’s largest IT services firm—against competitors like Infosys and Wipro, which were often called the darlings of the outsourcing industry. TCS was formed in 1968 with FC Kohli as its CEO, often regarded as the father of Indian IT. But the emergence of Infosys and Wipro somehow dwindled the greatness of TCS.

And then there is the big case study of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR)—the company was almost written off by Ford—and how Tata revived it. It not only revived it, but saved and made it profitable. In fact, JLR today makes more profit than what the Tatas spent on acquiring the brand—$2.3 billion—in the first place. Many of these stories are known and often written about.

The book is not one of those breezy reads that would capture you, keep you glued to your seat or even keep the study lamp on the side of your bed switched on through the night. It is more of a management book for reference. At times, it feels like reading the world-famous Jack Welch and the GE Way by Robert Slater, but Making the Elephant Dance takes you nowhere close to the philosophies of management that Slater took you to. However, it is true to its title—Tata Group is no less than an elephant, and it is difficult for an elephant to dance, but the Tatas learnt the dance well.

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