Business Today

HCL Infosystems: Idea factory

An intense work culture that breeds entrepreneurship and innovation has techies flocking to low-key, and unpretentious HCL.

Rajiv Rao        Print Edition: January 25, 2009

What on earth is happening at HCL Infosystems? The company doesn’t have the slick marketing savvy of a Microsoft or the impressive campus of an Infosys or a suave helmsman like an Azim Premji. It doesn’t even have enough girls: The female to male ratio is an abysmal 1:14. Yet, HCL Infosys—which makes laptops, devises networking solutions for a variety of industries such as telecom and power and distributes iPods and cameras—has leap-frogged a staggering 10 places from last year’s Best Companies list, from 13 to 3.

Work is play: COO JVR nurturing the company’s future leaders
Work is play
What HCL does have—which explains the jump—that most other companies would die for is an intensely entrepreneurial work culture, along with robust training and development that attracts high-quality talent who end up staying with the company for decades. HCL’s statistics are astounding: The company has the highest average career tenure in the industry. A hundred and three senior managers have been with the firm for an average of 18 years. Two hundred and seventy-eight of its middle managers have spent almost 13 years with it. HCL has a moderate attrition rate of 15.43 per cent—but it is a tiny 2 per cent for people who have been with the firm for at least five years.

The principal magnet that attracts new talent to HCL is the company’s ability to continually stoke a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. “We allow people to take risk. We don’t crucify them if they fail,” says Chief Operating Officer J.V. Ramamurthy, a former aeronautical engineer, who has been piloting the company for the past five years, but has been with the company for 30 years now. The company devises “Innoquiz” sessions that generate new ideas. It has regular business plan contests. It even has an annual HCL “Innovation Day”, where groups huddle together and try and come up with new technology solutions for businesses. An idea involving iris and fingerprint recognition at the last such event gave birth to a whole new security solutions division. Rajender Kumar, employee number one, and logging year number 33 at the company, says that he stuck around for so long because “I couldn’t see myself getting bored at HCL for even a single day.”

The other big carrot for potential HCL employees is the constant opportunity to evolve from a techie to assuming other functional and general management roles. Sharad Yadav, 30, for instance, has handled six different kinds of positions and responsibilities—from technical to sales—in just under a decade. “My bosses showed faith in me,” he says. “I could have gone somewhere else for a lot more money. But HCL gives me job satisfaction, and that is most important,” he adds. V. Sathiya, an engineer by training, a 22-year HCL veteran and currently Deputy Head of HR, says with a laugh, that 20 years ago, “I would not have even understood the meaning of HR.”

Family atmosphere: HCL employees are a close-knit bunch
Family atmosphere
HCL isn’t necessarily impressed by the IITs and the BITs of the world when it comes to recruiting. Hotshots from India’s top institutes “may be here in the morning, but not in the afternoon,” observes JVR wryly. HCL tends to roam all over the country looking for talent, including the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the Northeast. “The emphasis at HCL is talent creation and not talent acquisition,” says HR Head and 30-year HCL hand Vivek Punekar. JVR has a very clear methodology for picking out who he thinks is HCL material, after the person has passed all the basic company tests: “I look for people with EQ (emotional quotient), not IQ. A very intelligent person with no stability is no use.” Eighty per cent of the company’s recruits come from a variety of places: engineering colleges, diploma programmes and technical institutes.

The ability to learn at HCL is also a big attraction for recruits. The firm’s HR department has launched a dizzying array of initiatives that help employees to constantly reinvent themselves and strive for higher ground. For example, “i-learn” is a popular distance learning program at the company and “e-kaksh” provides fortnightly classroom webcasts to company employees. “Mindia TecXpert” is a high-pressure, fast-track programme that grooms young engineers for leadership positions in just 18 months. HCL has also built a gleaming, new training facility on a 16-acre campus in Hyderabad with residential facilities that can accommodate 165 people. This campus holds regular induction programmes for sales and networking newbies as well as other midcareer developmental initiatives.

Clearly, compensation isn’t the main driver for those who come to HCL and stay put for years—its work environment is. Still, HCL does a decent job in spreading the wealth amongst those who deserve it. The country, after all, was one of the pioneers of ESOPS in the eighties. It has a “booster” programme that awards cash and airline tickets for performance. It has built 132 flats in a building called HCL Towers in Noida and sells them to top performers at rates that are far below market value, and is currently doing the same in Chennai.

  • Number of people laid off in 2008-09 (as on Dec. 31, ’08).....0

  • Number of people hired in 2008....1,227

  • Head count in Dec 2008 vis-à-vis Dec 2007.....6,165 (5,756)

  • Head count post-March 2009......Higher than current

  • Pay-cuts resorted to/planned......None

  • Innovative HR practice....HR CRM, where HR treats employees as internal customers and manages their career needs

    Source: Mercer, Company

Low-key, devoid of pretention, anti-elite, highly diversified and habitually innovative, HCL may well represent the emerging face of the Indian technology firm of the future.

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