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A Digital Telco

Anup Jayaram     February 19, 2018

Every January over the past five years, 15 members of Bharti Airtel's senior leadership team and 20 circle CEOs have been attending a three-day power conclave. The result of the brainstorming is a one-page Airtel GPS. It comprises five pillars, which are broken down into 20 actions. Each action has three key performance indicators (KPIs). By mid-March, each of the 17,000-plus Bharti Airtel employees is mandated to identify 3+1 KRAs for themselves for the next fiscal. The three KRAs are linked to one of the 60 KPIs identified by the top management. The plus one KRA is for personal development of the individual, which includes cross-functional development and learning new things to refresh oneself.

This, according to Srikanth Balachandran, Global Chief Human Resources Officer, Airtel, is the glue to building passion and cohesion in India's largest telecom service provider. Also, since the KPIs change by the year, there are newer things to look out for each year.

Despite being the leader in the mobile telephony space, Airtel is looking to sustain and extend its existing leadership position and build a digital telco. "With lots of young people from start-ups joining us, we are looking to provide a start-up kind of environment in the organisation. That involves hiring digital talent not just from campuses, but from start-ups and from the Bay Area," says Balachandran.

Balachandran goes ahead to point out that training and development of the employee base is a key driver. For a company to grow, the knowledge base of its employees has to widen. That is clearly evident as career growth path and challenging work opportunities have been identified as among the key parameters for Airtel to retain its position as the leader in the telecom sector. Over the year, Airtel has also risen three notches to make it to the Top 10 in the Best Companies to Work for listing.

Fitting into the career growth plan, Airtel has a Learn, Lead and Grow plan that goes across all levels. The learning could be functional, including upgrading skills on 5G, Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence among others.

Widening the learning base has been the key to driving passion in Airtel. To do that, the telco has tied up with various global learning platforms to cater to its diverse needs. For starters, there are the 60-180 minute courses offered by Lynda, the learning platform of LinkedIn. In addition, there are 6-8 weeks courses on offer from Coursera. At the highest level are the intensive three-month courses at Harvard ManageMentor, where employees can learn on issues such as strategic business management. For IT professionals, there are courses on offer from technology learning platform Pluralsight. Also, there is the Airtel Hive App that allows every employee to select special areas of learning within their domain area.

It also has a microsite Airtel 101 that offers 30-minute courses on GST, Blockchain and 4G among others. Since April 2017, over 80,000 certificates have been issued to Airtel employees and Balachandran expects it to exceed one lakh in the coming fiscal.

The learning goes right to the top management. Last year, 45 senior leaders attended a week-long residential programme in Boston conducted by Peter Senge of the MIT Sloan School of Management. It focussed on how to build organisation capacity for future innovation.

For the growing bit, the company has set up Talent Councils. "To avoid biases of any one person, we decided to have more leaders with a view on an employee. The idea of the Talent Council was to spot future talent," says Balachandran. It was decided that more leaders will have a view on an employee leading to what is now called as the One View on Talent, done by the Talent Councils.

The other bit relates to leadership, where succession planning is a key factor for career growth. Airtel has 3,000 people managers - those who have people reporting to them. Balachandran points out that the internal succession rate is 76 per cent now. That means it's only for a quarter of the people managers that Airtel needs to seek outside talent. While that is good, as the telco is going digital and the focus is on innovation, it needs talent from start-ups and from people in the Bay Area. That could well be the pivot for Airtel over the coming years.

In a changing Airtel, the focus now is on developing engineering and product talent. This could include people who specialise on the Cloud, apps and Internet products. Airtel already has 500 employees working on the digital agenda, and this is one number that is bound to rise sharply over the next few years.

That could well be the way forward for Airtel.


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