Monday, October 15, 2012

India 18: Awards Night in Bangalore

          On the first floor of the Vindhya office in Bangalore, India, excitement is building on a Friday evening in October.  Soon we’ll learn who won the best employee awards for the third quarter.

I’ve staged many of such event but this one buzzes with a higher energy because of who is gathering and the momentum Vindhya has gathered in the last quarter.

Staff has been at work all day, as usual, on 29 projects that demand a high degree of concentration, working side by side in tight quarters.  Some have been digitizing documents into master files; some recording data, often translating from one of seven languages into English; others have been making or receiving phone calls.  After a full day, you might expect them to be tired.  Doesn’t look like it.

To the outsider this may seem like the classic back-office work we’ve come to associate with India one expect would be mind-numbing.  But closer examination shows skill, judgment and experience are as important as discipline.  For example, one team is calling people who’ve signed up for the first pension they’ve ever known.  Are you in the right investment, are you keeping your money at work (and not withdrawing it for a wedding, for example), can we answer any questions for you, they ask 900 times a day?

Another is analyzing business expense reimbursements.  A third is assessing the qualifications of applicants to become insurance agents.  A fourth is handling requests for infant and baby products out of Ireland.  And so on through another two dozen jobs.

Beneath the veneer of sameness there’s a wealth of discrete and precise undertakings.  As a small company, Vindhya has focused on small, unique needs larger competitors might have overlooked.  

On the other hand, Vindhya’s first client was Wipro, one of India’s largest companies and it’s still a mainstay.  Others are Indian companies in partnership with global insurance giants.

The reason clients remain loyal is because Vindhya’s staff remains loyal years, not months, which is often not the case in the rapid-turnover BPO industry.  The reason for this longevity is evident as the first floor fills up for the award ceremony.

Company with a Difference

To the left of a makeshift stage is a phalanx of staff in wheel chairs. 
Some staff walk in on their hands as well as their feet.  Having a crippled lower body is not unusual for the people coming down stairs, often with difficulty.  Others among the 200 are communicating in Vindhya’s official language, sign language. 

The secret of Vindhya’s success is that at least 80 percent its staff is “differently abled.”

In the United States we say a person is “handicapped” or “disabled.”  What terrible words compare that to the phrase “differently abled.”  At Vindhya, being “differently abled” is its secret formula, the critical difference.  The work is conducted in their minds. “Differences” are what makes them tenacious.

At least 20 million Indians are “differently abled.” Fewer than five percent are employed in the marketplace.  Imagine what a position with dignity and respect--a job which celebrates what others have shunned—means to someone who thought they might never work.  Appreciate the power this brings to bear on the work Vindhya does.  Is it any wonder Wipro has remained loyal to Vindhya for six years?

The ceremony comes to life when the featured speaker enters the room.  He is V. S. Radhkrishnan, fondly called”Radha,” of Janalakshmi (which mean’s “People’s Wealth”) an organization which provides financial services to the urban poor.  He is clearly touched by what he has seen going room to room.  He apologizes for coming to see Vindhya for himself after many years as a client and promises the big boss will visit soon.
On the table are three brightly wrapped mystery packages.  The first, for third place, goes to Sunil Kumar, a young man whose body is canted awkwardly backward and to the side.  His father has been invited and you have to imagine his son--who has a college degree--has come a great deal further than he could have imagined early on.     

Second prize goes to Sharadha,a determined young woman who made clear early in the quarter that she was going to be a winner and the first prize goes to Suguna.  (People go by their first names in India.)

          Each makes a short speech, notable for what they say about others, not themselves.  They’re working so their brothers and sisters can advance; they are helping their families.  They speak of their teammates.  They speak of helping one another.  Whatever is in those boxes, if it can be share there’s a good chance it will be.

Expansion Time on the First Floor

          Three weeks ago the space we are in was empty and there was room for staff to spread out on the floor for lunch each day.  Tonight people are bulging out the back door because the space is newly filled with cubicles and computers connected to a ganglia of blue wires disappearing into the wall. 

          That’s because Vindhya has been building momentum.  When I arrived six weeks ago, Vindhya had a staff of 200.  Soon it will be at 300 and more growth is in the pipeline.  (I claim to be a good luck charm:  rub my head and jobs appear.)

          Of course it takes six months and often much longer for a connection to turn into a client.  Moreover, Vindhya has had to reinvent itself during difficult times.  It was founded to provide back office services for a then exploding Indian micro-finance industry.  That came to a halt in 2008 after unscrupulous practices in Andra Predesh triggered suicides by clients who could not make good on their loans and the government stepped in with more stringent standards.  The global finance crisis came right behind.

          This accounts for Vindhya becoming a niche player with a “We can do that” attitude.  Without the crucible of necessity it likely would not be hiring staff to work on site for a major insurance company in every Indian state, as it is doing.   It might not be helping hire insurance agents or verifying expense accounts.    

          When an organization doubles in size and begins spilling out of doorways it’s a challenge to retain culture and values.  My guess is Vindhya could face span-of-control challenges but will easily retain the culture and values so evident on the first floor this evening in October, 2012.  You can’t make this up for a visiting dignitary.  Who Vindhya is, and will likely remain, is evident on the faces in this room.        






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