Today’s “learning organization” focuses on much more than skills development. It looks at empowering employees to work in multiple locations and cultural settings and to apply insights across different industry verticals, says Abhijit Bhaduri, chief learning officer at IT services firm Wipro in Bangalore. In a conversation with India Knowledge at Wharton and Ravi Aron, senior fellow at Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation, Bhaduri discusses the relationship between Wipro’s corporate strategy and corporate learning initiatives and shares his ideas on how managers can help employees find a larger relevance for their work.

An edited version of the conversation follows:

India Knowledge at Wharton: Abhijit, thank you so much for joining us today. The question I would love to explore with you is the relationship between Wipro’s corporate strategy and corporate learning initiatives.

Abhijit Bhaduri: All learning strategies try and address three [sets of] questions. One is what is going to be the shape of the business in a three-year or four-year timeframe? What is going to change? What are going to be the [areas] in which we will play? The second question is: If that is really what business is going to look like, what will it take to succeed? If you have answered one and two then your third logical question is: If this is what people need to learn in order to succeed, how do we make sure that they are able to have that? How do we make them learn these skills?

India Knowledge at Wharton: Could you give me some specific examples of how this works at Wipro?

Bhaduri: One of the ways in which we are going expand is to go with a localized talent pool in some markets, which means we are going to have to work very hard to assimilate people into the Wipro way of working and yet draw on the advantage of what you get when you get a lot of people coming in from the outside.

The second [aspect] is in the technology as it is emerging. There is a fair bit of change that happens because we work with a variety of partners [and] a variety of clients. How do we get people to keep their technical skills completely up-to-date? [We have] a huge engine which works on increasing the technical competency of people at all levels. We have a huge focus on developing project management skills because that is the crux of what we do. We have looked at creating a multifunction, multi-geography, and multi-business approach towards developing our leaders. One of the ways in which the leader’s role is going to change is to work with a multi-generational workforce, and that’s not a skill that is taught in most places. How do you work with people who are substantially younger or older than you? That is going to determine success or failure, because as we are getting into different markets, the profile of the workforce is very, very different.

India Knowledge at Wharton: As you have gone about implementing your learning strategies, have you found any particular aspect of it that has worked beyond your expectations and performed extremely well? What lessons have you learned through that experience?

Bhaduri: Leadership development is something we have been doing for the past many years. The proof of that is we have grown our own leaders. If you look at the average tenure of people at the top, we do have people who have been there for 15, 20 and 25 years. I think it has worked very well for us. But strategically at senior levels, we also bring in people from the outside — either because it is [about] technology we haven’t worked with or it is a skill we don’t have in-house. Or, sometimes consciously you want to get in somebody with a different mindset.

But historically one of the things that we have done well is we have given people leadership responsibilities when they have been 65% ready — the [remaining] 35% the person will pick up on the job as you try out different things and you hone and shape your own leadership style. That approach has worked well.

Going forward we would also need to have people who can [ask]: “Where can you shorten the development cycle?” You don’t have the luxury of change happening over three, four, five or six years so you give people enough time to evolve and change their leadership styles. But you have to consciously shape it and work with them to make sure that they are ready as the need arises.

India Knowledge at Wharton: To what degree do you use technology as part of your learning initiatives? Where do you think technology is the most effective? Which problems have you found that technology can’t really solve?

Bhaduri: When you look at building people’s technical competencies or project management skills, clearly technology can sharpen that skill development dramatically. You can stream a real-life problem that somebody is trying to solve in some part of the world and have a bunch of people learn about that. When there are geographically dispersed populations and they are not large enough in number, it is easier to do it on the web and yet have people stay current. Places where we have not really been able to leverage technology a huge amount but we use that as a blended approach is [around] leadership development where we think people learn as they watch leaders. So that’s a place where we have used the philosophy of ‘leaders build leaders.’ We do have our senior leaders coming in and talking about their own experiences, the choices that they were faced with, and they debate that.

Ravi Aron: You have a lot of experience in corporate India spanning a wide range of industries from consumer goods to product technology companies such as Microsoft and now as the pre-eminent services firm in India. You have a window on how Indian managers learn and some of their deficiencies. It has been often noted that Indian companies do not invest sufficiently in training their senior and upper-level managers. What are your thoughts? What are the deficiencies? What are some observations that you would like to make?

Bhaduri: We have different cultures that are predominantly geared toward a certain style of learning. In India we use the story-telling method a lot more [than other methods]. Therefore, people tend to learn better when they are told a story rather than be given a book, which they read up and come into a classroom.

When you look at the opportunities today, you have to use technology because we have people from 55 nationalities. You cannot gear your learning strategy only to address one particular nationality because it is not going to work. We have diverse customers. We have diverse problems. We have diverse nationalities of employees to work with.

As we are bringing in more people, we are trying to experiment a lot more with technology and with much more structured learning approaches than we have done in the past. No one method works well regardless of nationality, which means that we spend a lot of time on mentoring people or a lot of time giving feedback. Feedback is one of the best ways [to] shorten the development curve.

Ravi Aron: If you take a company like Wipro and some of its peers, about seven years ago it was about training Indians to understand European and American business context and culture. But today your client engagement managers are drawn from a widely diverse pool — from Europe, Australia, America and India. So there is also some of that reverse learning of folks that are not of Indian origin learning about the huge delivery capability that resides in India. How does that work?

Bhaduri: As the world becomes smaller and you look at a common pool of employees drawn from a diverse set of countries and experiences, it is less about just the inputs; it is also about creating conditions in which these different styles are allowed to interplay with each other and people learn from each other. If you look at all social learning theories, they say people learn as much from looking at somebody else doing the right thing as they learn from a text book. We think that this is really what has changed.

So when people come in from Western countries and work with Indians, they learn how to work with a lot more ambiguity and a lot less structure. When Indians work with people in many other countries that are a lot more structured and sequential, they learn the value of putting structure down in their own work, in their planning, their delivery and their articulation.

Ravi Aron: You mentioned those two styles, which lead me to a thought about strategy. All the big Indian service providers increasingly find the need to swim upstream, cross-sell and up-sell, and intervene at a more strategic level with a client because the IBMs and Accentures are coming downstream and hugely increasing their supply footprint in India. So what are the challenges for a company like Wipro? How does learning play into meeting those challenges? How does learning play into helping Wipro intervene at a higher strategic level and up-sell and cross-sell services and take it beyond labor arbitrage?

Bhaduri: I think that is a terrific question. The opportunity really lies in first of all looking at the ‘consumerization’ of technology, which basically means that that there is no such thing as business-to-business selling any more. Eventually there is a customer, a consumer, somewhere at the end. So the quicker you are able to visualize that, the more your technology is going to become consumer friendly and, therefore, easier to sell.

Business is no longer going to lie in silos. Let’s say you are talking about healthcare or mobile technology or entertainment. The moment you start thinking of an intersection of all three, you have a huge opportunity for a new kind of a business. What it also means is [that] we as service providers need to be able to understand that unmet need of the consumer we can address. It is important to understand what is happening in all the adjacent technologies surrounding your system. How can something which is happening in automobiles give me a better insight in terms of developing something for a client in consumer electronics?

Ravi Aron: What you said just now is about drawing insights from best practices in another industry — absorbing it deeply and then applying it back to strategy formulation in your company’s context. It has often been said that managers whose focus has been principally on operation and execution metrics tend to limit their learning to information acquisition and tangible skill acquisition. [However,] what you said are about insight, synthesis and deep understanding of trends that you can reformulate for your own industry. What has been your experience in moving people away or beyond just the acquisition of skills and information towards developing insight through reflection and other issues that may be relevant here?

Bhaduri: The managerial job at the end of the day is also about getting stuff done. So there is no doubt that execution is always going to be at a premium. However, when you look at what am I going to execute against — that strategy requires reflection. So the manager or the leader or an employee at any level in the organization has to have the ability to get alternative ideas and to reflect on them, because without that reflection no change actually happens; you don’t get insights. The more you are able to look at sharper details and the more you are able to look at patterns, you then turn back and… find a business opportunity.

Sometimes that kind of insight can be either serendipitously arrived at or it could be structured so that people are trained to look for certain things. The whole notion of leadership development is going to move beyond tangible pieces which people know and get enough training in. [It will move] into the intangible space, which is reflection, creating meaning, coaching people, developing talent — all of which is really around observing, giving feedback, sharing ideas and not jumping in with answers. The role of the leader is really about asking questions. So that is a shift. A lot of managers are really good at giving the answers. How do we teach them to ask different questions?

India Knowledge at Wharton: To take that point a little further, in a global market when you have people from a lot of different cultures who are interacting, how do you tailor your corporate learning efforts in ways that culture doesn’t become an impediment? Do you find that certain cultures, for example, are more collaborative or more teamwork oriented and some are much more competitive? And, if that’s the case, how do you manage the relationship between culture and learning?

Bhaduri: It is not something where we have been able to make huge headway. Going forward, [there are] two things we will need to tap into. One is around multi-geography. How can we leverage the nationality differential to build differential approaches, and [for] learning and development? The other piece is… how do we leverage a multi-generational workforce to look at different styles of learning and what is it that we can do better through technology, through exposure? Is there a matrix one can create to say that if nationality equals this and the age cohort is equal to this — [will] this work well? We haven’t really found one. But as we do more and more work trying out alternatives, it is going to throw open patterns. It’s still very elementary days and very early days. We haven’t really reached any insight I can share.

Ravi Aron: A recent report by a management consulting firm said about 25% of India’s engineers are probably employable in a premier services delivery company and the rest are not. They [were said to be] lacking in many skills. Wipro has been progressive in actually identifying intelligent people with a flair and aptitude for thinking and analytical skills even though they may not be engineers and in creating an in-house training and learning program of between one and four years — to create your own skilled workforce. Tell us a little bit about the thinking behind that and where you see that going forward.

Bhaduri: Look at the share of the GDP that gets spent on education in India. It is about 4%. To do a reasonable job, that ought to be about 6%. Clearly, this gap has to be bridged by the private sector. The other piece is that having schools in itself is not enough because a number of the government schools in India are notorious for their shoddy education output.

We have been trying to intervene at multiple levels. We [have] a learn-and-earn program for four years during which time [students] get their degree in engineering from one of the premier institutes. So what you are trying to do is to increase the employability of the pool in which you are fishing. The second thing that we are trying to do through the [Azim Premji] Foundation is to develop the curriculum [and] coach teachers into being more effective. We do work in a large number of schools in the larger urban areas, but over a span of time we want to take it to [other] areas.

The third piece… is we have started [a] pilot in two states of India where we work with people who have a certain amount of skills. We not only bolster their technical skills but we also give them soft skills training. How do you attend and respond to an interview scenario? How do you articulate your ideas better? How do you come across as a confident person the employer feels [surer] about taking a bet on?

To make sure we are doing a good job of that we make a commitment to [employ] 25% of the people we are educating. That keeps the pressure on within our system to ensure that we are delivering quality because this is the set of people who are going to come back and work for us.

Ravi Aron: You have made a pretty strong case for why training [workers] and giving them an engineering degree pays off. But very often in Indian companies somebody from the CFO’s office, if not the CFO himself, will ask somebody from human resources, ‘What is the return on investment on learning? Show me the money.’ How should a chief learning officer respond?

Bhaduri: Some of the tangible measures of learning are really the unimportant ones. It’s a lot easier to measure those when you are talking [about] skills. The moment you talk about a philosophy — leadership is a philosophy with which you look at people, the organization and the society in which you operate – that philosophy is always going to be difficult to measure. But it is really that philosophy that helps people ultimately to find meaning in work. Or not find meaning in work. The reason why somebody comes into work is because work is an opportunity for us to really fulfill our dreams, to sharpen our own skills, to grow as human beings, and to try out and get exposure to a world, which one has not seen before.

Leadership is a method by which this happens. Therefore, each time that you interact with somebody in the organization, that experience can be either meaningful or not meaningful. The purpose of leadership development is to create a much higher purpose, which is to see… an economic purpose of the organization, which is important, but beyond that there is a social purpose and there is an impact on the community in which we operate. That’s ultimately going to be the differentiator between what is a good organization and what is not going to be a good organization because everybody is going to pay you a salary in return for work. There is no great insight in that.

But the one way you are able to go beyond that completely tangible output into the intangible is to look at… how it is making a difference in the community in which we operate. Those are really going to be the measures that will be sustained over a span of time. It’s going to be something that has to last beyond the quarterly results or the annual results. If I ask you for any firm, what [are] the quarterly results of that firm in 1990? You are not going to be able to tell me the answer. But did it make a difference in the world by doing something, which really made a shift? I’m sure everyone will know. And I think that’s really what one is talking about. It’s not just CSR (corporate social responsibility) — but it’s being able to give… each individual employee a canvas to make a difference. And that’s tough. But that is really the role of the leader.

India Knowledge at Wharton: I understand that Wipro has an interesting initiative based on consortium-based learning. Could you explain what that is and how well it has worked for the company?

Bhaduri: Sure. We have five or six companies with whom we partner. We have one consortium which works at the international level and we have a domestic consortium as well. These are all from different industries so you have companies as diverse as Rio Tinto or Schneider Electric. When our executives and these senior leaders come together, they get common inputs. That can give them a huge perspective because they get to see information and concepts not just from their own worldview but in that consortium somebody may have already used that same strategy. If there is information around how to do a product launch you would have completely different experiences of launching a pharmaceutical product [and] a cosmetics launch as compared to industrial products.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Abhijit, thank you so much for joining us today.

Bhaduri: Thank you very much for having me.