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Innovation Stories From India Inc: Missed opportunity

There have been some excellent books on innovation in India Inc. But this one is not going to make that list

Innovation Stories From India Inc—Their Story In Their Words: By Vijay Menon, Bloomsbury, 142 pages, Rs399.
Innovation Stories From India Inc—Their Story In Their Words: By Vijay Menon, Bloomsbury, 142 pages, Rs399.

When page 2 of a book on corporate India, Innovation Stories From India Inc, chooses to describe Tata group chairman Ratan Tata’s role in the ugly Tata-Cyrus Mistry spat thus, “he returned for a brief spell as interim chairman of Tata Sons in 2016 to sort things out and select a new chairman when the incumbent was replaced by the board" (italics mine), you already get the message that this is an all-holds-barred affair which will have little by way of critical examination of corporate claims. Reviewers though don’t have the option of heeding their own advice. So you wade into the series of 22 hagiographies of leaders of the featured companies in the fond hope of uncovering gems of innovation at work among the ranks of India’s best companies. The returns are disappointing, with very few examples of real innovation and even those have been written about extensively in the past. Godrej’s low-cost small refrigerator or GE’s low-cost ECG machine, for instance, have been featured at length. Asian Paints zeroing in on a unique user need of painting the horns of cattle during Pongal is also old territory. That would have been fine if there was some amplification of how the company hit upon the idea, what it did to translate that into a real product and what its eventual economics were.

Sure, there are some rewards for soldiering on. Some of the leaderspeak is illuminating. Ratan Tata writes about how the willingness to take risks in China is very high because people are entrepreneurial by nature and the government provides enormous support.

Suresh Krishna, chairman of Sundaram Fasteners Ltd, writes about replicating his father’s “midnight shift talks" to his workers as one of the keys to his company’s harmonious relationship with its employees, which has ensured that Sundaram Fasteners hasn’t lost a single day due to labour unrest in the 50 years it has been around.

But the moment of the book comes when L&T chairman A.M. Naik, after describing the mechanics of how he saved the company from being acquired by the Aditya Birla group, calls himself a “simple village boy"! The wily Naik who’s got the better of many a famed foe does have a sense of humour. The story about Biocon’s pivot from its enzymes business to bio pharmaceuticals in 1998 also produces one of the book’s rare insights and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairman and managing director of the company, puts it succinctly: “I honestly believe that if a professional manager was running Biocon Ltd, the company would have shut shop long ago. This is a disruptive business and I can’t see anyone but a promoter taking such risks." For the rest, between exhortations to culture and passion and how people make all the difference, the innovation story loses its way.

The weakest part of the book is the stories on mobile digital payment platform Paytm and brand consultancy chlorophyll. Neither company has the credibility or the track record of the others. The brand consultancy, in fact, strikes a particularly discordant note. Among the digital agency’s assignments, we are told, was the rebranding of Quest Global Manufacturing, an assignment which presumably went off well, though we are not told much about how that happened. What we are told though is that the company hired a marketing consultant to manage the project. The consultant—our author Vijay Mehta!

The most glaring inclusion though is that of Quintillion Media Pvt. Ltd, which owns and runs the digital magazine The Quint. Now don’t get me wrong. I have friends who are Quintillions and they are doing some great work. But the company hasn’t yet completed two years and its main business, a business channel with Bloomberg, is yet to be launched. For it to be rubbing innovation shoulders with the likes of Tata, Godrej, Oberoi, TVS and Nestlé is preposterous. But we all get what we deserve—in this case, a spiel by Quintillion Media founder Raghav Bahl on his vision for the fledgling business.

There have been some excellent books on innovation in India. Besides the classic Jugaad Innovation: A Frugal And Flexible Approach To Innovation For The 21st Century by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja, there’s Nirmalya Kumar and Phanish Puranam’s India Inside: The Emerging Innovation Challenge To The West as well as others, like From Jugaad To Systematic Innovation: The Challenge For India by Rishikesha T. Krishnan. All these have added to the literature on innovation among India’s companies. Sadly, these 142 pages won’t be adding substantially to that library.

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