Opinion: Managing your business the Indian way

Nirmalya Kumar, with Pradipta K. Mohapatra and Suj Chandrasekhar,India’s Global Powerhouses: How They are Taking On the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh, Michael Useem, The India Way: How India’s top Business Leaders are Revolutionizing Management,Harvard Business Press, 2010.

In the last few years, the emergence of India as an economic power and the increasing presence of Indian companies on the international scene have led to an explosion of new books on Indian business.

OBJ360 (Sponsored)

These two volumes in particular offer a range of useful insights for Western executives looking at Indian companies as competitors, partners, customers or as parts of their global value chains.

Back in the 1980s, as Japanese companies started to dominate many international markets, bookshelves were full of books on Japanese management. Now with a growing presence of Indian companies on the international scene, we are likely to see a similarly growing literature on Indian management styles and philosophies.

And The India Way is perhaps the inaugural offering to describe the existence of a distinctive Indian approach to management.

Written by four professors at the Wharton Business School, the book is an in-depth piece of research on the philosophies and approaches of leading Indian managers. It is based on interviews with more than 100 senior executives from India’s largest companies, supported by extensive survey data. The convergence of values, attitudes and approaches that the authors found among India’s business leaders has led them to propose the existence of an Indian management model that is distinct from that found in other countries, in particular the U.S.

The authors argue that their research demonstrates that Indian management differs from Western-style management in four distinct ways. First, Indian managers take a very strong interest in human resource issues and, in particular, see their people as assets to be developed as opposed to costs.

Second, as a result of having to operate in a volatile and challenging business environment, Indian business leaders tend to be very adaptable, taking a trial-and-error approach to strategy.

Third, given the intensely competitive domestic business environment and the need to serve with discerning customers of modest means – the bottom of the pyramid idea – they have learned to be very creative in how they deliver value.

Fourth, and perhaps most interestingly, the authors argue that both Indian managers and company directors look to balance their responsibilities to shareholders with the needs of broader society, often putting shareholder value after customers, employees and the broader national interest.

 An interesting question they raise at the end of the book is whether the “India way” is so deeply rooted in India’s particular cultural and business environment, that it isn’t exportable to other cultures and circumstances or compatible with the demands of international financial markets. This remains to be seen.

Apart from a very interesting discussion, the book also contains very useful short biographical sketches of 120 of India’s top business leaders.

India’s Global Powerhouses, by lead author Nirmalya Kumar, co-director of the London Business School’s India Centre, introduces some of India’s new global competitors. These companies have leveraged the scale and cost advantages they’ve developed at home to attack global markets. Several of them, like the Tata Group, have become well known around the world through high-profile acquisitions like Tata Motors’ purchase of Jaguar and Land Rover.

The book is based on 34 interviews with a who’s who of leading Indian companies, and structured around nine case studies of rapidly globalizing Indian firms including the Tata Group, Arcelor Mittal, Infosys, and Mahindra and Mahindra. Each case explores the different approaches to internationalization each company has taken.

While some of the case material reads like so much public-relations boilerplate, the cases are also useful background for those with a limited knowledge of India’s corporate giants.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be the last few chapters which look at why joint ventures with Indian companies tend to fail, and the approaches that Indian firms take to making acquisitions.

There’s also a very good discussion of some of the key challenges that Indian companies will face in their globalization efforts, including their need to move beyond competing on cost to building the capabilities to innovate and establish global brands – and their need to overcome talent shortages in managing global expansion. In many cases, this will require the recruitment of non-Indian executives.

Micheál J. Kelly is former dean and professor of strategic and international management at the Telfer School of Management.

Get our email newsletters

Get up-to-date news about the companies, people and issues that impact businesses in Ottawa and beyond.

By signing up you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.