Tata Group's Innovation Competition

What's more innovative: intelligent software designed to automate the buying and selling of telecom minutes; patented technology for unloading soda ash from railroad cars faster, safer, and cheaper; or a rebranding campaign that gained a company synonymous with black tea a 42% share of the fast-growing green tea market?

That was the brain-teaser faced by three judges at Innovista, Tata Group's internal innovation competition. Twelve teams from units of the Indian conglomerate that have North American operations—Tata Consultancy Services, Tata Technologies, General Chemicals, Tetley Canada, and Tata Communications, which hosted the June 10 event at its Herndon (Va.) headquarters—presented projects. At stake: a trip to the global finals in Mumbai on July 29.

Participation Is Growing

Just a few months ago, Sunil Sinha, chief executive of Tata Quality Management Services, was predicting that 1,000 teams worldwide would enter the competition. Instead, 1,700 registered. Three years ago, the inaugural event attracted just 100 entries.

"We are making progress in this journey," says Sinha, whose company runs Innovista and three other programs designed to stimulate and support innovation across Tata's 17 companies. It's not that there was no innovation at Tata, Sinha points out. During its 117 years in business, the Mumbai company built India's first steel mill, power plant, and airline, among other achievements. "But we needed to democratize innovation," he says.

For a global, growing company like Tata, democratizationrequires work. The Innovista competition was announced across Tata's intranet sites, but Sinha's team also reached out to companies new to Tata Group, such as General Chemicals of Green River, Wyo., to ask for submissions. Each team needed a supervisor to sign off on the registration.

Judging the Winners

Before the contest officially started, Sinha, who is based in Pune, India, explained the criteria to the judges, all of them non-Tata employees. The teams were to be evaluated by the novelty of the innovation, as well as its environmental, financial, and social impact. Judges should consider as well the size of the unit submitting each entry and the competitive edge its project has provided, or could provide.

The biggest challenge for the judges was the disparate nature of the projects, which reflects the broad range of Tata businesses. Avanish Pande, director of margin management and trading at Tata Communications in Matawan, N.J., presented the software that automates the trading of telecom minutes. Since launching the tool 16 months ago, Tata Communications has increased its gross margins for telecom trading by 42%, to $20 million annually.

Victor Brannon, a mine manager at General Chemical, showed his company's GCH Hydrator, a patented technology for unloading rail cars more efficiently. The unit sells for $100,000 and can be installed in one month, vs. a price tag of $1 million to $2 million and the six-to-eight month installation for traditional unloaders, he said.

Among projects from the other contestants were a streamlined process for handling documents at an insurance company; new back-end architecture for electronic displays; and Tetley Canada's green-tea ad campaign.

Brilliance Vs. Innovation

How do you compare such different innovations? Kyle Zimmer, one of the judges and a president of First Book, a nonprofit that provides books to disadvantaged children, focused on two questions as she listened to the presentations: How far outside of industry practices is this? And can it be applied to other industries?

"There's a difference between being brilliant and being innovative," says Zimmer. "There are never enough of either category. But the institutions that are really going to flourish are going to be the innovators. And that's a cultural thing." She recognized Tetley Canada's green tea campaign as a brilliantly executed branding campaign. And indeed, the campaign has since been adopted by Tetley UK.

At the end of the day, though, the judges chose two others projects to move forward. Both originated in Tata Consultancy Services: One was a customer-centered business model that improved customer results and brand loyalty at the same time. The other helped a retail client make Web-based content more available to offline users.

The Prize: Respect—and Profits

The two now move on to face 22 teams from regional preliminaries in Europe and Asia. The winners get no cash. Three will walk away with Tata's Promising Innovation awards, while two will win Dare to Try awards—an honor the company bestows on those who took on ambitious projects and failed. Two years ago, for instance, a Tata company tried to develop a plastic door for the Nano minicar. "We want people to be bold and to not be afraid to fail," says Sinha.

The real prize is the respect and recognition of Tata's leadership, says Prasad Satyavolu, practice director for manufacturing in North America for Tata Consultancy and one of the North American winners.

But the biggest winner may be the $85 billion Tata conglomerate. Consider Tata Refractories, a 51-year-old company based in Belpahar, India, whose clients include Tata Steel, Steel Authority of India, and numerous other metal, glass, and petrochemical plants. In 2007, the company won an Innovista award for a groundbreaking material to line containers holding molten steel, which lasts six times longer than conventional brick linings.

"The more projects there are, the more people are inspired to participate and are encouraging their peers to do so, and that healthy competition drives innovation," says Sinha.

"It is pervasive across the Tata companies," says Satyavolu, who spent a decade at Tata Motors before joining Tata Consultancy, with a stint at engine-maker Cummins (CMI) in between. "There is a lot of encouragement from management to try new ideas, create new business models, and ask 'How can we do things better?' "

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