Book Review – The India Way

After reading this book I felt that Eternal Paradise would be anti-climactic after working for a company located in India. Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh, and Michael Useem presented a detailed apotheosis of how managers in that country run their operations. The quartet of Wharton Business School professors analyzed the business practices they identified on the Indian sub-continent. They then distilled them down into four core principles that they termed “The India Way.” As many companies have adopted to varying degrees “The Toyota Way” and/or the “Six Sigma Way”, they now have a third “way” to keep their training staffs busy.

The authors defined “The India Way” as comprising the following four elements: 1) holistic engagement with employees, 2) improvisation and adaptability, 3) creative value propositions and 4) broad mission and purpose. (Pages 4 – 5) In essence all four of these principles can be summed up as follows: Indian business focus on values as opposed to rules, they emphasize financial profitability for the long run as opposed to short term shareholder gains and they are driven by a need to act in the best interest of society. Cappelli, et al. described this method as “an exportable way of doing business.” (Page 7) Before anyone asks, I assure readers they will find this book listed under “management” not “fantasy.”

I thought this book very thought provoking and timely. The Harvard Business Press originally published it in 2010, shortly after the financial crisis. Many authors have presented re-evaluations of modern business thinking in recent years. Michael Porter’s ideas on “Conscious Capitalism” come to mind. As I’m writing this, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a best-seller on  The India Way certainly added some valid concepts to the debate.

I thought the idea of “holistic engagement with employees” the most intriguing. The authors asserted that Indian businesses view employees as capital investments. In their view, this differs from American companies that traditionally approach employees as costs to be cut. Please note that’s their position, no my own. (Page 51) The authors went on to assert that Indian businesses place much more emphasis on employee training than do American firms. (Page 70)

Without doubt some elements of “The India Way” can be applied in any organization. From my own personal experience I’ve seen a number of them in practice. I currently work in a Maintenance Department where improvisation and adaptability serve as sources of survival, not innovation. As a co-instructor of a Human Resource Management class for local entrepreneurs, I concur that holistic employee engagement reaps benefits in terms of productivity. I ran a small volunteer non-profit organization for 3-1/2 years, though. Transformational leadership served as the only means of managing it. Through many challenges, I learned it works much better in theory than practice.

I thought the authors should have made their case more balanced. As the book advocated “The India Way” I could understand why they focused on success stories. From my reading, they seemed very dismissive of anyone who opposed their point of view. In the section on corporate governance they mentioned Satyam Computer Services, the company now known derisively as “The Indian Enron.” Why did Satyam fail with such stringent regulations in place? “The moral, then, is an old one: in business as in life, there are no guarantees.” (Page 175) I found that an awfully glib explanation of a US $1.47 billion accounting fraud.

India transitioned from a socialistic to capitalistic economy miraculously. The India Way detailed the means managers utilized to make this metamorphosis. I don’t share the authors’ view that the entire India Way can be transferred to any business. Much like Lean Manufacturing, though, elements of it can be applied in a variety of situations. With the globalized economy and companies facing tougher competition than ever before, all managers should take heed.

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