Infosys’ Vishal Sikka Goes The Extra Mile For Zero Distance Project
Just outside Infosys chief executive officer Vishal Sikka’s office at the company’s headquarters in Bengaluru is a computer that is never switched off. It has a live web link that is on 24×7 and lets employees in Bengaluru talk to their counterparts in Palo Alto on matters both trivial and pressing.
“The whole idea is to get Infosys employees to chat with each other whenever they want. No need to block calendars, no need to send emails. Cuts out the bureaucracy,” said an employee.
That’s been a major push with Infosys in Sikka’s reign: Cut down the layers. And Infosys isn’t just depending on computers with live video links to achieve that. India’s second-largest software exporter is working on a pilot project with 10,000 people where it has broken down its traditional, five-layer organisational structure into a two-tiered one, marking a radical attempt at breaking away from the Indian IT industry’s traditional pyramid model.
“Traditionally, we’ve had several layers within the organisation. We’ve had project managers and then there is a senior project manager, a group project manager, etc., and so on. So we want to flatten the five layers down to two,” said Sikka, adding that Infosys chief delivery officer Ravi Kumar S is overseeing the project. At the heart of the new structure is the project manager, who will have his own team. Each project manager will be supported by functional teams such as human resources, legal, finance and purchasing.
Sales will liaise directly with the project manager through an engagement manager. “Basically, this acts as a small startup.
Instead of a traditional top-down pyramid, we create a more bottom-up thing where you have thousands of small entities like that and the management is enabling these people to go out there and be innovative. This is underneath what Zero Distance is,” said Sikka. “The reason why it’s called Zero Distance is because you have zero distance to the client, zero distance to the value. Otherwise in big organisations, layers form over time, far away from clients.”
Sikka believes the new structure will make Infosys more entrepreneurial and more nimble when India’s largest outsourcing firms are grappling with new ways to delink revenue growth from manpower addition. Sikka said if the pilot is successful, it will be rolled across the company.
While Infosys employs over 1.93 lakh people, the top three Indian IT services firms (TCS, Infosys and Wipro) have a headcount of over 7 lakh people. Traditionally, growth for Indian IT services companies, which employ over 3 million people, has come along with massive additions to employee numbers and this has made managing these behemoths complex. Over the past two decades, companies like Infosys built up fancy US-styled campuses to house thousands of fresh engineering grads to write code as part of the traditional pyramid model that would help bring down cost of software development and maintenance for Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric and Citigroup.
As the outsourcing boom reached its peak during the course of the 2000s and companies grew in high double digits, the likes of TCS, Infosys and Cognizant built up massive workforces to keep up with the pace of demand for software maintenance and development projects.
So massive were these workforces that there were more than a dozen layers from the top to bottom of the organisation, with several layers of mid-management.
Sikka’s experiment is a stab at breaking down these layers. Pundits, though, advise caution.
“In general, it is good to make efforts to reduce unnecessary layers of organisation – but layers, per se, are neither good nor bad. If you flatten the organisation too much, the span of controls becomes too large and sometimes unwieldy, leading to loss of motivation and attrition among employees,” said Sourav Mukherji, a professor with the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.
Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University’s Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, says Infosys is better off focussing its energies on larger issues of technological disruption.