‘The Learning Factory’ doesn’t do justice to Tata legacy

Who played a greater role in building up the Tata Group as it stands today? J.R.D. Tata, or Sumant Moolgaokar, or Russi Modi or Ratan Tata? When did Malaysia gain its independence from the British?

Readers of “The Learning Factory – How The Leaders of Tata Became Nation Builders” (Penguin) will only be half informed after reading this book because it effectively stops at 1989.

How does Malaysia, where the Tatas had a JV, come into this? Did Malaysia gain its independence in 1957 or 1965, the two years mentioned in the book? The country did gain its independence in 1957 and became a republic after uniting with North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore in 1963. The Malaysia of today came about in 1965 after Singapore broke away to form an independent city-state.

“Minor inaccuracies” you say? In a school essay, but not so in a book that Ratan Tata claims is “full of anecdotal stories that offers different teachings and lessons for students, business professionals, as well as those curious about the Tata way of business” and “gives a new insight into the group’s leadership and strategy and helps better understand its value-driven business”.

There is one major problem, though. These bits of wisdom are scattered like confetti — and are often repetitive — through the book, raising the question: What is the sum of the whole?

Then, there is the mess surrounding the abrupt sacking of Cyrus Mistry as Chairman of the Tata Group after only four years on the job in 2016 and Ratan Tata briefly reassuming the position he had vacated in 2012. The reverberations of this continue to be felt today and makes one wonder about the “teachings” the book offers.

Also, how is it that someone who rose high in the Tata hierarchy in his 25 years with the Group, turned around a rocky JV in Malaysia, worked as a consultant in the US for 10 years, headed a prominent strategic consultancy in India for eight years and was a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission for five years and is generally considered a thought leader come to write such an insipid account of largely his own journey rather than what the title implies?

And finally, one can ignore the author’s lack of writing skills but how does one forgive the publishers for letting this pass and not doing a better job with the editing?

The author, Arun Maira, begins from a rather lofty pedestal.

“The late twentieth century concept of capitalism – that the business of business must only be business — when combined with the nineteenth century concepts of philanthropy — accumulate a lot of wealth and give back some – cannot provide solutions to the twenty-first century’s systematic challenges. Fragile ecosystems and lop-sided economic growth demand a paradigm shift in the concept of business responsibility.

“The paradigm shift will begin with the redefinition of the purpose of business. A business’s core purpose cannot be to serve its investors. An ethical business must nourish the society and natural environment from which it receives its sustenance. Therefore, a business must measure its performance primarily by what value it provides society. This was J.R.D. Tata’s orientation,” Maira writes.

This is no doubt Ratan Tata’s orientation too, when it comes to nourishing society, as it is of Infosys’ N.R. Narayana Murthy and Wipro’s Azim Premji.

That’s it? Why only three who are willing to give back to society?

Sudha Murthy, Narayana Murthy wife and head of the Infosys Foundation that has a corpus of Rs. 400 crore, provided an answer at the annual Penguin Lecture last year, a highpoint in the capital’s literary calendar:

“It will take time. These things take time. The mindset has to change. But I have found the next generation is a lot more large-hearted. I am sure that in the next 50 years, a lot more people in our country will do a lot more than has been done in the last 20 years”, she said.

Fifty years? That’s two generations hence!

There was also the question of where the money was going, Murthy said not spelling it out but implying that was it reaching the people for which it was intended – but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

To get back to the book.

“J.R.D. Tata nurtured leaders. He picked men who had vision and a fire in their belly to realise those visions. He gave them the freedom to shape their enterprises, provided they honoured the Tata values of fairness to all stakeholders, excellence in whatever they did, and respect for the dignity of all human beings. Amongst the many great leaders that Mr Tata nurtured, the greatest was Sumant Moolgaonkar, Mr Tata said,” the author writes.

There’s also the fact that under J.R.D.’s leadership, “the Group grew from fourteen to as many as ninety-five enterprises and became India’s largest industrial conglomerate”. Under his guidance, the Tata Trusts established Asia’s first cancer hospital, the Tata Memorial Centre for Cancer Research and Treatment in Bombay in 1941. He also founded the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS, 1936), the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR, 1945) and the National Centre for Performing Arts.

Moolgaokar is considered the architect of Tata Motors, whose precursor was the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO) and of which he was the Chief Executive; he was also the Vice Chairman of Tata Steel. To him goes the credit of creating from scratch a brand new factory at Pune in Maharashtra whose products include trucks, vans, coaches, buses military vehicles, passenger cars, sports cars and construction equipment and a state-of-the-art skills training centre – both of which serve as benchmarks even today. Moolgaokar termed this the eThe Learning Factory’ from which the book takes its name and on which it its majorly focussed.

Rusi Mody was largely responsible for integrating the Group’s mining operations and ensuring steady supplies for Tata Steel and TELCO (and later Tata Motors) – and held a variety of senior positions in the group.

Under Ratan Tata, 60 per cent of the Group’s revenue came from its overseas operations.

There were others too – Homi Bhabha built the institutes of fundamental research, Darbari Seth built the chemical plants and also founded the Tata Environmental Research Institute (TERI) and F.C. Kohli “had the vision of a computer software enterprise” which grew into the giant Tata Consultancy Serivces (TCS) – but they get only a line in passing.

To this extent, the book can be considered a tribute to Moolgaokar – which is richly deserved – but makes the subtitle rather misleading. “My Years With The Tatas” would have been more appropriate – and factual. To this extent, the book doesn’t do justice to the Tata legacy.