"The upheaval of the telecom industry has meant newer and innovative ways to look at continuous education" 

The Indian telecommunication industry is going through an epic phase of disruption and innovation. Papiya Banerjee, Chief Learning Officer and Global Head of Talent Management at Airtel draws an interesting analogy to give us a sense of the upheaval in her industry. “It almost feels like you have a bus that needs to be converted into a Ferrari. Only, you can't stop the bus, because it is continuously in running mode! That is how this last year has been for the telecom industry. As an industry leader, Airtel has played a significant role in this revolution." In an exclusive interview with XEDGlobal, Banerjee shares the challenges faced by Airtel as a market leader in dealing with these shifting sands, and what it means for the people, skills and systems in the organisation. 

What role does executive education play in a massive and ever-changing organisation like Airtel?

Airtel is not only focusing on the innovation challenges of the future, but also on the customer requirements that need to be addressed instantly through a robust consumer insight methodology. The levels of innovation needed are different at different levels and it is crucial that as an organisation we prepare ourselves at all levels through continuous learning, design  thinking, and upskilling. In such an environment, transition of talent is very critical to drive innovation. And for this, executives at all levels need to be trained time and again. Airtel, as an organisation, believes in investing in talent, and that is what continues to give us the lead in the market.

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What specific upskilling and management training needs have you identified at Airtel?

When it comes to training needs we segregate them into different parts. Firstly, there is the need to focus on running the business, where skilling is mainly focused on how we run the current business in the disruptive market. Here the skill focus is on the mindset and attitude for selling our products and services.

Then there is the skill set needed for customer insight. How do you utilise thinking and designing? Here we allow people to innovate, design, and do problem solving. Therefore the training needs differ.

Then there is the technological training, which is grouped under a platform called Digital Airtel. It involves awareness, conducting presentations in a Gurukul, which happens every fortnight. These are the more functional capacity-building training programmes that we undertake.

Another crucial component where training needs are highly increasing is in leadership development, because leadership behaviour of a millennial differs from that of the more experienced group. We, as an organisation, identify and understand this, and are constantly looking for the right leadership training opportunities that we can create.

Can you please elaborate on the leadership development and training opportunities at Airtel?

We provide innumerable opportunities for leadership development. For example we did a programme with the Society for Organisational Learning from Boston, USA. That programme was built around systems thinking. We realised that organisations do not exist on their own; they operate in a system. The programme had a huge impact wherein we reflected on the learnings and built different systems thinking projects to run our business parameters; that is now owned by our CEO.

The second programme we have created is where we identify world leaders in different technologies, and areas of expertise, and send our talent to them to spend a fortnight to learn from those businesses and apply them here in Airtel. We have globally identified a number of organisations where we encourage people to go and visit and learn from them. We also encourage people to be a part of all the innovation meets that are happening.

One thing we definitely do is have strong reflection exercises after each training programme. We did this for an executive development programme where the top 50 people attended.

In the last one year we have seen huge competition in the telecom sector, with companies like Reliance-Jio coming up. There is a huge pressure to reduce costs while maintaining the quality of services.

In this highly demanding time how are you training people on soft skills to keep them motivated, especially top executives?

One of the things that we have been emphasising is to stretch and not to stress. It is not so much about just training them. We also train our executives on resilience. How can they be more resilient? How can they be very adept at adapting to the kind of ambiguity that we are dealing with and also not get stressed out? As HR professionals, we don't just focus on development, but also constant engagement.

In fact, we have monometers -- different conversations that we keep having with people at multiple levels so that we can keep sensing their soft skill needs.

One of the things that we are talking about in the organisation is to take ownership of your career. There are enough and more opportunities -- as soon as we move from ladders to lattices, the opportunities increase for everybody. And we guarantee them executive development programmes depending on what they want and choose.

We have given our executives the freedom to choose the kind of training that suits their learning style. If you want to do an online technical course, you have a platform. If you want to do a certificate course, you are welcome to do that. And all of them are free. So there is no development and training opportunity that our employees can think of and we cannot provide.

In fact we actually thank Jio, because of the pressure that they put, we have created innumerable innovations.