Infosys, Indian Hockey and Chinese Table Tennis

Shishir Prasad
Published: 11, Aug 2012

I have been a business journalist for 16 years and worked with Business Standard, Businessworld, Economic Times and Forbes India. Most of those years were spent writing on strategy, technology and private equity.

It is hard to not feel sorry for Infosys. For almost 15 years they have been the paragon of performance and governance and now everyone is beating them up. If I were an Infoscion and wanted to feel better I would look at the Indian Hockey Team. The hockey team cuts an even sorrier figure. They have been out of favour with fortune and fame for almost 40 years now.

Both Infosys and the Indian Hockey team have a problem of adapting to a new world. Infosys can’t come to terms with a world of lower margins and higher volumes. Indian Hockey team still can’t adjust to the short pass game and penalty corner expertise needed to win.

Infosys is still a great company and India was once a great hockey nation. Infosys has smart guys at the top who surely understand the dynamic between margin, volumes and market capitalization. Indian hockey team has too many individuals with hockey smarts to lose this badly. So why can’t they get past their issues? The courage to admit that the old way is dead and the willingness to learn new tricks is much harder than it appears. This is even more so for a very successful organization.

Strangely, if there is one organization or system that both Infosys and the Indian Hockey Team would do well to look at would have to be the Chinese men’s Table Tennis (TT) team. Why Table Tennis and why only men’s tournament? While China is good at many sports it has been a powerhouse in table tennis for 40 years. It has never been challenged in the women’s category but in the men’s category there was a time when other nations had its number but the Chinese reinvented their game and became champions again.

Over the course of last three decades Chinese table tennis system has adapted superbly to changing rules and regulations. They have also completely changed the way they play the game in response to the competition around them. This could not have been easy when the challenge arrived in 1985. At that time the Chinese had just started to become the premier force in world of TT, surpassing the European nations like Hungary, Sweden and Poland.

Much of their ascendancy was because of their skills. There was one more factor. The Chinese were very good at using the table tennis racquet to create deception. Table Tennis laws of the time allowed players to use racquets that had two different rubber surfaces but were of the same colour. Depending on the surface used the spin and pace of the shot varies. The Chinese used to twirl the racquet so that opponent was always confused about the surface being used to strike the ball.

Fearing that the Chinese were becoming too dominant, the International Table Tennis Federation changed the Rules. So the rule was changed in 1986 and now the each surface on the racquet needed to have a different colour so that the opponent had a better chance of understanding what the Chinese were sending towards them. This slowed the Chinese down but they still won the world championships held in New Delhi at 1987.

An even bigger threat was to emerge in 1989. A bunch of very, very talented players from Sweden, led by arguably the best player in table tennis history, Jan Ove Waldner, did the unthinkable. They defeated China at the world championship in Dortmund, Germany. For the next six years Sweden was the reigning force. Even other European nations like France and Germany too followed in Sweden’s wake. The secret of Swedish success was their players’ mastery of the shakehand grip. [youtube][/youtube]

The penholder grip allows for a very attacking style of play but has a weak backhand flank. So it needs the player to be very close to the table and puts a high premium on reflexes. The shakehand grip, used by the Swedes, is much more wholesome and has no obvious weaknesses. The flipside is that it requires more defensive capabilities of being able to play away from the table and still be accurate.

The Chinese could have thought the way Infosys and Hockey players do. They could have stuck to the old ways of doing things. But they did something heretic. They went for a complete overhaul of the way they played the game.

They coached their best players to use the new grip and adopt the new playing style. The Chinese started winning at the World Championship again from 1995 and the Chinese who won that year was Kong Linghui, playing in the shakehand grip. Wang Liqin who won the world championship in 2001, 2005 and 2007 too played with the shakehand grip. The current world champion and also the Gold medal winner at London, Zhang Jike too uses the shakehand grip.

While we still talk wistfully about the individualistic and dribble-led game of the old times in hockey and perhaps the Infosys managers talk about the fat margin businesses of the past, the Chinese TT system wasn’t sentimental. They saw what was working. They realized that their current way of doing things would not be able to adapt. They junked it – not totally but in large parts – and adapted to the new grip and the new style. They struck gold.

Fix it before it breaks, but more importantly fix it for sure when you know it is broken. As a Chinese saying goes:  “When the wind of change blows some build walls while others build windmills.”

  • Mumbai Magicians

    Hockey is the game of spirit. Thank you for the post.

    on Feb 2, 2013
  • harpreet

    a very poor corelation...why just because a business , more on perceived lines , is under going a transition...shows how short sighted , even those who write for the top publications are... flip side...come two quarters of handsome growth and all such naysayers will be coarking a different tune ...;)) cheers Harry Read more:

    on Aug 27, 2012
  • Bhaskar

    The apt title for this article would have been "How Chinese TT Bounced Back". Author seems to have figured out that if you want more eyeballs, you need to add the recent hockey losses. But then, you need a tangential connection to move it to "Business & Strategy" section on Forbes, so add Infosys. Business strategy is a fascinating subject that can't be described as naively as 'everyone else is dropping margin and growing so Infosys too should drop margins'. Article seems to suggest that since Chinese Ping Pong players, Jamaican Sprinters, American Swimmers did better, their strategies are relevant to Infosys, Indian Hockey, Tata Motors, ONGC, Kalmadi, Raja and who ever needs help. I can't control my laughter!

    on Aug 13, 2012
  • Ashutosh

    Its a good attempt to talk about Indian Hockey n Infosys together. However, I find it naive when someone draws conclusions sitting in the periphery. Hockey in India suffers from a systemic failure - we have fundamental problems in talent identification to grooming to administration. On the otherhand, when you look at Infosys the problem is different and its not due to margins only. If it were then TCS would not have been growing at the same margins.

    on Aug 12, 2012
  • Gaurav

    I guess the ending statement aptly rounds it today's ever changing and evolving times, the difference between success and has-been is attitiude, adaptability and acceptability to change - you can build walls or windmills, will define where you eventually end up.

    on Aug 12, 2012
  • Ramnath

    Infosys has Rs 22000 crores in Bank deposit, Rs 50000 crores of Real estate assets,0 Debt, Rs 2448 Quarterly profit (Apr-Jun2012). TCS or no other IT company in ASIA is near to it in Cash reserves or assets. TCS alone has surpassed Infosys in few parameters but still Infosys is Best or 2nd Best IT company in ASIA considering various parameters. Media is unnecessarily projecting as if Infosys is a Bankrupt company.

    on Aug 12, 2012
    • Sandeep

      22,000 crores..?? Well, that seems to be a good figure. Tell me one thing - Then where the hell is my yearly hike?

      on Aug 14, 2012
  • Jacob Thomas

    The author cuts a sorrier figure than Infosys or the Indian Hockey Team. A one line summary: "Just like the chinese TT team adapted to the shakehand grip, which was a different but improved method of gripping the table tennis racquet , Infosys needs to adapt to changing market conditions and drop its margins." Why waste so many words?

    on Aug 11, 2012
    • Vaibhav

      this article is very well written... and you really need to be connected to infosys or hockey to understand why so many words are required. nice article i must say.

      on Aug 13, 2012
      • harpreet

        i am connected as an investor and understand Long term changes dont need some short term analyses by naysayers ...including the author...a very poor corelation...why just because a business , more on perceived lines , is under going a transition...shows how short sighted , even those who write for the top publications are...flip side...come two quarters of handsome growth and all such naysayers will be coarking a different tune ...;)) cheers Harry

        on Aug 27, 2012
  • Ashutosh

    Even better examples are Samsung and Nokia....Samsung rode the wave of andriod and Nokia just keeps ignoring even is for everyone to see where samsung is today and where Nokia is headed...

    on Aug 11, 2012
  • Anu Kurian

    We dont need to make any indianised version of any player.... all we need to do is change and adapt..change is not a bad thing. So be it a Infoscion, a hockey player (not that other sports are doing that well)...get on with it!

    on Aug 11, 2012
  • Johnny Agarwal

    I don't know if China is winning TT because of shakehand grip. My thoughts will be that they work at it and take it seriously. It probably has lot to do with culture. Being good at sports cost time money and effort and family back up. If we put as much time as Chinese do in ping pong we can probably do it too, Practice makes you good and this can be applied to anything in life, Sports in India is not looked at the same way as it is in rest of world. Go ask Indian parents if they want their kid to become TT player or a UFC fighter or anything with sports for that matter. Also I don't think the people who deserve the opportunity gets the chance to move up. Yes we are good at becoming Doctors and Software Engineers. If we invest time & money we can produce a few Indian version Michael Phelps.

    on Aug 11, 2012
  • Joy Chakravarty

    Excellent article! The only thing I'd like to point out is that it was easiest for the Chinese TT team to change - they have a bunch of 8-10 players training under government supervisions, staying away from their families for over a period of 4-5 years at a stretch and just play TT, and had to to follow the diktat otherwise face bleak future. That seems impossible to do with the Indian hockey team, or with Infosys. But you are absolutely right that Indian hockey and Infy are both paying the price of not adapting to changing times.

    on Aug 11, 2012
  • Prakash Warty

    Excellent Article. What the author has written about Infosys is absolutely true. Indian hockey died a long time ago. It died when it lost to Netherlands in the finals of the 1973 (or was it 1974 ?) World Cup in Amsterdam in failed penalty hits in the extra time.

    on Aug 11, 2012
  • Farzi Engineer

    I am not sure but I didn't find this blog very conclusive what you have really done is you have clubbed three incidents that have occurred and are still significant together.I think this could have been more generic with couple of more details. But one thing is great, the attempt .

    on Aug 11, 2012
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