Infosys, Indian Hockey and Chinese Table Tennis

Shishir Prasad
Updated: Dec 18, 2012 06:19:36 PM UTC

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]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Zq-OHCNx7o[/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.”

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