Ideas take the floor

T.E. Raja Simhan
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A feel of the innovation at UST Global

A brainstorming session in progress
A brainstorming session in progress

A meeting with an information technology service company is usually all about loads of presentations, with some industry jargon too, right? Wrong, for it was a different experience at UST Global, a US-based company with development centres across India.

A team of five people welcomed this journalist into a small room at the company's development centre in Chennai. And then, instead of the usual presentation, ‘USsociate' Allen Thomas Varghese started demonstrating the innovation he had done around Microsoft Kinect.

Varghese showcased how Kinect, which allows users to operate the Xbox 360 dashboard console through voice command and hand gestures, can be used as an alternative to the mouse, to operate a personal computer.

The concept could be used in a retail store where people having difficulty in handling a mouse or touch-screen device can wave their hands in front of a PC or a screen to find out details.

As Varghese talked, a Formula 1 toy car criss-crossed the room, and brought alive the concept.

Varghese, who joined UST Global as a fresher in September 2007, has interests in Intuitive User Experiences and Artificial Intelligence. He showed how he could steer the toy car using hand gestures.

Dileep Devapalan, another ‘USsociate', was one of the winners of the ‘Make My App' contest hosted by Nokia. His idea was shortlisted from more than 5,000 entries.

Devapalan's innovation was a document manager application that can use the camera in the mobile phone to take snapshots of documents and convert them into Word/PDF formats. It can save tonnes of paper and was judged an excellent green solution.

Similarly, Renjith Ramachandran's idea was among the outstanding three chosen from over 8,000 ‘brilliant application ideas,' to be converted into real apps and released in Nokia's Ovi Store1.

Varghese, Devapalan and Ramachandran wanted to do something different from the usual software projects, says Murali Gopalan, Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice-President, UST Global. Gopalan is a key architect in driving innovation in the company.

Firing from 3 engines

The company has three engines of innovation. The Apple Tree Lab is an innovation gym where professionals are invited to experiment without fear of mistakes.

‘Eureka!' is UST's Idea Management System and ‘Open Minds' is a collaboration space on the Web.

There is always this notion that IT service providers only write thousands of lines of software code. But at UST Global, “any of the 8,000 employees have the liberty to be innovative. We ask them not only to break their head in solving a client's problem but also break whatever they can to innovate at Innovation Gym,” says Gopalan.

Once the panel of experts feels that an idea has potential to transform into a major product, the company invests $20,000 to $30,000 for further innovation, he adds.

Customer-friendly moves

To provide impetus, the company conducts technical sessions, ‘unplugged' sessions, workshops, Thinkathons (brainstorming sessions), global lecture series on Innovation, among other initiatives.

On how it all began, Gopalan says UST Global officials frequently spoke to leaders in the respective functions, asking them how they could help. Slowly, people began to contribute.

The company organised an “Idea Generator Contest series” and “I have the Solution Contest” where business units were asked to contribute ideas, business proposals, thought leadership articles, business bulletin board posts, et al. The company also asked customers about their expectations. This resulted in a rich database of Intellectual Property.

The company has garnered nearly 18,000 ideas and ‘Eureka!' is still brimming with suggestions. There are nearly 600 ‘unsolicited business proposals', says Gopalan.

Forrester Research, in its “Maximising Innovation from ERP Service Providers; Insights from Nasscom 2010” report, noted that: “Companies like UST Global allow their employees to spend part of their time in a research lab, developing user cases for new technologies.”

For now, the innovation does not bring money to UST Global. However, from next year, the company will have a dedicated team that will look at generating money and share the profits with employees, Gopalan says.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 15, 2011)
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