January 2015 | Jai Madan

'Content creation is as important as packaging it'

Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) is a global provider of learning solutions. It is among the top 20 content development companies in the world and over the years, it has been featured among the top 20 training outsourcing companies globally. Founded in 1990, TIS has built an enviable track record of designing solutions that enable organisational initiatives of a wide array of clients, ranging from leading educational institutions to Fortune 500 corporations. TIS ranks among the world’s best e-learning companies with its use of gamification solutions. The organisation’s instructional design methodology is built around the concept of ‘Play, Practice, Perfect’. Kshitij Nerurkar, chief operating officer at TIS, took time out to speak to Jai Madan about the company’s business growth and expanding operations in North America.

What kind of growth has your North American operations witnessed over the past two years?
Our North America operations comprise Canada and the US. While the post-recession era in the US has been steady, our main growth has come from Canada where we have consistently delivered results and acquired bigger and newer accounts. For example, one of the largest wireless telecom companies in Canada, which is in its fifth year of services with over $10 million of business. In the US, the growth has come mainly from banking, retail and telecom sectors.  

What are the projections for the next two years in terms of revenues?
We expect a 10 percent growth during the next two years. This growth will also come from our strategy to penetrate existing accounts rather than opening many doors, which used to be our strategy earlier.  

What are the type of projects and applications that TIS is asked to create? Are these mainly corporate solutions or for education institutions?
One third of our business relates to education and the rest is corporate. In the corporate sector, the biggest area where we have seen a sharp rise is in on-boarding and leadership development. Post-recession, many organisations have begun to re-hire and functional level induction is now a key need — be it a frontline teller operation for a bank or a sales readiness need for a global sales team. On the education front, there is growing awareness towards workforce readiness. One of the key initiatives we are pursuing is opportunities under TAACCCT (stands for Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training). TAACCCT provides grant-based funding, distributed by the US Department of Labor, which is awarded to community colleges to rebuild learning solutions for adults getting ready for employability.

What are your future plans for expanding operations in North America in terms of investments, opening new offices and centres?
One main difference between the learning business and the software business is that here, content creation is as important as the way it is packaged using e-learning technology. There is a growing expectation of providing services nearer to customers so that working with subject matter experts is easier. Our model has become agile over these past few years, and we now provide local programme management and instructional design support to our customers wherever there is a need. That said, the plans to invest in a physical office in America is totally driven by growth in business.

Could you describe the technology advances that TIS has established?
Technology excites us and helps us to keep innovating. When the iPad came out in 2009, we developed a store associate solution for a leading brand in eye-care to train their staff in a mobile environment. Similarly when Unity 3D introduced the ‘first person shooter’ feature, we utilised the technique in developing action simulations such as in nursing or plant operations and first responder training. Presently, our design centres are experimenting with performance support simulations using Google Glass. We built the first personalised learner centric environment in partnership with Alcatel-Lucent under their technology in learning initiative. These are just some examples where any new technology introduced to the market has been quickly adopted by TIS to create learning applications. Given the size and experience, this is an ability that a handful of learning companies around the world might be able to demonstrate and we are one of them. 

What are the new trends in learning solutions? How has technology and digital media pushed the envelope?
Miniaturisation, mobility and multi-modal are three trends that have begun to significantly influence learning solutions. Until a few years back e-learning was longer in duration; to expect a course that is an hour long was not unusual. Now, even a 20 minute long e-learning programme cannot ensure the attention span of the new age learner. So formats like learning nuggets are now becoming necessary. Packaging the essence into 2-3 minutes of learning module is a trend that will shape the way content is consumed.

Mobility is the other trend. Although people have talked about it for many years it is now becoming a reality. This adaption is going to become stronger towards phones than tablets as newer devices like the iPhone 6 sweep the market. A related shift that the digital media space witnessed was the displacement of a software tool called Flash. Until three years back Flash was the only engaging authoring tool for development. Today, as mobile devices gain domination for learning delivery, HTML 5 based delivery and other rapid development tools like Storyline have gained share.

The last trend is multi-modal delivery. Learning is no longer just formal. Social and informal elements have gained much more prominence. There is a growing reliance on collaborative and peer-to-peer learning that leverages technologies. Newer standards on inter-operability such as Tin Can, xAPI have come into play to gear delivery of learning in various blends and delivery modes.   

The company recently won an award for the associate degree in nursing programme developed for Excelsior College under the online technology in higher education category. Could you tell us about this award and the programme?
Excelsior College is a private, non-profit online college that provides educational opportunity to adult learners with an emphasis on those historically underrepresented in higher education. Along with other courses, the college offers a flexible, exam-based associate degree in nursing that allows students to study on their own schedule and earn college credits through theory and performance examinations.

Excelsior College got TIS to design and develop eight innovative and appealing courses that make up the nursing theory portion of the associate degree in nursing course. The resulting programme uses rich media and solid pedagogy to give students an immersive and engaging experience as well as put it in a structure with ample support and guidance from faculty.

Each course contains a mixture of scenario-based and story-based tutorials, games and simulations with a high level of interaction, and a large number of animations and practice activities. The first course of the initial pilot opened to students in September 2012 and the first batch just completed the two-year programme in June 2014. The course increased student engagement and retention beyond expectations. The programme was recognised with a gold award under the Best Custom Content category at the Brandon Hall Excellence Awards 2013 and also won a silver award from the United States Distance Learning Association 2014 International Awards.

Could you elaborate on the corporate sustainability practices at the North America operations?
The North America presence for TIS is largely driven by sales operations. Most of our sustainability practices are coordinated from India. However, as a company, we always try to participate in activities related to education for sustainability.

Fact file: Tata Interactive Systems

  • US operations began in 2000; Canada operations began in 2005.
  • Three offices in USA and one in Canada.
  • Number of employees in North America: 17.
  • Key clients and projects: Rogers, Bank of America, Citi, Holland America, World Bank, General Mills.


This article is part of the cover story chronicling the Tata group's history of doing business in North America, featured in the January 2015 issue of Tata Review:
Tata Consultancy Services: 'United States is a hotbed of digital progression'
Jaguar Land Rover: 'North America is a critical market place for JLR'
Tata Chemicals: 'We are investing in the technologies of tomorrow'
Tata Steel Minerals Canada: 'Tata Steel navigates subarctic challenges'
Tata Technologies: 'We have to get to a billion dollars quickly'
Tata Communications: 'Strategy 2.0 will make us a value–added service player'
Indian Hotels Company: 'We are the keepers of heritage and legacy'
Tata Global Beverages: 'The team is excited about the opportunities ahead'
Tata Elxsi: 'We are unique among engineering service providers'
Tata Sons: 'We promote the group's business in North America'