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Demystifying ‘digital’, the Mindtree way

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-05-2017 Siddharth Pai

The term “digital” has come to represent all the changes that are now sweeping across the information technology (IT) landscape. It is the holy grail promised by IT service providers; however, pinning someone down to a precise definition of what the word really means is a fool’s errand. Many firms obfuscate their communications to onlookers like you and me by using the term injudiciously, making it easy for their spokespeople to define anything as belonging to the “digital” world.

Let me step back a bit. The dictionary defines the term as an adjective, “as it relates to signals or data, expressed as series of the digits 0 and 1, typically represented by values of a physical quantity such as voltage or magnetic polarization”. By that definition, since almost all computing today is based on the binary values of 0 and 1, these two representing the values that a transistor chip can take on at any time, it follows that anything that uses electronic technology—from the lowly hand-held calculator to the most powerful mainframe running Artificial Intelligence (AI) software is “digital”.

In today’s parlance, it has come to mean newer technologies with ultra-fast deployment cycles that threaten to upend the older monolithic systems that have proliferated at corporations all over the world. These technologies are loosely grouped under the social networking, mobile, analytics and cloud categories, and “digital” has come to mean work that is accomplished across one or more of these four categories, at lightning speed. Unsurprisingly, it is the Internet hegemony of Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft that’s leading this race into the future.

How then do IT services providers, who are one step removed from these technology titans, make a mark in this new world? Not by using the fungible nature of money to adjust how corporate disclosures are made by moving money into one bucket from another just to be able to christen it “digital”, but by squarely facing the change and actually delivering. To that end, in a smattering of my future writings, I will attempt to share what I have heard from IT services industry leaders about this topic, and to try to snap into focus what they see as “digital”, largely by recounting real-life examples of what they have already accomplished in this new world, since deeds speak louder than words or reallocated numbers.

Today is the turn of Rostow Ravanan, co-founder and now CEO of Mindtree Ltd, with whom I had an exhaustive conversation on this topic recently. His company claims to have been “born digital” and has a fair share of hi-tech industry clients, some of them from among the technology titans I have listed above. Ravanan shared that his view is that about 30% of today’s work can be categorized as “digital”, with the remaining 70% dedicated to keeping the lights on by managing older systems. He was candid enough to share that for now at least, when one looks at the industry overall, traditional “factory” oriented services are decelerating faster than “digital” is accelerating. He said that while historically technology has deflated other industries, it has now set about deflating itself. To understand this, imagine a snake that is in the process of eating its own tail.

While others may see this as cause for alarm, to me this is analogous to taking a turn while driving a car at speed—you decelerate while entering the turn, and accelerate at the top of it. Despite the comments about the industry in general, Ravanan is bullish and feels that organizations like his can make the turn, if they point the steering wheel in the right direction.

He provided several examples of how his firm has tried to accelerate out of the curve, but I will only highlight one here. His team rapidly changed the “cart abandonment rates” on a home-grown e-commerce solution at one of his firm’s manufacturing clients. The team found that this abandonment rate was because the e-commerce front end was unable to promise a delivery date to the customer, since the e-commerce store front didn’t know where the end-product was when the customer clicked to place the order. The nearest end-product could be anywhere—at the manufacturer’s warehouses, distributors’ storage units, or at retailers close to the end customer. The team set about building simple plug-ins into the monolithic distribution and logistics systems of this manufacturer, thereby parsing and analysing the data before making it available to the front end seen by the end customer. This simple set of fixes allowed the e-commerce system to predict delivery dates accurately, thereby causing the “cart abandonment rate” to drop and more sales to be completed.

This sort of work is naturally antithetic to the effort-based paradigm still in vogue at many large service providers. It only requires small teams of creative workers who are also adept at their client’s own business and doesn’t require throwing hundreds of people at the problem. It also demands a decidedly different skill set than what most of the workforce at “factory” oriented IT service providers has today. It needs true customer intimacy, where the programmer is as much of an expert in the business of his or her customer as in the tools and techniques of the programming trade. Just being a consultant or a creative type doesn’t help either—it’s not enough to be able to identify the problem and suggest a way out, you also need to be able to build the technical solution.

Those who are just now graduating from college are much more suited to this world than the generation that preceded them. These 22- and 23-year-olds intuitively grasp the intricacies of the digital world. In some sense, they were “born digital”, as Mindtree claims it was. Most of these graduates grew up in a socio-economic milieu far different from people 10 or 15 years their senior, and have themselves been lifelong consumers of the Internet and its spawn. In their hands lies the key.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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