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Dual track digital

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-07-2017 Siddharth Pai

R. Srikrishna, chief executive officer of Hexaware Technologies Ltd, spoke to me recently for the series of columns I am writing on how Information Technology (IT) services providers see the new ‘digital’ era, and how they intend to carve out spaces they believe they can thrive in. What has come as a refreshing revelation to me during my chats is that each provider has a distinct view of the future, and is fashioning a considered response to change, rather than acting out a herd mentality.

Srikrishna defines the ‘digital’ world as having two distinct tracks. The first track is new technology changing how businesses interact with their end customers and the second track is how these technologies transform the fulfilment of services and products to these end customers. 

According to Srikrishna, the best digital strategy is one that addresses both tracks. The tracks need different skills, because the first falls in the world of creative thinking, design, and in completely re-imagining current business models and the second lies in getting the organization’s existing back-end processes and systems to support the redesigned front end. He contends that re-imagining the front end is best left to client organizations themselves, and takes the extreme example of Amazon Inc. to make his point. He says that there isn’t an IT service provider anywhere that can advise the Internet behemoth on how the look and feel of its customer interface needs to be changed. 

But most clients are not as sophisticated as Amazon, so there is room for creative agencies and pure-play design shops to work at helping clients re-imagine and ‘design think’ the front end. Srikrishna feels that Indian IT service providers can’t play in this space since they haven’t, as an industry group, been able to build credible design consulting houses yet. He also believes that almost all this customer facing work is already done, and so the pickings are now very slim. 

That said, advances in other technologies focused on changing the human-to-machine interface will again disrupt today’s status-quo of mobile- and web-driven digital front ends. Since this is a nascent area with no clear leaders, he feels that Indian IT service providers might be able to participate in areas such as natural language and speech processing as they take hold with end consumers and as is usually the case, about 18 to 24 months later,  with the enterprises that serve these consumers.

The other area in the first track which Srikrishna thinks Indian IT service providers have room to manoeuvre in is in the building of systems to derive near real-time insights from vast amounts of data. In the past, providing such insights took several steps: collecting and preparing the data, and then analysing it to arrive at useful predictions. Today’s technology shortens the time taken for these steps. 

He also says that client organizations are coming to terms with an inconvenient truth—the fact that there is probably more consumer data available in public forums than there is within their own enterprise. Finding the publicly available data from sensors, beacons, consumers’ internet and expenditure footprints and so on is not a trivial exercise, and so, the collection and preparation of these new data sources will itself be a significant effort.

The second track, that of transforming existing back end fulfilment processes to mesh with the redesigned front end, is a space with rich pickings for Indian IT in Srikrishna’s view. Most of this meshing will be through building out Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

These APIs work with appropriate pieces of back-end systems to allow the complete user experience to be as fast and as slick as the front-end user interfaces that are now already built out. This transformation of back-end systems will not be a quick exercise and will take three to five years to achieve, thereby giving Indian IT service providers ample time to make the turn into the new world.

This track is distinct from the mundane ‘automation’ work that is focused on running the back-end cost effectively by reducing human effort for its maintenance. Many IT services firms are already incorporating Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in their responses to client requests for such services. RPA, which will get even more effective over the next few years, is already cannibalizing the existing people-based revenue model at IT service providers. This change is inexorable. In my mind, this train is already leaving the station, and those who are not already on it best run alongside the train and heave themselves onto it, even if they lose some of their luggage while doing so, an exercise oft repeated by late passengers every day on India’s railway station platforms. 

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Srikrishna provided some examples of how Hexaware is already playing in the new world, of which a couple caught my attention.

Both emphasize the meshing of the front-end customer-facing channel with back-end service or product fulfilment.

The first was the firm’s work with a skin care provider, one of the world’s largest, which is based on a word-of-mouth multi-level marketing scheme and whose product is unavailable through other channels. In a classic example of meshing the back end with the customer-facing conduit, Srikrishna’s team has worked with this firm to make the fulfilment processes available to the sales representatives who meet prospective customers daily, so that they can accurately promise delivery dates of the product to those who buy.

The second case study was for a Far East-based insurance company. Customers looking for insurance for short-term needs—such as a summer trip to Europe, can directly interface with the back-end systems of this insurer, to get quotes on insurance coverage and to order a tailor-made, ‘bespoke’ policy for themselves before leaving home.

Like the insurer, it appears that Indian IT will find itself back to its original roots: building bespoke systems for client enterprises.

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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