‘IT genie, make a printer out of thin air,’ What are IT services firms doing different now from a decade earlier?

What technologies are ruling the roost?

There is a look of earnestness about Immanuel Kingsley when he asks, “When your product is several tonnes in weight and many feet in breadth and height, how do you simplify your demo, presales and sales processes?”

Mr. Kingsley, VP and head of innovation at IT services firm Hexaware Technologies, ushers you into his tech lab to demonstrate his work in an area that is still evolving. His team members, who look young enough to have been recent students at university, help you wear a pair of enormous goggles that shuts out the external world. And bingo! Where there was bare floor a moment earlier, you see a large printing machine. You can now power it up and down, open and shut compartments, fiddle around with the printer’s ink combinations… without touching the machine in reality.

‘Most exciting project’

“This is the most exciting project we are doing right now,” said R. Srikrishna, CEO, Hexaware. The IT service provider’s client, which makes large-scale printers, is using Hexaware’s virtual reality service to cut costs in presales. “My client’s customers want a demo of these large machines at their own site before deciding to purchase, because they want to evaluate how it would fit in with their line of work. They want their people to touch and feel, and use it. We have built a virtual reality [VR] solution for this to make it feel realistic.”

‘IT genie, make a printer out of thin air,’ What are IT services firms doing different now from a decade earlier?

Capital required even in demo equipment for such products runs into millions of dollars, Mr. Srikrishna said. “A solution like ours quickens the process of a demo; the cost of shipment plummets ... just moving a real machine from inside the room to the exit gate of the factory can cost you ₹50,000 for the physical equipment. With our VR solution, you can do a demo tomorrow.”

The company is also mixing social media with virtual reality technologies to offer benefit. “A client participates in three trade shows per quarter to showcase their products,” said Mr. Kingsley. “The constraint is the client cannot ship every product to every show. With our VR solution, our client’s prospective customer at the trade show walks into a virtual demo centre, wears a headset, and based on his requirements, gets the right solution or product.” What if the company representative at the show does not know answers to specific queries? “The expert based at headquarters, using his laptop or smart phone with a camera, can virtually enter the chat room and answer queries. He is said to have been ‘teleported’ into the chat room.” Reminds you of Harry Potter?

The third aspect of innovation for Hexaware is around voice. Its healthcare app on the Amazon Alexa appstore can help diagnose a user’s illness based on your answers to questions that it asks. Using artificial intelligence, it can change the structure of questions to help diagnosis. In addition, it uses natural language processing capability and voice recognition. “We leverage the technology that Amazon offers,” said Mr. Kingsley.

Ten years ago, the most exciting projects were ERP implementation, or a five-year application outsourcing contract which consolidated groups of apps or a five-year infrastructure outsourcing contract, Mr.. Srikrishna said. “At the time, the ‘early’ projects were say, an e-commerce platform, which were typically lost in the client organisation, as they were too small and the people on it were not really on the radar of top management in client firms.”

Today, the form and shape of each had changed, he said. “ERP implementation is a cloud or hybrid implementation. No one does big monolithic projects. These have got splintered.” Application outsourcing still happens, but the initial phase of consolidation is all done and now automation is the focus. “Infrastructure management has seen the maximum change among all, because of the underlying tech. There, the rate of change of moving to the cloud is the maximum.”

‘Consulting, not skills’

“Earlier, engagement was limited to providing skills,” said Jagdish Mitra, chief strategy and marketing officer, Tech Mahindra. “Now, the client wants to know how the tech partner can help him decide, ‘what products and services I should launch’… If a client wants an SME vendor to use the client’s network better, he would seek a solution around IoT, data centre and cloud centre.”

Decision support systems or resource planning systems earlier alerted users to status of materials available, he said. “Now, predictive analytics tells you when and where to sell which of your products, and accordingly what components to source at what time. You take action only when the system tells you to.”

Market research changes

Data analytics is playing a major role in decision-making using data outside the enterprise, too. “Social listening has changed a lot,” said Pramad Jandhyala, co-founder of data analytics firm LatentView Analytics. “Ten years ago, it was about text mining and capturing sentiment.” Now, she said, the emphasis was more business-centric than on sentiment analysis.

“We are working with a food company to identify new flavours to launch. We listened in on social media conversations around which restaurants people ate at, their recommendations etc. Now companies want to see what they can learn from what people are saying rather than merely understanding if they are saying good or bad things about a product.”

This has changed the entire market research process, according to her. “Earlier, a food company would go to a panel of chefs and focus groups to see what product to launch. In that model, people didn't tell you anything unless you asked a question. Now, you don’t ask any questions, only study trends.” Her firm has helped a client decide in favour of flavours from Peru, Thailand, Korea and Nepal. “A decade ago, Latin American flavours were the rage.” Without data analysis, catching on quickly to changing tastes may not have been possible.

“A decade ago, companies were only tracking the number of followers on social media, the channels through which they came…” Now, LatentView is working with a technology major to help understand what its competition is doing. “Some 100,000 live users have agreed to put some kind of software on their machines so that every click of theirs is recorded.

“We help analyse this data to see how competing products are changing and how users deploy those products.” Computing speed, infrastructure needed to look through this data, the visualisation and the automation tools we have today were not available ten years ago.

The good news for the industry is that newer technologies, which saw experimenting with at the edges of the industry, are now becoming mainstream. In a recent interview, the MD of India’s largest IT services firm TCS, Rajesh Gopinathan, said adoption of digital technology by enterprises was moving from the periphery to the core. “[This] is a big shift,” he said.

Malcolm Frank, executive vice president, strategy and marketing, Cognizant, echoed the thought.

‘Intelligence, at scale’

The IT services firm has traditionally referred to its digital solutions as the SMAC stack — spanning the Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud space. “SMAC is a given today. About 2-3 years ago, it might still have been a buzzword, but no more,” he said.

“Client pilots using digital technologies have been happening at the department level, and especially for departments such as marketing, which are customer facing.”

And success with such pilots is encouraging enterprises to take new technologies to their core. Asked how he would describe the change in the past decade, he said, “In 2007, we were building systems of record. Today, we are building systems of intelligence at a much bigger scale.”

Along with scale, clients are using new technologies to make processes more efficient. “Changes have been happening at the process layer. How clients rethink their processes [is key],” said Mr. Frank.

End customers of IT client organisations are demanding experience that is intuitive and simple. “Two key pillars to a client’s business model is customer experience and change the business [model]. If you have to go digital, you need those two.”

“And, for IT services companies to help clients with the above two, you have to show up with industry expertise. Blockbuster was a great company but had no supporting business model in its fight against Netflix.” The ideal now is to have ‘Amazon’s price and Google’s speed’. “Your business model has to enable price and speed,” said Mr. Frank.

The pace of change is also making clients look to vendors for suggestions. “A client recently told me that people don’t any more have the capability to define what they want,” said Mr. Srikrishna of Hexaware. “They can look at something and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but to define from scratch as to what they want is not possible any more.”

These changes are also influencing skills that IT firms seek and the way services are delivered. “The biggest focus of the technology customer today is on being able to deliver [quickly] to their end customers,” said Bhanumurthy B. M., president and COO, Wipro. “Second, the problems our clients are trying to solve are multi-dimensional, especially with the focus around how well they can deliver a fantastic experience for their end consumers.”

IT vendors are helping clients change both their methods of working, and the manner in which they get value from their data, he said.

“So the ability to look at the customer holistically, rather than as functions or departments in the organisation, is key. You need to have people capable of delivering good domain consulting for our customers. We see this as the first entry point in a client organisation.”

Delivery of services is also undergoing change, placing pressure on the nature of skills required. IT providers are now betting on agile methodologies. (Agile allows for continuous iteration of software development and testing throughout the lifecycle of the project. Both development and testing activities are concurrent unlike in the traditional, ‘waterfall’ model.) As a concept, agile was meant for small teams that are co-located in the same area. But now, firms such as Wipro and TCS have talked about adopting agile ‘at scale’, a significant change for the industry.

“The Indian project manager (PM) is used to telling the customer, ‘Sir. tell me what you want’,” said Mr. Srikrishna. “He can’t lead the customer to help them figure out what they might want. It’s a structural issue – you have half a million people in your organisation. The mark of leadership has been people management. So you have structures over structures of people who are good at managing the HR aspects of [other] people.”

Agile concepts do not require or recognise a project manager profile. “What is the PM’s role in an agile team? If at all there is an equivalent role, it is the Scrum Master (SM) who actually has to be a developer in the team. It is a self-governing team. Everyone knows what to do. He might have additional duties such as facilitation, but he is possibly the best coder. But, no PM knows to code, because they may consider it to be ‘beneath’ them.”

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 3:25:22 AM |

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