Shortage of expertise a damper for India’s R&D ambitions

Shortage of expertise a damper for India’s R&D ambitions
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First Published: Thu, Jul 09 2009. 10 32 PM IST

 Teething problems: A Dell Inc. facility in Tennessee, US. Multinational firms say the curriculum followed by the majority of engineering institutions in India is neither industry-ready nor tailored f
Teething problems: A Dell Inc. facility in Tennessee, US. Multinational firms say the curriculum followed by the majority of engineering institutions in India is neither industry-ready nor tailored f
Updated: Thu, Jul 09 2009. 10 32 PM IST
Bangalore: As India’s dream of moving up the value chain in the tech industry is slowly realized, its giant bite into the research and development apple has led to some teething troubles.
An English-speaking population and a job-hungry country—once enticements enough to attract outsourcing to India—are no longer adequate as local arms of tech multinationals crank up R&D operations.
Teething problems: A Dell Inc. facility in Tennessee, US. Multinational firms say the curriculum followed by the majority of engineering institutions in India is neither industry-ready nor tailored for R&D needs. Harrison McClary / Bloomberg
Coupled with these challenges, expertise that is barely a decade old is limiting the scope of development of cutting-edge technology from India. “If you look at experienced talent, the people who have spent 15, 20, 25 years in product development, that bench is still thin in India,” said Noshir Kaka, director at McKinsey and Co., a consultancy firm.
While the talent pool is large, the absolute value of the engineers in the pool is low—lower than China, for example, Kaka said.
The job-hopping tendency of Indian engineers is another stumbling block in the way of gaining deeper technical knowledge, said Rick Steffens, head of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s systems technology and software division. “We have to make it attractive for engineers to stay with that technology longer, not jumping around from program to program or company to company every couple of years,” he said.
From a research point of view, India’s talent supply is poor, said Guruduth Banavar, head of IBM’s India Research lab. “The total output of PhDs in India is probably about the same as that of a single good university in the US,” he said.
“The supply is poor and the demand has been going up even at the very high ends. And the best folks who could potentially go on for PhDs end up taking jobs because there are so many good jobs available,” he added.
The curriculum followed by the majority of engineering institutions in India is neither industry-ready nor tailored for R&D needs.
The country’s educational system does not support academic or research excellence and lacks good faculty and infrastructure, Banavar said.
India, which has only recently begun dabbling in the fields of computer science and related research, has yet to move toward a curriculum with an experience-oriented approach.
“You see a lack of practical experience—not necessarily of working in a company, but product orientation,” said Srini Koppolu, head of Microsoft Corp.’s India R&D centre in Hyderabad. “Most colleges have a theory-based approach. How much of that theory are you applying to a software development project?” He stressed that only finding talent in university campuses isn’t good enough, and the need is growing for workers who have already helped develop global products.
P. Anandan, Koppolu’s counterpart at Microsoft’s research lab in Bangalore, said multinationals in India will need experienced researchers as they attempt to move up the value chain and move from services to R&D and products.
“If India has to create a vibrant R&D environment in computer science or IT, it has to invest more in research, create more researchers and give them good jobs,” he said.
Rising inflation, competition from other countries and a lack of hardware development initiatives are all added pressure points.
HP’s India operations have a strong cost focus, and Steffens said rising inflation is whittling some of the country’s edge.
India also lacks bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers that set global industry standards to which multinational tech companies often adhere while developing or collaborating on products.
Vivek Mansingh, Dell Inc.’s India country manager, said some of the work done in the Dell R&D centre in Bangalore does not yet match up to the work done at its Austin, Texas, R&D unit, citing the lack of industry standards which possibly also prevents other companies from collaborating to develop globally accepted products.
Collaboration between Dell, Microsoft and Intel is centred on industry standards predominantly set in the US. The lack of similar standards in India limits not only the scope of collaboration between the Indian counterparts of these companies but also higher-value R&D efforts.
“I think in the future a lot of that interaction will move here and standards bodies will form here,” Mansingh said.
S. John Tilak contributed to this story.
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First Published: Thu, Jul 09 2009. 10 32 PM IST