Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | A new acronym for the Indian IT enterprise: RIDE

We may be at the spear-tip of nex revolution: Re-Imagining a Digital Enterprise

Most of us in the business world are stuck in the rut of daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly deadlines and planning cycles. For the privileged few who are freed of these short cycles and are responsible for an organization’s strategy, it is the future that beckons. Those who act as consultants to these responsible few paint a future of fear, uncertainty and doubt to maximize their consulting pickings. To them, the past is dead. I believe, however, that almost everything we seek to do in the digital world has been done before, all we need to know is where to look.

In the 1980s, Xerox Corp. was fast losing market share to Japanese rivals such as Ricoh. Xerox’s patent protection, and its brilliant pricing methodology that prised out more money from heavier users of its machines by using meter-based billing, had run out as competitive advantages. The Japanese attacked relentlessly with more reliable machines. Xerox, which in its hubris had by then diversified, of all things, into financial services like insurance, investment banking and insurance, had to fight back hard. It focused itself on bringing process quality to everything it did. Under David Kearns, who was still the chief executive officer when I joined this first-class company in the US, it focused on “Leadership Through Quality" (LTQ). In 1989, Xerox won the Malcolm Baldrige award, and LTQ birthed an entire sub-industry of consultants focused on efforts such as “Six Sigma" and “Benchmarking". In a few years, LTQ wasn’t enough. Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote a book about “Business Process Re-engineering" (BPR), which again got companies worldwide into a tizzy again about examining each one of their business processes and changing them from the inside-out.

BPR kicked off another consulting boom and caused the enormous success of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) firms such as Oracle and SAP, which as a part of their software, mapped and mandated new business processes for almost every part of a company’s operations.  Ironically, the article that spawned the book and the BPR revolution was published in 1990 in the Harvard Business Review by Hammer and was titled “Re-engineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate", in which he claimed that the major challenge for managers is to obliterate forms of work that do not add value, rather than using information technology (IT) for automating it. The ERP software revolution came about despite this admonition! 

The continuing success today of robotic process automation (RPA) software and RPA integration firms perpetuates the misunderstanding of Hammer’s original thesis. So, I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that there are thinkers among India’s IT community who are following Hammer’s credo by helping their clients obliterate work rather than just automate it. One such is Satya Ramaswamy, until recently with Tata Consultancy Services Ltd and now an executive vice-president with Mindtree.

Ramaswamy says he gets his teams focused on fundamentally reimagining an enterprise by focusing on six different dimensions: business models, business processes, (customer) offerings, market segmentation, sales channels, and the expertise of the enterprise. He says that this is still germane since up to 75% of the world’s organizations remain untouched by “digital", which he defines as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things, blockchain, RPA and augmented/virtual reality. Of these, he says, the most difficult is to truly reimagine the use of AI to benefit the enterprise in non-traditional areas. He gave several examples.

For instance, one of the world’s largest grocery retailers needed to reduce point-of-sale related fraud. This fraud represents a complex behavioural challenge; internal pilferage represents one-third of all the retail shrinkage at the point-of-sale, especially for liquor. No practical solutions are available other than manual security. Ramaswamy and team are using computer vision techniques imbued with machine learning to micro-classify events at the point-of-sale and have already delivered a $25 million shrinkage in fraud. The micro-classification allows for a manual checker to only inspect a smart representative sample of events rather than everything. This obliterates work, it doesn’t just automate it. If India’s IT outsourcing industry can pivot to produce more of the types of solutions that Ramaswamy has managed to pull off, we may just find ourselves at the spear-tip of the next revolution: Re-Imagining a Digital Enterprise or “RIDE".

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund
management company focused on deep science and tech in India.