Last week, I started down the path of trying to define what the ‘digital’ future looks like and how information technology (IT) services players see themselves fitting into the future. On the premise that actions speak louder than words, I promised, in some of my writings, to provide a view to the future by describing what IT services companies have already delivered in this new world. While I will need to occasionally regurgitate rhetoric or reallocated revenue numbers to make the point, the focus will be on actual accomplishments.
I want to reiterate that this is a positive set of articles that try to explain the art of the possible in this new world. I truly believe that many of today’s IT services firms can make the turn, if they steer in the right direction. I concede that not all of them will make the turn, and those that don’t might be forced off the road, since as Manas Chakraborty, one of my friends in the industry, pithily states: “A bend is not the end, as long as you’re not going too fast to make the turn."
With that preamble out of the way, let me turn to the focus of this week’s column. I spoke recently with Rishad Premji, chief strategy officer of Wipro Ltd, who for some years now, has been at the helm of managing the vision for the future of his firm. His remit has included Wipro’s mergers and acquisitions (M&A), since as Premji says, these are an important driver that can demonstrate an ‘outside-in’ commitment to the new digital world.
Premji started off by painting an overall picture of the new world and what its principal drivers are. He restated the reality that technology is transforming several industries disruptively, primarily because the end-customers of these industries are technologically savvy, and with the explosion of the internet and handheld devices, now have this technology at their fingertips.
These end-customers are now demanding new ways of being able to interact with Wipro’s clients from among these industries. Retail, for instance, now truly needs to be an ‘omni-channel’ experience; it isn’t just about going into a brick-and-mortar store or instead relying on e-commerce, it is both.
And just as his clients’ end-customers are changing, so are their employees. They are demanding new ways of working, enabled by this fingertip technology. As such, Wipro’s task is now moving away from the building and running of traditionally monolithic systems for the IT department of its clients into one where it instead engages with its clients’ business divisions with small teams of people, who can envision, creatively design, and then build technology solutions that address the new ways that end-customers or employees use to interact with its clients. Its raison d’être now is around helping its clients to drive this journey and iterate through the many versions that will allow them to finally get it right, almost by creating a self-learning set of processes and systems at each of these clients that will continually get better at serving both tech-savvy end-customers and employees.
This led me naturally into a discussion around what Premji’s firm has been able to implement in terms of its own workforce. I have written earlier in this column about how the 1.2 million programmer-strong Topcoder, which is the world’s largest crowd-sourcing platform, or as I prefer to call it, ‘IT marketplace’, was the real crown-jewel at Appirio, a cloud-services firm that Wipro acquired late last year. A member strength of 1.2 million means that at any time, a programmer in Russia could just as easily be working alongside one from Israel, India, or the US, while never having to be an employee of any one company; this allows the best minds to focus on solving technology issues with none of the overhead of long-term employment.
The magic potion here of course, will be Topcoder’s ability to atomize and parse out specific pieces of technology problems and to then reassemble these parts into a cohesive whole as they come back to the platform. Premji shared that this new work ethic has also permeated into Appirio; no presentations are used in Premji’s monthly reviews with Chris Barbin, Appirio’s CEO; a collaborative platform is used instead for all participants in the review so that they get up to speed simultaneously.
I pressed Premji for an actual example of how this outside-in M&A demonstration had really moved the dial, and he gave me a credible, real response. His organization has created a crowd-sourcing platform within itself called Top Gear.
Despite the similarity in the name, and though it works on similar principles, this is distinct from Topcoder since it is designed to work from the inside-out instead of the outside-in. It has over 32,000 members and allows for what Premji calls a ‘hybrid-crowd’, where employees working on knotty technological issues can use physical spaces within the firm as well as the virtual platform—with people in their immediate team, the company overall, its many technology partners, and then with the wider crowd-sourcing marketplace to arrive at the quickest or most elegant solution for a specific technological problem.
The implications of this can be huge, especially considering that similar platforms can also be built at Premji’s clients, thereby allowing them not to enter restrictive, long-term arrangements with services providers.
Topcoder gets smack into the heart of a structural issue about the future of work in the digital world. It is a palpable, new economic construct around the organization of firms and the delivery of work-product—and can be extended into many businesses. Think of it essentially as the Intelligent Age’s equivalent of what ‘job-work’ or ‘ancillary units’ were in the Industrial Age.
Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.