IT is dead! Long live IT!
Is India's IT revolution just about cheap labour and repetitive coding? Is there a need for innovation and business orientation? An IT entrepreneur tries to answer these questions tongue-in-cheek, reports Sunil Malhotra.Updated: Sep 20, 2007, 21:20 IST
I love oxymorons, – and they have nothing to do with airy idiots – retrofuturism, hitech fashion, mass customisation, happily married … the list goes on. I've just added Information Technology.
Before jumping to the conclusion that this article is a proclamation of accession or another attempt at sensationalisation, I provoke you to disagree vehemently. How can IT be dead? Surely not Indian IT! The revolution has just about begun. If this were a multiple-choice question, I would answer 'All of the above'.
While on exams, remember when we used to poke fun at a teacher who had the reputation of awarding marks by the number of extra sheets you took? How we could make the clever guys look stupid! I'm thinking that this is exactly what we've gone and done to Indian IT today.
We're playing into the customer's – especially the Western lot's – seductive advances. In the IT services business, we've created an India brand that is based on competition not cooperation; sweat not intelligence; aping not shaping; and we're attracted to the limelight they've switched on to blind us. Indian IT has become the metaphor of mindlessness. As for IT products out of India: what was that?! Embarrassed? Angry? Don't let's just be. Let's do something about it.
Since we stand today at the far end of history, Indian IT is perhaps best understood by tracing its evolution from the time Y2K (Year 2000 problem on date fixing) came centrestage. The two-digit date field ominously stood before the owners of mammoth, sensitive databases.
Threatening the very existence of IT at the stroke of midnight, December 31st, 1999. With their fingers on the panic button, the US industry figured that it would need some zillion hands to correct the problem. India readily rose to the challenge and used the opportunity to set up body barracks. 'English-speaking cheap labour' was the need of that hour. In the seven long years post the fizzling of Y2K, we're still happy projecting ourselves as the '200,000 English-speaking pairs of hands a year'.
Every business aims to reduce costs. Margins are shrinking they say. It's simple third grade supply-demand mathematics. Help me understand this – if I increase supply ten-fold, could I reduce costs by 90 per cent? Maths or no maths, costs will eventually bottom out. And they have. BPO, KPO, LPO (Business process/knowledge process/legal process outsourcing—for uninitiated) are all morphed acronyms for a model of services that depend on scalability of head-count. In other words, it is all about getting Indian workers and making them do routine work efficiently. In software, it was about coding. In BPO it is about customer calls and accounting. In KPO, it has so far mainly been about data-based analysis.
However, there's a quality dimension that depends on enhancing customer value. The difference in value creation lies between repeatable work and intelligent innovations and additions that makes the whole thing acquire a new meaning. That is where Indian IT, in general, has been lacking – although there are quite a few exceptions to the rule in the industry that employs more than 16 lakh workers.
Value means many things at once. Better experience, faster to market, less back-and-forth discussions with clients, risk-sharing … amongst other things. The problem is that traditional accounting does not have a column on its spreadsheet that shows the money value of "value," in this sense. As a result, all the aspects of 'ways of working' get obscured in the face of reported bottom-line numbers. Any guesses why mediocrity keeps us in our comfort zones? Or should that be vice versa?
Not so long ago I had a "Brother" who was my constant companion. In those days we didn't know that words could be processed. So we had to type. My "Brother" (OK, for the new generation—that was an electronic typewriter brand) was the guy I had to relentlessly punch at for professional communication. An accomplished typist could churn out 40 words a minute. Some of those guys took to a computer keyboard without as much as the bat of an eyelid. My guess is that some of them typists became IT guys. From key punches the measure became lines of code. That's all. My "Brother" is dead. Long live IT!
So let's ask any serious user (why serious … ask any software user) about their experience in working with IT and she'll tell you how frustrating it can be to be 'sold' something that promises that her work will be easier, faster, error-free and great, only to find that she has to spend so much time 'learning' the tool. Why would I want to learn how to use a power hammer and put myself to other risks? How should I care that carpenters can do their work faster? Why should it matter that it has some fancy safety features that could prevent injury? Especially when all I want to do is to hang an artwork on the wall. Faster, easier, error-free? My good old hammer will do just fine, thank you. Gone are the days when IT was a big deal. I might as well add: IT is dead! Long live IT!
Don't get me wrong. I'm no outsider. I 'am Indian and my company, is squarely into IT services. The only thing we've done is to keep a sharp focus on the 'psychological well being of the end-user'. It's that simple really! We've found that there's absolutely no point in complicating the users' lives by asking for definitions, specifications, platforms or whatever else. If they knew how to figure out all the stuff, they wouldn't need us, would they?
Well, it is true that we are burdened with illiteracy and an exploding population, but what I also know is that there are highly enlightened professionals and talented leaders. These are the people who – in my view – should take it upon themselves to highlight to the world, the value of the Indian ethos. Intellectual ability coupled with excellent educational institutions have put India on the map as a serious contender for providing powerful and human-oriented knowledge solutions on top of our proven technical prowess. We probably qualify as the best partners in realising the world's knowledge dream. In plain English, we must learn to solve business problems for clients and create products and services that address them smartly, simply. IT is not about writing code or providing tools—it is about making the client forget both and get on with business.
I quote from Richard Bach's Illusions – 'What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly'! Long live IT!
(The author is the CEO & Founder President of Ideafarms, a design-led IT services company based in New Delhi)