Back to the Future

of the most intriguing cartoons that her-alded the arrival of the new millennium
was by RK Lakshman in The Times of India. He showed the Year 2000 as an old man
trooping out of the frame and the Year 2001 as an even older man coming in
wearily into the scene. How true this prediction is. We may be in a New Year and
at the dawn of a new millennium, but the issues facing us are significantly more
daunting than they were in early 2000.

We have a menu of woes to choose from. A poor domestic economy, now further
slammed by a devastating earthquake. A slowdown in domestic hardware sales. A
veritable war for talent being fought in the human resource departments of IT
firms across the country and the unpredictable scenarios that may result from a
slowing down of the US economy. A recent Morgan Stanley Dean Witter survey of
150 American CIOs showed that the growth in IT spending was likely to be at
least a third less than the growth in 2000. While many CIOs said that
outsourcing was the answer to the challenges that shrinking budgets would
create, a majority also felt that they would take the safe route of working
through the Andersens and IBMs of the world, rather than experiment with new
vendors in an uncertain scenario.

India’s software chieftains are taking heart from the continuing flow of
offshore project business from overseas clients. And there’s the expectation
that a strong economy in the UK and many parts of Western Europe would mitigate
the impact of the expected “soft landing” of the US Economy. But there’s
no doubt that it will take very clear focus and aggressive marketing to sustain
and grow medium-size software companies in this year. They would need to rely a
lot less on “staffing services” and far more on technology development
through partnering with Fortune 500 technology majors. And through reliable
e-commerce offerings developed for large, medium and small clients, with
commercial flexibility in providing the solution. Completely-paid for projects,
IP licensing, and hosting through an ASP model, are all opportunities to be

Solutions 2001

The major opportunities emerging still seem to be in partnering with CIOs,
not just in the US and Europe but also in Asia and even in India, to build the
“digital nervous system” that Bill Gates had talked about back in
1999. It is interesting to study some of the rules for succeeding in the digital
age that Gates had mentioned in his book Business @ The Speed of Thought, and
see how recent events have shaped their relevance to the needs of the millennium

  • Use e-mail extensively

  • Capture sales data online, at

  • Turn passive data into active

  • Build virtual teams through
    digital tools

  • Route customer complaints

  • Redefine organization boundaries
    using digital communication

  • Eliminate the middlemen

  • Help customers solve their own

The first imperative is that of using e-mail. It is amusing to note that even
in the US, a study has shown that while over 70 percent of CEOs use e-mail, 18
percent are still used to secretary-assisted e-mail, while over 10 percent are
still e-mail-phobic. Corporate India, with even non-IT chiefs like Anand
Mahindra and Harsh Goenka tapping away merrily on their keyboards, is not
lagging in that respect at least.

However, there is still a lack of appreciation of the fact
that e-mail proliferation is just the tip of the iceberg, and cannot be a
substitute for a full-blown knowledge management system within the organization.
E-mail enables collaboration but does not facilitate acquisition, storage,
dissemination and the use of explicit and tacit knowledge–about employees,
shareholders, partners and customers across the organization.

Knowledge exchange needs both technology and culture. One
cannot be a substitute for the other. The other is the willingness to share
knowledge and make the processes of the organization less dependant on the
individual brilliance of one or few persons. Intelligent deployment of groupware
and collaborative computing tools like Exchange and Notes are also a great
supplement to enterprise knowledge portals. But they will be effective only if
collaboration is seen as a cultural necessity rather than merely a technological

Linking to partners and customers

A truly successful modern-day organization does not limit its
sphere of influence to its internal employees or to its physical
brick-and-mortar confines. The enterprise knowledge portal may well be the heart
that pumps energy through the organization, but the digital nervous system has
to extend to every supplier, subcontractor, dealer and distributor. The tactile
sensory capability has to touch every present and future customer.

In its early days, supply chain management tended to be
positioned as an expensive Fortune 500 tool. But the advent of ASPs and low-cost
license tolls have made it easy for every organization to digitally link up all
value chain collaborators, and conduct every stage of the transaction through
the Internet. Maturing of public key infrastructure and digital signatures in
many countries has made e-commerce a reality–and more important, a
value-for-money reality available to the small and medium enterprise as well as
to the large corporation.

Customer delight too has become a technologically enabled
reality, not just for the Fedex, Cisco and Dell type organizations, but even for
young companies who have realized that there is more to the Internet than a
pretty Web site. Today, customers are able to access company data, get briefed
on new product releases, fire complaints as well as suggestions and have access
to e-CRM voice and internet support services to get clarifications and support
to a host of pre-sale queries and post-sale complaints.

This approach has also enabled a whole new culture of
self-service to emerge, both for information and for redressal of complaints,
providing convenience and time economies to the customer and company alike. And
with the integration capabilities that exist today between the Web interface and
traditional ERP or legacy systems, the whole organization is benefited by
grabbing customer data early in the purchase or service cycle.

Back to the future

The integration of the enterprise customer or market portals
and enterprise collaborative portals with enterprise knowledge portals and
information systems….this is the solutions architecture that many of us have
talked about, and many CEOs have only dreamed of. But there is no alternative.
Recently, when the celebrated physicist from Cambridge, Stephen Hawking, was in
Mumbai, I had the opportunity to interact with him through the communication
interface of his loquacious and intelligent wife. After listening carefully to
my views on the Indian software industry, Dr Hawking tapped out the message:
"The Internet will continue to transform every aspect". With many
erstwhile greats caught napping by the breathtaking U-turns in technology and
many young upstart companies competing for the future of the industry, Hawking
and Gates are both right. The future is happening in front of our eyes, and
every IT practitioner and user needs to accelerate to keep pace–or out of the

Ganesh Natarajan is
managing director of Aptech Ltd and CEO of the Aptech Worldwide group of

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