If there is one Hollywood movie that should be on the ‘must-see’ list of
all leaders and leader-aspirants of the Indian IT industry, it is Artificial
Intelligence–or AI! Filmed by the cinematic genius Steven Spielberg, the movie
is based on an original concept of Stanley Kubrik. It traces multiple space-time
trajectories as Mecha–the world’s first mechanical being capable of feeling
love–journeys across a 2000-year continuum in search of a Blue Fairy that will
make him capable of being loved by Orga, his organic mother.
Our IT industry draws some parallels with AI. The current struggle of the
software segment in the wake of the US slowdown and the battle of Indian
hardware and networking companies to survive in the face of a poor domestic
economy are some. And that’s just a small phase in the vast space-time
Beyond this comparison, however, is the fact that the Indian IT Industry
today is in search of a new war-cry and possibly a new destiny. The $87-billion
dream is currently in ‘pause’ mode as companies work extremely hard to stay
put and as performance becomes the watchword instead of retention. It makes good
sense to go back in time to understand the phases of glory and gloom that
various industry sectors have journeyed through.
The Eighties: Capitalizing on opportunity
The Indian IT industry really became relevant in the early eighties when, in
one fell swoop, the government banished IBM, Coke and other multinationals from
the Indian soil. Nature abhors vacuum, and the leadership roles were quickly
assumed by home-grown companies like HCL, Wipro, DCM, Nelco and PSI. And that
was also the time when the grand old man of Indian software, Fakirchand Kohli,
was at his peak, quietly beginning the transformation of TCS from a supplier of
trained Indian engineering talent to the US industry to a harbinger of the
Indian offshore software movement.
The decade clearly belonged to hardware vendors, since software was rarely
seen as something that a customer would pay big money for. The emphasis then lay
on convincing customers to invest in computers, keeping competition at bay by
aggressive price cuts and throwing in all sorts of real and perceived freebies
to provide increased value to the customer. The same business attributes are
called for again in the current scenario, and the ingenuity, opportunism and
ability to cope will be required again in good measure to build a platform for
success in this decade.
The Nineties: Riding the software wave
The nineties were really the halcyon years for Indian software and training.
The decade also saw the US spearheading four technology movements–client-server,
ERP, Y2K and, of course, dot-com. Each opened a floodgate of opportunities for
Indian companies, and there was plenty for all. Best, the Indian software sector
made a deep and impressive registry in the minds of CIOs in the US. And as a
natural corollary, the Indian training industry could hardly catch its breath as
the demand for software professionals created the software dream for every
18-year-old, who made a beeline for the training institutes.
The industry was on
a big roll, and it seemed that nothing would ever stop it.
One casualty of the nineties was, of course, the hardware sector. With the
entry of IBMs, Compaqs and Dells, computer manufacturing in India lost all
relevance buffeted by the twin force of multinational competition and weak
domestic demand. Leadership in this time-space came from making a transition to
software, which majors like Wipro and HCL did admirably well.
Companies that succeeded in this decade–Infosys and Wipro in software;
Aptech and NIIT in training; and smaller entities like Aditi and Ramco in
products and solutions–displayed the ability to lead through innovation and
growth. And the presence of charismatic leadership made every vision an
achievable goal for these organizations.
New Millennium: New opportunities
Suddenly, almost without warning, the slowdown appeared–the boom created by
dot-coms was too good to last. After the ‘irrational euphoria’ of 1999
abated in the middle of 2000, and US investors lost over $5 trillion in value
(that’s a larger number than the economies of UK and some other European
nations combined), the IT services sector caught a cold too. Customer spending
in the US, Japan and now in Europe started dwindling with the inevitable impact
on the growth trajectories of the Indian software industry.
Leadership today demands three basic elements: flexibility, speed and
performance management. Flexibility is the need of the hour as traditional
opportunities like e-commerce and telecom that seemed so compelling and
sustainable at the end of the nineties, are suddenly caving in. New tricks have
to be learned to cater to customer demands as diverse as EAI and wireless. Speed
of response is the only differentiator in a market where Indian companies are
now competing with each other and with nimble new competitors from Canada,
Ireland and even Russia, Philippines and China for market share in the US and
Europe. And performance is the new watchword, as the bar keeps getting higher
for individuals and teams to compete for global businesses.
In these times, the Top 10 organizations among the DQ Top 20 will most
probably maintain their positions in the next few years, by leveraging their
size and capability. However, it will be interesting to see which companies
occupy the other ten slots three years from now. Words of Tom Peters come to
mind: "Crazy times call for crazy organizations." Indeed, only large
doses of creative madness will see Indian IT companies succeed and thrive in
this decade and later..
And finally back to the Spielberg-Kubrik fantasy. In the opening sequence of
AI, when the challenge of building a Mecha capable of loving humans is presented
to a team of researchers, a member raises a valid point: Even if science could
enable the creation of a loving robot, capable of feeling and demonstrating
affection for organic human beings, would humans find the ability to reciprocate
the love for a creature that was not human? While the movie itself leaves this
question unanswered, this does raise a question for all the companies that have
been featured in the three issues of the Top 20. Will history remember their
contribution towards making an industry come out of the shadows and build one of
the country’s greatest dreams of global dominance? Read this column in the
Year 2020 for the answer!
Ganesh Natarajan is
deputy chairman and managing director of Zensar Technologies and the global CEO