We always work today for something that is going to happen on the horizon.

-Manish Modi, MD, NetAcross Communications Ltd.

The angst to do something new
propelled this foreign-educated
scion of the Modi business to set up NetAcross, an internet and intranet solutions
company, as new to his Group [MK Modi] as it is to the Indian IT. Modi and NetAcross are
credited with kick-starting the internet solutions business in India. Now the company has
tie-ups with global giants like Microsoft and Silicon Graphics to provide services on
their platforms. Modi also went ahead and developed an internet-based messaging and
collaboration product called Unison, which he currently plans to market worldwide.
Excerpts from a conversation with this youngster who has added a totally new dimension to
his family business:

What are the services that
NetAcross provides?

Broadly our focus is in 4-5 areas. We have been doing web transaction type systems, which
is an ERP from scratch, but using internet technologies. We plan to take this beginning
and utilize it in two related ways. One is integration of internet commerce into legacy or
existing ERP systems. There are a large number of ERP systems that are already in place or
that are being developed. These guys at some point in time or rather very soon would need
to migrate or extend these to the internet. That is one area that we plan to concentrate
heavily on. The other is supply chain integration. Here, we want to focus on services
supply chain because many big product companies have already got their supply chains in
place. Secondly, there are players and products out there that do these sufficiently but
not for services.

We always work today for something that is going to happen on the horizon. And the
services supply chain is something that we believe will pick up in the future. So, the
first one is to search for disparate information sources. The second one is to store these
in structured manner. The third and also the one that interests us the most is to use this
structurally stored information creatively. These are three pieces of knowledge
management. Today, not a single company in this world offers a solution that is
end-to-end. There are companies that have very efficient search as well as storing
capabilities and there are companies that provide usage of that information. Our product,
Unison is the third part. Once the information is entered into Unison, we facilitate the
creative and innovative use of that information. So we plan to approach the knowledge
management market from top-down.

Why did you select web-based
solutions as your field? Why not something like ERP or systems integration?
I can’t tell you my secret, but I would say that we did a lot of research before
finally deciding on this. I wanted to invest in a company that benefits from something
that would happen 2-3 years down the line as opposed to one that cashes on an immediate
wave. Of course, there were many things that were supposed to happen in next 2-3 years and
from those possibilities, I chose this business. So that was the result of some very
extensive market research.

Considering that you are one of
the pioneers in the net business, how do you think the industry has changed since the time
you got into this business?
It’s changing quite dramatically. Two years back, we were faced with a situation where
we really had to struggle to explain the basic concepts. And I must say, that was where
the opportunity was. That is the reason why we chose to create this company much before it
was an industry. Even today, it’s not really an industry, but we have seen a significant
shift in the mindset of the people. Today, we no longer have to go and tell people that
this is what you require. We only need to tell them, this is how we can help you to
achieve what you require. That is very important.

Secondly, now we have progressed to a higher level of education where we don’t have to
grapple with issues like, what’s the web and what’s internet and intranet? However, we
still have not reached a stage where the customers are completely convinced that this is a
strategic choice for me. They still look at it as a tactical choice rather than a
strategic one. The difference is that they are experimenting with this technology. They
believe that it is going to be valuable to them in the future, but for one reason or
another do not believe that it will add value to their business in the future.

How does the adoption rate of
internet compares with the adoption rate of other technologies in India?
I don’t have the figures, but my gut feel says that the acceptance rate of internet
technologies is far higher in corelation to the number of years it has been present.

But has this realization started
driving the internet market in the country?
As I said earlier, at this point in time, internet technologies have not reached a
strategic level. So, it is not a pull at this point of time. At best, it is acceptance.
Two years ago it was push. Today, it has reached a point where they [users] are very open
and willing to listen. And many of them end up making purchase decision as well. But one
knows very clearly that the purchase decisions made today are only a fraction of what will
be 12 months down the line. That is the ‘heavy pull’ has not started as yet. According to
IDC figures, the penetration rate of internet technologies is about 30% in the large
companies and these large companies typically are the leaders. So, clearly there is a lot
of opportunity out there.

Considering the government
restrictions, the internet market in India is likely to grow along a different path from
the western countries…
…I fundamentally disagree with this statement. I believe that the developments in
the Indian market will not differ from what has happened in the west. I think that by and
large, the success formulae are going to be the same. They are not going to be
dramatically different. True, you will have to bring in the idiosyncrasies of the Indian
market. You also have to keep in mind that India does not have the basic dynamics, either
in terms of the marketsize or in terms of the financing capability or mergers and
acquisitions market that exist abroad . So, basically I don’t foresee there being 4,000
ISPs in India at any time in the near future or ever, because these 4,000 are going to
come down to 400 over a period of time as they get acquired.

But the fundamental logic of being successful is going to be the same. You are going to
have the big guys, who are going to control the infrastructure market. And you will have
the early leaders who are going to control the access market. The latter would, probably,
be bought over by the infrastructure guys. You will have the media and the content people,
who will control the content market. And then you will also have a whole lot of people who
will get into the backend market. Whether it is hosting of web sites or hosting of
business critical applications. What India will probably not provide is the degree of
specialization that the US market provides. Even these four basic models have multiple
business models that are very specific to their area of specialization. Since India does
not have the inherent marketsize, you do not have that kind of specialization
opportunities.

The ISP decision was delayed
considerably. Did that affect your ramp-up time?
I think it was the single most important reason for the delay in the ramp-up versus
projections. Now that the policies are out, I remain partly pessimistic regarding their
implementation because I have identified a large number of issues that still need to be
addressed before it really takes off. But I think we have made a strong conceptual leap.
We have crossed that initial hurdle. And now we are grappling with higher level issues,
like implementation hi-cups, and the ones that need to be addressed in order to plug in
the gaps.

How would you differentiate
NetAcross from other web solution companies?

The differentiation comes from a couple of things. One is that as a company we are
completely focused on internet technologies. And so our expertise and our services and
products revolve around this cutting-edge technology. Second, our portfolio is a very
healthy mix of three different functions: strategic consulting, technology implementation,
and content presentation. So, we bring in a healthy mix of all three as opposed to a
consulting house that brings in a very heavy dose of consulting, but provides little or no
implementation help. Or a technology company, which brings in technology skills, but
little ability to conceptualize the solution. Or a creative house that brings in a very
high-quality creativity but cannot get in high technology.

So how would you describe your
solutions to a customer?

We like to believe that we create digital business. Now, when I say we create digital
business, I don’t mean that we go out to start companies. We go to companies whether they
are small, medium or large and help them evolve their current business strategies to a
digital era and while doing that we use internet technologies. So, a lot of what we do is
converting existing businesses to the digital versions of their business.

How is your customer base linked
to the solutions you offer?

We are currently offering two different types of solutions. One is Managed Network
Solutions. These are large customized solutions and the majority of the work that we do in
this field is for very large clients in India as well as abroad. We are doing a lot of
ecommerce and related activities for The Times Group. We have done some work for GE
Capital, Dalmia Cement and for a tour operator in Philadelphia, USA. And then we have
Unison, which is rated worldwide as a ‘best of breed’ product. We have a separate client
base for this product. Some of our existing Unison clients include BHEL, Torrent
Pharmaceuticals, UNICEF, British Council, Concord Motors, Ranbaxy and GE Capital.

So what is the difference
between NetAcross and other Indian companies competing in the same domestic marketspace?
I think the challenge for Indian companies is maintaining their focus. It is very
difficult in the Indian environment to stick to one thing and to do that over an extended
period of time. And when I say environment I mean everything. We do have a mentality that
whatever comes we will take. And in the short term that makes a lot of financial sense. We
have been trying our extreme best to remain focused on our path. And I think that by and
large we are there, but I can tell you it’s not easy. If Indian companies can stay
focused, then lot of them can come up in the future.

What is the awareness level
regarding knowledge management in India?
It is just the beginning. Do not confuse knowledge management with quality management.
A knowledge management solution has the ability to convert information into knowledge.
That ability is still not there. Many products, including Unison, have the ability to
structurally share and store information but we are yet to make the leap to say that it is
truly being converted into knowledge. We have 50 clients and it means that we have 50
people who have the ability to convert their Unison products into knowledge management
solutions.

I look at knowledge management market today like the intranet market about two years back,
where people were confused as to what really is an intranet. Technically, as long as you
have a web server and you have TCP/IP account and you are using a thin client and a
browser, you technically have an intranet. But what is it that you are doing now that you
were not able to do earlier? True, intranet really came into play when it started doing
different things like automating applications and automating tasks that were done manually
as opposed to having a different user interface to the application that you already had.
Knowledge management today is in a similar position, where there is confusion about what
it really is. You have Unison or some other intranet product that helps you store access
and share information. Therefore, does that mean you have knowledge management?
Technically speaking you have, but it is not yet defined at what level your information
converts to knowledge.

GAGANDEEP KAUR and ARUN SHANKAR,

in New Delhi.

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