Lessons from Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva to Indian IT

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY forwards a copy of Anand Mahindra‘s speech at the Nasscom leadership summit in Bombay last week. Mahindra was addressing a session on ‘Building a knowledge-economy for growth’.

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Most Indians know the Trimurti—the trinity in Indian mythology of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer and Shiva the destroyer. Both as a businessman, and as someone who tends to see life in visual images, the Trimurti reminds me of India’s IT industry. Think of it.

You people have gone through a stage, where like Brahma, you created something out of nothing. You created a new and global industry. You created a service sector that is today, a major pillar of our GDP. But most importantly, you created a perception of a new India, both in the world and in Indian hearts and minds.

C.K. Prahalad once told me that in universities in America today, there are almost unfairly high expectations from Indian students, because there is a huge perception that all Indian students are brilliant, outstanding. You created that perception. And within India, what you created was self-belief. You showed us what Indians could do, and now the rest of India believes that Indians can do anything. Brahma created a physical landscape; you sowed the seeds of a new mental and psychological landscape. In that sense, you are truly the Brahmas of the age of liberalisation.

But creation is only the first phase. You then have to move on to the next phase of sustaining that creation—to the realm of Vishnu the preserver. Creation is a one-time affair. Sustaining that creation is obviously a longer haul, subject to many attacks and crises. Perhaps that is why Vishnu comes not in one, but in ten incarnations.

Every time there is a new danger, he changes his avatar to a form best suited to meet that danger. At various times he has come as a fish, as a tortoise, as a dwarf. But his most interesting avatar came when he had to fight the demon Hiranyakashyap. Hiranyakashyap was a bad guy, who had obtained an amazing boon from the gods. Neither man nor beast could kill him; he could not be killed by daylight or at nighttime, within his home or outside it, on the ground or in the sky. All this made him pretty invincible—he went on the rampage, and only Vishnu could tackle him.

The IT industry today faces challenges every bit as complex as those Hiranyakashyap posed for Vishnu. It is hit by a macroeconomic tsunami of adverse currency changes, rapidly escalating costs in both salaries and infrastructure, and inadequate talent pools below the tier 1 and 2 institutions. At the Company level, firms are begin to feel the penalties of poor differentiation and lack of focus (trying to be all things to all people); and an over-emphasis on high volumes and price competition.

Suddenly, the industry seems to have fallen off its pedestal; you are facing your very own Hiranyakashyap.

It’s interesting to see how Vishnu dealt with him. Vishnu took on the Narasimha avatar to bypass the boon. Narasimha was a hybrid creature, half man half lion, and therefore neither man nor beast. He killed Hiranyakashyap at twilight, which is neither day nor night. He killed him in the courtyard, which is neither inside a house nor outside it. And he killed the demon by placing him across his knee and tearing him apart, thus circumventing the terms of the boon that he could not be killed either on the ground or in the sky. Now that’s what I call an innovative algorithm!

So what are the lessons for the IT industry in this story? Well, the first thing Vishnu did was to reinvent himself. It was not the gentle and contemplative Vishnu who fought Hiranyakashyap—it was the fearsome Narasimha avatar. Vishnu reinvented himself to suit the circumstances. The circumstances have changed drastically. Reinvent yourselves.

First, why don’t we design business models that challenge traditional industry approaches and then transform our organizations, people and processes to execute. If we simply keep knocking on the doors of clients with our traditional offshoring options, we’ll meet the fate of hearing aid salespersons: our best customers won’t hear the doorbell!

For example, software-on-demand and open source models changed the rules of the software game. Can we not try to change the rules of the game this time around? Why didn’t we invent Zoom technology or Virtualisation? Thus far, India’s brand of innovation has been identified with the IT industry, but is it truly innovative. Is it really game changing? Ironically, you can now look to the old smokestack industries for inspiration.

A few weeks ago, an Indian car company made a game-changing move. Maybe the Nano will ultimately not retail for a hundred thousand rupees. Maybe it won’t have great margins, or replace as many motorcycles as it would like to, but it was a game changing move; it fired a shot that was heard around the world. Can the IT world make any such claim?

There was an old saying, apparently adopted by the IT industry, that the secret of success is to jump every time opportunity knocks. And how do you know when opportunity knocks? You don’t, you just keep jumping!

So when are we going to stop simply jumping every time a client seems to sneeze, and actually create products and IP that become their own opportunities?

Why aren’t IT companies using the massive potential of India’s soft power, the film and TV business to exploit technological dominance of what Telco’s call the ‘last mile’ but is actually the ‘first mile’ in the brave new interactive world?

Secondly, why don’t we try to focus on a vertical industry (e.g., telecom) or horizontal domain (e.g., supply chain management) selecting the key dimensions of competitive differentiation—product vs. service, breadth vs. depth, speed of delivery, customer service responsiveness, fixed or outcome-based pricing, proprietary technology or intellectual property, and so on.

And let’s be prepared to make hard decisions along the way—change people who don’t fit, walk away from businesses that doesn’t fit.

It’s essential, while attempting this, however, to recognize that focus, differentiation and brand building require time and investment. Selling value or doing business differently than the norm tends to elongate sales cycles, which tends to put pressure on cash flow and we need to resist the temptation to broaden our offerings or slash prices just to win the business and keep people busy.

Along with re-invention, during the course of reinventing himself, Vishnu figured out the loopholes in the boon, and regrouped his physical and mental aspects to take advantage of these loopholes. That’s something the IT industry can do as well. Its often been pointed out that in the Chinese word for crisis is also the Chinese word for opportunity I love that mindset. I truly believe that the adverse rate of the dollar can be viewed as the glass half empty or the glass half full. Sure it affects margins. But it’s also a chance to take advantage of the loophole and buy yourselves what you don’t have, so that you can regroup your structure to meet the challenge.

In effect, by acquiring the strengths and skill sets you need, you will regroup your profile and create a new entity, which can vanquish your challenges as effectively as Vishnu vanquished Hiranyakashyap. And finally, while reinventing yourselves, you will have to bring in some of the aspects of the third element of the Trimurti – that of Shiva the destroyer.
Destroy for example the premise that cost arbitrage is the way to go. Recognize that the low cost, high volume offshore outsourcing battle has already been fought and won. Often, when strategic frames grow rigid, companies, like countries, tend to keep fighting the last war. If you are not already on the winners list, you need to think of other ways to compete on value and differentiation, rather than price and scale.

Destroy the premise that success comes only from size, and desist from comparisons with other Indian companies. There are still many IT companies in India who define success as “we want to be one of the top ten Indian IT companies”. Why not, for example, “we want to be the world’s #1 banking back office solutions provider”?

And lastly, perhaps the time has come to destroy the notion that the world may be your oyster but India is not. There is a huge domestic market in middle class and corporate India that has not been plumbed. Even selling to the bottom of the pyramid is profitable today. But it needs a creative destruction of the current mindset and a re-think on many of the assumptions we hold dear.

So, in conclusion, perhaps there really isn’t that much distance between avatars in the mythological sense and avatars in the technology sense. Perhaps they are both symbolic expressions of the same reality. In their different ways, they both underline the same message—that it is necessary in any situation to reinvent, regroup and re-think our way out of whatever challenges confront us.