Infosys secret weapon - humanizing technology

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 11, 2014
Infosys is applying advanced automation techniques to many processes, but humanizing at the same time.

via Perfect Relations Pvt. Ltd.
During last Friday's Infosys Q2 2015 earnings (PDF) call, I couldn't help but be struck by the amount of attention Vishal Sikka, CEO Infosys devoted to the things he has planned for the company.

If you read the transcript, you'll find that the opening remarks are almost wholly devoted to a discussion around the application of automation techniques, refactoring business processes and the use of artificial intelligence to make what Infosys does more efficient. That's a long term crowd pleaser because it should translate into better resource utilization, already at a historic high of 82%, while dropping costs for both Infosys and its customers. Ultimately, that should help to bring deeper engagement with customers for the stuff that excites Sikka - cutting edge innovation.

Humanizing the impact of AI

But it was in the detail of what Sikka had to say where we find a very important section:

Artificial Intelligence as a domain is often misunderstood. It is often associated with the precipitation on the acceleration of human irrelevance. Having studied AI at Stanford and at Syracuse before that, and at the feet of the pioneers in AI, I happen to see this differently.

This pessimistic description is not correct. Technology for centuries has always been about the amplification of us, the amplification of the human; not making them irrelevant, and AI and automation is no exception to this.

So we see an opportunity to launch a great human revolution, where we are able to achieve much higher productivity levels, to bring much more innovation, where we are able to paraphrase Prof. Michael Carr (ph), ‘Do More With Less For More.’ I refer to this as the next generation of services and we are building Infosys into such a next generation services company.

The importance of this statement should not be under estimated. If anything, I would argue that going forward, commenters and analysts should hold Sikka's feet to the fire on this topic, ensuring this is being articulated in a manner that delivers the results he envisages. Why?

Data driven decisions

So much of what we currently see in technology centers around the use of data driven models to deliver improved results. There is nothing wrong with that. From what I have seen, companies are driving increasing amounts of budgeted spend in this direction as they see huge ROI. I wish I could talk examples but some are so spectacular, they are almost unbelievable. Who can blame CxOs from keeping quiet in the public domain? But in the process of achieving these gains, I wonder the extent to which these companies are actively managing the digital transformation this inevitably brings.

For example, in one conversation I had last week with John Schwarz, CEO Visier we talked about the relatively slow pace of adoption in workforce analytics and workforce planning when the opportunities for improvement are clearly visible. His answer was prescient:

Using these kinds of tool requires courage. HR managers know they're going to uncover problems and that's not comfortable.

The human element

Sikka has what he believes to be the right solution:

...any company that goes through a fundamental change in its business had to reeducate, has to retrain, reskill their workforce, has to get their employees to think differently about the role of the future and has to take those actions. So therefore learning and education is always at the heart of any company’s transformation, but it especially true for Infosys where education has always been at the heart of what we do.

As I read that, I could not help but recall a conversation Sikka and I once had where he asked me: "Is technology the answer to every problem? Can we automate everything?" Implicit in that question is the potential dehumanizing impact technology has on the workplace and in our lives. My answer was unequivocal: "Anyone who thinks that is a fool. Technology should be an enabler of better things." Sikka then got excited and our dialog quickly moved on to the topic of education as the cornerstone of improvement.

The educators' advantage

In this context Sikka has an advantage afforded few others. Throughout the time I have known Sikka, conversations invariably come back to work being done at Stanford his alma mater. At Oracle OpenWorld, he announced a fresh partnerships with Stanford and new education initiatives in China. Some people argue that with one foot firmly in the education field, it represents a distraction from driving Infosys as a company.

To those people, I point towards the success MIT professor Gary Loveman enjoyed in revitalizing Harrahs, turning it into a power house in the gaming industry. As a side note, Loveman successfully used what we now term 'big data' as a way to drive Harrahs, many years before it became fashionable. He also pioneered employee rewards based upon customer satisfaction long before it became popular to talk about these things let alone do anything about it.

My take

These are very early days for Infosys' new CEO and while Sikka continues his own assimilation of knowledge about Infosys culture, much will remain vague.

As an industry, the SI and BPO segments have often done a terrible job putting people through boot camps, then staffing up projects with inexperienced consultants who in turn add little value to projects. Along with others, I have long argued that continuing and meaningful education rather than certification are paramount for project success. Sikka's announcements and stated direction are a step in the right direction.

Shifting the mindset of the core business units will be a difficult job but Sikka's approach of applying technology as the improving enabler will push employees in the right direction - or they will leave and be replaced with those who share his vision.

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