How the “incredible three” used IT to solve business problems

Even among a stellar crowd, it is possible to find the few who rise head and shoulders above their peers.

The people whom we feature in our ‘Ones to Watch’ program have one thing in common: they’ve earned the respect of their CIOs, their peers, and business leaders. They understand the woes of their users, and use IT to address them. To a man (and woman), they have what it takes to rise to the top.

But even among such people, it isn’t hard to find some who go far beyond what is required of them. These are people who test the boundaries of their job role, find that they can do a lot more, and pester their bosses until they are allowed to do it.

Such people are essential, nay, critical. Once, IT was viewed as distinct from business, and CIOs were asked to align the two. Tomorrow’s CIOs will have to do a lot more — they will have to weld business and IT into homogenous coherence, and have a say, not just in the IT department, but also help define business strategy.

This is no pipe dream. In fact, at Computerworld’s (a sister publication of CIO) recent annual Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in the US, Anthony Hill, CIO of the Golden Gate University, said that “We need to change the dialogue to really eliminate the lines between IT and the business.”

Hill is not alone. Peter Walton, CIO at Hess, has banned IT staffers from referring to business units as customers. Instead, Walton wants his team to treat their fellow employees simply as ‘company-mates and peers’.

But, is it reasonable to expect CIOs to play a vital role in business strategy? The words of George Bernard Shaw come to mind: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

Of course, once the unreasonable man achieves something, then reasonable men can be expected to agree that it was quite reasonable all along. But more than reason and the lack thereof, the chief reason why the CIO of tomorrow should lead change is because of a horizontal view.

In fact, attendees of the Computerworld conference said that CIOs and other IT executives have a unique horizontal view of how their organizations, and how changes in one unit could affect others. Managers of business units may know the most about their own fiefdoms, “but they never see what [another unit] is doing,” said Richard Gius, CIO at Atmos Energy.

So, what’s so special about the Ones to Watch? To give you an idea, we have chosen three people who stood out. Read on to find out how these people have gone from strength to strength by showing innovation, project leadership skills, and the ability to formulate business strategy.

The Business Strategist

George Fanthome likes to begin early. Many years ago, in his first job in a large organization, he walked into a manufacturing plant that had just one PC, which was used for word processing.

Two years later, every floor of the plant had a PC and many tasks, like the management of plant and machinery maintenance, materials management, sales order, and invoicing, were handled with the aid of IT.

Such implementations no doubt helped Fanthome to get a good idea on how useful IT implementations were. This was to help him later, when he developed an accounts reconciliations service offering that delivered huge cost savings by reducing headcount. Explaining how he achieved this, Fanthome says,

“The accounts reconciliation service offering was reengineered around a best-in-class IT platform which automated multi-way matching for reconciling accounts. It provides a GUI-based workflow for resolving unmatched items and extensive MIS, thereby enabling the business to track and monitor open items,” he says.

For Fanthome, the key challenge of this implementation revolved around account structures and writing matching rules.

“The solution simplified manual tasks required to reformat account structures to enable matching and automated the actual manual matching being done at an item level,” he points out.

Another of Fanthome’s successes was an enterprise data warehouse solution for attrition management intelligence. He created a system that monitored 20,000 employees on over 60 parameters and identified high attrition risks. This helped bring down attrition by around 40 percent.

“The details of the attrition management module are a closely guarded recipe and a source of competitive advantage for the organization,” he says when asked for details.

But, broadly speaking, he says that employees were tracked on a large number of parameters derived from statistical analysis. Dashboards were created to enable managers to receive advance warning of employees with a high likelihood of someone quitting.

But business strategy goes beyond just ensuring cost savings. Fanthome has also lead an initiative to kill bureaucracy and inefficiency in his organization.

Explaining, he says, “As an organization grows rapidly, a number of processes are formalized, and this leads to a certain amount of delays and bottlenecks, which hamper the speed of execution.”

As examples, he cites the need for a large number of approvals that are required for procurements, the delays caused by multiple parallel approving authorities, and an incident-based system as opposed to a policy-based system.

Regarding the method he used to tackle this, he says that an organizationwide campaign was run to receive suggestions of such bottlenecks and how to solve them. “These were received directly by a senior business leader without any filtering. A cross functional management team met every month to take on the spot decisions on changes required to implement corrective action.”

Based on this, support functions like finance, procurement and IT were asked to reexamine processes and simplify them.

Here’s Your Deadline

A focus on business strategy doesn’t mean that Fanthome doesn’t pay attention to coordination and deadlines. A recent project involved the migration of a production system that handled customer care and provisioning for over 12 million mobile subscribers.

“This was a complex migration that involved a high degree of coordination between multiple teams like the technology team, the IT projects team, the operations team, customer service and finance. Technically, terabytes of data were involved, along with a database schema change — all of which needed to be done in a limited production downtime window.”

To ensure that this was done, a new version of the application was installed on a new hardware platform, and this involved migrating from Sun to AIX. Discussing the operational details, Fanthome says, “All the data was backed up and then restored in the new environment. The data was then loaded into the new database schema and the entire system tested before being released to the users.”

All this had to be done in a 36 hour window, but Fanthome and his team reduced the downtime and ensured that the system was handed over 11 hours ahead of schedule to the users.

Understandably, Dr Jai Menon, group CIO & director (IT and innovation), Bharti Airtel, is proud of Fanthome.

“George is a recent addition to the IT team at Bharti. In a short span of six months he has built credibility for himself in the organization. He has picked up business domain knowledge rapidly and has been contributing to the organization with high impact project deliveries,” he points out, and goes on to add that “An eye for detail, quick learning, and leadership qualities are the traits that will make him a good CIO in his career path.”

Tip: Hit hard, hit early. If you want to know what business wants, look at business users for your answers.

The Innovator

In the four years that Virender Pathak, Team Leader (Software & IT Process Designing), has spent in power company BSES, he has proved that innovative thinking can put life back into the most old and tired systems.

His strengths in process design and IT implementation, backed by innovative thinking have stood by him. Of course, it helped that he was able to handle wide-ranging interfaces efficiently at various levels.

In the view of his boss, K.B. Singh, “He thinks afresh and brings unique as well as efficient solutions. That’s what impresses me the most. He is planned, systematic, articulate and drives projects in a professional fashion.”

And Pathak showed innovation in an area that service companies like BSES need the most: customer care and billing.

Typically, meeting the constantly evolving and varied expectations of consumers is the weakest link in an utility services company. Earlier, customer care was not really one of the strong points of BSES and neither was its billing process. As BSES took on more customers the bills on hold mounted, costing the company huge amounts every month.

In addition to their challenges were the problems that faced every utility company in India: rampant power theft. And doing billing the manual way was not helping to resolve the issue. In many cases, BSES officials who wanted to clean up the system were being held back by a lack of data.

“We have consumer related applications, which are very sensitive especially for a utility company like ours. It’s known that, till now, customer services at BSES has not really been up to the mark,” confesses K.B. Singh, Head IT, BSES Power.

“Pathak designed a system that is completely customer-oriented. It has one interface for the customer helpdesk, another for the call center, another on the website. Consumers can go and use the application anywhere.

They can check out the status of their applications and follow up what action has been taken, understand their bills, see their meter readings, etcetera.” Evidently, this is a big leap from the old system, where customers never had access to any of this information with remotely any ease.

Electrifying Show

And it has given the power company to show up its competition. A 2007 survey commissioned by the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC) revealed that consumers of BSES’ services were happier than those who used the services of its competition.

The study also showed that BSES fared better on inflated billing than its competitors, a problem that was third on the list of issues consumers had with power companies. What really made customers happy? That their bills were always delivered on time.

The fact that there were more happy customers even got the attention of Delhi’s chief minister, Shiela Dikshit. “Delhi has been the finest success story of the power sector reforms,” she said towards the end of July last year.

Having their billing and customer tracking system online has added value in more ways than one. “Earlier there were corrupt practices, people getting together with consumers and bills being generated wrongly,” Singh says. The bills on hold, claimed to have been generated wrongly, amounted to almost Rs 5 crore a day.

To help find the organization out of the mess Pathak created a process, which set up checks and balances.

“Today, whatever input goes, there is a bill generated on the system, making the inputs completely foolproof,” says Singh. “Now we are holding only about Rs 2 crores of hold bills in a month.” Pathak himself says the process can track customer complaints online, with a provision to escalate the job. This, he says, also helps utilize resources optimally.

Pathak did not only focus on the external customer. He also conceived, designed and executed a task tracker module which was later named Project Repository Module. The project helped track different IT projects in execution.

The implementation gave IT total control and the ability to monitor the different projects. Importantly, it offered top management complete visibility — online. This went a long way in analyzing performance management of personnel in the department.

Another system that Pathak put in place was an automated process for pre-audit and post-audit of energy bills. It has stringent checks with different parameters to gauge the accuracy of the bills being generated and has no manual intervention whatsoever.

The biggest advantage of this process — in addition to accuracy and timeliness — is the fact that manpower cut by 30 percent, eliminating various layers of resources. Now these processes bills are generated as e-Bills that can be dispatched over SMS and e-mail.

“Earlier meter reading was outsourced and it cost Rs 5 per meter,” Pathak points out. “After this process was put in place, there is a solid saving on that account.” If figures are to be believed, the amount saved for reading almost 22 lakh meters that BSES serves, would work out to almost Rs 11 crore a month.

In addition to his inherent abilities, Pathak, in Singh’s opinion, is handling a very important area of the process study, process improvements, process compliance and process automation for efficient and better operations. His interface ranges from the lowest user level to the CEO. “He manages this very well, and of course, gets full support for his team,” says Singh.

From Height to Height

This is not to miss the fact that Singh has groomed him to be good at what he does, and as Pathak agrees, “I have tremendous support from my superiors. Due to Mr Singh’s grooming, I have become very confident. Five years ago, I was hesitant to talk to people. Since I have been under his grooming, I feel I am in charge of my work. I used to think I was following someone but now I have some leadership skills. And more confidence.”

For a technocrat to become a CIO, the ability to align business with IT is a must. Pathak’s innovative projects for front-end operations in BSES already speak about his ability to think like a businessman. But, in addition, he is applying himself to find ways to better use the resources the organization has.

“We create all our software in-house because we have the choice to optimize our resources. Given our limited resources, I worked on how best we can use IT to streamline processes. We have developed a meter reading system software so it completely eliminates manual readings.”
As a result of his business-meets-technology-halfway approach, BSES is saving in every aspect of operations: wastages, bills on hold, manpower and even illegal use of power which was a drain on resources.

Pathak’s innovative skills stand him in good stead for growth in his field of operations. And as for his march towards CIO-hood, both he and Singh feel that he could add value by working on communication abilities. Confidence, Pathak has in plenty, but what he thinks he also needs to learn is to utilize implementation tools better, then, he says, his confidence will hit the high limits.

Tip: Sometimes the best answers are those that beyond the parameters of normal problem-solving. Be ready to look at the big picture from a new perspective.

The Project Leader

Some people work up the ranks in a single company and attain the position of CIO, while others are hired because they already possess these traits. Ramkumar Rayapureddy falls in the latter category.

“His last role before Ranbaxy was as director of automation and computer system validation at Schering-Plough,” says David Briskman, CIO, Ranbaxy. “In that role he was responsible for implementing process automation systems across all manufacturing plants in Schering-Plough.”

In fact, when asked for Rayapureddy’s single most significant accomplishment, Briskman cites his past before joining Ranbaxy. He recalls a project to monitor and create order across 20,000 major activities and 15 sites.

Briskman says that the multiple challenges, including a vast number of systems, number of sites involved, along with different cultures, time and budget pressures as well as the strict regulatory requirements make the project one of the significant achievements of Rayapureddy’s career.

Giving more details, Briskman says, “This project demonstrated his leadership skills including but not limited to perseverance, good communication, team work and accountability. He demonstrated the right mix of flexibility while not deviating from the project goals to ensure different cultural sensitivities were addressed. He also aided in breaking down barriers between different groups, leading to better team work.”

Briskman also praises Rayapureddy for effectively communicating with the project team members as well as site management to ensure continued local as well as global business unit support for the project. He feels that the most significant achievement of this project was the continuous improvement process built into the project methodology, which ensured that lessons learned were quickly implemented, thereby leading to project delivery below budget without compromising on quality.

Talking about his own role, Rayapureddy says that when the project for the single development methodology was initiated at Schering-Plough, the company had multiple methodologies, one methodology that focused on SCM, one for R&D, one for sales team, and so on.

“The argument for these had always been that each area is different and they all cannot follow the same methodology,” he states.

Rayapureddy was tasked with heading a cross-divisional team of 21 people to develop a single software development methodology for the company. It took him almost a year to develop the process, but he did it.

It was while working on this project that he realized the importance of people in a project.

“One of my initial reactions was ‘I can do this faster on my own’,” he recalls. “However, my mentor explained to me that the team will collectively deliver a better process.”

Rayapureddy took this advice to heart and shifted his focus away from the project and towards the people. In order to get the team to work as an integrated unit, he set up a one week offsite meeting to improve bonding. “The initial days of this meeting were rough. However, once we came to an agreement, the team quickly completed the outline of a new process.”

Along the way, Rayapureddy also developed leadership qualities, and today, he leads the R&D IT business council at Ranbaxy, which includes the president of R&D as well as his direct reports. Here, he reviews new IT projects, monitors ongoing ones, and measures the value that finished projects deliver.

But is managing people the only ingredient that makes Rayapureddy ready to be a CIO? Rayapureddy takes pains to point out that one of his main strengths is the fact that he came from the business side to the technology side.

“I can clearly understand what the business owners are saying because I have worked in their shoes before,” he says. “This helps me to closely relate to their needs and this assists me in developing the right solution for them.”

This skill was useful when Rayapureddy had to develop an IT strategy for the separation of one of the divisions of his company into a new company. Here, one of the challenges was ensuring that the technology implemented was scalable for future requirements.

The big issue was that this had to be achieved without exceeding the budgets for the new company. “We resolved this issue by generating a scalable plan where existing applications from the company were initially shared with the new company, allowing the new company to buy their own applications as their business grew,” says Rayapureddy.

One of the reasons why Briskman sees Rayapureddy as an ‘Ones to Watch’ candidate is the latter’s business strengths.

“Successfully managing uncertainty is a core competency of any senior manager,” he feels. He says that his team has to constantly work with business leaders and identify what they really need and determine the strategic needs of the business.

He says, “This requires active dialogue with the business and creativity to think outside the box on technology solutions and roadmaps.”

Briskman also points out that Rayapureddy has a very good sense of the pharmaceutical business because he initially worked on the business side before moving to the technology side. He feels that a strong alignment with business will ultimately enable success and points out that having a mix of business skills and IT skills is essential for most IT leaders.

“Rayapureddy has the characteristics of a successful CIO. He has shown the ability to lead and motivate teams through difficult projects. His approach of gaining a thorough understanding of business needs before deploying a solution will help him become a good CIO,” he concludes.

Tip: Get yourself a stint in general management. Living the problems of your users is among the best ways to understand what their priorities are and will help you drive projects smarter.

Balaji Narasimhan is assistant editor. Kanika Goswami is special correspondent.

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