August 2016 | Christabelle Noronha

'We have the mindset of a startup'

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has come a long way in the UK since setting up operations there in the early 1970s. The company delivers infotech services and solutions to more than 150 clients in the country, including Aviva, British Airways, BT, Diageo and Virgin Atlantic. The UK is TCS’s second biggest market (after the US), and it has pulled in over 15 percent of TCS’s global revenues in 2015-2016.

Shankar Narayanan was recently honoured for his contribution to technology at the UK Tech Awards

Leading this business is Shankar Narayanan, country head for UK and Ireland. Mr Narayanan was recently recognised for his outstanding contribution to the technology industry at the UK Tech Awards in the Top 100 Asian Stars category. He speaks here about the increasing impact of new technologies on TCS’s offerings, the importance of understanding customers, and what it takes to build a career in infotech. Excerpts:  

On digital technologies
The digital era is marked by the ‘consumerisation of IT’, which is driven by a set of technologies — social, mobile, big data and analytics, cloud, and artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics — commonly called the ‘digital five forces’. The interplay of digital and other technologies is compelling organisations to re-imagine their business models, products and services, customer segments and business processes. In our key markets, there is an increased spending on digital technologies as smart businesses embrace digital. We see digital as a huge opportunity over the next few years.

On talent development initiatives
The focus on the digital economy requires us to have a deeper understanding of the digital forces shaping various industries. We need to hone the right talent. We have scaled up the digital talent pool through a programme to re-skill our employees, some of whom have deep domain knowledge but were used to the old set of technologies.

At the core of our talent development approach is a digital platform that combines virtual, physical and experiential learning. This integrated learning ecosystem offers compact courses on different digital tools, platforms and skill sets. It allows employees to choose a topic and learn it in their own time and to the extent that they require it for a particular role. Such an approach is in line with the demands of the digital age.

On TCS’s re-imagination journey
The default is now digital and companies across the world are seeing fast-paced adoption of digital technologies.

However, most of the business processes and systems developed over the past 30-40 years were built as information systems that served as enablers in driving business. If one were to build a greenfield business today, it would certainly not be designed in the way it used to be.

To begin with, we are trying to understand the customer’s business and technology landscape, and then share with them a blueprint of how a digital business lifecycle can be built. Given that customers have invested a huge amount in information systems and assets, it is not feasible to switch those off suddenly. There is a journey to be undertaken to get there, and that is the re-imagination story.

On industry platforms
TCS has invested in its own vertical products and platforms. One of these is iON, an assessment, learning and evaluation platform (on the cloud) that helps students learn better and enables institutions to examine and evaluate candidates efficiently. We now have iON in the UK market and we created a digitised assessment platform for the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

We have also invested in an AI platform called ignio™. Launched in June 2015, ignio is a cognitive software platform that applies AI technologies to automate and optimise IT operations and processes. This services-as-software platform has secured significant success as we already have 20 customers worldwide, including three in the UK.

On collaborations
Businesses are today creating facilities and studios to promote collaboration with customers. TCS has invested in a collaboration lab in Silicon Valley that is equipped with a multidisciplinary team of creative specialists and has the wherewithal to promote joint ideation and co-innovation with our customers.

We are working in the United Kingdom with The Royal College of Art to create a design innovation lab, but it is still work in progress. We are also working with specific partners to identify innovative ideas as well as with universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

On the infotech market in the UK and Ireland
We have customers across the financial services, retail and travel sectors in the UK. Some of the business that we won last year is in the traditional space — managing applications, infrastructure and business process — but quite a few are in new spheres.

Ireland, on the other hand, is a relatively smaller market. Among our customers here are five big banks, a life and pension provider, three-four building societies, and a major telecommunications player. Hi-tech enterprises like Google and Microsoft, which are TCS’s customers, are setting up base in Ireland because the IT talent pool in the country is high quality and reasonably affordable.

On successful customer engagements
I’m not sure whether there is any formula, but the essential aspect is to stay close and relevant to our customers. We must listen to and understand their needs and challenges, and focus on building relationships. Most of our business comes from longstanding relationships, and sometimes you have to cede certain things for it. We have the mindset of a startup: always agile and approachable. As long as we listen and respond to our customers’ wants, our business will prosper.

On his professional journey with TCS
After graduating from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science, Pilani, and completing a master’s in physics there, I joined TCS in 1993. I started my career as a programmer and I grew from role to role. I spent a good deal of time in financial services and shuttled between India and UK up to 2000.

I worked in the retail vertical in the United States for five years before moving back to the UK to set up the retail practice and, later, extend it to Europe. In 2009, I moved to Amsterdam to look after the Benelux region (comprising Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), which is a dominant geography for us. In 2011, I returned once again to the UK to take up my current responsibility.

Our scale of operations in the UK is large and that comes with its own challenges and the opportunity to learn and grow. In the five years that I have been involved with this responsibility, the region has grown substantially. I’m quite happy about where we are today.

On advice for young infotech professionals
When I joined TCS, IT was an enabler to most businesses. Today, it has the potential to drive and create new business opportunities. The avenues that digital technology will unfold for businesses still remain to be seen. Those who want to build a career in technology should be open and adaptable to rapid change because technology is changing at lightning speed.

To be successful in your career, you also need to be mobile and develop a global mindset. I attribute my own success in TCS to going where the opportunity was, without limitations. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve had the chance to play different roles within the organisation and grow in my career. Lastly, even as technology is changing, you need to develop a deeper understanding about your customer and the industry in which they operate. That will help you stay ahead of the curve, while providing added value to customers.