Live Wires #9: Cartographer of the future
Wipro’s KR Sanjiv is a busy man. As CTO, he has the weighty task of making sense of tomorrow’s disruptive technologies – today – then enabling Wipro to compete and win in these areas. We met him to hear how his team thinks about the future, and where RPA and AI fit into their roadmap.
Wipro is well known for providing technology and outsourcing services. From distant origins in Mumbai in the 1940s, Wipro has grown into a worldwide technology and outsourcing company with over $40 billion in revenue. But it might come as a surprise to many that Wipro filed over 500 patents last year. This is because, like many global service businesses, Wipro is being pushed to help clients innovate: do new things, with new tools and technologies. Wipro is in the innovation business.
At the heart of this is the CTO Office, which owns the company’s technical vision, strategy, development plan and IP/incubation portfolio. Sanjiv leads this team and their task is to map out the technologies that will matter to clients in the next two to four years, technologies that are emerging, disruptive, but real and implementable – real rather than blue sky and sci-fi.
Sanjiv is a life-long Wipro-ite. After 27 years and counting, they have stopped giving him five-year service medals. This long track record comes across in our discussion as a strong sense of realism. You get the feeling Sanjiv is not in the business of purveying hype; rather he has the more difficult job of connecting demanding and discerning clients with the technologies that could shape their future.
So which are the technologies that stand out on Sanjiv’s CTO radar? He highlights five areas, into which Wipro has been investing ‘serious money’ in recent years.
1. Cognitive automation / Artificial Intelligence (AI) – smart software that can spot patterns, learn from these, and work with unstructured data such as emails or telephone calls. After a long gestation, tools in this areas are starting to be more widely adopted, as solutions become more powerful and more affordable. Wipro has invested in its own AI product, HOLMES, which is gaining profile and use cases. AI is often touted as the next generation of smart automation after RPA.
2. Human-Machine Interfaces. An HMI can be any device that enables a user to interact with a machine – think of a control panel or dashboard. But new possibilities are emerging through the use of pervasive or smart devices such as smartphones, improved virtual reality glasses or head-up displays. HMI are becoming much more visual, tactile, intuitive and immersive. Pokemon Go? Enough said.
3. Internet of Things. The IoT is about connectivity – the connection of devices, cars, appliances, buildings – anything – through embedded software and sensors. This enables objects to participate in the digital economy, collecting, sharing and acting on information. Think of the car that collects information on driver competence, or the turbine that knows when it is about to fail.
4. Computer Vision. There is no more powerful image in sci-fi than the all-seeing eye of Stanley Kubrick’s computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Computer Vision is bringing this to life in the real world, but with less psychotic intentions. This field overlaps with digitisation, IoT and artificial intelligence, in that it is about enabling computers to make sense of real visual data – in all its unstructured complexity.
5. New architectures. This is the broadest of Sanjiv’s five categories. It is a recognition that the old ways of building systems will continue to change. Mainframe and client server was supplemented by cloud and as-a-service, which may yield in turn to blockchain, microservice APIs, and who knows what?
Mapping out the technologies is the fun part according to Sanjiv. The real challenge is to make them relevant for clients as solutions – combinations of technology and services that they want to buy. So for example, in banking, a client may need to dramatically reduce the time to run new customer onboarding and KYC checks (Know Your Customer); Wipro enables this using AI, a new cloud-based application and re-engineered processing. Or take a telecoms company, where Wipro deployed analytics, a new process and a new commercial model to generate new sales leads from customer collections calls. Or a power utility, where Wipro used digitisation, mobile devices, analytics and the cloud to provide better prevention and management of major gas infrastructure incidents. As this list shows, these solutions are usually industry-specific and reuseable – as clients in insurance or manufacturing or retail will have similar values, needs and challenges. Once Wipro develops a new solution for one client, it could have resonance for many more.
The key to these solutions is the bringing together of multiple technologies. Rarely are they about deploying a single technology in isolation. “There is a stack of potential improvement levers, so an innovative Wipro client project could improve efficiency by, say, 10% with standardisation, 15% with RPA, and 20% with cognitive.” Innovation in technology and services is all about the mix. And don’t forget that innovation also depends on a whole range of fundamental competencies too – without which none of this is possible. “You need good design, good processes, good workflow, good management…”
Sanjiv recognises dealing with these waves of disruption can be taxing. Wipro itself has to continuously evolve, in two areas in particular. Firstly, skills. Sanjiv says getting ready for technology change is not just about making sure your staff have knowledge. “It is more about do they have ‘learnability’, the ability to take on new knowledge.” This is backed up by having the right culture – open, lean, entrepreneurial. Changing big organisations such as Wipro or their clients is a tall order in any situation; but changing quickly places a premium on being able to for people to adapt at pace.
Secondly Wipro’s CTO office emphasises the role of a strong ecosystem of partners. Wipro’s approach is certainly based on home-grown insights, but also on ideas from other sources that it then incubates, curates and orchestrates. This reflects the practices of innovators in other industries, such as pharma and manufacturing. It is good to see that a leader in outsourcing is not afraid to outsource itself from time to time. “You can do everything internally. We work increasingly with universities and researchers to help develop ideas.”
Is RPA on the radar? Sanjiv is matter-of-fact: “Robotic process automation is fairly well established now. Our clients expect it to be used. But RPA is not enough, you have to go further.’ It is certainly reassuring to know that in the minds of some visionaries at least, RPA is now part of the established order. RPA is obvious. Then Sanjiv adds a final thought, often repeated by previous Live Wires interviewees: “RPA is important. But cognitive is coming in a big way.”
Paul Morrison is a Partner at Aecus, the specialist outsourcing, shared service and automation consultancy. Follow him on Twitter at @MorrisonPaul1 and at www.aecus.com.