Boarding the Digital Bandwagon? The onus is on the CEO, not the CIO: Ganesh Ayyar, Mphasis

With all the la-di-da surrounding digital transformation, there’s a whole lot of lore buzzing around. Ganesh Ayyar, CEO at Mphasis, plays the myth buster and shares his know-how in his first ever interaction with CIO. 

Ganesh Ayyar has authored the foreword for the book Becoming Digital: Strategies for Business and Personal Transformation, in which he shares his insights into making the journey from analog to digital, and how business leaders need to strike a balance between the good old gut-feel and data analytics. We quizzed him for more insights into digital transformation.

You’ve gone against the tide saying ‘Digital transformation is the CEO’s and the board’s responsibility’. Could you elaborate on that?

I think it starts with the senior-most executive or the senior-most leadership of the firm. The first lesson is you can't delegate digital transformation to someone else. It requires the CEO and the CXO to think about how they act, behave, and react. How they make decisions and how they view strategy.

This is because our success creates certain habits in us and those are hard to change. Sometimes, these habits may come in the way of a company transforming digitally.

Therefore, it has to start with personal transformation and personal realization at the highest level.

The thing one needs to understand is that there’re no silver bullets that can help you say 'This will be a game-changer'. But when you stack up five such things, that can definitely be a game-changer.

What lessons did you learn, and what would you like to share with CEOs embarking on the digital journey?

Many people believe that digital transformation is all about technology, whereas it is fundamentally a very different way of doing business. Not only that, in many cases the products or services one is offering can be replaced in a very different form with digital alternatives.

I’m not saying that all the offerings are affecting all the industries. It’s a significant way in which business is conducted. It has a lot more to do with business rather than technology.

Hence, it’s distinctly the CEO’s and the board’s responsibility to think through as to what are the alternatives ahead. How their customers can be lured away from them. What are the challenges being faced by their customers? How to add value to the customer? What value-adds could be given to the customer?

This may also include the possibility of cannibalizing their own business. I make use of mind-mapping extensively to put my thought process together. It's a great tool because you're able to reflect your mindset into something which is documented. It helps you to think, and also captures your thinking.

Industry insiders have observed that when companies start the digital journey, they tend to focus more on the macro-experience, and not on the micro-experience, thereby resulting in failure. What are your thoughts about this?

There are companies that are doing immense amount of detailed planning and are viewing it as a business imperative, or a business alternative, and are going all out.

I don't believe that there's just one particular approach to solving a problem. CXOs are doing a fabulous job of self-transformation. Remember when you're about to embark on a revolutionary journey, it will be fraught with failures.

Also, there's not enough track record to say that this is the method that will succeed. The first principle of a digital revolution is one has to promote the culture of experimentation. And when you promote that, you have to complement it with the ability to withstand responsible failures.

Failure cannot be shunned. If you start shunning failures, experimentation will stop. When experimentation stops, you won't have enough innovations.

You personally led the digital revolution at Mphasis in 2013. You expressed that you might have belonged to the wrong generation when this came about. This is a common scenario for a lot of CXOs & CIOs. How can they be more open to the idea of a digital transformation?

You need to admit to the fact that there are areas you need to unlearn and re-learn. If you don't do that, clearly, the chronological age will come in the way to success, because we were not born with the technologies that are ruling the world. Whereas, millennials were born with it, and they see that as an integral part of their lives.

If one goes for power-hogging, in my point of view, it's completely counter-productive to self-transformation. Instead, one needs to focus on his/her ability to transform.

People of my generation, on the other hand, view it as a productivity tool, or an extension of one's life into the business world. Hence, it's extremely important for a CXO or a CIO to create a personal platform which results in them opening up, rather than living under a false sense of security, and assume that they’ll probably be secure by hogging power.

Digital transformation also brings up the much-feared concept of cannibalization. What’s your take on that?

In any massive transformation or revolution, the biggest threat any organization faces is the threat of cannibalization.

And while it so obvious, it is one of the most difficult issues to tackle. I personally think that one has to take the bull by the horns. Instead of treating cannibalization as a threat, use it as a strategy.

Instead of CXOs trying to protect their performance measure, try to protect the performance measure of people at the lower levels. This can be done by encouraging cannibalization. Be prepared to reward that behavior.

What areas are you going to be focusing on in 2016 and ‘17?

The most important thing we’ll be doing in the near future is going full-horse with an empowerment-based model or customer-centric empowerment resulting in customer-centricity going up for Mphasis.

As part of our culture, we're preserving critical elements and then going for success in the future by re-inventing the rest.

When it comes to analytics, you expressed your views saying 'You have to find the right balance between data analytics and gut-feel', before you zero down on a particular solution. Could you elaborate that for us?

One of the things I've found useful is to figure out what problem are we solving. Whether you want to use structured data or unstructured data, data which resides within the enterprise, or data which is found in the social domain.

These are just tools of the trade, and should not be become an end in itself. Now, the question you need to answer is: What is the problem you are planning to solve, and how is it related to your strategy and success?

Big data is a very powerful tool, but on the other hand, I also believe that if you're not very clear on the objective, you could potentially end up with a solution which is not useful for the company. You may land up becoming a victim of hype rather than be a champion of reality.