July 2006 | Cynthia Rodrigues

Keep it simple

The future of information technology, says S Ramadorai, CEO and MD, Tata Consultancy Services, lies in making it affordable and accessible to all — urban, rural, rich, poor, adult or child

S Ramadorai

We live in a world which is in a state of enormous flux. There are some fundamental drivers that are influencing this transformation of society. Of these, technology adoption is perhaps the mst important.

The major change we see in society today vis-à-vis earlier generations, is in the way children are growing up with technology from a very early age, using desktop and laptop computers, mobile phones, iPods with TVs, and so on. This will make it very natural for the society of the future to absorb technologies and adapt to change.

The second crucial factor driving this transformation is the cost at which technology is made available, or its affordability. Not so long ago, telephones were a luxury very few people could afford; now owning a mobile phone is no longer a privilege of the rich.

This decreasing cost of technology has important implications for IT companies: we will have to justify the addition of every rupee to the product price or we will not survive as an organisation.

The third critical factor is the amount of storage capacity and the size of a device. Just as the world is shrinking and coming closer, the gadgets we use are also becoming smaller — and simpler.

A child from a rural area is no different from a big-city child. It is the question of affordability that gets in the way of the penetration of technology, not the ability to learn to use it. That is why my mantra for the future is: keep it simple and affordable.

The power of speech
Speech as an input medium is the technology of the future. Speech technologies, understanding and decoding of multiple accents, speed of speaking, etc, are the research areas in which companies like TCS should — and are — working.

The technology can be embedded into a device so you don't have to key in any text. All you have to do is speak into the device. At TCS, we have done R&D in these areas. We may buy the speech technology from somebody but we need to know how to apply it in our context.

Thanks to these and other methods, learning is no longer cumbersome. Self-learning and collaborative learning have enabled the application of learning to become more ingrained and natural.

The future is rural
I believe that technology will enhance the future not only in urban areas but also in rural areas, thanks to improvements in telecommunications and the telecom infrastructure.

Most business initiatives today are no longer focused on the urban population. More and more people now admit that the bigger opportunity is in the rural and semi-urban areas, where some 650-670 million of the Indian population lives.

Even if 350 million are below the poverty line, the balance presents a huge opportunity that can be optimised through telecommunications and devices with local language capabilities. Companies like TCS can address this mass market through business models that are different from today's traditional ones.

There will be constraints along the way. We must work within those constraints and try to influence change within them. For that to happen, people's mindsets must change fundamentally; and that will need education.

Observe, involve, innovate
Technology used in urban areas cannot be transplanted as-is into rural areas
If you are looking at a future which is rural-based, you must live in that environment and understand its needs. You must observe the living conditions, check out the micro-financing opportunities, talk to rural families, find out what their needs are, what their children's needs are, and then figure out what kind of technology is needed and can be provided.

You have to think of innovation radically differently from the way we do today. Technology used in urban areas cannot be transplanted as-is into rural areas. Innovation must be localised. Local people must be trained in new sets of capabilities, but their knowledge of core issues must be kept intact.

The farmer understands soil conditions well. But we can use technology to optimise the use of water and fertilisers, and to introduce the usage of distribution logistics. We must build technology tailor-made for the farmer and his family.

If you desire products based on their understanding, you must get those people to design that product. They should be able to say, "This relates to me and I can innovate beyond this."

To make technology accessible, we will have to break all kinds of price points. If a rural child can spend a maximum of RsX because of her parents' income, you must think of innovation that is based on such low purchasing power.

Think ahead
We are now moving towards deregulation and privatisation of utilities. The utilities themselves will have to ensure clean power, meet emission standards and provide efficient services. A lot of research is being done in these areas.

It is important to look at the materials we use, materials that are external to the device and internal to it, including chip manufacturing and processing technologies, and emission and disposal issues.

At the group and company level, we must be conscious of those aspects that pertain to our business. We must hire the right competencies and capabilities. Companies will need people who will shape the industry because the problems that are going to confront us in the future are not those we know from the past.

Another capability we will have to build lies in the field of interdisciplinary training. If you plan to develop a banking system today, you create a team which has someone with banking experience and someone with the technology know-how.

Tomorrow, if you want to develop a banking system in the rural areas, you will probably need to have a social scientist too. You need to think of the future bank and what terms like financing, loan disposal and collection mean in the rural environment.

If you plan to build a hospital, you have to think afresh about the systems needed. If Rs5,000 is the maximum you can charge for a heart surgery, how will you provide the necessary services at that price? If it involves completely non-invasive treatment in tomorrow's context, what can TCS provide in terms of systems and support? We have to think of all that.

Managing obsolescence
Fears that obsolete technology and waste will be dumped in rural areas should be laid to rest as there will be checks and balances to monitor these things. During the very development of a product, we will have to think of the responsibility of disposal.

There are other ways of looking at obsolescence. There is a difference between obsolescent technology and obsolete technology. One is on its way out; the other is finished. Instead of being condemned to oblivion, obsolescent technology can be given to schools to enable students to use it for learning purposes. Dismantling technology and re-assembling it helps to rebuild capabilities; children learn through deconstructing. While a product may become obsolete from a corporate perspective, it may not have become so from the learning, usage and affordability perspective.

It is not easy to define what the rural market wants today. Yet a hundred experiments are going on to find out. Which one of them will be successful? Only time will tell. Could all of them fail? Possibly. Would some of them succeed? Possibly.

One thing is for sure. The organisation of the future will not be self-contained. Collaboration and integration of multiple disciplines will be the mindset of the future. The production of the technology of the future will have to be collaborative. We will have to develop and apply ideas and make ourselves receptive to others' ideas.

Above all, we must think of the customer and his needs — therein lies our future.

Related articles:

Ratan Tata: Vision of the future

Dr JJ Irani: Towards a new dawn

Alan Rosling: Business in a borderless world

Prasad Menon: Rural vistas open out

Praveen Kadle: Finance goes into overdrive

Kishor Chaukar: Byte that reality

Ravi Kant: Through the windshield

Raymond Bickson: World Traveller 2015

Satish Pradhan, S Padmanabhan, Dr Sangram Tambe, Yogi Sriram: The workplace of the future