Friday, September 28, 2007

The rising Rupee - Time for IT cos to change tack

The rising rupee has caused much anguish for the export oriented industries, especially the IT sector. But this also presents a golden opportunity for Indian industry to look beyond the labour cost advantage and create genuine value for its customers by moving up the value chain, despite the short-term hiccups, says SUDHAKAR RAM

Over the last few months, there has been much discussion about the negative impact of the rising rupee on the profitability and competitiveness of Indian exports in general, and IT companies in particular.

There has been a demand from certain quarters for RBI intervention to keep the rupee down. In my view, this demand is short-sighted and does not take into account the enormous opportunity that the rising rupee could present to export-oriented industri es.
Before launching into a discussion on the opportunities, I think some basic premises need to be stated. Firstly, as Indians, we should be proud — the strength of the rupee is an indication of the underlying strength of the economy.

Secondly, in today’s global economy, any attempt to tamper with the currency market mechanism is likely to lead to disastrous consequences as many countries have realised (and some countries will in the years to come). In the medium to long term, with global market mechanisms in operation, a rising rupee should lead to decreased costs and, hence, have a marginal impact on our global competitiveness.

The rising rupee, however, does throw up challenges in the short term, and therein lie our opportunities. I will present these opportunities from the perspective of the IT industry so that a parallel can be drawn for other industries. First of all, the rising rupee will force the IT industry to look beyond labour cost arbitrage to create value for its customers – what I call the Third Wave approach; and,

Second, it will make the sector refocus on driving new efficiencies and improving productivity to remain competitive.

The Third Wave: Beyond Labour Cost Arbitrage

When we look at globalisation, specific industries in emerging economies typically go through three waves of evolution. The electronics industry, first in Japan, then in South-East Asia and now in China, is a good example of this. In the first wave, companies in emerging economies typically act as component suppliers to developed countries that manufacture the complete product.

In the second wave, the local industry gains enough expertise to provide cost-effective contract manufacturing services — of either the entire product or major sub-assemblies.

The third wave is when a set of firms start marketing these products under their own brand — initially within their own countries, and then for the international market.

The Indian software story

We can trace the evolution of the software services industry in India using a very similar paradigm. The software industry has gone through two waves already – as a component supplier and as a contract manufacturer.

Wave 1, which started in the 1970s and 1980s and peaked in the mid-90s, established that the Indian software professional was competent and the industry got results largely through staff augmentation.

Wave 2 established India as a destination for low-cost, high-quality programming services. The catalyst was the Y2K bug and Indian companies’ success in delivering these projects in a cost-effective manner. Many Fortune 1000 c ompanies discovered that moving their application maintenance and on-going development activities to India was viable and attractive.

The Second Wave started in the mid to the late 1990s, and is at its mainstream phase today. Like all mainstream markets, this is characterised by the emergence of a few leaders, namely Tier 1 IT companies, which have posted high rates of growth and profitability and increasing market share.

Wave 3, which is emerging, will be characterised by Indian companies moving up to high-value services that are strategic to the customer and hence command premium, value-based pricing.
As we have seen, the industry is already facing a severe shortage of talent (as opposed to mere numbers), rising attrition levels and increasing salary costs.

There are enough indications to suggest that the linear relationship between growth and headcount will not be sustainable for much longer.

The future is in creating strong brands out of India – whether in services, products or solutions – that command the respect and trust of large global customers and hence the appropriate value. In my view, the Third Wave is not just about better margins.

It’s also about true global scale. It’s about the industry achieving new heights – growing from $20 billion currently to over $100 billion in the next decade. It’s also about moving up in value from an ‘order-taker’ to a true strategic partner.

In many ways, the appreciation of the rupee has shaken up people and possibly accelerated the Third Wave in the IT sector. I see the possibility of a similar phenomenon occurring in many other export-oriented industries, given the right vision and leadership.

New efficiencies, increased productivity

Another opportunity that the rising rupee has given the IT industry is the necessary impetus to take a fresh look at cost structures, productivity and financial metrics. At the entry level, the IT industry has created a fair amount of pressure for the other industries in terms of salary levels.
This has cascaded to all levels. The rupee pressure will force all of us to reassess salary levels and maintain them at realistic levels. We are already seeing signs of this in the salary increases granted this year.

In terms of productivity, a large proportion of work carried out in India tends to be on a Time & Material (T&M) basis. In general, there are few incentives in T&M contracts to raise productivity.

With rising costs and shrinking margins, I see the possibility of at least some of these contracts being renegotiated as fixed-price contracts, around work packages.

This gives an incentive to the service providers to improve productivity and margins. I also believe this will help in developing the competence of software professionals.Financial metrics
As regards financial metrics, the IT industry has so far focused on Returns on Sales as the basic metric. Given the shortage of talent and the high proportion of salaries in total costs, the industry has already started measuring Return on Talent through metrics like EBIDTA per employee, PAT per employee etc.

This will help us generate the best value for the talent we have, rather than selling them by the hour!

In summary, while the rising rupee does create problems in the short term, rising to the challenge and generating value-based strategies will not only be beneficial to individual firms but to the industry as a whole.

As with liberalisation, I am sure we will look back 10 years from now and see this as a landmark event that changed the basic complexion of Indian industry.(The author is Chairman and Managing Director, Mastek.)

Courtesy: The Hindu BusinessLine Dated:11-09-2007