Guest AuthorPavan Soni

Hello Mr. IT Manager! Are you feeling the heat?

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist

The Indian IT industry has had it course. I might sound too real or outright negative, but if you are part of the industry, especially in the middle management, you know that I am scarily pragmatic. The $140 billion industry has contributed more than its share of bargain, right from a burgeoning foreign exchange, to casual work environment, massive employment for the not-so-skilled, and some really decent presentation skills. Notwithstanding the evils on accord of the chocking traffic situations, escalating realty prices, growing lifestyle diseases, and a general sense of distrust, this piece focuses on a rather imminent threat — the career of the middle managers — the bloated middle management layer.

With scores of IT and non-IT companies that I work with and through reflections on my own engagement in past, I do witness a growing uncertainty for those who moved too much too fast upwards on the corporate totem-pole. The good engineers gave way to some not-so-good managers and then to myopic leaders whose signature skills remained dealing with massive churn and chaos, breaking and assembling pieces of assignments, and keeping cost at bay while sharpening Power Point skills and some vocabulary as they swing to the airports ever so frequently. How else do you justify our collective incapability to deliver a single world-class product out of India, or giving any of the global tech majors any run for their money over all these decades?

When the Indian IT industry started in late 80s and picked up pace through the 90s just to see it plateauing in late 2000s with the western world scared of us eating into their pie with increasingly complex work coming our way. But has it happened? I am afraid, not. We seem to be still very contended nibbling on the crumbs, while the west, often with Indians as the workhorse, keeps surprising us with the new. The dominance of the west remains, albeit the key player may have changed from IBM, HP and Intel to Google, Amazon, and Qualcomm (except the resurrection of Microsoft). The piece is not on the industrial ecology of the technology west, but on that of India, and, more specifically, the organizational ecology of the Indian IT firms, large and mid-sized.

Let’s discuss about the underlying causes of the present predicament of the management class in the IT industry, which is neither infinitely adaptable, not tremendously valuable in the new scheme of things.

Show me the problem and I will solve it cheaper, faster and better

For a fairly long time, the Indian IT workforce, which is over 10 million strong, prided itself in ‘expert problem solvers’. Someone sitting 13,000 kms. away would define the problem, scope it, and a battery of low-cost blokes would solve it (while the other guy’s sleeping). Call it ‘global delivery model’ or by any other fancy name, the task is essentially division, sub-contraction, and assembling of work, while managing an incessant employee churn and requirement creep. The management skill in question was to break the solution in manageable pieces, and ensure that the hell doesn’t break loose all too often. We were cheaper because of the infinitely disposable labor, faster owing to the learning curve effect and some re-usability thrown in, and better (wrt to other countries) owing to eagerness to adopt quality practices.

Adoption of SEI-CMM, Lean Thinking, Six Sigma, and ISO, among other practices and standards offered the much needed confidence to the western clients and semblance of discipline to the always in flux companies.

However, with most of the low hanging fruits being plucked, the situation soon changed from ‘I have a problem’ to ‘tell me the problem’. What does a manager do when the client doesn’t have an apparent problem? What if the only objective of the client is to improve and be best in the class of companies, and is willing to pay only for the gains, and not necessarily savings. Our guys aren’t prepared for that sort of a conversation. It doesn’t have the usual scope, resources, division of labor and work, or even the usual business model.

Our guys need to fast graduate from expert problem solvers to the ones who discovery, scope and define problems worth solving. That’s not a easy skill to build, especially if for long you have been told what ‘exactly’ needs to be done!

Human mind is not infinitely plastic, and most managers often learn the hard way

There is this whole talk about MOOCs, online courses, blended learning, continuous learning et al.. While there is so much and more available at the comfort of one’s living room and often at next to nothing cost, it doesn’t automatically translate into uptake and real results. Often seasoned managers have thrived by taking up or making tasks predictable, stable, error free, and almost, mindless. They thrive from a linear growth stemming from a linear way of thinking. Learning, especially of a shrinking half-life type, doesn’t come cheap. As they say, ‘(un)learning is simple but not easy’.

If you have accrued prestige, compensation, and a position in the food-chain owing to the status quo, a new type of learning rocks the very foundation. It calls for an almost paradigm shift, and is painful, especially if things are apparently going well, for the time being. Learning is relegated to the one’s down the chain, the more disposable resources, which are apparently competing with the machines. On the contrary, the managers are the one’s with highest vulnerability. They are the proverbial dinosaurs while the meteorite of technology hits us all.

It’s funny that most individual contributors, technologists who remained so, are more fissile in the new reality, for their bags was light. They never got carrier away by their reporting structure (or lack of it) and a false sense of importance. Those who moved up and started managing people who manage other people, who (hopefully) work, are primed for being disrupted. The choice is to wait for a while, or to correct painfully.

Ideas, talent, capital and information is fast getting democratized

In the 60s and 70s, a disproportionate number of scientific and technological advents were pushed by the well-endowed labs of IBM, HP, Xerox, AT&T, and back in India, from TIFR, IISc, BARC, ISRO, and the likes. They would secure a massive share of public and private funds, attract the best and the brightest, put mobility barriers around ideas, and appropriate profits, as a result. That’s no longer the case today.

Thanks to the Internet, cheap and fast travel, a wider distribution of wealth, affordable education at all levels, and growing aspirations; the ideas, talent and capital are nobody’s property. Even if you can and desperately want to get a certain talent, she may not be willing to work for you. Because, why you? If she has access to capital, information, similar talent, and mentorship in the open market, she would rather compete than comply.

What it means to the IT industry is that the best and the brightest talent from colleges and even market can’t just be swept away for a decent starting salary and an American Dream. They have serious options. So does the client. Crowd-sourcing of talent, and crowd-funding of ideas is a reality, and the very role of large IT firms as aggregators is fast getting questioned. The talent and clients have choice. With atomization of technology, self-learning machines, smarter users, and more access to technology an an early age and across a wider diaspora, the advantage the IT industry brings to the table is weakening.

The solution: Be humble, get closer to the problem, have a learning project, and get back in shape.

The funny things is that if you have reached thus far, you already know the solution. But it’s not hurting ‘yet’, and hence the latency. Remember, if you fail you fall, and you fall hard and no just alone. So, embrace the reality and take ownership of your career.

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