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Saturday, May 8, 2021

How India is building products for the world, without travel

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The Indian IT services business has required employees to travel overseas, and even live there for extended periods – to understand client requirements, and to implement projects. Now, India is also building products for the world’s consumers. The Mercedes-Benz R&D centre in India creates features for its cars that are used by its buyers globally. The Walmart centre here builds platforms that are improving the buying experience for US and Mexican consumers. Goldman Sachs’s facility here has played a central role in building its new consumer digital bank Marcus.

Understanding consumer behaviours and needs in global markets is a far more complex task than understanding enterprise IT requirements. And prior to Covid, it involved a lot of travelling to gain first hand knowledge of those societies and cultures.

“It was necessary to meet customers and look at the environment that is not present in India,” says Lalit Ahuja, CEO of ANSR, a company that helps MNCs set up engineering and R&D centres in India. Travel, he says, was even part of the employee onboarding process, where you joined and went to the home country to meet people, soak the culture and build networks.

For Chilean retailer Falabella, which has about 200 employees in India, 10% of its employees used to travel annually for about 4-5 weeks on an average and the frequency increased as one climbed the corporate ladder.

“I personally travelled 4-5 times a year, and at a level below, it was about 2-3 times,” says Ashish Grover, the Bengaluru-based CIO of Falabella Group. Falabella’s India centre has built the point-of-sale (PoS) system for its stores in seven Latin American countries, and integrated its indigenous e-wallet in the retail ecosystem. The centre also manages the e-commerce operations and digs into data to provide more personal experiences.

But travel restrictions have made the whole process challenging. Grover says Falabella has invested in videos of stores that it shares with its employees for a better understanding. “We had to find alternatives to white boarding and make virtual meetings more effective,” he says. The technology teams from Chile and India also collaborated to pull off numerous cyber events to smoothen communication.

Of the 6,000 people at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development India (MBRDI), some 50-60 would go overseas for stints of 12-24 months, another 20-25 would go for training stints of upto a year, and another 1,000 would go on short trips to meet customers. “We used to even send some managers to Stuttgart so that they work closely with the customers before putting them in leadership levels,” says Mahesh Medhekar, vice president of HR at MBRDI. A lot of softwares developed in India used to be tested on test tracks in Germany. Medhekar says it was a different experience for the employees to be physically present during these tests. All of these activities have taken a hit. Today, a lot of work on autonomous and shared mobility is being done remotely from Bengaluru. Testings are being done in virtual environments.

Walmart Global Tech India’s country head and senior VP for technology, Hari Vasudev, says before Covid, employees used to travel a lot. “They would go for quarterly business meetings, to meet customers, visit stores. Travel used to be across the employee chain depending on the project life cycle. So we would have senior engineers, architects making trips round the year, for two weeks on an average,” he says.

Now, the centre, which has 6,500 people, has developed training material that uses augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) extensively when it onboards employees, to give them a look and feel of the stores and the distribution centres in the US, Canada and Mexico. It has also built an experience centre in Bengaluru.

ANSR’s Ahuja says companies generally are making extensive use of videos, AR/VR. Efforts are being made to make even videos of activities otherwise considered trivial, like how to unload a trailer at store backrooms, or how cashiers check out at counters. “Every activity that was the cause for travel in the past is being segmented and converted into some sort of digital toolset,” says Ahuja.

How sustainable is this model? John Kenny, director of KAS Services – the India tech arm of Australia’s biggest discount department retailer Kmart – says it isn’t. “It will have a significant impact if we cannot send team members to Melbourne to have the cultural experience, understand the teams there, understand how we operate,” he says. KAS, which has about 150 employees in India, would previously have about 50 of them travelling to visit the stores and distribution centres.

Falabella’s Grover says travel and meeting peers would make the working model much smoother. Walmart’s Vasudev says as the virtual tools improve, “travel may become less critical.”

AR/VR, VIDEOS, REMOTE TALKS ARE TRYING TO COMPENSATE FOR TRAVEL

We have done a lot of investments to create videos of our stores that we are sharing with the employees for them to understand the company remotely. Everything has become digital, right from store views to sharing customer data points.

The biggest problem is half my team is new and about 10% have not been to office. They need to understand Australian culture, accents and values for which travel is essential. The current model is not a sustainable approach and once restrictions are lifted, there will be some travel.

The virtual tools that have been built have got better, and as they improve, travel may become less critical. Throughout this remote working period, leaders within the company have talked about how to be more effective in managing teams remotely.

A lot of work on autonomous and shared mobility was done remotely from Bengaluru during the lockdown. The testings were done in a virtual environment and some of these tests were on the connected side.

Remote work meant a lot of revamping was necessary in the employee onboarding programme in terms of time spent to explain the nuances of business. It also meant a lot more executives from the home centres speaking to the captive centres. Every activity that was the cause for travel in the past was segmented and converted into some sort of AR/ VR toolset.

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