Rajesh Uppal, executive director–IT & CIO, Maruti Suzuki, is one of the most prolific CIOs in the industry. He is one of the few Indian CIOs who sits on his company’s board. In an interview with CIO&Leader, he shares new IT management ideas which he has implemented in the company and gives a few tips to the new generation CIOs on what they should strive to achieve
What are the outlook and big business imperatives for Indian automotive sector?
The Automotive sector in India is going through a growth phase. It is expected to almost double in the next five years. One big challenge is huge growth. Another challenge is changing needs of the customer. Managing that is another big business challenge.
As a market leader, how do you address some of these with the help of IT?
There are multiple areas that we need to work on.
Growth: We are growing our distribution channel, manufacturing location and so on. To manage the full scalability is one area to look at.
Customer engagement: While growing, we need to engage and manage all the classes of our customers including the millennial, and that’s an important part. Incidentally, we’ve been known for being a customer-centric company for a long time, to be exact, the last 16 years.
Compliance and security: This is important to analyze risk in our business going forward. This is also an area which we need to address very strongly.
There’s a lot of talk around IoT and automotive has been a leading user. What’s your view on that?
IoT is something which is not new to a lot of industries. Over the years, we have been using IoT devices as well as machine-to-machine communication to manage our manufacturing, and customize cars for our customer requirements and so on. Now, the change that has taken place is the amount of data that you can capture today, how fast you can respond to that data, and how can you analyze and make decisions out of it.
There are two areas. One is clearly the manufacturing automation in the entire shop floor, and making it more agile and error-proof. The second is the customer-facing area where, for example, using IoT in a car.
Tell us about some of the successful IT deployments of late.
There are several.
One of the initiatives was about engaging customers through a mobile app platform. Today, we have more than 200,000 customers interacting and communicating with us and we are running it under a brand called ‘Maruti Care’ where we focus on customer engagement. Mobile initiatives are not only about developing applications and leaving them there; they are about continuous listening and improving.
The second deployment was around smart manufacturing. All the devices in the shop floor you connect or listen to, you ensure that you develop the right quality product using all the information coming from machines because all shop floors are intelligent shop floors. They have lots of data and our ability to analyze and give timely feedback is important for us.
Third, we are expanding fast and expanding to new channels of working. For instance, recently, we launched a new channel called ‘Nexa’ for our premium customers. There again, we introduced a digital interface to interact with our customers. Each salesperson has a digital device where he/she can use it to interact with a customer, capture real-time information, show them the product on a digital platform and take it up to a logical tablet and so on. We have also built another application in order to manage our customers.
How do you take IT beyond delivery and operations?
Today, ‘transaction IT’ has been there and has kept improving with time. The focus on delivering ‘new-age IT’ value to business has to be very strong. In order to make these happen, I have created separate organizations within IT. One role is to manage the existing space or maybe the adjacent spaces and the other is to look for new areas to work on (new areas where IT is not chartered and we can create business value). We have a small team but the results are very encouraging. We have done benchmarking in different areas and found the areas of substantial improvement to work on. Their role is only up to the POC and after that, they hand it over to other teams for rollouts. They don’t do the rollout part. Their only job is hunting for new IT opportunities and this is something that is working very well for us right now.
Can you give some tips to Next Gen CIOs?
My personal advice to CIOs is to look at your business and think what do you need? Today, IT delivery is becoming sort of commoditized, that is, you can buy on-cloud and so on but your ability to understand business KPIs and how you can deliver them is very critical. This has to start from business since IT departments have a tendency get stuck with their own ERP platforms.
The first phase is ‘hygiene IT’. Any organization should have your transaction, your ERP should be replaced, and this anyhow is required to be done. Beyond that, IT departments need to start with benchmarking of the business KPIs of their organizations and create new benchmarks. For example, recently, our team was looking at the occurrence of forecasting errors in business. We found that there are some areas we were not doing too well at all. We started working on improving forecasting accuracy and exploring solutions. The joint target on IT and business was about how to improve the forecasting accuracy by almost 100 per cent. It took only three months to put the solution in place and took nine more months for us to get the forecasting improvement done to that level. Hence, CIOs must look for opportunities to support business and improve the business value. Technology normally is not the bottleneck in this area.
How do you see business alignment changing from a CIOs’ point of view?
First and foremost, IT has to build its credibility. I am part of the board of Maruti Suzuki and attend strategic meetings. Therefore, I understand business priorities, and the IT needs, and before any business user comes to me, I go up to them and say, “This is what we discussed in the board, this is what needs to be done, and can we work together?” Therefore, for IT, business alignment is not a give-and-take approach, but it is about working together.