Now CTO at Sutherland Global Services, Satya Ramaswamy has drawn from the worlds of mobile and retail to reimagine business services. In this interview with Pulse, he discusses the most important steps to this reimagination and what game-changers he has seen in his time.
Over the last decade what has been the biggest game-changer in your field?
Somewhere around 2013-2014 the whole cloud migration business started taking off in a big way. So I built a digital business from 2010 to 2017 in a global organization. Around that time, it was clear to me that the next big wave is going to be the impact of artificial intelligence, especially the modern, deep learning driven AI driven by neural networks and the power of the modern GPUs to drive adoption of deep learning technologies.
Looking around I saw that the whole IT industry itself was poised to undergo massive change because in many cases the business process part of the industry is very manual and there are people doing what I call ‘gluework’. Many times the interface between an enterprise and the rest of the world is physical, meaning you get a piece of paper and that you then need to convert into some digital form for the rest of the business process to take over.
Then there are many other cases when there is a digital process and that process is usually split across multiple digital systems and many of them are decades old. They cannot be integrated programmatically and therefore, people are acting as a glue between these multiple digital systems.
And then there is a whole bunch of inefficiencies in the business processes today in the form of exception handling. I have seen across many different business processes that about 5-8% of transactions that are handled by these business processes and systems are thrown as exceptions because the system doesn’t know how to handle it and it requires a human being to come and apply some business knowledge and domain knowledge, even some cognitive capabilities such as looking at something that is not understandable by the system and then process that.
Could you explain “gluework” a little further?
It is essentially acting as a “glue” between the physical world and the digital world or as a glue between multiple disparate digital systems. This is inefficient. Your digital process is all fully digitized entry and then, as you can imagine, the speed of the process, the accuracy and efficiency, everything is very high.
The human is simply there because either you cannot integrate those systems in a digital way and the multiple disparate systems that have been around for decades or because there is a minimal amount of cognitive work that is required. Somebody has to look at something and understand what is there in a document, for example, and then trigger the rest of the business process.
This introduced a lot of inefficiencies from an end-user perspective. If you are a customer or have an enterprise that is doing something like this, then you face it in the form of delays and a lot of time being taken.
For example, if you are working with an insurance company and you are the end customer, then suppose you need to file a claim that is called the first notice of loss. Suppose if you’re in an auto accident then there are many steps where humans start getting involved to check whether the damage is something that can be covered and maybe something that you need to input into the system.
What goes on in the act of reimagining business processes? Is this very intuitive or does it come from methodical thinking?
So I see that there are four key components to business-process imagination. The first one is a very strong domain knowledge. If you’re working in the insurance space or if you’re working in the banking space or tower transportation space, you need to understand the industry processes really well.
The second big component, obviously, is technology. All great changes really have their origin in the fundamental technology shift. The big shift that is driving the business process imagination is the emergence of modern deep learning, neural network-driven artificial intelligence technologies.
The third one is creativity. There may be many steps in the business process which may not even be required once you apply the technology and rethink the whole process. So many times you have to have creativity to see the potential and also to apply it to the specific process we are talking about. And, and the result could be pretty much magical.
The fourth thing is the context. So the context about the specific customer and their enterprise systems is also very critical. At the end of the day, all these technologies need to be integrated with the customer’s existing order. So a combination of these four, which is the domain knowledge, the new technologies, the creativity, and then the context.
What could you bring from the mobile world to your mission of reimagining business processes?
My startup, when I was involved, was totally inspired by the iPhone. From a device capability, it was a massive jump from the the kind of phones that I used to do way back with Motorola. The change that Apple brought about into the app ecosystem was phenomenal. Prior to that it was the mobile operators who controlled it which went on to their so-called “walled gardens”. But the creativity unleashed with the app stores, where any developer can democratize ways toward developing apps and make it available to the entire world was phenomenal.
That led to a very high sensitivity to design. The importance of really good design that delights the consumer is something that comes from the mobile background, but also the whole concept of service on the edge. Now with the help of mobile phones, you can initiate the whole business process.
Where does the balance of power lie now for mobile technologies?
Very interesting question. When I started my career with Motorola, the balance was strongly in the US, because Motorola was the number one player in the world. Then when the first two digital phones started happening, the balance of power shifted to Europe, with Nokia and Ericsson leading the charge.
Later on, when the iPhone came about, the whole thing shifted back to the US to the west coast. So it was the US Midwest, then it went to Central Europe and then it was back in the US where it is today.
Apple and Google also helped democratize the whole application space through the app stores and that enables anyone–in India, China or Japan–to create applications right on top of their platforms to the benefit of the entire ecosystem. I think it is very difficult to dislodge such a powerful ecosystem and the network effect that Apple and Google have today.
What disruptive influence have you seen with cryptocurrency in the retail space?
Cryptocurrency is a very important major force. But is it disrupting ecommerce? I’m not so convinced about that. I’m sure there are a lot of retailers accepting cryptocurrency, but there are many challenges still compared to fiat currency. Blockchain and the implementation of blockchain in the form of Bitcoin has has opened up a wide variety of concepts, computational concepts that could act as the foundation for some future state where cryptocurrencies will play a major role, but I don’t think they are anywhere near that stage yet.
How do you think IT leaders in this space should approach the challenges of cryptocurrency?
I would definitely encourage IT leaders to learn about cryptocurrency technologies because the underlying concepts of distributed consensus, driven by incentives that the blockchain and particularly Bitcoin has brought to the forefront, are amazing.
Even established computer scientists who have worked for many years in distributed computing are totally amazed by the way in which distributed consensus and simple cryptography can enable a commerce system that is as powerful as Bitcoin.
That’s the technical part. In the real world you need to handle all the regulatory and compliance requirements and the need for no unlawful transactions. So the technological capabilities and the concepts that have been brought to the fore by Bitcoin is absolutely something that everybody should take note of. But the way that they’re played out, interestingly, may not even be in ecommerce, like the concepts of executable scripts in some of these cryptocurrencies can help in the creation of smart contracts, which has nothing to do with the currency at all. So the applications are numerous and is definitely something that I would encourage all IT executives and practitioners to study.