The Digital Transformation Imperative with Purnima Menon

Vaibhav Agarwal

In this edition of the Fireside Chat Series, we bring a conversation with Purnima Menon, CMO of Marlabs regarding digital transformation, application across different industries and how it is evolving.

Let’s start by knowing more about you and your role. Can you tell us about your organization and your role as the CMO?

Marlabs is a digital services organization that largely provides AI, IOT, Analytics, infrastructure modernization services to clients. We have a niche in healthcare, financial services, retail supply chain and logistics and education technology domains. Interestingly these are also industries where digital transformation is accelerating really fast. 

As the CMO I am responsible to lead Marlabs as a sustainable brand in the market. I lead the strategy related how we connect to our clients, partners and other key stakeholders.  Second, how do we increase the sales pipeline by reaching out to more prospective customers. And third, how do we establish Marlabs as a brand that resonates with our employees and prospective talent pool. These are the three major goals that I along with my team are responsible for

According to you, what are the key factors that are driving digital transformation in Indian organisations?

I see a few factors that are driving the need for digital transformation in organisations across India or any other country. 

First, is the need to connect with customers faster and more intelligently. Since most businesses are standardized, the way to differentiate for many companies is the ability to get closest to the customer. I mean how quickly are you able to identify the unmet needs of a customer and how intelligently are you able to serve that need through your product or service. CRM, data analytics, social media are all tools for organisations to achieve these goals.

Second, for all businesses there is an imperative to drive costs down. This is being done by things like modernizing infrastructure, making things more scalable and modular thereby enabling efficiencies of scale, moving to cloud that allows distributed and remote work etc. All these things also make organisations more agile and responsive in addition to cost advantages.

The third imperative is that today companies generate a lot of data. Companies who will win the race are the ones who are able to derive meaningful insights from all this data. Here is where data science and big data come into picture. Imagine a fast-growing e-retailer’s ability to predict and fulfil customer needs faster leveraging all the customer preferences and data available – it makes for a huge competitive advantage that can’t be easily taken away.

These are the most common triggers that I see across industries and organizations irrespective of their maturity in digital transformation and global location.

We see that digital transformation initiatives have been mostly approached in a fragmented way, with different parts of the organisation failing to develop a cohesive plan. How can these digital plans be brought together to align around a broader perspective of overall company goals?

I think both fragmented and integrated approaches to digital transformation will continue and evolve. The rate of change of technology is so fast that it perhaps acts as a deterrent to large digital transformation initiatives. So, we will continue to see function level initiatives such as finance, supply chain or marketing trying to increase digital dexterity within their departments which may or may not be at that point in time be in sync with the rate of adoption within the rest of the organisation. So, it might not be completely appropriate to say that integrated large-scale digital transformation is the only correct way to go after. But at the same time, there are large scale transformations also in play especially in companies that are slightly ahead in their journey and who have mastered the ability to orchestrate these large projects successfully.

What are some of the interesting use cases of digital transformation? Do we see innovative value being created beyond the usual efficiency and optimization benefits?

We work with a lot of ivy-league universities and because of COVID since the students are no longer able to visit campus, they have been extremely hard-pressed to invite applications and have students get an experience of what it is like to be in a particular college. So, we had to quickly develop some demos leveraging AI which tried to mirror the landscape of the college and allows the user (student in this case) to have a very visual, real-time experience of walking around the campus. Many educational institutes are preparing themselves for a world where a lot of student-faculty engagement will happen online. This also calls for a very different thinking around curriculum, coursework, admissions etc. A good university would get thousands of applications every year where there is a lot of manual effort in sorting, and filtering applications. Now, a lot of this is happening digitally. We also very quickly created an AI-based tool that uses embedded and acquired intelligence to do this – what this means is out of the 6000 applicants, these are the 500 students who are most suited to be successful graduates and professionals. Data analytics is also giving insights to colleges that they would have never had.

Similarly, in healthcare, digital transformation has helped in the objectives of sustainability and the ability to respond to disruptions such as COVID. One of our customers in the US that we work with provide COVID testing kits to places where there are increased incidences of the disease very rapidly. The same company also produces diagnostic kits for many other tests apart from COVID. A lot of materials that go into kits for different tests are similar. So, while it was important for the organisation to maximize its supplies of COVID testing kits, it also needs the intelligence to predict demand and create an ecosystem to divert the supply of raw materials and products to different geographies across a duration of time. So, here is where data and AI create significant value in addition to obvious efficiency and optimisation advantages. This also helped the company raise the bar around brand reputation and trust across stakeholders.

Similarly, in the areas of mortgage and digital lending we are seeing huge opportunities to create intelligent customer experiences leveraging technology. 

Which industries are seeing the fastest adoption of digital transformation? Are there specific industries that are ahead of the curve?

The domains that have been fairly early adopters of digital transformation are banking, financial services, retail and healthcare. For banking and financial services, it has been driven more from a regulatory standpoint earlier, but things have evolved rapidly over the past few years esp. in the area of understanding complex customer data and deriving meaningful insights. For retail (fashion, groceries etc.), it’s the need to be the closest to the customer and differentiate yourself in a highly commoditized market that has been the imperative for digital transformation. What we are seeing is post emergence of COVID, there has been tremendous acceleration within organizations in the traditional sectors such as manufacturing, education and healthcare as well to adopt digital services to address an evolving segment of customers and adapting to the way they interact with technology.

Do you believe that new-age technology startups are being built on strong foundations of digital? What can traditional, large companies learn from them?

When I look at the younger generation who is far more digital and internet savvier than me, I think the same applies to startups and large traditional companies. Startups in today’s world think and act digital. It’s a digital first enterprise right from the beginning. They will always have the ability to be nimbler and change very quickly. So, playing catch up is not going to be easy for larger organizations.

When I look at my own marketing and advertising career, until 10 years back, digital was still evolving as a part of marketing. We never imagined it would become this big, but in the large 5-7 years, things have completely changed and many roles that existed have been replaced by software and automated programs. So, while human beings and organizations instinctively resist change, large enterprises also acknowledge and appreciate the need for this change and it will continue to happen at increased pace

There is a lot of buzz around analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, IOT and cybersecurity etc. How is the talent in India evolving when it comes to these skills?

I think the evolution of talent is not at the pace it should be. We all understand the need for driving digital talent and there is a big discussion in Indian corporates about war for digital talent but there is a lot more that needs to be done. Beyond reskilling and upskilling our own employees in organizations, even from an academic and educational perspective, bringing more rigor in driving the aspiration for some of these roles as soon as students step out of colleges is also critical. There is a big chasm that we need to cross as a nation of 1.2 billion population.

There is a lot more to be done both at an academic level and industry level to develop a lot more talent quickly that can get into value creating jobs. Academic curricula are being revised, and we will continue to see all of this happening at an accelerated pace. The core idea is to recognize that some roles could become redundant very soon in their careers if these skills and competencies are not embraced with open arms.

How are the best Indian organisations closing the gap between talent supply and demand to future-proof their digital transformation efforts?

There have been a lot of organisations that have sensed this early on because clients that they were serving asked for quick supply of such talent. These are larger organisations who have invested heavily in new skills and have made very institutionalized processes for cross-skilling and up-skilling their employees in these areas as there has been a dearth of such talent.  A higher ability to learn and aptitude among employees is a common denominator among such firms. They also have this flexibility of being able to offer such cross-movements to their employees given the diverse and complex nature of operations.

The important part is to understand that such investments in talent will materialize and start giving returns over a period of 3 to 5 years. So, it’s not a quick hack that is at play here. So, the patience and maturity to reap those returns is very important.

Startups as we discussed are anyways being built by people who think and behave digital. So, I don’t see a challenge with them.

This leaves us with the mid-scale companies who have not given enough importance to this area and I would say have woken up to the reality a lot slower. That is where the real opportunity for talent building is going to take place soon. Already there are a lot of organisations seriously considering accelerating the pace of tech-skilling their employees. The idea should be to not let the digital gap widen before it gets too late.

How do you determine the most important factors to look for when it comes to the war for talent in these areas?

The first and most critical factor for me is the ability to align to the organisation’s culture. The second is to have the right attitude to take on the new role. That tells a lot about your ability to grow within the organisation. The third is obviously the skillset that you bring to the table. If I am hiring someone for a marketing role, it is imperative for him to have the right marketing knowledge and know-how of tools and techniques. Most of the time, relevant experience solves for the third factor. However, the first two factors are more subjective and difficult to assess.

Vaibhav Agarwal is the Vice President for the Consulting & Intelligence practice at Catenon India. He holds a BTech from IIT Guwahati and an MBA from ISB Hyderabad.

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