CIO career management and life beyond CIO-dom

C N Ram, the former CIO of HDFC Bank and current director of Bangalore-based RuralShores Business Services Pvt Ltd., shares his views on how CIOs can climb into top management just like he did.

How do you think an Indian CIO can move beyond the IT role?

There are two avenues of growth for CIOs in India. One is outside the organization, like what I have done. The other is within the organization. The CIO is probably the only person apart from the CFO who has a role in all functions. Today, there's no Indian organization where the CIO is not involved in automating every aspect of the organization -- internal, human resources, finance and the customer-facing aspects. So board-level participation for the CIO is going to be an essential aspect.

Also, there are many emerging requirements such as ISO 38500, where the board will be made responsible for tracking how IT is being used for governance. There's a huge responsibility for the board and independent directors to have systems in place which monitor how IT delivers business value. Once it comes to the board level, who can explain it better than the CIO? So I see a natural inclination for Indian organizations to promote the CIO to the board. Clearly, that means the CIO has arrived and is on par with the other CXOs.

Now there's a lot of maturity in many Indian organizations. Earlier, the CIO was considered an adjunct to the CFO. Today, he's the CEO's ally. If a CEO has to cut costs and improve operations efficiency, the CIO is the enabler. Additionally, there's increasing demand from customers who are natural at adopting technology. So the CIO's role clearly becomes much more responsible.

In your case, the transition from a CIO to founding an organization like RuralShores was quite radical. How did this change come about?

Interactions with people who had done other things made me look differently at life. One of our promoters had earlier set up a BPO called Saiseva at Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh. After a visit to Saiseva, I realized that it's a great way to create economic and social inclusion of villagers.

Currently, there are no options for educated people in many Indian villages. So we thought of creating an ecosystem. In a small way, it's possible for India to stem the migration from villages to city by keeping these people in their villages. This is an issue which creates problems in the villagers' lives, as well as of those in the city. If you preserve the village ecosystem, people are more likely to live in a better way than if they were in a city slum. By bringing economic activity to villages, we feel that it's possible for them to have more options for a better livelihood.

So how did RuralShores happen?

Emerging requirements such as ISO 38500 necessitate that the board is responsible for tracking how IT is being used for governance. At the board level, who can explain it better than the CIO?
C N Ram
DirectorRuralShores Business Services Pvt Ltd.

We are a group of six people who thought on similar lines. Around 15 years back, many Indian companies had approached American and European companies to bring work to India. The reasoning was that we will do it at a far lesser cost in India with the advantages of better minds, better processes and efficiency. That's how the BPO revolution was born.

We thought about offering the same revolution to the Indian corporate. The only way of doing it is to take it to villages where costs are much lower. This was very exciting, since we could use technology quite disruptively. The Indian government was also focused on improving the lot of the villages. So we took a bet that infrastructure was bound to improve in villages.

Our first center was thus set up in Bagepalli, a village 100 kms from Bengaluru on NH7. We will go only to remote villages, since that's where people need economic sustenance. Our aim is to set up 500 centers across India in the next seven years, each employing around 200 people. So we are effectively looking at creating 1,00,000 rural jobs. Each employee will be permanent and paid state minimum wages. Even then, we can offer Indian companies the kind of cost arbitrage which India earlier offered to the U.S. and European corporate. The Indian corporate, especially at this time in the economic slowdown, is looking at ways to reduce costs. We can offer them value, with no compromise on quality.

We are not offering end-to-end services. Very specific low-end work which does not have to be done in the cities can be done by us. We are open to taking up functions such as data entry, response to email, processing insurance claims, etc.

We don't see it as a static phenomenon where we handle only data entry. Once we start to ramp up and convince our customers that it's possible for them to trust us with quality outsourcing, we want to take up more complicated jobs. Our 500 centers will be across India. Education levels are very high in many parts of the country, especially in South India. So we will actually take slightly more intellectually stimulating jobs for such regions.

What about technology infrastructure in these villages?

We go to places where there's telecommunication and power. If power's a problem, we use generators. Today, connectivity is not a problem since BSNL is present everywhere. We go with one more service provider like Reliance or Bharti for the backup. We do not want to get into a situation where we lack quality. We want to promise the corporate that even though it has an economically better deal, it comes without quality compromises.

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