The billion-customer challenge of ITC CIO VVR Babu

ITC CIO VVR Babu explains the challenges for a business that targets over one billion consumers with its goods

CIOs across the world have the same challenges but each region offers its own unique obstacles. While justifying IT to the business might be a common international theme, struggling to connect networks nationwide is a bigger problem for India’s IT heads than most.

India is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, so what are the challenges facing a CIO in an Indian sector that targets over one billion consumers with its goods?

VVR Babu joined Indian conglomerate ITC Group back in 1979 and after multiple senior IT roles took the position of CIO just over a decade ago. The group, a household name in India, is in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), hotels, paperboards and packaging and agribusiness sectors in its native India. It also has a global IT services business, known as ITC Infotech.

Over his 35-year career in ITC, Babu has held a number of senior IT roles. He has been divisional CIO of the tobacco and agribusiness divisions and was vice president of software services delivery at ITC Infotech. 

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Babu explains some the IT challenges facing one of India’s biggest companies and how IT in ITC has been transformed from a backroom support function to an enabler for business.

As in FMCG sectors in every country, competition is fierce and IT departments are constantly called on to improve customer interaction. Reaching customers and potential customers in far-flung, often disconnected areas is a particular challenge in India.

“The FMCG segment is fairly crowded, with the presence of a large number of players,” says Babu. ITC is using IT to ensure penetration of its FMCG products in the rural and remote markets of India.

To this end IT teams in ITC’s FMCG group are focused on two major initiatives. They are extending the transaction processing backbone beyond the businesses boundaries to frontline teams, and enabling data-based analysis through dashboards and analytics.

Mobility applications – which range from sales order capture to outlet tracking, and monitoring to route planning – have significantly increased sales staff efficiency

VVR Babu

To meet the first challenge, about 5,000 front-line sales staff have been given mobile access to IT systems. “These mobility applications – which range from sales order capture to outlet tracking, and monitoring to route planning – have significantly increased their efficiency,” says Babu.

Babu says the biggest hurdle the IT team faces in expanding IT beyond the traditional business boundaries is getting good connectivity, a problem that UK CIOs don’t have. He said mobile applications are being used as a workaround. 

Of the data analysis challenge, he says: “Dashboards and drill-down analytical reports are already being used by managers for data-based decision-making.” Predictive analytics-based reports are in pilot.

But before even thinking about the technology challenges, Babu, like other CIOs in India and across the world, has a battle to get the business to recognise their contribution.

In his time at ITC, Babu changed how IT is run by breaking the department in two – supply and demand. The split helps IT work closer to the business.

The supply-side is made up of shared services teams that provide datacentre hosting services, network and security monitoring, mail messaging, application support and lifecycle management for SAP and Siebel. The demand-side works closely with business users to identify and implement business-transforming IT solutions.

A company of ITC’s size has multiple large IT projects on the go at all times. This year new ERPs are being rolled out in retail and agribusiness. There is also a migration to a new datacentre and a complete technology refresh of the server and datacentre network infrastructure is in progress.

ITC recently set up a private cloud connecting over 600 operating locations and over 13,000 users with two centralised datacentres. The cloud is made up of servers, network and storage managed by an in-house team and provisioned according to business needs.

The company is also busy when it comes to the new wave of technologies such as cloud, social and mobile. It is experimenting with social media applications and dashboards. “An integrated strategy around social, mobile, cloud and big data will mature in ITC over the next couple of years once the individual technologies have been assimilated,” says Babu.

His vast experience is also used by the ITC Infotech IT services business, which taps his knowledge and connects him to the CIOs of its customers. ITC Infotech is the company’s internal IT department and was spun out to offer services to other businesses.

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