India's $108 billion IT industry is facing a severe shortage of expert managers and consultants who can speed it to the next level. As the global outsourcing model rapidly evolves, Indian IT finds itself hampered by a paucity of specialists who can bump it up from the lower-margin, labor-intensive role of a service partner to the more ambitious, higher-value positioning of a consulting partner.
"Customer needs have distinctly changed. Customers want to deal with experts who are proactive and offer innovative solutions," Krishnakumar Natarajan, chairman of India's IT industry trade body, the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), and CEO of mid-sized IT firm Mindtree told me. NASSCOM is targeting revenues of $300 billion by 2020.
It has been an industry in transition. In the past decades, clients expected IT firms to take over their applications, execute smartly, and bring about 20-30 percent cost reductions. Revenues matched headcounts, but the path is no longer linear.
In recent years, customers want proficient managers who are incisive and play advisory roles. It is not just about being knowledgeable but also a certain, questioning mindset, Natarajan said.
"Does India have large numbers of people with this mindset? No," said Sridhar Maturi, head of HR relationships at Hyderabad-based Mahindra Satyam. Maturi described that the vast majority of Indian managers as very good at "getting their hands dirty" but less adept at "putting their thinking hats on."
"Clients are demanding to know how we can forecast their future, what will be the challenges, what should they be doing, how can we help them prioritize, and find more intelligent ways to reach their customers?" said Ajoy Mukherjee, Executive VP and global head of HR at TCS, India's largest IT services firm, in a phone conversation.
As companies race to create intellectual property around products and ideas, the premium is on managers adept at innovation who can think on their feet and construct the impending future for their customers.
Deep specialization skills are available in the industry, since it is now a couple of decades old. But analytical skills and resourcefulness critical for measurable outcomes are harder to come by, said Nandita Gurjar, senior VP and head of education and research at Infosys, India's second largest IT firm.
"In the past two years, a growing number of customers expect elaborate inputs — for instance, a retail major may want to know which new geographical markets to target, how to price, how to make profits," said Gurjar.Natarajan of NASSCOM said, "About 25 percent progressing in the right direction, the next 60 percent is not comfortable with this change, but they are trying, nevertheless. The last 15 percent is lost (deer in front of the headlights syndrome) and unlikely to make the transition."
At Mindtree, Natarajan's own company, a small percentage is at ease with the transition, while the large mass is struggling, he said.
Gurjar said ideally at least 20 percent of an IT company's employees should be engaged in ideas for the future — patenting thought processes and handing them over to their business units.
Indian managers do not lack the intellectual capabilities, but the education system and the culture could be holding them back. India's education system drives students to cram their way through the exam excellence rather than think creatively.
"Culturally, critical thinking does not come naturally, as we are conditioned do as we are told without questioning too much," Mukherjee of TCS said.
"We need mini-CEOs," said Maturi of Mahindra Satyam. Many Indian IT companies, including his, are training managers to play thought leadership roles, he said. In his own company, of the 31,000 employees, nearly 1,000 are being groomed to take on leadership and advisory roles.
Only transformative middle and top-rung managers can convince customers that Indian IT, for long in the business of providing services, can deliver ground-breaking ideas and original products.
Saritha Rai is an India-based journalist and commentator who covers technology, business and society from her ringside seat in Bangalore.