COVID-19 will accelerate digital adoption, investments in Cloud, AI and cybersecurity: Aarthi Subramanian, Group Chief Digital Officer, Tata Sons

Aarthi Subramanian, Group Chief Digital Officer, Tata Sons

“Digital has been a big priority for all our companies. Post-COVID, there will be an accelerated scaling of digital,” said Aarthi Subramanian, group chief digital officer, Tata Sons in a conversation with Anant Maheshwari, president, Microsoft India during the first-ever virtual edition of Envision.

Discussing a broad range of topics, she believes that the current global crisis will accelerate the scaling of digital across industries leading to increased investments across cloud, data and AI, and cybersecurity.

She called out four areas of digital transformation opportunities seen across the different group verticals: new end-to-end customer journeys; increased adoption of automation in manufacturing industry; improved employee engagement due to distributed workplaces; and investment in digital infrastructure as a horizontal capability.

Talking about the 25/25 announcement by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which aims to have only 25% of the workforce in offices at any given time by 2025, Subramanian highlighted how the forced work from home resulted in new experiences for employees and work from home has become the new normal across the Tata group of companies.

“In a post-COVID world, every business will consider mainstreaming the new work from home model by making it resilient, secure, productive, and effective,” she added.

Subramanian expects to see significant disruption in commerce due to the COVID-19 induced change in consumer behavior, suggesting that online penetration will go beyond retail to categories such as automobile, home appliances, and consumer durables, which have traditionally happened in brick-and-mortar stores.

“Purchase and sale as we know it, is going to get disrupted. Customer engagement is going to become more contactless and more connected than we ever saw in the past,” she said.

Here are some edited excerpts from the conversation:

Anant Maheshwari: TCS has recently announced a “25/25” model—by the year2025, only 25% of TCS employees will be in offices at any given point in time. With this, you aim to increase efficiency and a 25% growth in throughput. Are your other group companies likely to see similar bold turning points during this time? 

Aarthi Subramanian: Absolutely Anant. Across our group companies, work from home has now become the new normal. What’s interesting is how quickly companies were able to switch to this new way of working. We found that most of our companies had day-zero readiness to work from home.

With investments in remote working, collaboration, communication infrastructure, BCP, and cybersecurity, that was already underway, enabling work from home took only a few days, even for areas such as operations and contact centers.

The agility and response has been phenomenal both from companies as well as partners. Non-routine roles such as the call center and back-office are also working extremely well remotely. Remote processes are working with similar levels of efficiency as we knew it in our old world.

Broadly speaking, I would say that the forced work from home situation has resulted in several new experiences for our employees and new learnings. It has broken the mental barriers on work from home possibilities.

Thus, every company in the group will not look at reverting to the old model but explore opportunities to mainstream the new work from home model. What we are focused on is to see how we can make remote work more effective, productive, resilient, and secure. Each company will have its own model with the right mix of work from home as well as the right operating model.

Anant Maheshwari: Can you share some examples of unique digital transformation opportunities that you envisage across the different verticals of the Tata Group?

Aarthi Subramanian: Digital has been a big priority for all our companies. But post-COVID, there is an accelerated scaling of digital. We have a very diverse portfolio of companies spanning multiple industries. From a multi-industry context, I would summarize digital transformation opportunities through four key focus areas:

  • The first one is on the customer experience front. We are going to see new end-to-end customer journeys driven through front-end transformation of customer experience, a lot more personalization, digital marketing, and customer engagement. We believe that customers will prefer connected phygital experiences than only digital.
  • The second area is the adoption of automation in a manufacturing setup, a lot more focus on enabling remote operations, data-driven, and automated operational decision-making. We already see the scaling up and faster adoption of automation industrywide, whether it’s connected plants, connected assets, connected supply chain, or connected safety in a factory setup. From an operations perspective, we are expecting a lot more focus and investments on automation.
  • Employee experience is a third area where given the work from home situation, the need for engaging with employees is a lot more. We are expecting to see several initiatives which will simplify employee engagement and deliver better experiences to our employees in a distributed work environment.
  • The fourth and the last area, is what I call horizontal capabilities across industries where I see enterprises in the Tata Group developing world-class digital infrastructure and invest in it. This would include accelerated adoption of cloud, cloud platforms, investment in data and AI infrastructure, and cybersecurity.

Anant Maheshwari: That is great to hear, every organization across the country can have a variant of these focus areas in the post-COVID environment. Now, if I zoom out from the Tata Group, and look at the country, what broad areas or opportunities do you see our country focusing on to leapfrog into a phase of growth?

Aarthi Subramanian: This is such an important question. I think, as a country, we will see the emergence of a new commerce model. The entire COVID-19 situation has induced certain changes in customer behavior, which we believe will disrupt how online product discovery will happen. Purchase and sale as we know it, is going to get disrupted. Customer engagement and delivering the next level of customer experience is going to intensify. Customer engagement is going to become more contactless and more connected than we ever saw in the past.

What we are expecting is to see more tech-assisted purchase and sale, a lot more of teleconsultation across multiple categories. Contactless purchase will redefine the model of physical purchase that is prevalent today. Technology, needless to say, will have a huge role to play in that.

On the consumer side, online penetration has increased already in the last 40-odd days, and it’s going to grow a lot more. So far it has been in expected categories such as retail. Going forward, what we’re going to see is an increase in online penetration in categories such as automobiles, home appliances, and consumer durables as well.

What we are also expecting to see is enterprises adapting to these new consumer preferences, which are emerging and responding with agility. Beyond that, some of the new emerging opportunities for India that we are going to see will be healthcare transformation at scale, telemedicine, e-education, and e-learning. Those are the areas where I think we’ll see a lot of disruption in the coming medium-term and long term.

Anant Maheshwari: Lastly, even as we speak about the new normal, many business organizations are perhaps skilling and reskilling their workforce. How critical do you think are skilling and reskilling in this new environment? 

Aarthi Subramanian: I would say in some ways, enterprises had been shifting gears on digital talent development. So, the reskilling of employees to adopt new ways of doing business, was already underway. 

What I believe, though, is acceleration, which emerged as a clear thread of our discussion today, is going to be the order of the day going forward. That is true on the reskilling front as well for enterprises across the board.

Within our group companies, there is a clear shift in investment beyond the traditional learning management systems to investment in digital learning platforms. And these digital platforms will enable nugget-based learning, learning on the go, learning on-demand, and anywhere anytime learning.

I think the investment that has already started and is going to accelerate. The entire canvas for reskilling has become broad-based. So reskilling is not only for the tech roles; there is a significant focus on reskilling for enterprise consumers of tech. I think we’re going to see a lot more acceleration and broad-based adoption of talent development across enterprises.

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