The Twitterverse and media are abuzz with news of Mr. NR Narayana Murthy's return to Infosys.
A lot of commentators are also incensed by the fact that he's bringing his son with him as his Executive Assistant. Frankly, I think that's a non-story - his son coming in to such an unimportant position doesn't mean a thing - certainly not that dynastic rule has come to Infosys.
I set off a bit of a storm with my tweet to Sucheta Dalal, in which I said "the beginning of the end of another icon? I was his EA in 98. I seriously doubt he knows what to do to fix it. Bring fresh blood!"
First things first - someone wrote that "Really sad to see an ex EA @prganapathy critise NRN on social media." My response was heartfelt - "Time we had an honest discussion about our icons' strengths and weaknesses instead of reflexively worshiping everything they do." I really believe that this is a problem with us in India. Anyone who achieves even the slightest success - Chetan Bhagat, Sania Mirza - is instantly put on a pedestal and can then do no wrong. The media adulate the star, feed their narcissism and before you know it, instead of pursuing further successes in their chosen field, they're starring in ads, inaugurating saree stores, and resting on their rather modest achievements. We need to take an honest view of our "stars" - point out their faults and praise their achievements - without losing our sense of balance. That will help us, and the stars themselves.
But I digress. The main reason for this post is to defend my view that Mr. NR Narayana Murthy, for all iconic status he may have achieved, has some serious challenges in taking Infosys to the next level and to compete against companies like IBM or Accenture, or even TCS and Cognizant.
By way of background, I joined Infosys in 1998 as Mr. Murthy's Executive Assistant and Head of Corporate Planning. I worked closely with him in preparation for our listing on NASDAQ in 1999, and was one of the three Infosys employees on the roadshow for that "IPO" (Mr. Murthy and CFO Mohandas Pai were the other two). I ran the Investor Relations function for four years, closely interacting with Mr. Murthy and the other founders, finally leaving Infosys in 2005. My views are based on what I saw in those seven years of spectacular growth, where the company went from $68 Million in Revenue to $1 Billion.
By 2002-03, Infosys was doing well, with revenue growing strongly and healthy margins. But the mainstay of the company's revenue was services like Application Development and Maintenance, bread-and-butter services for all Indian IT services companies. Infosys claimed that it did these services with better quality and predictability than any other Indian company, and clients generally agreed. Fortune 500 companies were beginning to make "offshoring" a central part of their IT execution model, and risk-averse CIOs took no chances and gave Infosys the business at the prices the company demanded. To paraphrase the IBM adage: "you didn't get fired for hiring Infosys."
For software development projects, Infosys was increasingly beginning to compete with the global majors, IBM, Accenture and the like, who responded to Infosys' low-cost "Global Delivery Model" with India-based delivery centers of their own. These companies announced big plans to grow their Indian operations, but Infosys remained confident that these Multi-nationals would not be able to make the global delivery model work.
By 2004-05, Clients were beginning to demand that if Infosys wanted to maintain its premium pricing vis-a-vis its competitors, it needed to do more than just build applications; it needed to take complete ownership for delivering the business benefits from deploying technology. This meant hiring consultants who could help a client understand the potential for technology; consultants who could engage with their boards, shape their thinking and therefore "sole-source" large IT development projects - that is, projects that Infosys could win without the price-war that accompanied a traditional competitive Request For Proposal (RFP) process. Even in a competitive RFP process, if your consultants had shaped the clients' thinking, you improved your chances of winning deals, even at premium pricing.
Infosys tried to do this when it launched Infosys Consulting in 2004. A set of five stars from the business consulting world - Steve Pratt, Raj Joshi, Ming Tsai, Romil Bahl and Paul Cole - were recruited to create a world-class consulting practice. These men were veterans of companies such as Deloitte, Booz Allen, IBM and Ernst & Young. They had run substantial businesses at these majors, where they had done what Infosys needed to do - built boardroom relationships with the Fortune 500, and delivered significant business value through technology-led transformation.
However, instead of welcoming these men into the senior echelons of Infosys management and asking them to help take Infosys to the next level, the new Consulting group was kept at arms' length. Some years later, it had failed to make the impact that was expected from it, and several of its founders left in frustration.
Some other measures were implemented in other areas. A famous global consulting firm (that shall remain unnamed) was engaged to conduct weekend training sessions to convert 1000 Infosys client-facing staff (IT project managers and salespeople) into "boardroom consultants". Most of these client facing managers were of Indian origin, and a lot of them had risen through the ranks writing code and managing IT projects. They were among India’s best and brightest, educated at its IITs and IIMs. However, the idea that providing them some training could convert them into boardroom consultants that could advise a Fortune 500 board on how to use IT to transform their businesses was a stretch. Predictably, it failed to deliver results.
A group was formed to "pursue" global RFPs. Infosys reasoned that all the company needed was a group of experts to pursue these deals, not realizing that if you're hearing of something by the time it gets to a competitive RFP stage, you've missed the boat. This group also failed to generate the results that were expected of it, and was dissolved many years later.
A few tactical acquisitions were made, but none of them were big enough or strategic enough to transform the core of the company, change its trajectory, and take it into the next orbit.
The sheer momentum of Infosys' business carried it through the last years of the last decade, but the writing on the wall was obvious to more sophisticated observers. India-based competitors became better at delivering projects, and clients began to become more sophisticated about outsourcing to India. The premium pricing that Infosys was used to demanding began to shrink. Growth rates began to slow.
Why did this happen? I believe that the first reason is management. The Founders of Infosys started the company in 1981. Managers from outside the founding team, some of whom were promoted to senior positions and inducted into the board, were people who had joined in the company in the mid-90s, and had therefore never really worked for, or run, a major strategic IT consulting firm of the sort that clients were demanding that Infosys become. In my opinion, this lack of fresh blood and thinking was one source of the problem.
The second issue was fear of antagonizing investors. Infosys was obsessed with protecting its net income margins. The sorts of changes the company needed necessitated hiring expensive senior talent “onsite” – i.e., in the US and Europe, and investing in building industry solutions ahead of demand. All of this could have hurt the company’s margins. However, as someone who represented the company to Wall Street for many years, I think the company could have conveyed this to investors and received their support, as it went about retooling its business and readying itself for the next level.
Will Mr. Murthy's returning to the helm do anything to correct it? From his public pronouncements, it appears that he believes there is little that is fundamentally wrong with the company. I therefore wonder whether he will use his tenure to launch an aggressive search for fresh outside blood to come in and transform the company.
Even if he does, will the next line of management allow him to make the changes needed? Will they welcome outsiders at senior levels if he brings them in? I seriously doubt that too. Large companies are by their very nature political, and the people at the top are always adept at playing that game. I believe that the efforts of any newcomer will be stymied by the professional managers who have risen to the second tier, and are anxiously waiting for their shot at the top.
Some employees and investors are very excited that the icon is returning to an executive position at Infosys. I wish him luck, because I would hate for a great company like Infosys to fail to realize its full potential.
Executive, entrepreneur, investor and mentor to social entrepreneurs, golf and squash addict, author of thrillers... In short, an amateur dabbler in new experiences, and provoker of thoughts.