Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Digital isn't the death of brick-and-mortar

Physical stores need to incorporate digital strategies to innovate and expand, feel top business leaders

Published: Feb 16, 2017 07:53:30 AM IST
Updated: Feb 16, 2017 11:39:03 AM IST

Digital isn't the death of brick-and-mortar
Image: P Ravikumar for Forbes India
(Left to right): Sumit Ganguli, NK Prasad, Manoj Jain, Sridhar Venkatesh, Bertrand Launay, R Chandrasekaran and G Srinivasa Raghavan

Digital technology isn’t a substitute to brick-and-mortar businesses, but merely the means to transform the way in which traditional enterprises conduct business. Digital tools may help companies change business models and attract young talent, but they won’t kill physical enterprises.

This was the conclusion of the sixth and final edition of Forbes India LeaderSpeak—The Digital Transformation Series, organised by Forbes India in association with Microsoft, during which a diverse set of professionals came together to deliberate on the way forward for India’s digital transformation agenda. The panelists at the Chennai roundtable included R Chandrasekaran, executive vice chairman, Cognizant India; G Srinivasa Raghavan, global president & CEO, TVS and Sons; Manoj Jain, managing director, Shriram Life Insurance Co; NK Prasad, CEO, CAMS Group; Sumit Ganguli, CEO, GAVS Technologies; Sridhar Venkatesh, co-founder, Indix; and Bertrand Launay, chief operating officer, Microsoft India.

The ‘Phygital’ approach
Launay kicked off the proceedings by stating that digital transformation isn’t about technology alone; it is as much about people and processes. Raghavan took the discussion ahead saying that being digitally-savvy helped traditional enterprises like TVS and Sons attract talent that would otherwise be hesitant in joining core sectors like manufacturing. TVS and Sons is the flagship holding company of the TVS Group, which has interests ranging from automobiles to financial services. “The brick-and-mortar world will remain. It is a question of how digital processes are plugged into this world in terms of changing the mechanism of delivery to the customer,” said Raghavan.

The other way in which digital technology complements the brick-and-mortar world is through the Internet of Things (IoT). Ganguli cited the example of consumer durables made by global manufacturing companies such as GE and Whirlpool. While these products are made in factories, they are controlled through a digital nervous system that aids in remotely monitoring and optimising their performance.

Venkatesh, whose company Indix is a Chennai-based startup that offers cloud and big data solutions to clients in the retail sector, said brick-and-mortar retail companies were proactively looking to compete with their digital rivals by leveraging the power of data analytics. “It isn’t always about physical retail versus ecommerce. A lot of brick-and-mortar retailers are tech-savvy and associating with digital services to innovate,” he says.

It isn’t in manufacturing or retail alone. Even traditional financial services such as life insurance, where face-to-face interactions are much-needed, are thinking digital. “We are leveraging digital technology to reach out to customers in India, where insurance penetration is low,” said Jain of Shriram Life Insurance.

Mutual funds is another sub-sector within financial services where digital technology is playing a major role. As the leader of CAMS, India’s premier mutual fund transfer agency, Prasad said he is spending much time in thrashing out a strategy to get people to buy mutual funds and other financial services online and service customers real time. “We have been actively pursuing the digital way for the past 15 years; and out of the roughly 16 crore financial transactions we process annually, 46 percent are through digital channels,” said Prasad.

Enhancing user experience

New age digital tools and services, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing are also leading India’s big IT companies to reinvent the wheel as far as their value proposition to clients is concerned.
“The IT industry is going through a transition,” said Chandrasekaran. “With digital transformation, it isn’t merely enough to understand the clients’ business, we need to understand their psyche. We need to have teams specialising in human factor engineering: Thinking about user experience, how a customer’s customer thinks about the former’s products. It is a combination of technical skills, business knowledge and design aspects.”

Chandrasekaran summed up the mood of the panel when he said: “Digital transformation isn’t an option anymore. If we are not digitally literate we cannot participate in economic activity.”

(This story appears in the 17 February, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)