Sikka’s message: Man plus machine makes for a mean IT services provider

Infosys is already winning significant contracts on its information platform

Harichandan Arakali
Updated: Apr 15, 2016 04:33:06 PM UTC

I'm the Technology Editor at Forbes India and I love writing about all things tech. Explaining the big picture, where tech meets business and society, is what drives me. I don't get to do that every day, but I live for those well-crafted stories, written simply, sans jargon.

Photo: Reuters

The Boeing 757 was a popular commercial aircraft that was last made in late 2004, but many of the 1,000 or so manufactured are still in service with various airlines. Today, the rise of the Internet of Things and data analytics is pushing the envelope on how often one needs to inspect such an aircraft.

If one could capture all the relevant data on the wear and tear faced by the aircraft’s engines and other critical parts, the environment in which they are operated and so on, and ask a computer to crunch it all and say when should the next important inspection be scheduled, it could both save the airline money and make flights safer for its passengers. General Electric — no they didn’t supply the engines for the 757 series according to Wikipedia — is doing exactly that with its “Digital Twin” project. And Vishal Sikka is pushing Infosys, India’s second largest IT company, to internalise such a philosophy.

There are some things that machines can do that man cannot, such as crunching terabytes of data in very little time and throwing up useful information. Man can then act on it. In time, man can teach the machine to act on the information as well, and allow man to act at ever higher levels. If that sounds like artificial intelligence (AI) apocalypse, people like Sikka, who has a computer science PhD from Stanford University, don’t subscribe to it.

“The world around us is undergoing a very deep-rooted transformation, based on the power of digital technology, cloud computing and, especially, artificial intelligence,” Sikka said. In every field, “Incumbents fear for their very existence for what digital technology means for them.”

This means mind-blowing opportunity for companies such as Infosys, and fortune favours the prepared: Infosys is already winning significant contracts on its “information platform” that runs on the Amazon web services internet-based marketplace. Johnson Controls, an engineering company, will be automating an increasing number of processes within its business operations using Infosys’s tools and services.

The tools include self-service, robotic and assisted automation, predictive diagnostics, and self-healing capabilities, Infosys said in its earnings press release. Chocolate maker Hershey’s used the “information platform” to analyse retail-store data much faster than it could have otherwise.

ConAgra Foods, a large American packaged foods company, is using Infosys’s “automation platform” to “reduce total effort in support, upgrade and testing, improve service levels, and reduce operating costs.” Within Infosys itself, in the January-March quarter, automation helped save effort equivalent to what 1,700 staff would have put in over the period.

The number 757, it turned out on Friday, was also the number of millions of dollars in large contract wins that Infosys recorded in the January-March period. Sikka first said 737—a wide-bodied series that became popular as the 757 ended—but was quickly corrected by COO Pravin Rao, and added, “I knew it was an aircraft name,” talking to television reporters after reporting the quarter’s earnings.

To be sure, the large contracts the company is winning, still resemble the traditional IT outsourcing contracts, and in the year 2020, if Infosys achieves its stated goal of becoming a $20 billion company by revenues, the new-age services will only contribute about 10 percent of that. That said, Infosys and its clients both know that they must leave no stone unturned in infusing this philosophy of man-plus-machine into the works so they can do “more from less for more,” as Sikka is constantly fond of citing professor RA Mashelkar, a former director general of India’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

“The power of automation is still a massive power in front of us. It is much higher than what we are seeing,” Sikka said on Friday. “The bandwidth that this will free up for them—the company’s 170,000 engineers—to innovate, if we execute on that sort of opportunity, we’ll not only have achieved our 2020 goals, but we will have ended up creating a completely new kind of IT services company.”

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