A chartered accountant by profession who started his career in accounts, Vivek Khanna has navigated his way skilfully through almost all departments in his 25-year-old innings at electrical goods major Havells India Ltd. An honours graduate from New Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce, Khanna got his first stint at SS Kothari & Co., a chartered accountancy firm.
A chartered accountant by profession who started his career in accounts, Vivek Khanna has navigated his way skilfully through almost all departments in his 25-year-old innings at electrical goods major Havells India Ltd. An honours graduate from New Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce, Khanna got his first stint at SS Kothari & Co., a chartered accountancy firm. After that, however, it has been Havells all the way, where he’s currently designated as Senior Vice President – Finance & Information Systems. Passionate about exploring new technologies, Khanna does not leave any chance to draw upon his knowledge of finance and accounts for his now-primary role as a CIO. In this exclusive interview, Khanna talks to Sanjay Gupta for India CIO Review on how he tries to manage his time in the backdrop of pushy vendors, remaining focussed on business value and, yes, making time for innovation. Excerpts:
Q. Havells founder Late Qimat Rai had said that he was allergic to senior people doing small jobs and would prefer them to spend more time thinking or planning. How would you relate that to the CIO role, as CIOs are often burdened with little things and keeping the lights on?
We were lucky to have QRG (Qimat Rai Gupta) as a mentor because we learned a lot from him. He used to say that “jitney bhi senior log hain, unko akhbar padhna chahiye (the senior people should devote most of their time to reading newspapers)…they should not get involved in minor activities on a daily basis.” In fact, IT vendors often come to me and ask about our budget. I tell them there is no budget as such but if something is required, there is no cost constraint to get it. QRG always asked us to focus on the objective: what is going to be the real objective behind any initiative? Because if the objective is not clear, you get bogged down by unnecessary trifles.
Another thing about QRG was that he was sensitive about being in close touch not only with Havells employees but also with the entire extended family of Havells dealers and distributors. According to him, the system should not be a constraint to maintaining those relationships.
Q. Within your function, do you have people to whom you can delegate work?
We are not very large in IT, only 18-19 people, but they are all empowered to deal with what they are responsible for—they are the boss of their own fields, so to say.
Q. Does a finance background help you in your role as a CIO?
Yes, of course. Being a finance person helps me take care of everything—be it interaction with the vendors or evaluating them or choosing the best technology suited to our business. What sometimes happens is that many CIOs get impressed by the aura of a technology or the vendor. What I try and do is focus on the most suitable technology.
Q. Given that vendors are getting quite aggressive in their sales pitch to CIOs, how do you manage your time with them?
Yes, that is something all CIOs have a problem with right now. All of us keep getting calls, including on our mobiles…As per our current situation at Havells, we try to avoid sales calls by vendors. In today’s ecosystem, there are so many vendors that if you start meeting them all, you won’t be able to find time to do the activity itself! And even if you interact with all of them, you won’t be able to satisfy them. So what we do is first identify the basic components of an IT need and then see who the best vendors for that need are. Here, a major challenge these days comes up because of certain new technologies in which it is the small vendors who play a big role rather than the traditional large vendors or system integrators. For instance, in mobility, small vendors are playing a very good role. Several boutique vendors are coming up that are often more efficient than the bigger ones. For evaluation purpose, we also see the existing implementations for a technology and identify the best-of-breed solution providers based on them.
Q. How is Havells embracing SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies?
Our current thinking is that whatever we do now, it has to be supported by mobility. We started out on mobility way back in 2009, including initiatives for our sales team as well as our dealer network. Whatever the dealers can do online on a PC, they can do it on tablets and mobiles as well. We are currently in the process of revamping the interface of our dealer portal.
As regards cloud, while our ERP runs on our own data centres, we have deployed sales force automation on the cloud. Also, currently our website runs on our servers but we are planning to move it to the cloud [the company plans to go for a content delivery network for a better web experience]. Gradually, we will try and move whatever we can to the cloud. As we move more and more on the consumer side of business, big data analytics will start to make sense for us. Social media is also a part of our web portal strategy.
Q. So how much time does the IT team spend on innovation or new projects?
We have told all our team members that each month or every three months they have to get some training and also come up with something new. Typically, around 30-35% of IT’s time goes towards new initiatives and the rest on keeping the lights on. But this [innovation time] is increasingly gradually. In addition to working on the marketing side, we are also thinking of digitising the shop floor and considering all areas wherever we can bring in automation.
Q. How do you look at the ongoing debate around CIOs losing power and more budgets going to the CMO?
In my case I’m handling the whole thing, though a significant part of the IT budget is being spent on marketing activities these days. While it is true that for marketing, the domain expert will come from the marketing side, having said that, there will always be need for someone to support those activities technically. If anything, IT is increasingly becoming the life-blood for more and more organisations, so the CIO role will remain important as ever.
Q. As a CIO, what is the most challenging or worrying thing for you?
I would say the pace or quickness with which technology is now changing. Sometimes, after you have invested your time and money on implementing a technology, you wonder whether it is in danger of becoming obsolete or out-of-date. It is a challenge faced by most CIOs these days. And that is one of the reasons cloud computing is becoming increasingly attractive.
Sanjay Gupta is an editorial consultant and freelance writer based in Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com