With changing consumer expectations and remote working conditions induced by the Covid-19 pandemic, automobiles-to-financial services conglomerate Mahindra Group has fast tracked digital initiatives to drive cost efficiency and performance.
In an interview with TechCircle, CTO Mohit Kapoor, who joined the company a little over seven months ago, spoke about the group's technology transformation agenda to create new business models and improve customer experiences.
You're in charge the technology leadership for a company that services well over 100 countries with more than 150 companies. What are your priorities at a company level?
The last one year has surely proven that digital is the way to go for all companies, including ourselves. And that's something we have not scaled up fully, we were in the act of doing it. But that got immensely accelerated through the last one year.
To me, the top priority is to digitise and reimagine customer journeys, or the customer interactions. We are a conglomerate like you've already captured, and we are into many, many businesses – automobiles, tractors, farm equipment, real estate, holidays, finance, used cars, logistics. Many of these businesses originally had customers walking into showrooms or branches, or to a model apartment, or to a holiday resort, physically wanting to see-touch-feel, and then making the decision on whether to buy the service or the product.
The year 2020 has shown us that all of this can be done digitally. And hence many of these last miles – which were very physical in nature, because that's how the business was, and that's what the customer expectation was – that is digitizing at a rapid pace.
I would even tend to say that the customer is setting the pace and the level of digital they want the company to offer. So it's not so much a CTO’s agenda on how over the next 2-3 years, we are going to do it across the company. It's driven by customer requirements.
Our first priority is to figure out how all parts of the customer-buying-consuming experience can be done digitally, especially the last mile.
Equally important is digitization of employee journeys. Often times, companies have invested heavily or are investing heavily on the customer digital experience, but tend to overlook the employee experience.
Our second priority is data. What do we offer the customer, when do we offer the customer, at what price, in what colour etc. Companies cannot assume that by sending a digital email, the customer will consume the product. So, how to use data ethically and for the best value to be offered to the customer is where the differentiation is going to be. As a group, we are spending a lot of time and have a strategic plan on data, which includes artificial intelligence, machine learning to make the best choices and options for the customers.
Third priority, I think, is around the core IT transformation where lots of this is helped by moving to the cloud. So, we were a very on-premise hosting set-up, because there wasn't a need to scale and digitize and drive innovation in a fast track manner. But now, that is our agenda.
The agenda item is around transformation of the core IT. To me, it's a three-step process -- how do we look at optimizing our current footprint? Whether we should be in data centre, virtual cloud or public cloud? How do we then modernize our stack, using open source, microservice API driven model, new monolithic architecture, and then how do we use transformation and fast innovation on the new stack? A full stack modernization, for the core IT, enabled by the cloud, is our third agenda.
Fourth, is around cybersecurity. As we go more digital, and as employees, partners, vendors, work from different locations, the threat surface has changed. Earlier, we were a very office oriented company. So, if you were in the office, you were into the secure borders of the company where the network was secure, access was controlled, the desktops or laptops were completely owned and managed by the company. Now when people are working remotely, and customers will consume more and more services digitally online, the risk factor has gone up immensely.
It is important for us to look at cybersecurity and our threat surface, and our security posture on how do we have a security architecture, which is cloud oriented, digital, and manage the risk and the reward equally.
We are also paying attention to talent and the culture. To drive this journey of IT modernization using data, AI and machine learning, digitizing customer journeys, and to have world class cybersecurity posture. It's all based on top talent, and hence how do we attract and retain top talent? How do we build agile learning oriented culture in the technology team in the company.
That's kind of my five pointer, in a simplistic fashion to be driven across the group. Obviously, in different businesses, it has different prioritization schemes. It depends on modernization.
Smaller businesses may already be in the in the cloud, and hence, maybe IT transformation is a bit lower, but their data adoption may be lower, that could be higher, the sequence could be different. Surely the talent agenda and culture are universal. Cybersecurity is universal. But the sequence will be different. But it's kind of valid, for all what we're doing across the group, the six-seven big businesses I named already, where it's very, very important that we go at a fast pace.
I see lots of this getting done over the next two years. So, it's kind of a two year agenda for us. That's how I see it.
Do you have any immediate hiring plans in a particular timeline?
I think we're currently focusing on the senior roles, which is the engineering-driven, data-driven senior roles, which may be eight to 10 people, I would think. I think rest of the talent we already have. Our talent is very trainable. And everybody is committed to training. The last year has proven, that while you continue to do work, you can upgrade your skills, and people are doing it. So, I think it's less about the masses. It's more about specialization. And that will lead to eight to 10 key people or key roles to be hired across the group in different companies, all of which come together very nicely and make us a more product and engineering company, which is where we want to get to.
What are some of the digital transformation initiatives in place at the group?
Let me cite a few very interesting ones… I'm picking up the real estate business first, which is a very interesting Covid launch. if you know what real estate, usually developers and real estate companies would have a land, develop the land, start building the building, put the model house, and then invite the customer to walk in. The customer normally schedules an appointment to come to the model house and comes and sees the house and then does a booking, or maybe does not make a booking. Now in the Covid times, how do you do this digitally, which I don't think many companies may have done.
For one of our properties in Palghar, we tried to make the process digital. The initiative was a success. Out of the 180 or 190 apartments, some 70-80% of the inventory could be sold digitally with no model house, nobody coming to the site, because city was in a lockdown. The Mahindra brand value helped, but after the initial trust, the transparency and the availability of digital features, helped us sell properties.
So that's a great example, it's done, which has made us believe that maybe all along, we were doing it, or we were not leveraging digital enough. And even when the lockdown gets over, and in many other cities, you know it has gone over now, that's the way we want to go. Because the distribution, the engagement to the customer, maybe is a lot better, rather than scheduling one couple or one family to come, where you could do only three-four schedules in a day, without having a large number of people at the site.
And, with the social distancing, and all that maybe that's the way to go.
So that's one example. Similarly, on the auto side as well, you may be aware that we launched our iconic product, the Thar, which is a four by four SUV vehicle, which is launched on October 2.
Since it was happening in October, during peak Covid, we had to reimagine the journey on how from our social Facebook site, you could come and request and the test drive could be scheduled digitally. And the vehicle could come to your place, and a sanitized version of the sales guy and the vehicle and just you. With the sanitized vehicle, you do a test drive nearby in your neighbourhood.
And based on that you can make the booking, that's very different from people rushing to the showroom to sit in the Thar and play with it or whatever else. Around 20,000-25,000 Thars got booked in the first three-four months of the launch.
We are re-looking at all the launches at this year on how to have a highly digital strategy versus the showroom model where you just send test vehicles all over India, into the showroom, and then do the social outreach, asking people to come to the showroom.
Now that does not mean that the showroom and the dealer will go away, but it means that it can be done a lot differently.
And then the many more in Mahindra Finance, where we've seen a lot of digital adoption, which was all classic standard physical version, including collections, UPI payments, where earlier you could walk into the branch. We have around 1,400 branches in all parts of India and maybe even 3-4 lakh villages. That's how much our reach is and nearest talukas.
So, usually you will have many of the Mahindra Finance tractor loan users, as an example, wanting to come to the branch. Digital payments, via UPI among other solutions, has successfully changed things forever, which to me is an irreversible trend and is causing customer delight and giving us an edge against competition and making us meet customer expectations,
To your question, right now, things which we were not doing, but will now do, kind of forever, in a scaled manner, all of these are enabled by digital. These are these are good examples. And there are many other, but these to me, I can remember right away.
Is there a break up in terms of how much of Mahindra Finance is currently digital?
I think around 30% is currently digital, we want to cross the 50% line this year. I'm leaving out the last eight months, because they have forced digital, but I'm saying if I look at 2020 or 2019, then compared to that, from how far we've come, 30% is end to end digital, and I think we should do more than half of our business, at least, all digital end to end, which is lending, collections, all parts of the lending business of the Mahindra Finance business.
What about the other businesses?
It's harder to put a finger on the automobile side of things, because it can't be end to end digital, because in the end, there is a physical car involved, a physical tractor involved.
In the real estate side, like I said, we have done one inventory. We are starting off with the next one. In the first inventory itself, there was 80% adoption. But that was a forced Covid impact. I think the next launch, we will know that if there is no Covid, then people still want to come out or they want to do end to end digital. That will be our baseline. But I would think that 50% can still be continued. Which means that that changes our business model quite dramatically. But there’s lot to do on how to scale this.
Doing one inventory is different from doing it persistently, consistently, repeatedly, and predictably. That's the thing with digital that customer experience has to be very predictable, and consistent all the time the customer wants it, anytime the customer wants it. So, I think that's kind of this year's plan in many ways.
What are some new innovations or use cases that have emerged to enable digital experiences that are powered by emerging tech such as AI and ML?
I'll go a bit beyond and go across the sectors to give you a broader perspective with that question.
It's no surprise that artificial intelligence and machine learning can help you lend more responsibly, can also make the lending available to honest customers with not a very strong balance or a credit score, which we often call new-to-credit, or new-to-banking, where they're brand new customers, they have not had a loan earlier, but they’re honest and they would pay back.
That's where artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics is helping us most or helps us most, again, may not be unique to us, but especially showing good results, which to me, is almost classified under financial inclusion – where how can we help the rural economy grow further by giving them access to finance. And that I think has been a strong outcome from the artificial intelligence, machine learning things we've been doing at scale.
The second angle, which is kind of the complimentary angle to the same story, that how are you able to predict loans, which may be going red or can be going red in a couple of months? And hence, what is the proactive action you would take in helping the customer or the person who has taken the loan, set up a new payment plan?
This all came through the moratorium last year, when the government gave a moratorium to the paybacks, and it's kind of an outcome of that, that how do we predict delinquency in a better way.
Third is flexible pricing of products, that once we have these models evolving for smaller ticket loans, not for automobile, not SUV or not a tractor, but for smaller ticket loans, how do you price them with the best interest rate, so that there is attraction in seeking the loan? This could be even for consumer durables, where the small ticket loans could be that somebody in the rural area wanting to buy a TV, or a mixer grinder for home use? Or it could be a personal loan for education. In such case, how do we make it attractive, that's where artificial intelligence and machine learning is helping us a lot. So that's one side.
The other side is around automobiles, around connected cars and making cars safer, autonomy and lane assist and many other things, which we are doing and a lot of our vehicles in the coming models are going to be talking about that. That's on the automobile side. And then some very interesting work on the farm and agriculture, where we are running experiments at scale, through hundreds of acres of farmland, working with farmers and our dealers, to be able to use Internet-of-Thing (IoT) sensors in the soil to be able to then do spot irrigation versus flood irrigation.
Otherwise, you know, paddy farmers, if you have free water – many state governments provide free water to the farmers or even otherwise, it's not about free water – there's national wastage of water, flooding the farmland or flooding the farm does not necessarily have a better, best impact on the yield. So how do we use IoT sensors in the soil spaced across the farm so that you know exactly where to irrigate where to not, and then providing farmers with special equipment which can be attached to the back of the tractor, which can help spot irrigation. Similarly, spot pesticide spraying in sugarcane and grapes.
Those are other experiments we're currently running in Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and couple of other states. And this isn’t just one farm experiment, here I’m talking about hundreds to thousands of farms. So, you take a one-acre plot, work with the farmer, work with the dealer nearby and then expand. We’re doing this at scale, that's on the farm side. We are also looking at how our tractors can be trackable, and can it be a connected tractor platform where the farmer, if he or she has given the tractor on rent or has loaned it to somebody else, then how he can track the tractor where it is, and a lot of other data which can come from the tractor to the farmer, which helps the farmer become more productive.
Many of these areas around IoT sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous cars and safety in cars, are changing our core product and offering and making it better for the customer in many ways. That's just some of the examples that come to my mind.
I think with 5G coming in the country in a couple of quarters, maybe next year, things may change even further, because the edge computing and intelligence of our products can become a lot better. And then we have like I said, we have many factories, and we're looking at Industry 4.0, where how can we have connected factories and intelligent factories and how to use again, artificial intelligence, machine learning for driving productivity, product quality, maintenance of the factories and making them safer for our workers.
So, looking at all these angles, and I'm not even counting about all-Covid measures where many of these innovative technologies whether it's social distancing apps, or contactless doors and whatever else, or biometrics or facial recognition, which I'm sure you hear from other companies too. But on the core products, we are seeing adoption of new age technology -- AR, VR, 5G, IoT, AI, ML, Blockchain -- are becoming prevalent a bit beyond proof of concept, to be a scale transformation enabler, to drive innovation for the benefit of the customer. And we see that happening, and I'm sure it's repeatable and scalable equally.
What are some future use cases within the Group using 5G and Blockchain?
5G in automobile will be a game changer, because your vehicle in real-time, should be able to predict any collisions, accidents or any roadblocks happening to edge computing environment.
You could zone a city into multiple zones and put edge servers, and your car could very well be connected to the cloud. And hence you could have intelligence in the vehicle itself. Currently, it's there. But with 5G, it can be real-time, much more real-time.
So, I think making cars safer – and I'm not even talking about in-car entertainment, I think that's an easy one to imagine -- but making cars safer, is a use case we will drive and we're not there yet. But all companies will do it. And hence, that will be a game changer.
I think Blockchain in the rural economy from Farm-to-Market, or from Farm-to-Plate is a good use case, which means that the rice being grown and it's on your plate to eat. And on this chain, how can we make financing available at different stages. So, it starts with the farmer and the equipment, then the Mandis then the dealers, so it'll go from individual auto loan to crop insurance kind of thing, then small and medium enterprise loans.
And it's a trade finance in some way. So that's a good Blockchain. I'm sure that there are other Blockchain ideas as well, which were which we're looking at, on the automobile side, which is new car-to-old car. So it's a new car and you start your identity on a Blockchain and then the car goes to the 20 year cycle -- the government just announced a scrappage policy in the last budget, so in 20 years passenger cars can be scrapped -- for 20 years, your car may pass five hands through resale, it will be a unique token on a distributed ledger, and hence authenticity, and where did the car come from, who owned it originally, all that is available as a Blockchain.
I think those are ideas, which currently are also there, but they are in the paper world, you have to go back, look at the records, and go to the RTO, many of those things. This will be much simpler. So those are those are examples for us in the auto side, in the farm and finance side, and automobile, of course, safer cars.
How did the group’s business continuity plan look like in 2019 versus in 2020? And future outlook?
It's a great question. I'll try and answer it in two parts. One is the classic system network and digital availability.
Second is the people dependency. Both put together make a good plan. So if you look at impact analysis and recovery time objectives, you need to figure out people, process and technology, assuming process is now digital, so whatever is there in digital, that's the process, but it is people and technology let me answer the technology part first.
I think irrespective of Covid, we always had a robust BCP, even when it was on-premise servers and we always had a three location design, that across Mumbai, Chennai, Pune, how we have availability of infrastructure, applications and, digital assets. That part was always designed, tested, and it worked as planned. Also, because through Covid, the data centres never went down or the cloud never went down, those kinds of things never went down.
But if I answer it in a more futuristic fashion, I think using cloud as an enabler is the strongest change we are bringing about, that more we move to the cloud, better resiliency can be addressed, whether it's containerization on the cloud, or a hybrid cloud strategy, or even a multi cloud strategy. And we are 30-40% already on the cloud over the last one year of effort, what we were originally in the data centres, 30-40% of that has already moved to the cloud, and over the next one or two years, that's going to be our continuous journey.
That's a technology answer.
The people answer, last year I would have struggled to answer this question that what happens to the people, how we would recover people, I think that has been tested through the time. Our corporate businesses on factories have continued to work in the factory. But our corporate offices, our all other support functions, sales and marketing and finance and accounting and HR and technology and risk management and legal and secretarial, and all the functions have worked seamlessly over the last one year. And that makes me believe that you know what, we don't need to necessarily test whether it can work.
We need to see that the productivity, the employee experience, and seamless operation is where we need to invest. So we are doing a lot of work on something we're calling the digital workplace experience project, DWX, where are we looking at all the employee facing systems irrespective of whether that's sitting in the office or sitting at home where the employee faces it sitting in the office or sitting at home, but how that experience is seamless, highly productive, and highly collaborative, because in the hybrid work model, which is what all companies are going to take, collaboration and communication is going to the main need. While that's not BCP part of the answer, but without it, I don't think companies will be able to excel. So building collaborative, and communication platform for employees to be fully productive, with great employee experience is as important as moving to the cloud and building digital customer journeys. So that's kind of my view.
Are the data centre or cloud vendors different across the Mahindra group? Or is it singular?
We use all the three vendors, if you look at the three large hyperscalers, everybody knows what the names are, I don't need to name them. We use all of them for different use cases, based on their strengths. That brought us to the 30%. Whether we want to continue with all three, or select a few, I think that study is currently on. To your question, are we all trying to move to one? My answer would be that it will remain to be a hybrid and a multi cloud strategy.
Hybrid means on-premise, something in the cloud, and multi cloud means multiple cloud provider. So I do see there is a need and room for multiple cloud providers to be continuing to operate.
Are there synergies with Tech Mahindra side of business within the group?
A. Of course, it's across the group, we work very closely with Tech Mahindra and many of the Tech Mahindra colleagues are very much in the same discussion and meetings with the hyperscalers, jointly helping us define the strategy. Yes, that’s a good reminder.
There are also a couple of interesting CX companies that are subsidiaries under the Mahindra Group. It’s those companies that you partner with, as well as the third-party companies in the CX space, including Salesforce.
Yes, Salesforce is a close partner of ours. You’re right.