In conversation with Ramesh Shanmuganathan: Exploring the motives behind ‘JKIT CXO Disrupt’

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“I feel every business needs to hit refresh regularly. We assume a lot of things, which aren’t necessarily true and carry on business as usual until doomsday. Simply because we don’t see any other way,” shares Ramesh Shanmuganathan, the Group CIO of John Keells Holdings. This is his guiding philosophy on how a business should operate. Recently, we met with Ramesh to understand the “JKIT CXO Disrupt” series they kicked off recently. 

It would be impossible to find anyone in the Sri Lankan IT sector who does not know Ramesh. Under his leadership, John Keells Holdings (JKH) has led the way for establishing some of the most exciting technologies early on which today may be considered as mainstream. Examples being cloud, security & mobility. With Ramesh, JKH found an appetite for the early adoption of transformative technologies due to the rare combination of understanding of business competency and technology proficiency. 

“CXO Disrupt” is built on helping as many business leaders to change the operating belief that some things will never change. However, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown, such assumptions can be shattered overnight. Breaking free from the shackles of this antiquated mindset and embracing disruptions is the goal of the CXO Disrupt Series initiative by John Keells IT. Speaking to ReadMe, Ramesh shared more about the initiative and how CXOs introduce a mindset of disruption into their businesses.

Why CXO Disrupt?

“Fundamentally, what we saw even during the coronavirus pandemic was a lack of thought leadership among business leaders in terms of what technology could do and how to solve problems given the technology they have. Often, they tend to solve problems in a traditional linear fashion,” said Ramesh describing the reason behind the CXO Disrupt initiative. 

Taking the example from retail, the topic of the last session, which was aptly named “CXO Disrupt – Reimagine Retail”, he pointed out retailers aimed to develop their own delivery infrastructure during this period to support the spike in online orders. Whereas, the successful entities partnered with entities such as PickMe and Uber who are the established transportation providers.

“Technology has made it easier to connect the dots, provided you’re willing to solve the problem in a nonlinear fashion.” – Ramesh Shanmuganathan

This is what it means to look at problems in a non-linear fashion. To move away from trying to own the entire value chain and instead look at value ecosystems. In such ecosystems, businesses would compete based on price and efficiency while forming partnerships to deliver value to their consumers. Sharing the example of Keells, Ramesh explained, “We will own the warehouse and the store. But the delivery can be done by someone else depending on where the customer is. It could be PickMe, Uber, or a local tuk driver.” 

Ramesh Shanmuganathan | JKIT | Disruption
Disruptive thinking requires businesses to embrace they’ll never own the entire value chain. Taking the example of Keells, Ramesh shared that while it owns the warehouse and stores, it can rely on partners to deliver groceries.

Yet, to know with certainty whether such partnerships will generate value isn’t easy. Ramesh admits that sometimes two businesses could be partners in one area and competitors in another. But this shouldn’t hinder collaboration. He goes on to explain, “There will always be competition. But that doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate if there are clear boundaries.” 

Ultimately, the goal of the CXO Disrupt series is to encourage business leaders to think disruptively. A necessity since existing assumptions and contexts have changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This has changed the role of technology as well, forcing businesses to accept to survive. To embrace this mindset requires leaders to venture beyond their comfort zones and take risks. 

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To embrace disruption, CXOs must be willing to venture outside of their comfort zone. They need to have an appetite for risks because they can’t afford to be risk-averse anymore. (Image credits: Ilanelanzen)

“For a CXO to be disruptive, there has to be a certain degree of risk-taking,” says Ramesh pointing out that the biggest challenge is that most are risk-averse. They would prefer to continue investing in whatever they did the previous year. They’re comfortable knowing they have control. Whereas, disruptive leaders embrace the idea that they’ll never have full control over everything. Airbnb serves as a successful example of this approach. 

Introducing a disruptive mindset across a business

Of course, it’s not enough for the CXO’s to think disruptively. For a business to be truly disruptive, leaders at all levels must embrace this mindset. Reflecting upon his experience as the Group CIO of John Keells, Ramesh Shanmuganathan said, “The bigger conviction must come from the top. If you have a proven track record of delivering promises then this becomes easier. After that things will change but they won’t happen overnight.”

Digitale Transformation: Dies ist erst der Anfang ...
In most cases, digital transformation that brings about a disruptive organization is driven initially by a few individuals who have to prove its potential and then show the way forward for the rest of the business (Image credits: Aerzteblatt)

He went on to share that the idea for digital transformation at John Keells was first discussed in 2010. But it took a long time with programmes like the John Keells X programme, planting the seeds that brought about the transformation of the conglomerate at all levels. In contrast, with startups, this is the default mindset as it’s essential for them to quickly introduce their products to market. 

That’s not to say large businesses can’t emulate the same speed of execution. Recalling their experience shifting Keells Super online, Ramesh shared, “We were forced to operate like a startup. Before the curfew, the website saw barely 100 orders a day. Suddenly, we had to deal with 5000 orders every day. So we began reconfiguring things and executing ideas to meet the needs of consumers. It was a great learning experience for the group as we worked with several parties to make deliveries. It proved that we didn’t need to control the entire chain to deliver value to consumers.”

“You can never say something will be adopted until you put it in the hands of the customer.” – Ramesh Shanmuganathan

Whether a business embraces the idea of a disruptive mindset comes down to the resolve of a few individuals. They will have to take it upon themselves to convince everyone else it’s something to act upon. To achieve this goal, they can take a page from the Lean Startup playbook. By developing an MVP and putting it in front of customers. With the results, they gain credibility to drive the transformation. But human beings are complex creatures. As Ramesh reminded, “You can never say a customer will adopt something until you put it in their hands.”

Collaborate, Co-creation, Co-innovate an approach to experimenting with ideas and building solutions that are scalable

A fundamental trait of disruptive businesses is a constant flow of ideas. The absence of this flow often spells disaster. For proof, one only needs to look at the chaotic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It has forced businesses to come up with radical new ideas to survive. 

Module »THINK« - Design Thinking Playroom
By applying design thinking and analysing the customer journey, a business can identify points of friction to help it filter ideas and identify those that are feasible. (Image credits: playroom.rocks)

Yet, ideas are dime a dozen. Everyone has them. How do you filter them to find the good ones? Depending on whom you ask, you’ll get different answers. From Ramesh, the answer is design thinking. This is a creative problem-solving approach where the focus is on issues faced by customers. The rationale being that by solving these problems we develop better products. 

To explain this concept, Ramesh returned to the retail sector, which was the topic of this first CXO Disrupt event. “The first point of friction a customer faces at a supermarket is to find parking. Most Keells outlets have 10 – 15 parking spaces. But during peak hours, these are quickly filled. So a customer drives off,” he explained. Today, technology offers us different avenues to address this issue. 

One approach would be to use the data from loyalty programmes. From this data, it’s possible to predict the items a customer purchases regularly and when. In doing so, the retailer can offer to have them ready for pickup at the store or to be delivered. If it’s the latter then it’s possible for the retailer to partner with PickMe, Uber, or any other logistics provider. 

In conversation with Ramesh Shanmuganathan: Exploring the motives behind 'JKIT CXO Disrupt' 5
When the curfew was announced, Keells Super had to change its operations almost overnight. Its website went from having to handle 100 orders to 5000 orders a day. Ramesh shared that during this time they actively listened to customer suggestions and tested those that were feasible (Image credits: Keells Super)

Similarly, several other issues can be addressed with this approach. But at each stage, the most important thing is to listen to customers. Ramesh shared that several features were added to the Keells Super website based on feedback they received on social media. “We were bombarded with ideas. So we had to put a process in place to check if they were feasible. Then we began working a quick hack to implement it while ensuring the rest of the operation from getting groceries to the store and then to customers was operating smoothly,” recalled Ramesh.   

But if the technology exists, then why didn’t we already use it to fix these issues? “Either it cost too much or there wasn’t much to gain by fixing it,” explained Ramesh. Going back to the example of parking at a supermarket, he said, “Most retailers know about the issue with parking. But the view among their senior leaders is that it’s a negligible issue. Simply because they know the customer accepts it to be normal and will come back at some point.” So it was business as usual.

Embracing technology and its disruptive nature

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Technology will play a deeper role in our lives in the coming years. Disruptive organizations welcome this with open arms. But such a change will not happen overnight. The ideas discussed today may take years before becoming mainstream. (Image credits: John Keells Properties)

However, with the coronavirus pandemic, such assumptions were shattered. Many CXO’s have learned the hard way that, “When your assumptions are no longer valid then your entire business model has to change.” Hence moving forward, if businesses are to survive and respond to a crisis, it’s leaders must think disruptively, question age-old assumptions,   experiment with new ideas, and accept they can’t own the entire value chain. 

As businesses work towards embracing disruption, technology will play a bigger role in operations. Robotic Process Automation, Mixed Reality in Tourism, and Telemedicine are some of the examples. Yet, the adoption of these and other disruptive technologies won’t happen overnight seamlessly. There are several barriers and challenges, which CXOs will need to overcome. Offering them guidance to do so is the goal of the CXO Disrupt series. 

In conversation with Ramesh Shanmuganathan: Exploring the motives behind 'JKIT CXO Disrupt' 6
The technology exists today to solve several problems, which were deemed to be not worth fixing. But the coronavirus pandemic has shattered existing assumptions. It has forced CXOs to rethink their businesses entirely. The ones that do so by embracing disruptive thinking will be the leaders of tomorrow. (Image credits: ExtremeTech)

Already, future events of the initiative are being planned. Ramesh shared that they’ll be looking at specific industries like manufacturing and tourism. But at the same time, the CXO Disrupt series would also cover broader topics like data privacy and cyber resilience. In doing so, it aims to serve as a platform where ideas can be discussed to harness the power of technology and overcome any challenges to do so.   

Still, the ideas discussed today may take 3 – 4 years to become mainstream. Nevertheless, the leaders that choose to explore these ideas early-on, despite the risks, have the opportunity to seize the valuable first-mover advantage. This is a powerful edge to have over the competition. Given the constantly changing nature of our world, such exploration is necessary to embrace new opportunities. 

In closing, Ramesh offered some simple advice for the CXO looking to make their business disruptive. “Take a step back and ask yourself, ‘If I were to start this business today what would I do differently?’ then look at where you are today and bridge the two. It’s always an interesting discussion to have because you find several possibilities. The coronavirus forced businesses to do it. But I believe they should be doing this voluntarily. We believe the way forward is to provide thought leadership, challenge the status quo, think eco-systems & ensure your business retains platform agility. JKIT CXO Disrupt will continue to discuss these key areas.”

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