Interviews by Stephen Ibaraki, FCIPS, I.S.P., MVP, DF/NPA, CNP
Pravir Vohra: Group CTO, ICICI Bank; International Senior Technology Visionary, Executive and Innovator
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, FCIPS, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with with Pravir Vohra.
Mr. Pravir Vohra is the Group CTO at ICICI Bank. In this role, he is responsible for the IT strategy & innovation, enterprise architecture, process automation and leveraging technology synergies across ICICI Bank and its group companies.
Mr. Vohra has been associated with the ICICI Group for over 7 years. His earlier assignments within the Group included Head (Retail Technology Group) and Head (Technology Management Group). He also oversaw the deployment of technology across ICICI Bank's international operations.
Prior to his present appointment, he worked with Times Bank in the capacity of Vice President in charge of the Corporate Services group. He was responsible for spearheading the bank's technology enabled services to corporates in areas like cash management, supply chain management and merchant banking.
Mr. Vohra began his career in the banking industry in State Bank of India where he worked for 23 years in areas such as Information Technology and International Banking. He held various senior level positions with the State Bank of India, both in India and abroad. His assignments included responsibility for the technology function for State Bank's branches in the US and Canada.
With a stint spanning three decades in the industry, Mr. Vohra has immense experience and knowledge in IT architecture, domain expertise in financial products, process re-engineering, IT operations and strategy.
Mr. Vohra is a Certified Associate of the Indian Institute of Bankers and a postgraduate in Economics from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi.
The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.
Opening Comment: Pravir, with your extensive history of global successes in technology, innovation and leadership, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in and do this interview. Thank you!
A: Thank you. I am glad to participate.
Q1: What key lessons and tips can you share in your current areas of responsibility?
IT strategy and innovation: Evolving business models require us to constantly innovate and provide the best fit technology with tangible business benefits. For example, while channel migration is a strategy followed by many banks, our customers can view their entire relationship through a single browser window. To enhance the relationship value further we offer a plethora of services like online fund transfers, bill presentment and payment, secure messaging, shopping on the site etc. I believe that one should innovate around existing and future technologies to meet both transient and persistent business needs. As an organization we need to scour for technologies whose inherent capabilities solve business problems or enable strategic business opportunities.
Enterprise architecture: Enterprise architecture is made up of business and technical components. We believe that planning processes are usually cyclical and undergo continuous renewal. Hence, at ICICI, the architecture is always evolving. Our enterprise architecture is completely aligned to our overall business strategies. For example, we consciously allow image transfers across our networks only during the night to optimize bandwidth utilization. Our network, application and business teams constantly meet and discuss to ensure consistency with the our overall strategy. Enterprise strategy, I believe, should be designed for change, interoperability and agility. It is also advisable to include compliance as a keystone of any strategy.
Process automation: Process automation helps technology to achieve operational excellence. It plays an invaluable role in reducing response times without compromising on the quality of output. The relevant process automation areas would be the repetitive tasks associated with the IT operations processes, IT change and configuration management and infrastructure provisioning. In our scenario, systems like LanDesk orchestrate processes relating to configuration and change management.
Leveraging technology synergies across multiple companies: Using technology smartly across the spectrum is the key to higher technology adoption and faster return on investments. We believe that our solutions should help cater to the needs of the entire enterprise i.e. the bank as well as all group companies. Since most of our group companies have similar key business processes, appropriate technology is selected and products are invariably leveraged for group wide consumption. The Business Rules Engine, for example, has been integrated into key processes within our banking and the insurance businesses. An identified team focuses on leveraging learning and best practices across the entire group. Similarly, the infrastructure services team uses a combination of knowledge, experience and expertise to manage to offer shared services to the entire group.
Q2: Let's extend the last question to your prior roles with ICICI: Retail technology, Technology Management, Technology deployment internationally
Retail technology: We supported program and project management activities for efficient and integrated implementation of technologies for the retail bank. The group has implemented, and currently maintains, the core banking solution which is one of our technology platforms for backend operations and front-end transaction delivery. Centralized operations and process automation using core banking applications have enhanced efficiency and productivity levels tremendously. The team has to its credit numerous projects such has mobile banking, online RTGS and NEFT that have helped the Bank retain its leadership position in the market. We have focused on building and managing business applications especially solutions relating to unified relationship management and processes automation.
Technology management: The charter of this group is to take an enterprise view of technology and our relationships with our technology partners. The group also researches nascent technologies so as to recommend strategic calls on early adoption of emerging technologies.
With the heightened competition, banks are constantly trying to retain existing and attract new customers. Multi channel banking has gained prominence and banks have had to cope with the growing volumes by targeting the right customer at the right time and through the right channel. The Technology management group, for example, evangelized a Business Intelligence solution which led to the implementation of an enterprise-wide reporting system in the bank. It was the first initiative of its kind in the banking industry in India. Then again, we worked with local fabricators and have helped designed a variety of devices that would enable additional, better or faster services to our customers. Self service cheque truncation machines, dynamic queue management systems and multi-function kiosks are cases in point. One must keep in mind, of course, some of our local challenges in that many multinational providers still do not have a sales or service presence in India.
Technology deployment internationally: Perhaps the biggest lesson I learn here was that the world is actually flat! There are certainly significant differences in regulatory stances across the geographies. However, consumer behavior, psychology and preferences tend to be more similar than different. While we did learn some of these lessons only in time, this has enabled us to leverage many of our domestic technology initiatives across our international operations. This has helped us to reduce our costs of course, but perhaps, more importantly, to achieve dramatic time efficiencies in project implementation, training and roll-out.
Q3: What are your recommendations in cash management?
A: The cash management scenario in India is rather different than in most countries across the world. The fact on the ground is that many of our banks still maintain paper books of account and are not automated as much of the developed world would expect. While rapid progress is indeed being made by the banking industry in India, the heterogeneous state of evolution of different banks does pose some unique challenges. Thus, many of our cash management products are designed to help our customers work around some of these 'natural hurdles'. In that sense, some of them are surrogate substitutes for an ACH or a country wide paper clearing system! That said, our Cash Management services offer a full range of receivable and payable products to meet the complex cash management needs of businesses both big and small.
In my view, cash management must be designed as a service to offer liquidity, quality and superior client service. It should save businesses both time and effort as well as add to their bottom line. Cash management solutions would in the final analysis need to integrate across the entire cash supply chain.
Q4: How will supply chain management evolve into the future?
A: The convergence of Internet technologies, heightened global competition, and the advent of lean practices has made supply chain management one of the key differentiators of the future. Delivery units have now to provide essentially better services with shrinking budgets. Hence integration of supply chain practices across the board will provide huge efficiencies. In the near future, the use of business intelligence in various supply chain management processes will help anticipate customer demand, generate insights to act upon and optimize supply strategies.
Q5: What were the major technology challenges in ICICI and how do you plan to solve them?
A: Any rapidly growing, technology-enabled organization is bound to face challenges along the way. I think ICICI Bank has been no different.
As an example, as customer retention assumed importance, new and innovative products variants mushroomed. Often, given line of business structures these were manufactured by different teams. This led to a major challenge in maintaining a single version of customer relationships. We then worked on unifying our data sources and invested in a business intelligence framework. Some of these initiatives helped us deliver consistent, reliable and accessible information.
Another challenge that has been getting our attention is increasing server sprawl. We have embarked upon a server virtualization strategy that we believe, will help us improve server utilization, increase flexibility and reduce server footprint. This would improve manageability and reduce our TCO.
Q6: From an IT perspective, what should we watch for internationally?
A: I am afraid it is rather hard to predict international trends. Just about 15 years ago, who of us would have imagined IP networks becoming as ubiquitous as they are today? I think the open source movement and technologies in spaces like virtualization, speech, RFID and biometrics etc would be interesting to watch.
Q7: As an acknowledged leading international CTO facing key issues globally, what do you see as the top five technology issues facing businesses today and what are your recommendations?
A: I am not sure I can count five or stick to technology issues alone. Perhaps, a very important issue at a macro level is the increasing pace of technology obsolescence on the one hand and conscious technology refresh on the other. Again, as business applications get more complex, the time to re-engineer increases exponentially. Another very important issue at least for us in India is attrition. Retention of talent is a huge challenge. I also worry about the growth of many systems in fast growing organizations; disparate systems could deliver immediate value but could slow an organization down in the long term. Keeping pace with ever changing regulatory requirements is also becoming an increasing challenge.
Recommendations I am afraid could sound clichéd. We need to find newer ways to motivate our people and imbibe innovative HR policies. Processes must continually evolve and mature. And, technology investments must become more strategic than tactical.
Q8: From the CTO perspective, how do you see technology integrated into business performance, strategy, goals, and objectives? What would be your key priorities for ensuring business and IT alignment?
A: IT today is entirely about alignment with the business. Presently we work with business groups across the bank for planning and developing technology solutions relevant for their business segments. We have begun to measure, so as to demonstrate, the business value of IT. There is a focus on tangible value based metrics to measure performance. IT needs to have a clear understanding of the organization's key business processes so as to design the best possible solutions. IT should be able to assist businesses to reduce their operating costs, increase revenue, reduce time to market, enable better decision making and improve customer service.
Q9: What are your key priorities for 2007 and 2008?
A: Technology refresh and future-proofing are aspects that constantly engage my attention. We do not want to fix something that is not broken but we also do not wait till it breaks before we think of fixing it. In the high paced world of modern business, teams rarely have time to focus on anything but the immediate. I worry about whatever could be falling between the cracks. As the enterprise becomes increasing virtual and truly 24x7, security is an increasing priority. I would also like to focus on leveraging some of the investments we have already made particularly in our global operations. Many 'business as usual' initiatives will also remain key priorities …. Server, storage and application set consolidation; initiatives around our Data Warehouse and BI framework that would help us enhance revenue generation via cross-selling, up-selling and retention.
Q10: What should businesses know about future trends in the Internet environment and in IT? What are the implications and business opportunities? Why should businesses care?
A: The internet has now entered a new phase that will allow faster collaboration and knowledge dissemination within and across companies. This will clearly boost efficiencies. The internet will spawn new business models and opportunities a la kiva.org and nabuur.com. Knowledge portals already use the internet to enable business transformation. The web is hugely powerful because of its extensive reach. This is both an opportunity and a threat. As the playing field gets leveled, businesses need to understand this new environment and associated technologies. This will help them emerge as leaders in this competitive environment.
Turn around time expectations of customers for any service offering are shrinking. Reduced cycle times, therefore, assume paramount importance in steering ahead of competition. For all of this and more technology is the enabler. Hence it makes sense for business leaders to keep themselves at least broadly updated with the latest trends in IT.
Q11: You have a long and distinguished career in IT. Based upon your deep insights, what would be some career tips for the ICT professional and the reasons behind them?
A: IT is a knowledge driven industry and to remain relevant periodic skill up-gradation is, in my view, mandatory. IT professionals also need to develop an ability to use acquired knowledge to innovate in their respective areas so as to enable business opportunities. They should be able to align themselves to the needs of the businesses they are associated with. While clearly specialization is the order of the day, what I think is often missing in many cases is an understanding of the overall IT landscape. For example, I have seen many developers writing code that is unmindful of best security practices or usage of applications across unpredictable and slow wide area networks. Of course, all professionals in IT and elsewhere must bring a zeal and passion to their work.
Q12: Which three experiences most shaped your life and work?
The first one I recall is from over 20 years ago when I headed a bank branch in New Delhi. There were no computers in the Indian banking industry at that time. I was amazed by the amount of repetitive accounting and book-writing work that our staff had to do. And the amount of re-work that the poor quality of manual work, in turn, led to. What was worse was that a lot of my time had to be spent to ensure that books were written up and balanced! It was this experience that led me to start 'dabbling' in IT and technology driven solutions. So along with my day job, I started attending computer classes at night.
A second turning point came about 7 or 8 years when I was offered a job with ICICI Bank. I came essentially from a business background; the offer was for a technology led assignment. I remember a lot of soul searching as to whether I really wanted to make a switch that traditional thought would label as 'regressive' or retrograde. In retrospect, of course, I am glad I took the decision I did. I believe I have been able to leverage knowledge of 'both' sides and that the final result has been 'greater than the sum of parts'!
The third experience is actually on-going and perhaps the most exhilarating. I currently get lots of opportunities to work with young talent both within the bank and in the IT industry. These 'kids' are bubbling with knowledge, ideas and new thoughts. Their optimism is indeed infectious and their energy levels rub off easily. It all leads to a great work place experience that keeps one constantly renewed and refreshed!
Q13: If you were conducting this interview, what 3 questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
A: This is indeed a trick question. If I knew the answers I would certainly not be asking the questions! Please pardon me but the questions I seek answers to may have little to do with technology at least directly.
Closing Comment: Pravir, I thank you for sharing your time and valued experiences with our audience. We are indeed fortunate to have you do this interview.
A: Thank You!