Building Resilient Enterprise With Programmatic Innovation Where Quality is at the Digital Core
Sumithran Danabalan, Senior Vice President of Consulting, Digital Engineering Services, Cigniti
Sairam Vedam, Chief Marketing Officer, Cigniti
Here is the Transcript
Sai: Hi everyone. We’re back. Welcome to our continued insights through our podcast series on the digital dialogue umbrella. And today, I’m quite excited, honestly, to bring to fort what we’ve been working on a series of thought leadership initiatives, particularly as global enterprises race to win the digital landscape, it’s imminent for them to sort of thrive and also inculcate a culture of bottom-up innovation. And what could be a better way than to engineer such innovation, what we call programmatic innovation at Cigniti. And as the second part of this podcast series, in continuation to the digital dialogue series, we also have a practitioner’s view of this whole thought process that we put together into implementation with some of our customers. And I’m glad to have Sumi Dhanabalan, whom we call Sumi, SVP for digital consulting worldwide at Cigniti, being the speaker today. Sumi is a transformational business leader with a significant amount of worldwide experience driving global digital transformation programs. He drove sustainable, measurable outcomes at global corporations like Google and Malaysian Airlines, so to speak. And he’s been at the forefront of launching transformative digital transformation programs that have resulted in long-term successes. At Cigniti, he’s at the forefront of these conversations with customers, relooking, redefining, and reimagining how digital could be done in a way what we call digital to be done right. And at the center of that is this thought process called programmatic innovation and certain frameworks and how we are actually doing at it. And that’s what I’m going to have this conversation with Sumi. Sumi, welcome to the show.
Sumi: Thanks. I appreciate that kind introduction, but I’m looking forward to this conversation.
Sai: Lovely. Before we get going, Sumi, so, for the benefit of the audience, I just thought that we could set a little more context. IDC has recently published this insight, which I’m sure everyone would love to hear. Ninety-five percent of global CEOs still believe that their agenda is to be digital first. And more importantly, a significant amount of them believe that they need trusted digital partners who could help win this whole digital maze and unravel the complexity and make it simple. But it’s pretty easy said than done. And it needs a string of practitioner approach with years of experience and more than all of that. An ability to keep it simple and at the same time, engineer those innovative practices to help this become reality. With that background, Sumi, maybe, can we start with this whole notion of why do you think bottom-up innovation is extremely important? And in your viewpoint, what we call programmatic innovation, how can innovation be a strategic business enabler that can move from innovation is typically thought of as something that we do inside a lab. But your thought process at Cigniti has been how innovation can be a business enabler. Maybe some opening thoughts on this whole approach, Sumi.
Sumi: Yeah, no, great question, Sai. I think most people realize this and most businesses realize this. 50 years ago, the balance of power in terms of, what products were created, what markets were made, were all controlled by the large organizations that we see today. So, consumers were passive. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they were waiting for products and services that could make a difference in their lives. But, with the Internet and mobile devices, the power, the balance of power in decision-making for what new products and services they’re going to buy is now with the consumer. And so I call this kind of, the era of consumers. It used to be businesses, looking at the product strategy, looking at their competitors, looking at defining a new market. But today, all that is kind of looking backward. You can’t look inside out anymore. As a business, you have to look outside in. Now, because of that, there’s only one way of being as a company, which is this notion of how do I learn by doing? Because, to be able to constantly look at the customer that you have and the customers that you want to get onto your platforms or buy your products, you need to be learning about how they behave. And today, with the Internet and how they are behaving, that ability can only come if you are sensing changes in real-time. So, that’s been the big shift, if you can call it. Most organizations today cannot just start with a product and think the market will come. That day doesn’t exist anymore. Today, it’s really about anchoring to what your customers need and constantly iterating towards delivering value to them. And so the notion of bottom-up innovation is how you sense closest to your customers, the needs that they have, and then build your product strategy or your business strategy to be able to deliver. And that requires a whole change in how your companies are organized to win. Because in those days, if it was an inside-out approach, someone at the top, like a CEO, could set a direction and say execute. But in today’s world, where it’s kind of bottom-up, your consumers, which are right at the bottom if you think of the CEO, the CEO is now furthest away from the customer. It is your customers now that are deciding what they’re going to do with your business. And you need to be able to take that bottom up all the way to making decisions for your strategy. So that’s kind of the big change today that I see. And it requires a kind of different way of organizing for that change.
Sai: Fantastic. So can I probably take the liberty to summarize this as you probably want to navigate the era of disruption by anchoring to what your customers need as a not-start? Is that a fair summary?
Sumi: Yeah. And I think that’s a really brilliant kind of summary of what I’ve just said. Keeping the customer center constantly rather than your product or rather than your strategy, which is going to be dynamically affected by the market and by the consumer needs.
Sai: Right. The second thought process that we wanted to sort of discuss today, we at Cigniti, , have always had this notion that quality should be at the center of anything that global companies should do. And every company today is a software company. Software quality is strategic. So quality first approach to digital or practically engineering the whole aspect of digital quality. Can you show some examples and thought process on behind this whole programmatic innovation approach and where do you see that fitting in?
Sumi: Right. So you think about the era of customers and this is a great question, right? Where does quality fit into this kind of notion of programmatic innovation? But even before we talk about this notion of deliberately innovating, where does quality sit in the era of customers? And if you think about it, look, if you are a company that is aligned to the era of customers, there are kind of five things that I would say you need to constantly do. The first is you need to have a deep understanding of your customer needs. And that’s kind of a given now. You need to be constantly thinking about the customer’s needs and you need to understand them. Second is by understanding those needs, you have to exceed the expectations that the customers have. So it’s not just delivering those needs to customers, but you need to be delighting them. You need to be exceeding it in some way. And experience is a very powerful way of delivering your products and services. And focusing on that is very important. Now, of course, to do both of those things, you need to personalize. You need to be able to understand your customers deeply. And we don’t have, the notion of segments today is not even there anymore. A segment is now the individual customer. Each customer needs a nuanced requirement because they are individually very different because of this era of customers and the Internet. Customers today, each customer today has a specific requirement. And so segmentation is not even required anymore. You need to be able to deliver to the segment of one. Now, the fourth is, of course, it has to be frictionless. So I talked about the experience. But, what is what where does quality fit in? And I think, across all of these four things I talked about, the fifth element in the era of customers is one, making sure that you can act with integrity, meaning if you say to your customer, this is the product that I’m going to deliver to you, you have to deliver it. There is no choice. You cannot drop the ball on that. Second is you need to be able to engender trust. You need to constantly be able to deliver that integrity and build trust because if you don’t have integrity and trust, it doesn’t matter whether you’re going to come out with the next new innovation that’s going to replace the iPad or the iPhone, or all the mobile phone, if you can call it. No one’s going to buy another product from you if you can’t deliver what you’re delivering today in a way that is delivering integrity and trust. So for me, quality has become the default. It is the baseline of how you need to act in the era of customers. And that’s where Cigniti really has built a great business in ensuring that what you want to deliver to your customer, we can assure that delivery to make sure the customers are getting what they need. And that for me, Sai, is really where I think Cigniti has built a competitive advantage.
Sai: Absolutely. I think with our cherished history of initial worlds of testing and quality assurance to today’s digital assurance, gives us the edge in capabilities to reset innovation as the engine and the shift execution to a valued continuous experimentation, if I could. And basically, that probably goes with our collective notion of building a resilient digital enterprise. Is that a fair summary of what you just outlined? Is that what you think we will be doing?
Sumi: Well, absolutely, Sai, I think, you’ve kind of encapsulated what I just said very eloquently in what you just did. And that’s why I feel like, two things, right? What companies need to be doing now is they need to be executing and exploring at the same time. But to do that, but to do that, you need to learn by doing. And the only way to learn by doing is to observe how your customers are on a daily basis using and interacting and transacting with you. And if you think about that and if you understand how you’re delivering that with quality, then you technically have a pathway to understand what’s next. And so there is kind of an end-to-end view now of how bottom-up innovation works from that perspective, which you have eloquently just kind of put across. But yes, I agree.
Sai: Sure. Maybe we go a little deeper into this whole framework, right? So you have this same infinity loop where you talk about what we’ve come up with this proactive QE as the digital core. Maybe can you go deeper on what’s the components of a holistic delivery model for ensuring the digital resiliency of an enterprise is true to practical QE as the enabler? Can you take us through the components of this framework and maybe some examples of how you’ve delivered value to customers using this?
Sumi: Sure, I think we need to kind of break those words in that phrase, that there are three words here. That’s this notion of being proactive. There is this notion of delivering quality. Right. And there is this notion of engineering, which is the building of digital products and services. Now, if you can proactively engineer with quality, amazing digital services, then you technically are anchoring to what we just talked about as the era of customers and this notion of bottom-up innovation. Now, before I go into this, this delivery model, if you can call it, is where I think most companies which are most companies today are software companies. We need to kind of bring this up a little bit. Right. So so there are three elements that I want to talk about before I go into this notion of proactive quality engineering. If a company is interested in anchoring to the era of customers, there are three things that they need to situate up front. And this is the pathway. The first is they need to understand what is that transformative end state that they are looking at in the future. They need to have a vision of success. And in the best companies in the world, whether you take Amazon as kind of a leader in this space or you take a lot of the startups that we see today, most entrepreneurs in these kind of companies who have led the world have a very clear vision of what the future looks like, not from the perspective of their company, but from the perspective of their customer. Right. So with a clear, transformative vision, I think what you do is you inspire people to succeed in your company, because a lot of employees today in these large companies that we work with in Cigniti are looking for an anchor to also be inspired by what they do. And that’s a really important element of delivering transformative change. The second is they need to be committed to deliver. And that’s where we can talk about the proactive QE element later. And the third is the proactivity because, in the commitment to deliver, there are going to be ups and downs. And, you have to make sure that your employees within your company are proactively trying to anticipate these ups and downs, because if not, when things don’t really go the way that you want them to go, there is a little bit of inertia that sets in that most companies will start facing, especially in dynamic market conditions. So establishing, first of all, establishing a clear, transformative end state from the perspective of the customer is really important. Right. And a lot of great companies spend a lot of time in thinking about what their purpose is and translating that to their vision, objective, strategy, tactics. So that’s the first thing. The second is you need to be able to think about how do you deliberately innovate to reach that transformative end state. Right. So you need to have a practice, a process within your company that is able to kind of see that end state and work backwards to here and now, because to achieve that end state, you can’t go there straight away. You need to iteratively move forward. And, as the more and more that I talk about this from a business perspective, this language that I use has been always used in the technology field. If you think about DevOps, for example, or you think about agile, these phrases, these words that I’m using are not new, but they need to now be surfaced up to the core of how companies are being defined and changed and led, especially at the C levels, especially at the C level leaders that we talk to. Now, the third element is proactive. What we term proactive QE. It is really shifting execution to experimentation. And proactive QE is really about how do you shift this notion of execution. If you think about the proactive QE methodology, there are just four words that you need to remember, which I think is what quality really means in a digital age. And so these four words that I often bring up is, look, how do we empathize consistently with our customers based on what they need? How do we then consistently deliver products and services that meet those needs? How do we ensure that by consistently delivering it, we can predict where we are not going to deliver? And finally, how do we ensure integrity? Meaning, how do we ensure that when the customer says their needs are not being met from their perspective, not from the technology perspective, we are able to make a change and be able to show that empathy in that feedback? So, again, how do you start with empathy, ensure consistency, make sure you have predictability in the way you deliver, but ultimately move back to empathy by showing that integrity? Right. So most companies today need to focus on and if I was a C-level talking about quality within my operating model for resilience, I need to be asking my CIOs, asking my teams really about, are we empathetic enough? Do we consistently build great products? Can we ensure that when we build great products, they really work? And can we take the customer’s viewpoint always? So this is the building blocks of what we call proactive QE. And so, Sai, I think, just on that level, I think these are the four words that I really think about when I think about proactive QE and building quality within the operating model for resilience.
Sai: How do you measure individual successes in those phases with some metrics and all that collectively comes in together? So what would be the end state? How do you measure the impact of this? Right. That’s another thing. If I’m a business owner, if I have to adopt this approach, are there measurement methods, immediate impacts, some of the things that you’ve driven? Can you talk about that?
Sumi: Yes. And so this is interesting. Let’s take the airline example, especially, as I had led in Malaysia Airlines, through a very large transformation. If the nature of delivering change or innovation is to learn by doing, then looking at your common KPIs or what I call lagging indicators, which are revenue costs, are not really that important anymore. I’m not saying they are. That’s you should not look at that. But I call them lagging indicators, meaning that you only see benefits within these indicators if you are able to kind of measure what’s leading up to them. Right. So so one of the most important things for a sea level leader, especially at the top, is to establish what are the leading indicators. So if we think about experimentation, what we did in Malaysia Airlines is instead of looking at just revenue as a key performance indicator, we looked at measuring how many ideas we were surfacing within the company. So each department was measured not just by the business-as-usual metrics, but they were also tasked with measurements of metrics that were showing a change in behavior that moved them out of execution into experimentation. So we attributed ideation and the number of ideas. And of course, we let managers decide what ideas, but we asked them to not just quantify ideas generated, but how many ideas they were actually sunsetting as well, because we wanted to understand whether they were taking ideation to execution and coming back to ideation. Right. So these were some of the measurements within that we as leaders were looking at to see whether our leaders were thinking about this notion of learning by doing. Because before that, all we were seeing were revenue and cost indicators. But we had no idea of the of the of the quality within this this metric. Right. And that was a big change. So redefining what are the intermediate KPIs, which I call leading indicators and within experimentation, ideas are the new currency for businesses. But it’s not just the generation of ideas, Sai. What’s really important is how can you learn from fast feedback whether these ideas are working and how do you then see whether these are translating to new revenue streams? And even though those revenues may be incremental or small, but they show a pathway to maybe the future. So these are some of the more organizational changes that we needed to make before innovation as a process would take over.
Sai: Right. Got it. Where do you think you are in your implementation phases of this approach in some of the global customers that we’ve been working? Are there any insights that you could share with the early implementations that we’ve been doing with this transformative approach where we are promulgating the thought that quality at the center of a digital engineering push could be the strategic enabler for digital success? Are there any customer insights off late that you could share apart from the transformation that you drove, which you spoke about at Malaysian Airlines?
Sumi: Right, no, we definitely are. And I think this is where now Cigniti is really kind of being able to lead in this idea of bottom up innovation. So if you think about it, the majority of our customers and I’ll give you some examples, the majority of our customers now are very much within the look, how do I develop a new solution or how do I develop a new idea? We just stay with the ideation. How do I build this new idea and how do I deploy and release this new idea? Right. And so our business as Cigniti has always been in ensuring consistency across the development of a new idea towards the release of that new idea within the operating model of the company. So we as a business have always led in making sure they could consistently develop and release. Now, a lot of our clients are now saying to us, look, as soon as we are sure that we are able to release these ideas, which is kind of a digital solution and we work across many industries, could we also observe and learn? Could we also observe and learn in real time how these applications or how these services are being used by our customers? Right. So how do we assure not just the release through testing, but how do we assure the quality, the quality through observing usage of these solutions? Now, in the old world of technology, there was always a distinct difference between the development of applications and the kind of operationalizing of those applications. Right. Both of those were two different departments, two different people. And they were never really that integrated. Well, more and more of our customers and I can talk about a few,for example, a large e-commerce provider that we are working and of course, we can’t name names, are very interested. And they are really talking to us about, look, how do we improve the ability for us to observe? But how is it how could we bring that observability back into design? How do we bring testing more earlier into the design phase of how we develop solutions? And so we are now looking at our platform. So we have a lot of platforms that surface the right kind of metrics across that kind of development to release. And we are looking at where those breakages are. And we are trying to reverse engineer to ensure that we are not leaving anything behind based on what customers are saying in the observation phase. And so we have a lot of established tools and processes to do that. So that’s kind of some of the examples. And, we also working with a very large fast food operator who actually bring in observability of customer sentiments into the engineering of their solutions. So they are not just looking at whether the solutions are working based on how they are functionally defined it, but they are looking at how customers are talking about it in real time to see whether they can make improvements. Again, the bottom up innovation, those feedback loops that makes your products iteratively better because most of these companies have realized that they don’t know what’s next. They have to learn by doing what’s next. And the customers are telling them often about what needs to improve. And if they are not listening, that’s really where the assurance of quality comes to the fore. And that’s where Cigniti has really built, I think, a significant capability to do that now. And that’s really where I think we should be heading.
Sai: And fundamentally, before we conclude the conversation, which has been very insightful so far. In an enterprise, assuming that I kick off an innovation chapter and program like this, which I’m sure is a very radical way of putting quality at the center of engineering. Who do you think is a custodian of a chapter like that inside an enterprise? Who do you think will consume programmatic innovation as a thought process? And in your mind, who is the best custodian or a steward for this sort of radical initiative? Because it ties a board. It goes all the way to the chief executive officer to drive this whole thing. But as a practitioner, as a consultant who’s been driving this, what’s your choice?
Sumi: Great question, Sai. I think management science for the last 50 years has always been about the top-down hierarchy. It’s always been about intelligence at the top, at the C-level. And I call it the CEO, the CIO, the CMO. And then it’s about kind of execution downwards. But really now, intelligence lies at the floor of your company closest to the customer. And so the reverse of what I call, we talk about ambidextrous leadership, the leadership from bottom up, the servant leadership model. So the most important, the people that should be most interested in what customers are saying on a minute level about your products and services used to be those closest to the customer, which were your employees. But this is now going to change. The CEO, the CIO, the CMO need to be asking the question daily, how are we learning from our customer and doing iteratively and putting those feedback loops into our operating model? Because our strategy now is not designed for a certain future market environment. Our strategy now is designed for an uncertain market environment. And if strategy is being designed for an uncertain market environment, then the inputs to that strategy will have to be dynamically changed on a day to day basis based on how customers are talking. And so just to answer your question, the key stakeholders now for quality at the center of your operating model for any company should be at the CEO level. But actually, I would even say at the board level, the question should be about really how are we designing our organization to leverage those feedback loops from the ground on a day-to-day basis. And if you’re not listening on the ground on a day-to-day basis, if you’re just listening to the strategy that was built in a boardroom or built by a McKinsey or an essential, sorry to name names, then you’re not really making sure you’re assuring the success of your strategy, right? Because assuring the success of your strategy happens at the ground level. And that’s where Cigniti really comes to the fore in making sure your transformation plans really translate to business outcomes. We have the tools, the methodologies, the process, the people to be able to give you those feedback loops. And I think that’s what I think a lot of our clients in the market need to understand.
Sai: Phenomenal. I think this has been quite in depth. I must admit that this is a disruptive method to what I call proactively engineered digital at the core of the delivery model. And needless to say, proactive QE as the digital core, a holistic delivery model biased for speed, agility, and quality equally. But to conclude Sumi, I would put it this way, proactively engineering digital with quality to ignite the transformation in a digital age. Obviously, that’s the imperative to stay resilient, achieving speed, and deliver sustainable business value. This has been very, very insightful as we continue to explore the global enterprise digital resiliency models where quality becomes the fulcrum of business transformation and quality being at the digital core. I’m sure programmatic innovation will be an option for companies to choose. And as we continue to fine tune this, we will bring back more insights to our audience. You have been very, very insightful in sharing these pragmatic insights. And we look forward to more such conversations with you, Sumit. Thank you so very much.
Sumi: Thank you, Sai. I appreciate it.
Sai: I think this is a very detailed view of the framework that you put to use. And I’m very sure as we fine tune this more and more, we can share detailed insights and measured outcomes of this transformative approach that we’re bringing together. Thank you, Sumi. And thanks everyone for tuning in. This is Sairam Vedam, your host for the Digital Dialogue podcast series. And at Cigniti, we believe we have the responsibility to drive thought leadership and collectively learn from everyone’s experiences and insights. Do write to us with your suggestions and feedback. Visit Cigniti.com and tune into the Digital Dialogue podcast series. Thank you so much.