Infosys made headlines recently, announcing the separation of its products, platforms and solutions (PPS) business into a subsidiary called Edgeverve Systems. It’s a bold move, but in many respects it makes sense. Here’s my take on the implications and potential net result of the spinout strategy.
As I explained in an article in The Times of India, Infosys’ PPS business — platforms, cloud products, and other digital services — are fundamentally a different kind of business than the firm’s historical labor arbitrage, skills-based business. The two models have different value propositions, selling maneuvers, adoption patterns and investment profiles.
Separating the two kinds of business allows Infosys management to keep the focus unconfused and allows Infosys to become masters of both business models. It allows them time and investment to develop its Edge series digital products in anticipation of demand, rather than focusing on revenue from the PPS business (historically only 5.2 percent of Infosys’ business).
It also allows management to continue focusing on the labor arbitrage business while revenue grows over time from the new-generation offerings of the Edgeverve subsidiary. Cognizant, TCS and other providers have demonstrated that there is still plenty of room left for growth in the labor arbitrage model. Although the growth is slowing, it is growing faster than the overall services industry.
Infosys recognizes that growth in its labor arbitrage business will be harder and not like the good old days; but at the same time, they recognize that they can do better. By separating the two business models of Infosys, Infosys acknowledges that they can and should go faster in the labor arbitrage, skills-based space. And this is coupled with a focus on going after larger transactions.
Two notable potential outcomes
If Infosys executes this spinout strategy successfully, I think it will result in better growth than they would otherwise get. The net result hopefully will be faster growth in both areas and more focused and nuanced value propositions for serving their clients.
As I said at the beginning of this blog: it’s a bold move, but it makes a lot of sense. So if it’s successful, I think it could lead the way for other service providers to separate their historical businesses and new-generation digital businesses.
In a landmark move with far-reaching implications, Infosys appointed ex-SAP CTO Dr. Vishal Sikka as its new CEO and managing director, making him the first non-founder at the helm in the firm’s 33-year history. Accompanying this change, the founders are getting out of the new chief’s way. Current CEO and co-founder SD Shibulal will leave by end of July, while NR Narayana Murthy will vacate his role as executive chairman on 14 June, continuing in a non-executive board role until 10 October to ensure a smooth transition.
The fact that Infosys engaged an executive recruiter to look for a successor reflects a dramatic shift in ethos for the firm. It represents the strategic decision to bust up a certain inward-looking culture that has come to represent Infosys. That Infosys reacted to market and customer expectations by bringing in an external technology visionary bodes well for the critical imperative to change to a customer-centric culture, rather than firm-centric.
The Gujarat-born Dr. Sikka holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence. He spearheaded the development and marketing of HANA, SAP’s flagship analytics product. His experience in these areas could give Infosys a sizable edge as service providers look to establish credentials in next-generation technology avenues such as big data, analytics, cloud, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
He seems to have been given a wide mandate, per the large-scale changes in senior management that are accompanying his appointment. This will allow him to exercise a free hand as he attempts to reshape the beleaguered company. Infosys’ long-standing strategic imperative to let the founders control the firm has been widely criticized.
He joins a long list of industry outsiders taking charge of IT majors. Louis Gerstner was unanimously credited with turning around IBM’s fortunes when he took over in 1993, after previously leading RJR Nabisco and American Express. Closer to the Indian IT services landscape, Vivek Paul, a GE-alumnus transformed Wipro, fast tracking growth from a US$150 million company in 1999 to over US$1 billion in sales in five years. Last year, Apple announced UK fashion chain Burberry’s CEO as the head of its retail and online business.
Appointing an outsider tends to bring fresh perspective to inherent legacy issues plaguing companies. Free from the baggage and expectations associated with firm veterans, Dr. Sikka can look to usher new life into Infosys.
What May Not
Since he comes from primarily a products-driven business, it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the IT services industry, which has inherently different business dynamics and challenges. The focus will be on streamlining project management, client delivery, and sales efforts. Dr. Sikka’s experience in driving sales and marketing at SAP will be a crucial asset in this regard. Being a CTO of a products-based company is an entirely different ball game than leading a global services behemoth, as product-driven businesses rely primarily on the strength of intellectual assets, while services businesses are an amalgamation of resource management, delivery, and expectations handling.
In spite of the large-scale management changes, Dr. Sikka has his work cut out as he navigates disgruntled senior management. How he soothes frayed nerves and reassures them will be essential for stability. A cultural shift he will seek to implement will revolve around Infosys’ limited risk appetite for investments. Infosys needs to invest significantly in boosting its expertise in next-generation solutions through alliances and possibly acquisitions. Although it has made some notable acquisitions such as Lodestone, the firm has generally been fairly risk-averse in exercising its significant cash pile.
The role that NRN Murthy assumes will also determine the efficacy of Dr. Sikka’s roadmap for revival. If Murthy remains strictly in a mentorship role overseeing the transition, without overriding Dr. Sikka’s strategic decisions, the sailing should be smooth. However, if those lines blur, it could create a vicious cycle of conflict, decisions embargo, and execution paralysis.
Another important but often ignored challenge of such senior-level changes is the risk of culture mismatches outweighing the business positives. Echoing Peter Drucker’s “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” bringing in a rank outsider can have controversial implications. For example, John Sculley joined Apple from PepsiCo, and during his time had long-standing disagreements with Steve Jobs due to divergent management styles and priorities, ultimately resulting in Jobs’ exit in 1985. The entry of a new top-level entrant is not easily accepted by the old guard, leaving open the possibility of wilful sabotage. Dr. Sikka will need to build bridges with senior stakeholders to avoid stepping on toes.
Swimming in Choppy Waters Ahead
Essentially, whether or not Dr. Sikka manages to snap the once industry bellwether out of its funk will depend on his ability to make the transition from a technology visionary to an empathetic business leader combining technical expertise, client management, and people development, while maintaining the focus on innovation and thought leadership. He will try to take Infosys out its comfort zone, bridge service gaps with more nimble rivals, and ultimately reassure clients that their business is in sound hands. He needs to show that a brilliant pilot can be a swimming coach as well.
INFY’s December 2013 quarterly report demonstrates that Murthy’s back-to-basics strategy is starting to show fruit with Infosys upping its guidance for both revenue and earnings. Its year-over-year revenue growth of 9.8 percent is encouraging; however, when we compare it to the performance of industry leaders TCS and Cognizant, it is clear that there is still much to do. Put another way, the faster growth of the industry leaders shows that INFY is still losing market share and is far from out of the woods.
At 9.8 percent, INFY’s growth pace is slower than the market leaders and dramatically far from the growth of Cognizant (21.9 percent) and TCS (17 percent). Why the large gap? INFY’s earnings are a bright spot; but once again, when we look more closely, it’s apparent that rupee appreciation — rather than improved efficiencies — is the biggest factor.
Although it’s good to see Murthy’s turnaround strategies showing early returns, we believe they may be short lived and even shift to a disadvantage over time. Here’s why. Murthy’s strategy focuses on investing more in offshore relationships, especially in the commoditized application outsourcing space. It’s likely to bring short-term financial gains, but we believe this move could result in Infosys losing client intimacy. It’s not likely a winning strategy in the face of competition — especially from the leading duo, Cognizant and TCS, which are investing in enriching their onshore client relationships and their consulting expertise.
Losing market share and profits propped up by currency changes … short-term gains but long-term challenges — with apologies to Robert Frost, Infosys has miles to go before it sleeps.
The spooky orchestral background and thriller tagline — “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” — from the 1978 hit movie “Jaws 2” brings out our primal fears that something can attack us even though all appears to be safe and when we least expect it. That’s what is happening now with H-1B visa reform.
As we predicted in previous blogs, it appeared in July that the chances were slim for immigration and H-1B visa reform to be enacted in 2013. And House Speaker John Boehner’s November 13 statement, “Frankly, I’ll make clear, we have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill,” seemed to put an end to the bill.
But there are threatening sharks beneath the surface of Boehner’s statement. Let’s look at these risks and the timing.
Odds are good for reform occurring in 2014
Boehner wasn’t saying he does not intend to negotiate with the Senate on immigration/visa reform; he was just saying that he plans to take a piecemeal approach to the bill’s language instead of a comprehensive language approach. And instead of using the formal conference process, he will use an informal negotiation process to see where the two parties can reach compromises. He stated, “I want us to deal with this issue. But I want to deal with it in a common-sense, step-by-step way.”
Although it will be done piecemeal, the legislation still will have to go through Senators Durbin and Grassley, who authored the onerous H-1B visa language that targets the Indian service providers.
Because of the high chances of success in a piecemeal approach, we believe there is a 20-45 percent chance that in 2014 Congress will pass into law the proposed legislation with the currently drafted onerous visa provisions.
Politics. Another reason we believe Congress will enact the legislation is that Immigration is one of those rare issues that has strong sentiment in both political parties to get something done, although for different reasons. It has genuine bipartisan support and thus strong alignment of interests, so we believe there is a material chance that legislation will come through next year.
Despite the fact that it’s in the interest of both parties to enact the legislation, the Republicans are key to the outcome. If the Republicans gain strength, we see the legislation going through but shaped more strongly with a Republican bias. If they lose strength, we see legislation still going through but along the current lines of the Senate bill with the onerous provisions for H-1B visa reform. Whether the Republicans gain or lose political ground in upcoming months, it will lead to Congress passing immigration reform.
Our perspective is that the only major threat to the chances for passing the law in 2014 is status-quo politics. If both parties are locked in a standoff, it will negatively impact the chances for passing the law.
Timing. If Republicans and Democrats manage to reach compromises, the House could pass one or more piecemeal bills on immigration reform in February or March 2014. This could lead to Congress voting on the bill after the spring primaries, depending on how immigration plays out in the elections.
Impact on Indian service providers
If Congress does not pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2014, Senators Durbin and Grassley could still push to pass stand-alone H-1B visa reform for high-skilled workers.
Given the political sentiment, pressure is likely to ratchet up for the Indian firms even without a stand-alone bill. They will face an environment of increased scrutiny and have to deal with U.S. Dept. of Labor audits of their visa practices at client firms, higher scrutiny of visa petitions and possible higher risk of rejections, as well as increased scrutiny and due diligence by U.S. firms considering moving work to Indian providers.
Furthermore, you can almost hear the music from Jaws 2 and the shark’s teeth when you think of the ripple effects that are likely from the Infosys investigation into alleged visa abuse. How many times will we hear Durbin and Grassley raise t
he specter of “abuse” of visas? In addition, the U.S. Attorney may launch more visa investigations. And the IRS may decide to pursue INFY for underpaid employment taxes resulting from the provider’s visa practices; this could, in turn, lead to “abuse” investigations of other firms.
With a 20-45 percent chance of Congress passing the immigration with onerous H-1B visa provisions, perhaps the tagline for this continuing saga in 2014 should be from the movie, “The Fly” — “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
When Infosys’ founder and former chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy returned in June, it was a clear sign that Infosys wanted him to guide the company in reinvigorating growth. But to do that, he would need to change the existing growth strategy.
The new strategy that Murthy has adopted is now clear. He has decided to refocus on Infosys’ great strength in the traditional labor arbitrage talent space and is de-emphasizing the push into platforms. In Infosys 3.0, the growth strategy was to get one-third of their revenue from contracts in the platforms and consulting space. It is not exiting or selling the platforms/consulting business; rather, it plans to give it less attention and will invest less in this space going forward.
The central tenet in Murthy’s strategy aims for a larger share of the labor arbitrage market and aims to capture larger transactions in that market. Accordingly, the company is aligning sales incentives with large application and infrastructure transactions instead of linear growth opportunities in platforms.
In our opinion this is a wise move. As we discussed in a previous blog, the labor arbitrage model is really the only game in town for providers that built their business on this model — and it’s still a huge market. Murthy’s plan also capitalizes on Infosys’ robust and strong reputation —and a proven success strategy of client access — to drive increased focus in this space.
In this focus, Infosys is willing to meet clients where they are rather than create a need for change. Therefore, Murthy’s growth plan emphasizes large transactions more than transformation. That’s not to say that Infosys no longer has an interest in transformation opportunities; it’s just that its focus now is large transactions rather than transformation.
Intended and unintended consequences
There are other consequences of Murthy’s strategy, in addition to realigning incentives. He is reorganizing the leadership team, reassigning senior leaders to focus on the larger application and infrastructure transactions.
He also brought decision making back into a central organization out of India. So they’ve changed the focus they had on moving down a path of more and more decentralized decision making and have recentralized it.
We can see the results of these tactics already in terms of leadership turnover. Some leaders who have been refocused have choosen to exit. The latest — and sixth exit in the five months since Murthy’s return — is Stephen Pratt, who was head of the consulting practice but was reassigned to utilities. This is understandable as leaders brought in specifically to drive a certain agenda would choose to go elsewhere if reassigned to a different agenda.
But we’re also starting to see the consequences in terms of accelerated growth. The last Infosys growth report showed a modest and welcome step up. So we can see that Murthy’s strategy is starting to have a positive effect in terms of growth. We’re also seeing market shifts happening as the sales teams become more focused on arbitrage opportunities.
Infosys’ premium pricing dilemma
Another change Murthy has dealt with is the historic problem that Infosys had in terms of its premium pricing. They were on the horns of a dilemma — Infosys was proud of having robust industry-leading margins, but that translated to a premium price per hour for resources. They are finding that the market is more competitive now and that premium is no longer consistently available to the Infosys brand. This is certainly not to say that the market has a poor view of Infosys; it’s just that the giant can no longer command premium pricing in a highly competitive marketplace.
This has consequently caused Infosys to change its strategic direction. Although Murthy still maintains going after high margins, the company is achieving that objective by taking costs out of the delivery vehicle rather than trying to achieve a market premium in the space. In this respect, Murthy appears to be taking a page from the TCS playbook in driving lower-cost delivery capabilities. He’s doing that through increased utilization, a broader pyramid and more focus on delivery in offshore locations.
Early returns on Murthy’s new strategy are both interesting and modestly good. We’re seeing consequences in both the firm’s internal leadership and go-to-market strategy. Already we see evidence of a pick-up in competitive intensity of Infosys in the marketplace, and we’re seeing that result in its growth. We look forward with interest to see how Murthy’s strategy will play out in an increasingly competitive marketplace.