An interview with Manimaran Rajakannu
Interview by: Jay Chatzkel
Wipro Technologies is an information technology solutions provider that offers a full service portfolio to match outsourcing needs in IT services, product design services, and business process outsourcing.
Wipro is ranked as seventh best software services company in the world by BusinessWeek (Infotech 100, November 2002), and serves over 300 global leading firms across North America, Europe, and Asia. It has 30 offices worldwide and 18,000 IT practitioners and consultants.
Manimaran Rajakannu is the General Manager and Head of Knowledge Management Initiative at Wipro Technologies. His is responsible for the overall responsibility for knowledge management across the organization, architecting, design, development and deployment of the knowledge management initiative applications and evangelizing knowledge sharing and collaboration across the organization.
Rajakannu joined Wipro in July 1991 as Systems Manager in the Systems and Communications Group of Wipro Systems. Starting with handling projects for the Telecom Solutions group, Mani has played increasingly bigger roles from an Account Manager onsite in the US to a role as Business Manager for an Enterprise Networks group. In February 2000 he went on to head the Telecom Solutions Group's operations in Chennai, India. He took over his present role as the Head of Knowledge Management in October 2000.
Over the past 2 years, Rajakannu and his team have been involved in studying the KM needs at Wipro Technologies and evolved a strategy to design and implement KM, addressing Wipro's key business drivers.
You have a very interesting situation in that most of the knowledge management initiatives I am aware of tend to be based in the United States or in Europe. To have your vision come out of India is very compelling. It makes it a truly global approach.
Wipro is an outsource capability for all of the companies that you work with. A big element would have to be knowledge sharing with them, I would assume. You dont keep knowledge management solely inside Wipro. What are the types of connections between you and Cisco and your other customers?
There are different levels unique to software suppliers like Wipro. We have knowledge management initiatives at the organization level, and at the same time we have a client project group level. Also, there will be specific proprietary information which we cannot pull out of that group. We have to protect that knowledge which belongs to the customer and keep it within those firewalls. At the same time, the groups working with these centers for the customers do have access to the generic knowledge at the organizational level.
It is an interesting dance that you have to carry out then?
The basic thing is the ethics of how you handle customer-sensitive knowledge. In our relationship with each of our customers that we are privy to, we have to address how we handle their sensitive information, since, we do work on their latest technologies and their latest products. We are involved in the design and development of various products. If a person working for Cisco is privy to that information, it is our responsibility to protect that customer knowledge and make sure it remains within the Cisco firewall. We have a very extensive network of protective mechanisms and policies that govern how we handle this information by employees.
For example, a person working on a Cisco project will be sitting inside a firewall. He will have access to knowledge of their knowledge repository. One is the knowledge repository which is sitting inside the Cisco firewall and which he and his colleagues in the San Francisco account will be privy to. They can exchange this knowledge with each other and access that knowledge. The other knowledge they can have access to is the organizational level knowledge which is generic. But this same person cannot access, for example, the Lucent knowledge repository, within the Lucent ODC (Offshore Development centre) in Wipro.
What prompted Wipro to start its knowledge management programme?
The programme began when I took over this job as a full time responsibility in September 2000. Before then we did have KM happening in pockets. We did have people doing some sort of collaboration and knowledge sharing in smaller groups within their own working business units or within their respective project teams, etc. But, as a formal initiative it started off sometime in 2000. One of the main drivers behind this becoming an organization-wide initiative was that Wipro grew rapidly between the years1998 and 2000. In those two years we doubled our employees from approximately 5000 in 1998 to close to 10,000 people in 2000. Along with rapid growth come the pains of growth.
At the same time, projects we were getting involved in became more and more complex. Simultaneously, the customer was demanding shorter delivery periods. Further, our project life cycle was shrinking. With this rapid growth, the demand for access to information gets raised very high. We began to realize that unless we formally did something about it we were going to get into trouble.
That was very incisive on your part and to get that connected to action that quickly is impressive. That was the stimulus, the very rapid growth. How did you know how to go about developing an effective knowledge management initiative considering your conditions?
Frankly speaking, we didnt know what to do in the beginning! We started off with a statement articulated by our CEO when he said that it has to be based on knowledge sharing and collaboration and this has to be translated into delivering value to the customer both in terms of speed and in terms of being able to deploy for the customer innovative products and services which are focused on customer needs.
Also, we needed to provide our employees with a collaborative environment for continuous learning and performance improvements within the organization. We took this as a sort of underlying foundation for our initiative. For the first several months I was a one-man army. I started by talking to top management, started understanding the problems that we faced, and understanding how they felt knowledge management could help address these problems. That was the initial stage. After that we started putting the entire initiative into a framework. The KM Framework is a sort of logical building block for the KM initiative.
"We went through two or three phases in our initiative. After we identified the business drivers and started evaluating tools and technology, one of the things that we sensed was that top management was reluctant to invest in some costly tools before we figured out what KM actually was"
Slowly we started forming a team. I started putting together people who formed the core team for the Initiative. This team helped me in defining the new processes as well as implementing and evangelizing the KM Initiative across the various Business Units. The next step was starting to put together another team, which was the technical team. Given the fact that we had the advantage of coming from a technology company, it was easy for me to pull the resources from our organization to start evaluating various technologies available, evaluating the various tools that were on the market, and trying to decide whether we would go and build our own systems or whether we buy something from the market.
The vision for Wipro's knowledge/initiative was developed with your CEO. How would you describe your knowledge strategy?
We got down to identify the more detailed model - the road map which would take us step-by-step to our ultimate goal of where we want to be - where knowledge sharing is a way of life within the organization, where our CEO's vision is realized. We have a detailed, step-by-step approach for reaching that. This is similar to what we have done in - the People Capability Maturity Model (PCMM). This is similar to Malcolm Baldrige performance improvement. We adapted this to give us a sort of framework to say that this is what we need to do reach Level 2, Level 3, Level 4 and Level 5. Using that model we have evolved a roadmap that gives us an idea about what we need to do today, what we need to do next year, and so on.
At what stage of development are you at this point?
We went through two or three phases in our initiative. After we identified the business drivers and started evaluating tools and technology, one of the things that we sensed was that top management was reluctant to invest in some costly tools before we figured out what KM actually was. Initially, what we did was we made use of the existing infrastructure we already had. In that sense we were fortunate, as we were able to use existing infrastructure that was available in terms of repositories, an organization wide network, as well as a directory listing everybody in the organization.
All of this was there already. We made use of these pieces of infrastructure to build the KM system. We did not invest too much in "KM software" or "KM technology." We did not purchase the major high end KM software tools and technology. We were faced with a situation where every vendor was touting their products as a KM solution, from a person selling databases, to someone selling process management. Everybody wanted to sell their product as KM. It was the "flavour of the month." So, we did not invest up front in these things.
We used Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server (SPPS). We chose this because the desktop environment in our organization was standardized on the Windows 2000 platform and the mail servers were Microsoft Exchange servers. It was easy to build our KM System with minimum effort using SPPS in this environment. We developed customized applications on this basic KM Infrastructure.
Phase 1 was getting the basic KM strategy in place, the framework in place, and the infrastructure in place. What we needed to start doing then was address the applications that would address the real life problems of the user.
We started building applications that addressed specific problems. For example, particular teams had their own problems. The sales team had a problem and we started building applications that addressed these specific problems. There were two types of applications. One was an application that addressed an explicit knowledge need. The other one was an application that addressed a tacit knowledge need.
We also utilize document repositories. These are specific repositories which address the needs of explicit knowledge that is captured in the form of documents which were published. We have evolved taxonomies and defined the process for capturing these documents, organizing them into the repository and getting them indexed. When somebody looks for particular information, any of these documents that match the first criteria will show up in the search for them. That is our explicit knowledge repository.
We are also talking about "reusable components," pieces of components (which could be code, architecture or design) that will be reused and help save time, making it possible for us to do the same job in a shorter period of time.