How Indian IT Firms can ‘Crack’ the China Market

China has become the world’s largest economy. Consequently, it is also one of the world’s largest markets for IT and IT-enabled services. While Indian IT service providers have a large presence in western markets (for example, the Americas provide 60% of Infosys revenues), their presence in China is negligible. Why? This question has troubled the top managements of these firms for many years. Based on the views presented in the recent article, it seems that managers are still far away from finding all the answers to this riddle.

The Indian IT industry, which has of late been eyeing the Chinese market, will have to sweat to gain entry here, a top Infosys official has said.

via China IT market a hard nut to crack for Indian companies: Infosys China CEO Rangarajan Vellamore – Economic Times.

 

It is often said that the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it. IT service providers from India seem to be stuck in a time-warp – a bubble of their own making. The challenges they face in the China market are not replicas of the hurdles Indian firms overcame when they entered the US or European markets. These are unique challenges, which call for a unique approach. Entering China requires a China-specific strategy and anything less does not do justice to the potential revenue growth possible from the world’s largest economy. Below are a few challenges that have not been identified in the above article, and some ideas by which these can be turned into opportunities.

English: China, Shanghai

English: China, Shanghai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Language Barriers: Historically, the Indian IT services industry was able to grow in the US and other western markets due to the language advantage – client facing personnel were able to communicate effectively in English. In contrast, China’s market has significant language barriers and a working to excellent knowledge of Mandarin is essential. To overcome these barriers, Indian firms should have ‘localized’ client facing personnel who will be able to understand client problems and deliver feasible solutions.

Price-Arbitrage Disadvantage: Another key advantage that Indian service firms have historically had is the low cost of labor in India. However, compared to China, there is no real price advantage of India based software engineers. Once coordination and communication costs are taken into account, it might actually be cheaper to hire talent locally. Many Indian firms have been attempting to do so (for example, Infosys runs a development center in Shanghai), but complain that they are unable to get high quality talent. The reason is not the unavailability of talent – rather, Indian firms are not employers of choice and hence fail to attract the best people.

Reputation Barriers: The challenge is not that Indian IT firms do not enjoy any brand recall in China. Indian firms have to actually overcome a negative reputation. Low costs are associated with a perception for bad quality work. To overcome the reputation barrier (in context of both potential clients and potential employees), firms should use a counter-intuitive approach. Use their success stories with F500 companies as a basis for a premium positioning.

No Guanxi: Doing business in Greater China is heavily dependent upon the ability to leverage personalized networks of influence, or Guanxi. Indian firms need to hire business development managers and top management who bring not only business acumen, but contextual information and guanxi on board.

Services versus Solutions: It is believed the size of the US IT market as a percentage of its economy is larger than the ‘perceived’ size of the China market. This has been explained by the following logic:

“In terms of purchasing power parity, the US will have a revenue productivity of two-and-a-half times compared to China. …It translates the market size by less than two-and-a-half times,”

In line with this argument, it can also be said that the potential productivity gains from IT in China are much more than the potential gains in the US market. Therefore contrary to the ‘common perception’, the IT market in China is not oversaturated a-la the US. However, unlike their US counterparts, firms in China may not be actively soliciting IT services as many are unaware or more likely, unconvinced of the potential benefits. The size of the potential market is huge; the size of the market (of addressable) that is actively looking for an IT service provider is small.

Indian IT firms can penetrate the market by offering solutions, not services. This is not a market where sales personnel cannot passively wait for a RFP (request for proposal) to be floated by a possible client. An active sales approach is required. By the same logic given above, the gains per dollar of IT investment in China would be more than the gains per dollar of IT investment and thus easier for IT service firms to create business cases and deliver value.

In a nutshell, to crack the China market, Indian IT service providers should re-position themselves as premium players who offer a value-for-money proposition to F500 firms. They hire local talent for business development and client facing roles that are well versed in the nuance of business (and guanxi) in China. Finally, instead of waiting to answer requests for proposals, firms should actively solicit business and focus on growing the market by offering solutions.

The New World Order: China, US, India

The Financial Times is reporting that China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014. India, is now the world’s third largest economy.

These numbers are based on Purchasing Power Parity calculations done by the International Comparison Program of the World Bank. Considered to be the authoritative source for global GDP figures, the first round was conducted in 2005. Results of the second round, in which country GDPs were calculated for 2011, were released today.

The International Comparison Program (ICP) is a worldwide statistical partnership to collect comparative price data and compile detailed expenditure values of countries’ gross domestic products (GDP), and to estimate purchasing power parities (PPPs) of the world’s economies. Using PPPs instead of market exchange rates to convert currencies makes it possible to compare the output of economies and the welfare of their inhabitants in real terms (that is, controlling for differences in price levels).

via ICP 2011: International Comparison Program.

 

The summary report, available here, states that India’s GDP in 2011 was $5.75 trillion, China’s was $13.5 trillion and the US was $15.52 trillion.  In the period 2005-2011, China and India’s economies doubled in size as a percentage of US GDP. China’s GDP grew from 43% to 87% of the size of the US economy, while India went from 19% to 37%.  Based on economic growth estimates for the period 2011-2014, it is expected that the China will overtake the US this year.

 

World's Largest Economies

A surprising finding of the ICP is that India has one of the lowest price level indexes in the world. Or in other words, India has some of the lowest priced goods & services in the world. [This is something the average Indian will find hard to digest due to the double digit inflation witnessed over the past decade!]. Unsurprisingly, India ranks 127 in per capita GDP.

 

World Economies as a percentage of US Economy

India’s economic slowdown?

Several economic indicators are turning red for India. Instead of the predicted double digits, GDP growth is expected to languish in the 5-6% range in the present and coming years. The rupee is at a life time low and the stock market is the worst performing index among developing nations. Several factors are blame, including high interest rates (which are necessary to control runaway inflation of 9-10%) and a governance deficit (no major economic reforms have been passed in the past 6 years).

English: topographic map of India

Image via Wikipedia

Other underlying structural problems in the economy include a banking system crippled by bad debts, and stubborn current account, trade and fiscal deficits.

India’s economy can seem like a bicycle—it needs to keep moving fast to be stable. Once conviction in the destination falters, companies curb investment and hope turns to fear that the country’s problems may be intractable.

It seems that inflation is the root cause of several of these problems – much of food inflation is caused by the country’s creaking infrastructure that leads to severe waste and fluctuations in commodity and food prices. This puts the recent reversal of a decision to allow international organized retail players into India, into greater focus. Scholars have long argued that FDI in the retail sector will help develop the necessary supply chains and cold storage infrastructure that a 21st century economy needs. It will also help to drive down food prices, benefiting consumers and the country’s growth prospects in the long run.

Read more at India’s economy: Slip-sliding away | The Economist.

Emerging markets drive mobile device sales to 441 million

Demand for low-cost and dual sim mobile devices in emerging markets has driven Q3 worldwide mobile device sales to 441 million units.

Mobile phone evolution

Image via Wikipedia

Gartner’s latest report has some other interesting facts:

  • Nokia still leads the field, but Samsung is catching up fast (24% vs 18% of market share)
  • Smartphone sales reached 115 million, representing 26% of the mobile device market
  • Android was on 53% of all shipped smartphones

Read more at Gartner Says Sales of Mobile Devices Grew 5.6 Percent in Third Quarter of 2011; Smartphone Sales Increased 42 Percent.

India’s economic landscape

A representation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka...

Image via Wikipedia

The Economist‘s special report on India Inc. states that unlike in western economies, successful Indian firms are predominantly government owned or family owned businesses. The conglomerate is the business model of choice and this empire building is reflective of the 1900’s economic landscape of the US. An Infosys is an exception, rather than the norm.

All this might seem a recipe for disaster. In Korea and Japan closely held and widely spread firms became slothful. So far India Inc has been different: its big business houses compete and innovate fiercely. Their returns on capital are neither pathetic nor outrageous and most are prepared to invest billions of dollars in the risky capital projects that India needs so badly.

In the past decade Indian business has not been on a journey towards someone else’s economic model, whether Chinese, European or American. It has not been growing out of an immature phase, or shaking off a simpler way of doing things. Instead it seems to have established its own equilibrium—what might be called “capindialism”—in which profits are controlled not by institutional shareholders but mainly by the state, or by entrepreneurs and their descendants. Outside the state firms, the fiddly conglomerate is the favoured form of organisation.

The special report blames India’s soft state for being the reason firms choose to grow into conglomerate structures. It claims that ‘horizontal and vertical diversification’ of professionally managed firms is proof of this thesis.

Yet the best explanation is India’s soft state. Courts can take years to make their minds up, so contracts are hard to enforce. Infrastructure is often poor, supply chains tricky, red tape a hazard, and markets for people, materials and finished goods unreliable. Tarun Khanna and Krishna Palepu of Harvard Business School coined this idea in a 1997 paper. In these circumstances it makes sense to do things yourself.

Indian Buffet

Image by samk via Flickr

This cause and effect reasoning seems to be rather simplistic for the complicated Indian Thali . It ignores the unique role of the joint family in Indian society. It also ignores cultural and legal norms that encourage dynastic progression of company ownership and wealth. This ownership structure also promotes a more long-term view by Indian business houses. Unlike institutionalized firms, where bosses have to meet quarter to quarter performance measures, family owned businesses are more focused on creating wealth in the long-term, for the next generation. Thus they invest in frugal products (which, according to the report, do not generate high profits), which is a means to hook the millions of potential middle-class customers of tomorrow.

Overall, though the analysis comes across at times as bit contrived (it works towards the underlying assumption that one size fits all – the institutionalized business models that are successful in the west are the best) and at other times a bit naïve (for example, the report mixes up vertical integration, related diversification and unrelated diversification), the report is well written and worth a read. It raises several key questions and invigorates critical thinking on the state of India’s economic landscape.

If India is to finish the long journey to superpower status that has been plotted for it by many forecasters, it will have to get its act together on things like infrastructure, efficient land allocation, education, bond markets, reliable supply chains and the enforcement of contracts. Yet if it manages to make progress in these areas, the rationale for sprawling big business groups—sometimes almost like mini-states in their own right, as substitutes for the real thing—will gradually disappear. A big danger, then, to Indian business’s current way of doing things is long-term economic success. It would make today’s approach to organising firms redundant.

Read more at Business in India: Building India Inc | The EconomistAdventures in capitalism | The EconomistFamily firms: The Bollygarchs’ magic mix | The Economist, and The Indian miracle and the future: Rolls-Royces and pot-holes | The Economist.

India’s growing exports: Not the full story

The Economist reports that as a percentage of GDP, India’s exports of goods and services have increased from 12% to nearly 25% over the past decade. However, this does not tell the full story. A quick look at the numbers shared by  India’s Department of Commerce shows that India’s trade deficit has grown in sync with the increasing exports.

Year                                  2006-2007   2007-2008   2008-2009   2009-2010   2010-2011

India’s Trade Balance   -59,321.19   -88,521.83   -118,400.95   -109,621.45   -118,633.24

in million USD

The Symbol of Indian Rupee approved by the Uni...

Image via Wikipedia

This may imply that India’s economy is getting more integrated with the world economy. Absolute as well as relative increases in exports are going in hand in with equal or greater increases in imports. The bottom line – consumption driven growth.

Read more at India’s economy: Not just rubies and polyester shirts | The Economist.