Adopting AI is Imperative, Whether It is Done Today or in the Near Future: Venkat Raman, CIO, MTR Foods
In this exclusive interview, we delve into the profound impact of technology and digitalisation on the operations and business model of MTR Foods. With over two decades of experience, Venkat Raman, Chief Information Officer, MTR Foods, shares insights into the dynamic evolution of technology and its pivotal role in shaping MTR Foods’ strategies. Key points of discussion include the shift towards automation, the adoption of generative AI, data security and privacy measures, and the challenges and opportunities in adopting new technologies.
So far how has technology and digitalisation impacted your operations and business model in recent years?
The evolution of technology over the last decade has been truly transformational. And along with that, the business has also catapulted to a level which is supported actively by technology. Fortunately, we find ourselves in an era where technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, consistently delivering vital support to the business. This represents a crucial aspect of our current landscape.
In the last few years, the rate of technological change, when compared to how technology transformed a decade earlier, is nothing short of astounding. We are frequently confronted with solutions that reveal their potential impact on our business. This realisation often dawns upon us unexpectedly. As a CIO, staying up to speed has become quite the challenge. It’s a constant cycle of latching onto a technology only to discover a better alternative shortly after. The pace of change is so rapid that understanding the implications of technology for our business is an ongoing learning curve. By the time we’ve grasped one technology, another is already knocking at the door. This continuous learning and adaptation process is quite educational for CIOs, and the speed at which we must adopt, absorb, and add value to the business is rapidly accelerating.
Over the past decade, you said we’ve witnessed a significant technological leap, with many tasks previously involving manpower now being automated. Automation has emerged as a primary driving force in this transformation. Looking ahead, what do you anticipate in terms of the balance between automation and manpower over the next one decade?
It is evident that embracing automation, including new technologies such as AI and Gen AI, will undeniably impact workforce utilisation. But then again, it is important to consider that this impact may not necessarily be adverse, from my perspective. The skills that employees traditionally brought to the business in a conventional setting differ from what is now possible with the integration of AI.
With AI entering the scene, the onus is on us to harness its potential. Employees need to reskill themselves and develop abilities that align with the capabilities of AI. It is becoming increasingly apparent that adopting AI is imperative, whether it is done today or in the near future. This adoption provides a competitive advantage, and it is sensible to ensure that your employees are adequately reskilled and equipped to leverage AI capabilities. I can cite numerous examples to illustrate this.
While AI is still relatively new, within our organisation, particularly in manufacturing and supply chain, we have successfully incorporated these innovative technologies. Our employees have undergone reskilling and training, enabling them to effectively utilise these technologies. In my IT team, I am pleasantly surprised to see that they have taken the initiative to leverage AI in their work. It is remarkable to witness how AI is becoming a topic of discussion among business users and IT professionals as they explore its applications in their respective roles.
The rapid pace at which AI is making its presence felt in both our personal and professional lives underscore the transformative impact it will have in the years to come. This transformation will significantly alter the way we work in an office setting.
So, are you leveraging the benefits of generative AI?
We are currently in the initial stages of assessing these developments, primarily in the sales and analytics domains. These two areas have recently been integrated into our operations, and we are currently running a pilot program for analytics. The purpose of this pilot phase is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the benefits it can offer and assess whether it aligns with our objectives.
In the preliminary stages of any such initiative, it’s essential to evaluate the advantages it brings and determine if it aligns with our goals. With the introduction of generative AI, a new dimension is added to the equation. We are taking a focused approach by applying generative AI, including gen two, in specific segments of our business. This enables us to observe its impact and assess its feasibility in different areas of our operations.
How do you address challenges related to data security and privacy, especially when dealing with customer information?
Indeed, we have integrated AI-enabled security tools within our environment. While I cannot much about their specific names due to privacy concerns, these AI-powered tools have proven to be highly proactive. Allow me to illustrate their efficacy: they safeguard our digital landscape and data to such an extent that human intervention is often unnecessary.
Previously, any perceived security threat would involve various layers, including security engineers and managers, to evaluate its legitimacy and decide on the appropriate course of action. This process entailed a considerable amount of time. However, with these advanced tools in place, the system autonomously assesses the risk, drawing from a wealth of global intelligence and historical data. It rapidly analyses and takes action, without awaiting clearances from security managers, executives, or myself.
Simultaneously, it notifies us of the perceived threat, providing detailed evidence to support its assessment. In this way, it operates proactively, responding swiftly and effectively, which is crucial in the face of potential security breaches. These tools have proven to be invaluable in ensuring our security.
Given the approach many organisations, including yours, take towards data security and privacy, it’s puzzling why the industry at large still faces data breaches, as seen in the recent Aadhaar data breach. So, what’s behind these industry-wide challenges despite robust privacy efforts by individual companies?
The evolving threat landscape is a matter of concern. It’s evident that these threats are advancing rapidly, often leaving us in a reactive stance. To address this, it is imperative for the industry to shift towards a proactive approach. The focus needs to shift from protection to prevention, and a comprehensive assessment is essential to minimise occurrences of such threats.
Taking these proactive measures and raising awareness levels among employees within the industry are crucial steps. These actions can significantly enhance our ability to respond effectively to emerging threats. But, in the current scenario, the threats are very real and consistently ahead of us, making it challenging as we find ourselves in a constant catch-up mode.
What are the key challenges and opportunities you see in adopting new technologies within MTR Foods, and how do you plan to address them?
I classify this into the PPT model – people, process, and technology. In any organisation, when considering these elements, it becomes apparent that while technology is undoubtedly a critical factor, the effective adoption and utilisation of technology depend largely on the people aspect.
To address the people aspect, we have initiated a comprehensive digital skilling program, which is an ongoing journey. This program empowers individuals to self-assess their skills, while we also have a mechanism in place to evaluate their proficiency.
The key to success lies in identifying the unique roles within the organisation and understanding the specific skill sets and levels of expertise required for each role. Recognising that skill development is a continuous process, we establish clear expectations for the skills associated with each role. Consequently, we can pinpoint any gaps and implement targeted upskilling programs to bridge them. This ensures that the people aspect, which is crucial, is effectively managed.
The second dimension, the process, is equally essential. Standardising processes is imperative because without standardised, mature processes, it becomes challenging to align the processes with the chosen technology platform.
Once both the people and process dimensions have reached a certain level of maturity, we can seamlessly integrate world-class technology solutions available in the market. This integrated approach ensures that the adoption of advanced technology is not only possible but also effective and efficient, ultimately benefiting the business. This, in essence, represents our approach to successfully managing the interplay of people, processes, and technology.
Before we conclude, can you share the one technological innovation that you are particularly proud of as a CIO?
When you pose this question, it evokes multiple instances in my two-decade-long career where I experienced moments of sheer delight. Now, while we contemplate the presence of AI, IoT, and similar technologies, I would like to take a moment to reflect on what initially brought me immense delight—cloud computing.
Cloud technology, which is now somewhat of a cliché, was the pioneering source of this delight. It marked a pivotal shift from the management of physical servers and data centres. We were the trailblazers in leveraging cloud technology for disaster recovery. This decision involved a calculated risk, as the industry had yet to fully embrace such an approach. Our disaster recovery has been hosted on the cloud for the past 11 years, and the results have been nothing short of remarkable.
The technologies we have embraced, particularly cloud computing, have proven to be highly beneficial. They eliminate the need for substantial upfront investments and offer services that excel in scalability and high availability. These are the key selling points of cloud computing. It was the first of its kind to bring us this level of delight.
The second source of delight that I am currently experiencing is AI. I believe this is just the beginning, and it is poised to completely transform the business landscape and individuals’ personal lives. I have personally witnessed the advantages of AI in my own life. To illustrate, if I have a management or board meeting scheduled for tomorrow and need to prepare a business presentation, it now takes me no more than 10 to 15 minutes. I simply instruct AI, and it meticulously lays out the presentation across slides, mapping the content seamlessly. It’s truly remarkable how technology has not only made our lives easier but also more exciting.