Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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Until the COVID-19 outbreak, many Indian companies were at different stages of digitization. The pandemic pushed them to accelerate the process and did so at a time when they were facing unprecedented demand from their consumers. The resulting efficiencies have enabled PSUs in India to accelerate business value through data and analytics and also created new trends.

With increasing digitization further amplifying this data explosion, the focus has shifted from simple data ownership to the mutual utilization of data to create ecosystem value and competitive advantages. Organizations are now sharing data with other companies, giving rise to the beginning of visionary ecosystems that stand poised to blur traditional industry economies. Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, these companies are also unlocking real value across business functions, with insights and analytics becoming essential drivers of innovation, optimization, and competitiveness. For these reasons, opportunities are ripe for Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) in India today, as they deal with data at an unparalleled scale.

Rajiv Maskara from leading data integration and analytics software company Qlik, spoke with leaders at four PSU companies at a recent ET Live Roundtable. During the event titled, Data Sessions, powered by Qlik, PSUs discussed how they traversed the pandemic, adapted to fulfill digital needs, and met their mandate in the middle of a transformation. They also spoke about the functions that employ the data they collect, how PSUs use data to create insights, and the extent of data literacy at these organizations.

Existing digitization and quick transition to work-from-home ecosystems

Shanmugasundaram S, Chief General Manager – Maintenance at Chennai Petroleum Corporation (CPC), said that while digitization initiatives were already ongoing for the refinery business, COVID-19 added fuel to the process. “Whenever a transaction happened between two parties, one of the parties used to be hesitant to go digital. But COVID-19 related restrictions on physical channels of a transaction addressed this challenge. Enterprises that hesitated earlier in handing over a check to a person without confirming their identity are now making payments by just clicking a button,” he said.

Most PSUs at the roundtable managed to preempt the pandemic-related challenges and braced for them even before lockdowns came into effect. Rajiv Chandra, Executive Director at Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), explained that the oil and gas company had digitized all its processes much before the pandemic.

Their only challenge was that around 50% of processes were available only on their intranet. But the company started preparing for a work-from-home ecosystem at least ten days before nationwide lockdowns came into effect. “We rolled out a VPN (Virtual Private Network), along with relevant applications. We kept some of the most critical applications out of the VPN. By April 1, we had done everything needed for us to be up and running,” he said.

“The industry-wide digitization helped the entire oil industry, not just HPCL, manage a mammoth task — we were able to give free cylinders to every BPL (Below Poverty Line) family in the country. Seven crore families received 21 crore cylinders. The process could only be carried out after complete accounting to ensure that only eligible families received these benefits. It was conceived, debated, loopholes were identified and plugged, and rolled out by April 1. All of these happened from home. Nobody was at data centers. Nobody was coming to the office to develop the software,” he explained.

Similarly, Vartika Shukla, Director of Technical at Engineers India Limited (EIL), explained that data was already integral to company functions even before the pandemic. “We are required to give competitive offers and proposals and that needs a lot of support from past data. We have repeat clients because we are quite data-driven, have a volume of knowledge that is available and stored well, and have been transforming over the last few years,” she said.

At EIL, most engineers had shifted from their office to their homes within a week of lockdowns. “The process has changed a lot of the work culture within the organization. People delivering on projects from home and having these IT-enabled facilities is becoming the norm. The data generated in the process will make our organization more efficient in the time to come, enabling us to be more precise and effective in terms of delivery and other aspects,” she said.

Efficiencies of digitization and use of data

Also, at the roundtable was Moin Afaque, Deputy Director of Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) at the Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce and Industry for the government of India. DGFT is the primary regulator and facilitator of international trade for the Indian government. In international trade, data can have various dimensions, ranging from the market product and timelines to the originating district or state. “It is said that every company is a data company, but ministries and governments are also in the business of data. Translating this data into actionable insights and evidence-based policymaking is not just about technology. It is also about the role of the individual who can examine and interpret that data,” he said.

Similarly, Vartika Shukla said that while it is easy to use data, it is more important that it be usable and retrievable at the right point. “The relevant input should be available to a team to re-use and fast-track designs and implementation. As a result, there has been an impetus to develop in-house software tailor-made to our requirements because customized software is time-consuming and not very relevant for an engineering organization like ours. Using data to drive design, product development, and project implementation, we have executed big projects in both domestic and international markets,” she explained.

Siva S Raman, MD & CEO of National E-Governance Services Limited (NESL), said that the government is the largest initiator of digitization projects. As an example, he explained how the government used the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) to create a repository of electronic evidence. “Even if you are lending to a friend, you are a lender as per the IBC and are mandated to put your lending data and documents in the information utility. In a short period, we have collected 112 lakh crores of borrowing data from across banks, NBFCs, companies that have raised bonds and debentures, inter-corporate advances, and many individuals who have also started filing their information. This cuts across all existing credit repositories in the country. The government has provided the lending community with the ability to view and visualize every aspect of borrowing. Even money lenders have gone digital. I would not be surprised if they also put their information in the information utility (of NESL) because any lender who shares information in the utility has a right to take information from it, too,” he explained.

Data literacy in Indian PSUs

According to most leaders at the roundtable, India is one of the top-ranking countries when judged on data literacy. This was also clear in a recent Qlik survey conducted in the Asia-Pacific region, where 45% of the interviewees from India felt confident in their data literacy skills as compared to the Asia-Pacific average of 20%. “Data management and literacy, and the recognition of the need for data in the adoption of digitized systems within the organization, are not new concepts. We have more than 2,000 suppliers who work with us in a very transparent manner and 100% of our procurements are done through e-platforms. This creates a lot of data which helps us in ensuring a robust and error-free mechanism for project execution. As PSUs, we are quite entrenched when it comes to data and are making improvements or systems around the migration to a completely transparent, digitized, automated, ERP-enabled framework,” said Shukla.

Meanwhile, Moin Afaque of DGFT said, “We are doing our best and have put in a process to amplify our learning potential. There is enormous space to leverage and harness data which can translate into tremendous benefits for citizens. There are challenges of data literacy in the bureaucratic setup and there is a need for greater sensitization to data and the presentation of the ideas extracted from the data in simple terms. One can analyze it as an engineer but needs to talk as an administrator. The model can be complex, but the result should be very intuitive. As a government organization, we are also trying to develop an ecosystem of data usage beyond the boundaries of the government. The idea is to build a framework that respects the privacy of the individual from which data is collected, masks the data, and then provides access to it. Eventually, this will allow third-party players to develop forward-looking analytical tools.”

“Data literacy is not just a trend. We also want to expose the citizens to it and make them more data literate,” he added.

Mr. Maskara from Qlik said, “Data is often equated with oil. However, in my opinion, enterprises should treat data like crude oil because it must be processed before it can be used. More importantly, they should look beyond just technology when they talk about data and include their people and processes in their data strategies. By creating a culture that thrives on data and data literacy, business leaders can empower end-users to make more informed, accurate, and agile decisions and unlock hidden enterprise value. This, at a time when pandemic-induced digital adoption has accelerated data explosion, has become a non-negotiable requirement for any organization, regardless of its size or the industry in which it operates.”

PSUs are beasts of scale and collect massive amounts of data, unlike multi-national companies and private organizations. While they were undertaking digitization efforts much before COVID-19 hit, their pace significantly accelerated due to pandemic-related challenges. The resulting explosion of data now needs to be converted into insights, with some help from their data-literate workforce. And if leveraged efficiently, it could prove to be the perfect recipe for a significant boost to PSU growth and revenue.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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