India Inc India Inc: Monday, 10 October 2011 09:31

Tech Speak with Nitin Dahad - Can India create a Steve Jobs?

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The loss of Steve Jobs last week was felt all over the world, whether you were Apple fans or not, whether you were one of the cogs in the Apple ecosystem, or whether you were a competitor.

Steve Jobs is considered to have transformed the consumer electronics, entertainment and music industry, and created genres of products that had mass market appeal – the iPod and iPad leading the charge, and even the iMac. It’s not that he was a great engineer or inventor, but he was a visionary who systematically made his visions a reality. His real talent was in recognising the potential of inventions, innovations and technologies that he came across, and then looking at how they might appeal to a market.

India didn’t really feature on the Steve Jobs or Apple agenda. The main connection to the country was his visit to India in his early days, with many reports indicating he was disillusioned by the visit. However, it is also suggested that his visit did influence him in his approach to life and embracing Buddhism and his belief in karma. He is thought to have considered India in later years for Apple, but both cost and quality are reported to have been issues that turned him off establishing anything in India. But that did not prevent Apple’s influence permeating to Indian shores.

So with all the talk of India and China becoming emerging superpowers, can India create a Steve Jobs? Does India have tech visionaries who can change the world? One could argue it does, in the shape of business process and software development outsourcing companies that have built huge empires that dominate many parts of what is now a globalised value chain. Without Wipro, HCL, Tata, and Infosys, would we have been able to design new products in one location and manufacture in another as easily as we do today?

And the Indian diaspora has also helped transform the world – through individuals like Vinod Dham, who is considered the father of the Intel Pentium chip, Vinod Khosla who co-founded Sun Microsystems, and Sabeer Bhatia who co-founded Hotmail, to name just a few. In fact, many of them will be at Nasscom’s product conclave in Bangalore next month.

But in India itself, the global BPO leaders are just part of the equation. The product design value chain relies on vision, ideas, creation, design and test and manufacture and assembly.  India sits well in the middle parts of this value chain but is not necessarily able to confidently try its hand at the former (vision and ideas) or the latter (manufacture and assembly).

There could be a reason for this. As the world mourned Steve Jobs, Indian IT icon Narayana Murthy  spoke out about the deteriorating quality of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) students.  It’s not the first time that an industry leader has spoken up about the IITs in this way. The sentiment from most of the critics is that they produce people who are good at passing exams and getting the grades, but they don’t have any place in the curriculum for creative thinking. One of the most successful Bollywood movies in recent times (Three Idiots) depicted this very scenario and its implications.

One of the characteristics of Steve Jobs was to systematically build upon an idea and execute it. This is what most good entrepreneurs do when building successful businesses. This is also the subject of a book launched this month in London, From Vision to Exit by Guy Rigby, where he says that if you want to build a great business, there’s a system and a process, and it’s not necessarily about reinventing the wheel – plenty of people have been there before.

In fact, Dr Marc Ventresca of the Oxford Said Business School also released a note this month saying that successful entrepreneurs are skilled system builders – they may well have a great idea, a Eureka moment, but it is what they do with that idea in context which is critical. Those who succeed typically remap the landscape in which they operate, today often referred to as the ‘ecosystem’.

They connect together diverse resources, capacities, and ‘bits’ of available, existing systems of activity which were previously unconnected.  They broker across worlds, solving challenges that stymied others with equally good ideas.  This is the key to the success of their innovation. These entrepreneurs build new systems and networks, rebundle and assemble a range of resources in new ways.

This is exactly what Steve Jobs did in building and re-building Apple.  This characteristic could be the key to India’s ability to create visionaries and great global companies that transform industries. The engineers and technologists churned out every year have the skills in developing processes or systemically solving challenges; they just need a bit of creativity and vision in front of it.

That could come from returning Indian entrepreneurs who’ve been there and done that already in the US, or if the Indian education system allowed for creative thinkers, it could also come from within.

Nitin Dahad is a consultant and adviser in the electronics, semiconductors and wireless industry, with over 25 years experience in various roles in working with large corporations as well as start-ups globally – particularly the UK, US and India. He is also the brain behind a number of successful technology and B2B publications.

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