From ‘Analytic Superheroes’ to the ‘Democratization of Analytics’
WNS, a global BPO company, currently has 18,000 employees. It has 15 delivery centers worldwide with five of them in India. Its original mission in 1996 was to be a shared services center for British Airways. It became an independent third-party provider in 2002 and a New York Stock Exchange company in 2006.
Anish Nanavaty leads WNS’s Knowledge Services, the company’s fastest-growing division, which provides knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) and analytics services. Read how growing up in New York helps him lead a global division and why organizations as diverse as the Boston Red Sox and Harrah’s Entertainment need analytics to compete.
Q: Knowledge is a new area for business process outsourcing. How did WNS get into the knowledge realm?
A: Our clients’ needs drive WNS’s business. In the late 1990s our clients began requesting research and analytics services to help them be more competitive. Our CEO had a vision to build more services around judgment-based capabilities, and in 2003, he formally made Knowledge Services its own division. We have since completed some strategic acquisitions to complement our existing KPO skills.
Q: What exactly does your unit do?
A: Simply put: research and analytics. Both involve extracting insights from data. We gather information or process secondary information like financial reports in the research function. We aggregate, then synthesize this information.
In analytics, we collect information from transactions or market research. We process and manipulate the information using tools like statistical analysis software (SAS) and then use statistics and our knowledge of the client’s business to provide insight.
Q: How do your customers use your research or analytics?
A: Our professional services clients use the information we gather and synthesize as input to underpin their higher-level hypotheses. Our corporate clients use this information for all kinds of decision support ? particularly in planning, marketing, and sales.
Our buyers make business decisions based on our work. These business decisions may require a detailed analysis of what has happened and why. A typical example is dissecting the causes for a change in share or volume. Clients are also faced with ever-changing consumer needs. These changing needs require our clients to launch new products, tailor marketing messages to consumer segments, optimize channel strategies, and price products appropriately.
Without analytics, our clients were making many business decisions based on intuition. Now analytics support these decisions. We provide our clients with “analytics-on-tap” at a very affordable price, in a highly scaleable manner, and on a global basis. Analytics is no longer the purview of a select few inside our clients ? we call this effect the “democratization of analytics.”
Q: What companies use analytics?
A: Today all companies are fighting to create a competitive edge, and one key lever for that is through analytics. Our clients are typically multi-billion dollar global companies in the consumer packaged goods, pharmaceutical, banking/financial services, high technology, and travel industries.
However, you will find success stories even in the broader economy – Harrah’s Entertainment in Las Vegas has been a leader in customer analytics. The Boston Red Sox baseball team uses analytics in a variety of ways to create winning strategies in the field. Right now our staff is deep into market-facing, high-value decision-making for our clients.
Q: How big is your business unit?
A: We have 1,500 people doing research and analytics for our clients. The individual size of our clients varies depending on the maturity of their program with us, but most clients aspire to build analytic shared service centers of between 150 to 200 analysts working with a variety of skills and domain expertise. These teams dovetail seamlessly with our client organizations.
Q: Where do you get the industry expertise?
A: We have domain specialists in each of the industries we cover. For example, in our healthcare area, we have pharmacists and medical doctors who work on therapeutic research projects for a major pharmaceutical giant. We also have MBAs who have worked in the CPG industry who understand customer segmentation issues for one of the world’s largest beverage companies. We also have functional experts in areas like statistics, SAS, market research, and financial analysis. Domain and functional experts come together to solve client business issues.
Q: Why do Western companies need this help?
A: In general, large companies face an acute shortage of analytic support in their day-to-day business dealings. Analyst pools are filled with MBAs that lack the diversity of skills (statistics is a classic skill that is always in short supply) required to solve tough data-oriented problems. These analyst pools also shrink and grow based on the business climate or when analysts move into roles for career progression. These analysts are also expensive!
Compounding this problem is that most analysts in large companies sit inside departmental “silos” like sales or R&D. Most business issues, on the other hand, require an integrated approach to pull functional skills from a variety of departments. This is easier in the shared services environment that WNS sets up for clients.
Finally, most companies are increasingly looking at globalization for growth. Analytic capabilities are typically very weak outside the home markets of large companies.
Q: Do American companies have difficulty finding the right knowledge workers?
A: Yes. Most companies have traditionally had an “analytic superhero” solve their analytic problems. These superheroes are executives with deep knowledge about a company’s products/customers/markets and have PhD degrees in statistics. They also earn large six-figure salaries. Unfortunately, these people are hard to find and groom. Tier 2 companies would find it hard to attract such people. Additionally, they are not scaleable and they bottleneck the democratization process of consuming analytics.
Q: Wouldn’t that be true in India, too?
A: The key is that we have disaggregated the skills used to solve such problems. We have divided the superhero’s job into three different jobs:
- The person who understands the business and its problems
- The “genius” statistician
- The data analyst
Our teams are located around the globe. Typically the domain expert is embedded inside client locations. The fact that we do the majority of the heavy lifting out of different global locations is only to reduce the cost of the service and to enable us to deploy the service on a truly global basis.
Q: Does anyone else in the world disaggregate analytic skill sets this way?
A: Not that we have come across. However, WNS and other BPO companies have been doing this with rules-based processes for some time.
Q: Is cost reduction a big driver in knowledge process outsourcing?
A: No. It’s not about labor arbitrage. It’s about resource augmentation. Our buyers don’t have the capabilities they need internally.
With the implementation of enterprise systems like ERP, companies have a vast amount of untapped data that they are not in a position to process. They don’t want to worry about where they are going to get the talent to do this. So they outsource this task to us.
Q: Is this a new trend in offshoring — companies wanting value plus cost reduction?
A: I think clients have always wanted value in addition to cost reduction. For some time now, WNS has been offering BPO services in a managed service environment where we are responsible for the business outcome as well as the process. With the maturity of the supplier base, this will become a more widespread phenomenon. The increased consumption of analytics has more to do with clients realizing that providers like WNS can help them achieve their objective of going up the analytics sophistication curve.
Q: What’s the second generation going to look like?
A: Going back to your first question, our evolution really depends on how our clients evolve and how they use analytics in their business. For example, recent technological advances in how companies interact with their customers and the overall paradigm of being customer centric could require a much more collaborative model of customer interaction. Such models may require our analytic support at the very front edges of their organizations ? the layer between our clients and their customers.
Q: What is the dream of your unit?
A: The dream of any research and analytic support team would be to contribute towards the highest impact business decisions within our clients ? for example conceptualizing a new product like the iPod!
Q: What has been your biggest business lesson?
A: It’s easy to have vision. But until you have the people and the organization aligned, you are never going to get there. I learned this when I took over this division. It’s the first time I’ve run my own organization.
Q: What’s been your biggest life lesson?
A: My Dad passed away when I was 10. I had to make my own way in life.
Q: Have you had a mentor?
A: Yes, but not in the conventional sense. My peers/colleagues are my mentors and vice-a-versa. We fill in each other’s gaps! It’s hard to find mentors who understand the world of an extremely fast-growing business that has been around for less than a decade!
Q: Where were you born?
A: I was born in New York. I’ve spent a significant amount of my life in the United States, but I have lived in France, South America, the Far East and India, so I consider myself a global citizen in many ways. I have a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Q: Did growing up in the United States help you lead a globally diverse company?
A: Many of my clients are American, so it helps that I relate to them. I think the no-nonsense style that Americans are known for can be helpful in the right doses. More broadly, being a global citizen is at the heart of the enterprise I work with.
Q: How did you get into analytics?
A: After college, I spent 10 years in strategy consulting at Mars & Company, which was a Boston Consulting Group spin-off. In many ways, the work I do today is the unbundling of the consulting product! I got involved with WNS on the BPO side of the business when Warburg first bought the business from BA. I was selling BPO to travel companies out of the United States. When I had the opportunity to run our Knowledge Services division, I grabbed it and moved to New Delhi.
Q: What’s your favorite book?
A: These days it’s “The Black Swan,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s thought provoking. It makes me look at the world in a way I never would have before. I also like to read about spirituality and history.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: After work, my family is the only thing I have time left for these days! I hope to try and improve my golf game one day. I travel. I read on planes.