Thursday, March 8, 2012

IBM Research India: Technology to Solve National Problems

In the world of computers and information technology, IBM has an iconic status. For decades, the company was the undisputed global leader in hardware. While the personal computer was not invented at IBM, the company can legitimately take credit for igniting the PC revolution. The company survived a major dip in performance in the early 1990s before then CEO Louis Gerstner transformed IBM into a technology-driven services company. Today, IBM has a majority of its revenues coming from services, but continues to be a technology giant.

Amidst all these ups and downs, one of IBM’s important strengths has been in research and development. IBM’s research laboratories in the US have been important locations for cutting edge IT research. IBM research has successfully transcended from hardware to software and services, and the company has pioneered the study of Services Science.

IBM Research India, located in Delhi and Bangalore, is an important part of IBM’s global research network. Over time, it has created a distinctive position for itself as it works on problems that are uniquely suited to the Indian and emerging markets contexts.

The current director of IBM Research India, Manish Gupta, is a passionate advocate of India’s research potential. I have had the opportunity to hear him speak on a couple of occasions, and also to interact with him. This blog post is based on what I heard him speak on these occasions, and some follow up research on the net.

Supporting IBM Services Business in India

Some of the work IBM Research has done in India is directed towards the specific needs of IBM as a major IT services provider in India. (As an aside, IBM takes the Indian market very seriously, and provides the IT backbone to Bharti Airtel and Amul, two of India’s biggest consumer brands!).

For example, in recent years, IBM has been one of the largest recruiters in India. The company receives as many as 60,000 resumes every month. IBM Research has an “India workforce management initiative” that focused on the development of tools to automate the recruitment process. A major area of work of IBM Research India is text analytics. This capability has been used to extract salient points from applicants’ resumes, and do a quick qualitative screening/evaluation of prospective candidates. This has increased productivity 20-fold.

Another similar tool developed by IBM Research India is “OptiManage” that helps optimal assignment of employees to projects. The objective, of course, is to reduce bench size and make more efficient use of available manpower. The use of this tool saves IBM millions of dollars each year.

But the more interesting dimension of IBM Research India is its attempt to take advantage of the unique opportunities India provides for service delivery leadership. As Manish writes in his message on the IBM Research India homepage: “In developing solutions for the region, we deal with the unique challenges that we face in India (e.g., massive scale of operations, price sensitivity, heterogeneity and noisiness of data, inadequacies of power and “wired” infrastructure) and target innovative solutions that have the potential to enable leapfrogging and be applied to the rest of the world.”

Research for Service Delivery Leadership

IBM Research India’s work goes well beyond supporting their Indian IT services business to providing a platform for leadership in service delivery.

Managed Customer Relationship Management

India is an important location for voice call centres that provide customer support. Measuring customer satisfaction is a challenging task, and is often measured by supervisors monitoring a subset of calls. But this only helps measure overall satisfaction levels and does not help get back to dissatisfied customers. If customer satisfaction measurement could be automated, that would help reach out to unsatisfied customers and prevent churn. IBM India Research Centre has developed “Voice of customer” analytics that addresses this problem and gives insights into customers based on their interaction with call center agents. Acoustic features and text analysis (based on speech recognition) are combined to give a weighted score for the emotion expressed by the customer on the call. This has led to hundreds of millions of dollars revenues.

Taking Advantage of Scale in Mobile Services Data Centres

Though no US company has more than 100 million customers, India has three! As a result, India has some of the largest datacenters. Given the imperative of providing low-cost mobile services, these have to operate at as low a cost as possible, and hence super efficient IT infrastructure is required. The call detail record is the primary record maintained in a call centre and high level analytics of call records helps increase efficiency and quality of service. IBM Research India has developed some process streaming methods that they believe are far superior to analyzing static data. This solution is now being sold to customers in the US, and is another example of "Reverse" innovation or leapfrogging.

Solving National Problems

IBM Research India has moved beyond the challenges of the services industry to take the first steps towards applying its capabilities to solve problems that arise in a peculiarly emerging market context. Two examples stand out:

Traffic Management

Many countries including Sweden and Singapore have smart transport systems based on video recording, user charges, etc. But applying such solutions in India is problematic with even the basics of traffic discipline like driving in lanes more the exception than the rule. What’s a good way of measuring traffic flows here? IBM Research India is pioneering low-cost acoustic traffic sensing for emerging markets that is able to distinguish between stuck, medium flowing, and smooth flowing traffic, thereby allowing dynamic remote management of traffic.

New Methods to Bridge the Digital Divide: Spoken-web

Today, India is a mobile country. There are close to 800 million phone numbers and 15 million are getting added every month. Most handsets are plain vanilla phones and few subscribers can afford GPRS and internet access through the phone. Besides, India has a literacy rate of only 70%, and a long-standing oral culture which means that people prefer voice as a means of communication.

IBM Research India developed Spoken-web to provide a complement & alternative to the internet. Analogous to the internet, the Spoken-web has voicesites, voicelinks and its own Hyperspeech transfer protocol. Users access different applications through an interactive voice response (IVR) system. User-generated information can be posted on a voice portal. Applications include matrimonial advertisements, and posting election speeches. Families have recorded and posted a kid's voice for the rest of the family to access. Spoken-web has been used to create an employability platform in the state of Karnataka. IBM hopes that smaller companies will build value-added services on this platform.

While the technological potential of the Spoken-web is considerable, at this point of time the business model needed to make the Spoken-web work is not clear. Issues include cost-benefit for users, cost-benefit for organizations, enhancing usability for end-users, making it more usable by organizations including the government, and questions of who will offer the service (IBM? Telecom service provider? Other organizations?).

The Future

With its strong IT capabilities, IBM Research India believes it can apply IT to national problems. The challenge is to find the right mix of business model & technology.

One important arena where they hope to make an impact is education. The number of teachers is unlikely to scale up quickly enough to meet the demand for teachers. Some families spend more than half their income on education. Indian students spend a billion dollars a year on Australian universities. Can technology be used to solve these problems? This is the kind of question on which IBM Research India hopes to make an impact in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely captured the work that has been going on at IBM Research - India.