How CIOs overcome the challenges of leading IT in smaller cities

Most enterprises globally are based in metropolitan regions because of their inherent advantages of good infrastructure and diverse customer base. But certain businesses such as manufacturing facilities and educational institutions may be in smaller cities due to cheaper land prices, government subsidies, proximity to raw materials, and lower salaries, among other reasons.

While these are important considerations from a business perspective, geographic location also has an impact on an organization’s technology function. IT leaders working in non-metro cities encounter several unique strategic and operational challenges that impact IT operations, business outcomes, and their leadership careers. Here are some issues that CIOs in smaller cities face and the strategies they adopt to overcome them.

Talent woes

The foremost challenge for CIOs working outside of big cities is to get trained and skilled resources. The best talent leaves for metros and organizations must hire from what is left.

“If we want to beat competition in the pharmaceutical industry, we must make use of next generation of technologies such as cloud, big data, and analytics. However, skilled resources don’t want to shift from a metro to a smaller city as they tend to look at it as demotion,” says Jitender Mishra, CIO at pharmaceuticals company Akums Group. The company has its manufacturing facility at Haridwar, a small city about 200 kilometers from New Delhi.

Jagdip Kumar, CIO of Kanpur-based Lohia Corp., is even “ready to pay 15% to 20% higher salary than metros” to attract talent. “Besides, we also have a strong brand and major market share, yet we are not able to pull talent,” he says.

To fill the skills gap, technology leaders must groom internal employees through training. Mishra has got his team members certified on AWS and advanced modules of S/4HANA to meet his technology needs for cloud and SAP respectively. “We have linked the employee appraisal to training, which encourages them to upskill. Since their families are based in Haridwar, they don’t move out even after getting trained unless the offer is too good,” he says.

Enhancing skills in a small city, however, also comes with its own challenges, as Manoranjan Kumar[JS1] , CIO at Shree Cement, encountered. “Those who get trained and stay back expect promotions. Over time, someone joining as an engineer could become a manager but without anyone reporting to him. It then becomes tough to justify his managerial role to the HR department, says Manoranjan, who is based in Beawar, a small city in the state of Rajasthan, about 450 kilometers from New Delhi.

Lohia’s Jagdip has found a permanent solution to the problem. “We have set up a satellite office in Noida, which falls under the National Capital Region of New Delhi. We tell the candidates at the time of their recruitment that they will have to spend two weeks in a month in Kanpur. During these two weeks, they visit the shop floor to understand the business requirements at a granular level and come back and work on it in Noida, which balances their personal and professional lives. This approach has worked fine for the company,” he says.

In case of more workload, as a fallback mechanism, Jagdip has entered into an annual maintenance service agreement with KPMG. Under the agreement, Lohia has a fixed number of hours in a month for using KPMG’s resources on any technology project. If the hours are not consumed within a month, they roll over to the next month.

Technology crunch

Enterprise technology leaders must regularly meet vendors to get updates on latest technologies and their demonstrations. However, solution providers often avoid meeting upcountry CIOs as it takes time to travel from their base locations.

“We miss out on new product launches as they take place in metros. We can keep ourselves updated through content from [the internet] but it can’t replace face-to-face meetings. Adoption of new technology is also a challenge, as OEMs are hesitant to travel. The timelines that an IT leader has in metros don’t work here. OEMs cancel their travel at the last moment. All this leads to a delay in project delivery,” says Jagdip.

As Akums is the only pharmaceutical company in Haridwar, “OEMs don’t want to come to handle just a single client,” Mishra says. “We especially request them for POCs and have to bear their travel and food cost. However, once the OEMs come and see the size and depth of the projects, then there is no issue,” says Mishra, who is striving to “build Akums as a brand in terms of technology adoption to attract OEMs.”

For support and maintenance, the OEM has to station a resource at the plant, which increases the cost. When Shree Cement’s Manoranjan deployed a data loss prevention solution, “the cost came to be 20% more than what it could be in a metro.”

To tide over delays, Manoranjan often looks at smaller partners of OEMs to deploy solutions. “Smaller players need business, and they are happy to work with us,” he says.

Jagdip has extended the dual-office strategy here also. He has set up an office in the industrial area on the outskirts of Bengaluru. “The vendors are ready to come there and we have all our POCs there,” he says.

Issues with service support

Getting timely service support is also a challenge that IT leaders in smaller cities encounter. “If a server part is needed, it could take four to five hours to source it from the nearest location, Jaipur, which is approximately 180 kilometers from here. During this time, business is interrupted,” says Manoranjan.

While he keeps certain parts on hand to ensure high availability, it is not possible to keep all spares. As a solution to this problem, he is now migrating to the cloud to cut dependency on servers on-prem. “The organization’s email and analytics have already been migrated while work is on with SAP RISE. We don’t want to move 100% to the cloud. By next year, our target is to have 50-60% of our applications on the cloud,” he says.

Limited self-growth

There are lots of insightful enterprise technology forums and events being organized in metros, which help in facilitating peer-to-peer knowledge exchange besides keeping an IT leader abreast with the latest in the industry.

“CIOs in remote locations must leave office for three to four days if they want to participate in such events, which is tough. Vendors gradually realize this and stop inviting such CIOs. IT leaders in metros are meanwhile persuaded a lot by organizers to attend,” says Manoranjan.

As there are no direct flights from Haridwar, Mishra has to first travel to the nearest airport, 50 kilometers away in Dehradun, which “takes up one extra day.” For making the most of his time, Mishra says, “I get all the invites but attend only those that offer value to me.”

Jagdip Kumar says, “The key lies in participating in those events that yield growth not only to the CIO but also to the organization. Our company’s management is open to such events. I encourage my team members in Noida to attend relevant events and as I spend a week each month in Noida, I also attend anything that is important.”

Embracing the challenge

Given the challenges of working smaller cities, most IT leaders prefer to work in larger metropolitan areas, such as New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru in India. Some, however, find the challenge of leading IT in more remote areas exciting.

“Working in smaller cities makes an IT leader learn to deal with adverse situations. I don’t have a problem till there are budgets, respect, and management focus on digital,” says Mishra, who worked in Vadodara, another non-metro, as the group CIO of Alembic Pharmaceuticals before coming to Haridwar.

Jagdip says, “Smaller cities are behind metros in terms of technology adoption, as such, there are more things that a CIO can do. In metros, enterprises have already invested in technology and IT leaders must continue with old technology. I made the right decision of joining Lohia Corp.”

Manoranjan enjoys working in Beawar as “it offers low stress, less commute, and a pollution-free environment. I am on the verge of retirement, and this is the perfect place for my final assignment,” says Manoranjan, who has spent more than 35 years in various roles in enterprise technology.

IT Leadership, IT Management