QAI: Enabling Efficiency and Excellence

Date:   Sunday , March 01, 2009

Navyug Mohnot distinctly remembers an incident that occurred on his return from the U.S.A. to Bangalore in 1990. The cab driver asked Mohnot, a PhD student from the University of Rochester, U.S.A., if he would like to be shown around the city. When the latter answered in the affirmative, the driver took him to a two-storied building, which had a dish antenna atop it."The driver beamed with a smile and said this is the building of Texas Instruments, sir. They make software here and export it to the U.S.," recalls Mohnot.

Yesterday's landmark, albeit a tourist destination, has become a sort of a ubiquity today. Innumerable buildings that 'make software and export it to the U.S.A. and many other countries' dot Bangalore's skyline today.

Mohnot, incidentally, might have had a part to play in this transformation. He is the one who had started QAI in India; the company has helped a myriad of IT, BPO, and knowledge services companies, including those from among India's top five, "execute their vision-mission".

QAI India works in the arena of Operational Excellence and Workforce Development; in essence helping organizations and individuals improve their performance through a portfolio of certifications, training, processes, and assessments. The company has, thus far, trained close to 70,000 techies, certified 20,000 of them and counts the likes of Wipro, CSC, Cognizant, and Accenture among its customers. In the meanwhile, Mohnot has risen to be the CEO of QAI worldwide.

Virtuous Cycle
"When I came to India and looked around, I was certain that I did not want to start another software company," recalls Mohnot. Instead, he chose to start what might be called a kind of consultancy. He got in touch with QAI U.S.A. and started the company's India office with the sole aim of helping India's IT companies achieve better organizational efficiency and train their workforce.

The way QAI India works is simple: A company that wishes to get, let's say, Six Sigma implemented or CMMi assessed, approaches QAI. Mohnot's team's job is to handhold the client through the journey to certification.

"We talk to the senior management of the company, understand their pain points, design the pathway for achieving improvements, help them implement it, review the implementation constantly, give feedback to the company, and take the process to its logical 'next practice', which is getting the certification or improved metrics,"says Mohnot.

This, of course, requires training, assessing, and certifying people in the organization as well.

"Right from the start, in QAI India, we have helped IT companies deploy best practices; it has empowered them to deliver better results. This has helped them bring in more business, which in turn meant that IT companies needed to train more people and better their operational efficiencies through certifications. For this, they have again come to us, and we have hand-held them through another such loop," says Mohnot, smiling contentedly at the virtuous cycle that QAI India has, in a way, spun off and is now a part of.

The company works broadly on two levels: at the organizational level it's about operational excellence, and at the individual level, it concentrates on workforce development.

Are you Doing it Right?
Every organization needs to be competitive, for which it must achieve operational excellence. QAI India helps companies tackle Process Management, Human Capital, Project Management, IT Service Management, Innovation, et al better.

"We are different from the McKinseys of the world," says Mohnot. Whereas McKinsey asks its clients whether they are 'doing the right thing', QAI asks clients 'are you doing it right?', he explains.
In other words, while McKinsey and the likes help companies figure out their vision-mission, QAI India helps them execute and achieve the vision-mission better, faster, and cheaper.

Benchmarks for operational excellence have changed over the years. Earlier, there was CMM certification, then came the People CMM: it was followed by the Six Sigma model; presently, the Lean model is in vogue. With every step, companies have looked at QAI to help them set in motion the process to achieve certification.

The team at QAI India has done a lot of evangelization over the years, says Mohnot. Earlier, he recalls, Indian IT firms were not so open or keen about embarking on 'improvements' journeys. They were then struggling to secure their future and were sales-oriented, and hence did not care much about operational excellence. But, as time went by, they realized the need for globally accepted industry standards and QAI started getting substantial business. Such recognitions, in turn, got India's IT firms more business. That was the point where the virtuous cycle was formed.

"Certifications carried a certain marketing mileage till some years ago. If a company was, say, CMMI assessed, it would be easy for them to get business," notes Mohnot. But over the years, as the industry matured, certifications started losing their marketing mileage, and for the better, he adds.

Why, then, would IT companies want to get themselves certified now, one might ask. And since QAI's business involves handholding companies through certifications, does it not mean a loss of revenues for it?

"Today, companies aim for certifications in order to improve and optimize their operations; that is what QAI works towards," answers Mohnot. He says that CEOs in India today are more open about adopting industry standards than their counterparts in most other countries. In fact, he says, Indian CEOs understood the importance of operational excellence much earlier than most of their peers across the world.

This appreciation has brought about an interesting scenario. Today, companies across the board, whether they are 50 strong or 50,000 strong, want to get certified. Part of QAI's job, then, is to tailor models of attaining certification and embark on improvement journeys according to the size of the clients.

Working on Cogs in the Wheel
It is the cogs that give a wheel its strength and enable it function properly. In the same way, it is the people in an organization that make things work the way they ought to.

Having improved organizational processes and initiated processes for organizations to obtain certifications, QAI India sought to address individual skills and competencies.

"It is very important that a company that seeks to achieve operational excellence must have people who are skilled," says Mohnot.

Incidentally, the arena of individual skill development is quite crowded in the country. From institutes teaching spoken English to those training students on specific software, hardware, or networking skills, the number of players is huge. And so is the market size.

According to a CLSA report, education and training opportunities for the private sector alone in India is worth $40 billion. Out of this, engineering, addressed mostly by private engineering colleges across the country, is worth $5.85 billion.

Still, as a McKinsey study found a few months back, only about 10-25 percent of the graduates in the country are employable. QAI India, technically, works towards making the other 75 percent employable.

"Essentially, we are focussed on skill development for the IT and BPO sector," says Mohnot, adding, "we are not trying to do what the IITs, NIITs, and language training institutes are doing." Instead, his company addresses the areas of project management, software testing, process management, and the like. This is done at three different levels: the company trains individuals, assesses them, and certifies them as per global standards.

Often, workforce development happens across the organization, and one level works before the other. For instance, recently, one of the countryís top five IT firms approached QAI to assess its 4,500 strong testing team for relevant skills. QAI created a framework of the workforce's software testing skills, and based on that conducted an online assessment exam comprising 2,000 questions. It then assessed the responses of the testing professionals and went back to its client with details about the strengths and weaknesses of the team. It also recommended the names of professionals who needed training, and on the companyís affirmation, put a group of individuals through a training programme.

Incidentally, QAI has instructor-led as well as e-learning training modules. But generally, it is a blend of the two that is used. The company addresses over 40 areas of training.

Certification forms an important chunk of the skill development pie. QAI India certifies professionals in software testing, quality, and project management, among other things. While some individuals approach the company on their own seeking certification, often it is IT firms that look to certify their workforce. TCS, for instance, has 5,000 people certified by QAI in its ranks; Infosys and Accenture have over 2,000 each. In all, Mohnot estimates that QAI India has certified about 20,000 people in quality and testing, each certification ranging from $350 to $400.

Global trends point out the importance and demand for testing professionals. Gartner has estimated the market for testing at $8 billion in 2009. Mohnot estimates that around $2-3 billion of this is India's share. And going forward, India will need 100,000 certified testers in the next two to three years. Keeping these factors in mind, QAI India has spun off a separate institute, called the Edista Testing Institute, to handle training, assessment, and certification related to testing.

"Testing represents a huge opportunity," says Mohnot. Ten percent of the workforce of big IT companies in the country is engaged in testing, he says, adding that only ten percent of them are certified as of now. Considering that there are around 7,000 to 10,000 testers in any big IT company, and 90 percent of them are yet uncertified, they, along with the 100,000 new testers in the next 2 to 3 years, constitute a huge opportunity for QAI, more precisely, Edista Testing Institute.

In the meanwhile, certification in project management, awarded by the Project Management Institute, U.S.A., through QAI, is fast gaining ground among the Indian workforce. QAI has certified a few thousand people in the area in the last two to three years.

Deja vu,for innovation
"We seek to do for innovation what we have done for quality and testing," says Mohnot. QAI India is busy evangelizing concepts around innovation, in collaboration with an American company. It will shortly come up with a certification regime for innovation management, at the organization as well as the individual level.

"Today, one raises questions about how to define, measure, benchmark, and institutionalize innovation...the same set of questions was asked a few years back, before quality certification came into vogue," says Mohnot.

"We know of the gains made after quality was institutionalized; in that regard, institutionalizing innovation is all the more important," he argues.

At the individual level, QAI India will shortly launch a certificate programme in innovation management. Spread over four quarters, the program will train personnel in problem solving and creative thinking through e-learning. After every module, trainees will be given problems, following which a coach will take over and help them solve the problem, in distance learning mode. If a trainee clears the test, he or she will move to the next module. Pilot modes of the innovation management program are on, notes Mohnot.

Challenges and Competition
Challenges for industry organizations, says the company's CEO, exist at two levels: the corporate level and the finishing school level. At the corporate level, the top three challenges are as follows:

Recession: Everyone understands the importance of training, but unfortunately, the first thing that's slashed in times of recession is training budget. This in turn affects companies' consistency. Tackling the recession, says Mohnot, is QAI's current challenge.

Consistency in training: Since IT companies typically employ 20,000 to 25,000 people, training all of them at the same level is a big challenge. To overcome this, QAI is focusing on the e-learning and blended route. "If it were to be classroom-based, a large organization will require 500 classrooms of 50 people capacity each and one instructor for each class to take care of a learning session simultaneously," reasons Mohnot. E-learning also helps bringing in uniformity in the training program that would otherwise be missing.

Geographic spread: Companies these days operate in various countries, and within a country, in various cities. Implementing standards and imparting quality training across time, language, and culture zones is a big challenge.

At the finishing school level, says Mohnot, the biggest challenge is that of fragmentation. A lot of small players in the country are trying to teach many things; small institutes are springing up everywhere, promising employment and employability. The end result is valuable little, he notes.

The second biggest challenge at this level, he adds, is our education system. Our college syllabi have not changed in the past 'so many decades'. That 75 percent of our graduates are not employable is something worth national attention, he says. In this regard, QAI is negotiating with different colleges to embed finishing schools in their campuses.

The company has made, in Mohnot's words, multi crore investments in developing a learning management system and e-learning modules. This is done in an attempt to reach out to trainees across countries and timelines at the same time and with the same consistency.

In this regard, it is imperative to ask whether QAI will, at some point in future, look at video and voice-based learning modules online. Mohnot says that switching to only voice and video will not happen, since there are bandwidth issues, especially in countries like India. What will happen, however, he says, is coming into vogue of blended learning. The core will consist of graphics-based e-learning modules, which will be supplemented by live voice and video sessions with instructors. There will, perhaps, be fixed contact hours for each module, he notes.

Though QAI creates its own content, the company has been approached by some foreign universities for partnerships in course content creation. "But most of these universities are looking at India to augment their revenues, more so since the U.S.A. is in recession now. They are not really serious about offering education in India," says Mohnot. Perhaps, thatís an indication that QAI will not tie up with any of them in the near future. These universities and small training institutes, he says, constitute QAI's competition. "Thereís no player like QAI, so thereís no direct competition," he notes.

The Road Ahead
Mohnotís journey with QAI started with his coming back to India, more precisely with his tryst with the cab driver that took him to the Texas Instruments building. It was then that he decided that he did not want to be a part of 'just another company'. He sold his Apple laser II printer for Rs 98,000 then, which became the capital for his history. That led to his starting QAI in India. Almost two decades on, QAI has grown in size and stature, and so has Mohnot. Going ahead, he sees the company growing along with Indiaís IT firms.

As of now, he has his eyes set on three goals that, in a way, feed off each other. First, he wishes to evangelize and take to market innovation. "It will boost operational efficiency by leaps and bounds, besides making India the leader in soft infrastructure," he explains with hope. Second, he wishes to make India the operational hub of QAI. In this regard, he says, there is need to integrate QAI operations across the world.

Post consolidation, he says, he wishes to float IPO of the company. He sees this happening in the next three years or so. By then, of course, innovation would have been institutionalized, and one wouldn't be surprised to see something new in QAI's initial public offering.

Training and certifying people in testing is an area that deserves great attention, especially since the testing professionals in India form a huge portion of the IT work force.