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Thursday February 29th, 2024

Sri Lanka’s Tech Future – A Pragmatic Roadmap

Ramesh Shanmuganathan – Executive Vice President and Group CIO at John Keells Holdings (JKH) and Chief Executive of John Keells IT

The future of any nation’s economy is closely intertwined with its ability to adapt and thrive in the rapidly evolving tech-driven world. In this interview, Ramesh Shanmuganathan, an Executive Vice President and Group CIO at John Keells Holdings (JKH), and Chief Executive of John Keells IT, delves into the crucial policies that Sri Lanka should prioritize to leverage technology as a cornerstone of its economic resurgence. From investments in digital infrastructure to fostering a startup-friendly environment and from promoting STEM education to encouraging digital entrepreneurship, the roadmap proposed by Shanmuganathan is comprehensive and forward-thinking.

Sri Lanka’s economy is turning a corner. What should be the policies that seek to build on the future of tech priorities? 

To build on the future of technology and further propel Sri Lanka’s economy, policies should prioritize the following:

  1. Investment in digital infrastructure: Allocating resources to enhance digital infrastructure is crucial. This includes improving internet connectivity, expanding broadband access, and promoting the development of reliable and high-speed networks that can support emerging technologies.
  2. Support for research and development (R&D): Encouraging R&D activities through incentives and funding mechanisms can foster innovation and drive technological advancements. By investing in R&D, Sri Lanka can nurture a vibrant ecosystem of tech startups, attract foreign investments, and develop cutting-edge solutions.
  3. Promoting STEM education: Prioritizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education will help develop a skilled workforce capable of meeting the demands of a rapidly evolving tech-driven economy. Expanding STEM education initiatives, offering scholarships, and establishing collaborations between academia and industry can empower future generations with relevant skills.
  4. Creating a conducive regulatory environment: Implementing regulations that facilitate the growth of the tech sector while ensuring consumer protection and data privacy is essential. Streamlining bureaucratic processes, promoting fair competition, and fostering a startup-friendly regulatory framework can encourage entrepreneurship and innovation.
  5. Encouraging digital entrepreneurship: Providing support, mentorship programmes, and access to funding for aspiring entrepreneurs can promote the creation of tech start-ups and businesses. Initiatives such as incubation centres, venture capital funds, and entrepreneurship training programmes can harness the potential of local talent, boosting job creation and economic growth.
  6. Collaboration between industry and academia: Strengthening partnerships and collaborations between universities, research institutions, and the industry can foster knowledge exchange, research commercialization, and technology transfer. Industry-academia collaborations can bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, driving innovation and economic progress.
  7. Enabling a favourable startup ecosystem: Cultivating an ecosystem that supports startups is crucial for fostering innovation and growth. This involves developing business incubators, providing access to mentorship programmes, facilitating access to funding, and creating networking platforms. Supporting the growth of startup hubs and organizing events and competitions can also attract talent and drive entrepreneurial activity.

By prioritizing these policies, Sri Lanka can seize the opportunities presented by the future of technology, foster innovation, and position itself as a competitive player in the global tech landscape.

What are the investment opportunities in Tech that one can pursue in Sri Lanka? How do you see the environment for tech startups, which can disrupt a space, being improved?

Sri Lanka presents several investment opportunities in the tech sector. Here are a few areas that show potential:

  1. Internet-based software development and IT services: Sri Lanka has a skilled workforce in software development and IT services, making it an attractive destination for outsourcing and offshoring work to be done on the PaaS/SaaS model. Investing in companies that offer software development, IT consulting, or business process outsourcing as a service (BPOaaS) also can be a viable option.
  2. E-commerce & Personalization: With the growing popularity of online shopping, there is potential for investment in e-commerce platforms, logistics solutions, and payment gateways that can offer personalized products & services  Building or partnering with platforms that cater to the local market’s needs can tap into Sri Lanka’s expanding digital consumer base.
  3. Fintech: Sri Lanka’s financial technology sector is ripe for investment. Opportunities exist in digital payment systems, mobile banking solutions, peer-to-peer lending platforms, and robo-advisory services. As the adoption of digital payments and financial services increases, investing in fintech can yield promising returns.
  4. HealthTech: Sri Lanka’s healthcare industry can benefit from technological disruptions. Investment opportunities exist in telemedicine services, electronic medical records platforms, remote monitoring devices, and health-focused mobile applications. Leveraging technology to improve healthcare delivery and access can have a significant impact in this space.
  5. AgriTech: Sri Lanka has significant agricultural potential, presenting opportunities for investment in agritech such as Precision agriculture, Farm management systems, Agri-marketplaces, Traceability and quality assurance, Agricultural machinery and equipment, Agri-financing and insurance.
  6. AI and Advanced Analytics: Sri Lanka offers investment opportunities in AI and advanced analytics across various sectors. Potential areas for investment include data analytics and consulting, machine learning and AI development, intelligent automation, cybersecurity analytics, health analytics, transportation and logistics analytics, and tourism analytics. Collaborating with local universities and research institutions, partnering with government agencies, and staying updated with the latest advancements are essential for success in this field.

To improve the environment for tech startups that aim to disrupt a space, Sri Lanka could consider the following initiatives:

  1. Accessible funding options: Establishing government-backed venture capital funds and providing tax incentives for investments in early-stage startups can attract more funding options. This would enable entrepreneurs to secure the necessary financial support to bring innovative ideas to life.
  2. Regulatory reforms: Simplifying bureaucratic processes and regulations associated with starting and operating a business can foster a more startup-friendly environment. Streamlining procedures for company registration, licenses, and permits can minimize barriers to entry for tech startups.
  3. Incubation programmes and mentorship: Developing robust incubation programmes that offer mentorship, resources, and workspace can nurture startups and provide them with the necessary support to grow and succeed. Engaging experienced entrepreneurs, industry experts, and academia in mentorship programmes can provide valuable guidance.
  4. Collaboration between academia and startups: Encouraging collaboration between universities, research institutions, and startups can facilitate technology transfer, knowledge sharing, and commercialization of research. Establishing formal partnerships or funding mechanisms that promote joint projects can bridge the gap between academia and industry.
  5. Networking events and competitions: Organizing tech-focused networking events, hackathons, pitch competitions, and investor showcases can create opportunities for startups to connect with potential investors, partners, and customers. Such events can also help foster a strong sense of community among entrepreneurs.

By implementing these measures, Sri Lanka can enhance its startup ecosystem and create an environment where tech startups thrive, disrupt industries, drive innovation, and contribute to economic growth.

With these kinds of advancements in AI, how will the function of IT evolve in an organization and how will this impact the pace of innovation and change as well as the dynamics within and outside the organization? What should organizations do to get the best out of these for themselves?

For companies in Sri Lanka that have gone through a rough economic patch, here are some suggestions for approaching tech and software investments while managing the current climate:

  1. Evaluate the cost-benefit analysis: Assess the potential return on investment of tech and software investments against the company’s financial situation. Consider factors such as updated technology, improved efficiency, cost savings, and revenue generation when prioritizing investments.
  2. Invest in areas with immediate impact: Identify tech and software investments that can quickly bring tangible benefits to the company. Look for solutions that address pressing issues or bottlenecks in operations, enhance customer experience, or streamline workflows to achieve faster results and demonstrate value.
  3. Focus on scalability and adaptability: Prioritize technologies and software solutions that can scale with the company’s growth and adapt to changing market conditions. Look for platforms that offer flexibility, easy integration, and long-term sustainability to ensure your investments continue to deliver value in the future.
  4. Leverage cloud-based solutions: Cloud technologies provide a cost-effective way to access robust software and infrastructure without heavy upfront investments. Consider using cloud-based solutions for storage, data analytics, collaboration tools, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications to minimize initial costs and adapt to fluctuating business needs.
  5. Seek government support and incentives: Explore government initiatives, grants, or subsidies available to support technology and software investments. Many countries offer programmes to stimulate digital transformation and innovation. Stay updated with local regulations and engage with relevant government agencies to take advantage of any available assistance.
  6. Collaborate with partners and experts to build bigger and better ecosystems: Engage with industry experts, consultants, and technology providers who can offer insights and advice on suitable tech and software investments. Partnering with established firms or startups that align with your business goals can help optimize decision-making and mitigate risks.
  7. Foster a culture of innovation: Encourage employees to embrace new technologies and contribute ideas for improving processes or adopting innovative software solutions. Creating an environment that values innovation and encourages continuous learning can help drive digital transformation and maximize the benefits of tech investments.
  8. Monitor and measure outcomes: Regularly monitor the performance and outcomes of your tech and software investments. Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to track progress and identify areas for improvement. This data-driven approach will enable you to make informed decisions and adjust investment priorities as needed.

Remember, every company’s situation is unique, so it’s crucial to conduct a thorough assessment of your specific circumstances and consult with financial advisors or technology experts to guide your investment priorities effectively.

In Sri Lanka there are a large number of SMEs and how should they approach tech investments in general? Are cloud, mobility and analytics relevant to them?

For SMEs in Sri Lanka, here are some recommendations on how to approach tech investments in general, including the relevance of cloud solutions, mobility, and analytics:

  1. Assess your business needs: Start by evaluating your specific business requirements and identifying areas where technology can bring value. Consider aspects such as operational efficiency, customer experience, cost reduction, and competitive advantage.
  2. Prioritize investments based on impact: Focus on tech investments that can have an immediate and significant impact on your business. Identify pain points or bottlenecks, and consider investing in solutions that address those issues directly.
  3. Consider scalability and flexibility: Look for technologies that allow your business to scale and adapt to changing needs. Scalable solutions can accommodate growth without requiring extensive adjustments or additional investments.
  4. Embrace cloud solutions: Cloud computing offers several advantages for SMEs, including cost savings, scalability, flexibility, and accessibility from anywhere. Consider cloud-based services for various business functions such as storage, software applications, data analysis, and infrastructure.
  5. Utilize mobility solutions: As mobile devices become integral to daily operations, investing in mobility solutions can enhance productivity and customer engagement. Mobile apps, remote access to systems, and mobile-friendly websites can enable employees to work efficiently and provide seamless experiences for customers.
  6. Leverage analytics for insights: Analytical tools can help SMEs extract valuable insights from their data to make informed business decisions. Implementing basic analytics capabilities can provide actionable information about customer behaviour, sales patterns, inventory management, and financial performance.
  7. Seek cost-effective options: SMEs often have budget limitations, so explore alternatives such as open-source software, software-as-a-service (SaaS) models, and subscription-based pricing.
  8. Ensure data security and compliance: When investing in any tech solution, prioritize data security measures to protect your business and customer information. Cloud service providers should adhere to industry-standard security protocols.
  9. Explore government initiatives and support: Investigate local and national programmes, grants, and initiatives that support SMEs in adopting technology. In Sri Lanka, government agencies and organizations often provide resources, training, and financial assistance to promote tech adoption.
  10. Seek expert advice: If you’re unsure about the best tech investments for your SME, consider consulting with technology professionals, industry experts, or IT service providers who can offer tailored recommendations based on your specific goals and constraints.

Remember, the suitability and relevance of cloud solutions, mobility, and analytics will depend on your unique business needs. Take time to evaluate each technology’s potential impact, benefits, and costs to make informed decisions that align with your organization’s objectives, it is indeed a powerful force that can enable organizations to reimagine and reinvent themselves. Still, it also requires some changes within and outside the organization to create better and sustainable value for all constituents of the ecosystem.

How important is tech for a business that seeks to go global?

Technology plays a crucial role for any business seeking to go global. Here are some reasons why tech is important:

  1. Global reach: Technology enables businesses to overcome geographical limitations and connect with customers, partners, and suppliers across the globe. It facilitates communication, collaboration, and seamless transactions, making it easier to operate on an international scale.
  2. Market expansion: Technology provides opportunities for businesses to expand their customer base beyond local markets. With digital marketing tools and platforms, businesses can reach potential customers worldwide and tailor their offerings to different regions and cultures.
  3. Operational efficiency: Adopting technology solutions allows businesses to automate processes, streamline operations, and improve efficiency. This is especially critical when dealing with international transactions, supply chains, logistics, and regulatory compliance.
  4. Communication and collaboration: Technology enables real-time communication and seamless collaboration with global teams, partners, and customers through various channels like video conferencing, instant messaging, and project management tools. It helps bridge time zones and language barriers, fostering effective collaboration across borders.
  5. Customer experience: Technology can enhance the customer experience by providing personalized services, optimized websites and mobile apps, efficient order processing, and robust customer support systems. Meeting the expectations of international customers is essential for successful global expansion.
  6. Data analytics and insights: Technology empowers businesses to gather, analyze, and utilize data to make informed decisions for global expansion strategies. Analyzing customer behaviour, market trends, and performance metrics helps businesses adapt their offerings and marketing strategies to different markets.
  7. Competitive advantage: Leveraging technology effectively can provide a competitive edge in the global marketplace. By embracing digital innovations, businesses can differentiate themselves and offer unique value propositions that resonate with international customers.
  8. Risk management: Technology can assist in managing risks associated with international operations, such as cybersecurity threats, regulatory compliance, fraud detection, and supply chain disruptions. Implementing robust security measures and risk mitigation strategies is vital when operating in multiple regions.
  9. Cost optimization: Technology often offers cost-saving opportunities for global businesses. It reduces the need for physical infrastructure, enables remote work, optimizes inventory management, and provides more efficient communication and logistics solutions.
  10. Scalability and flexibility: Technology allows businesses to scale their operations rapidly and adapt to changing international market conditions. Cloud computing, software-as-a-service (SaaS), and other tech solutions offer the scalability and flexibility required for global growth.

In summary, technology is essential for businesses aiming to go global as it facilitates market expansion, operational efficiency, effective communication, customer experience enhancement, data-driven decision-making, risk management, cost optimization, and scalability. Embracing the right technological solutions can give businesses a competitive advantage and unlock new opportunities in the global marketplace.

What is the role of external or internal tech consultants? What is the value they bring when evaluating, implementing and maintaining tech in the modern context?

External and internal tech consultants play important roles in evaluating, implementing, and maintaining technology in the modern business context. Here’s a breakdown of their value and responsibilities.

External Tech Consultants:

  1. Expertise and experience: External tech consultants bring specialized skills and knowledge in various technologies and industry best practices. They stay up-to-date with the latest trends, innovations, and solutions relevant to your business needs.
  2. Objective viewpoint: Being outside the organization, external consultants provide an unbiased perspective when evaluating technology options. They can offer insights and recommendations that might be missed by internal teams who are too close to the project or entrenched in existing systems.
  3. Strategic guidance: Consultants can help align technology investments with the overall business strategy. They assess current and future needs, conduct market research, and develop technology roadmaps to ensure tech solutions support long-term growth objectives.
  4. Vendor selection and negotiation: Consultants assist in identifying suitable vendors or technology partners for your specific requirements. They can evaluate proposals, negotiate contracts, and provide guidance on cost-effectiveness, scalability, and fit with your business goals.
  5. Project management: Consultants play a vital role in project planning, coordination, and execution. They define project scope, develop realistic timelines, manage resources, and mitigate risks to ensure the successful implementation of new technologies.
  6. Change management: Implementing new technologies often requires changes in workflows and employee    behaviour. Consultants help manage this transition by developing change management strategies, providing      training programmes, and fostering employee buy-in to maximize adoption and minimize disruption.

Internal Tech Consultants:

  1. In-depth knowledge of the business: Internal tech consultants have a deeper understanding of the organization’s operations, culture, processes, and goals. This enables them to better align technology solutions with specific business needs and facilitate smoother integration.
  2. Company-specific context: Internal consultants possess knowledge of existing systems, infrastructure, and data, allowing them to advise on how new technologies can integrate effectively with the current IT landscape. They can design solutions that leverage existing resources for cost savings and efficiency.
  3. Relationship with stakeholders: Internal consultants have established relationships with key stakeholders, including senior management and department heads. This positions them to gather requirements, collaborate closely with business units, and ensure technology initiatives are aligned with organizational priorities.
  4. Ongoing support and maintenance: After implementation, internal consultants contribute to the ongoing maintenance, optimization, and support of technology solutions. They understand the specific needs of the organization and can provide timely assistance when issues arise or new requirements emerge.
  5. Cost-saving potential: Utilizing internal tech consultants can be cost-effective compared to hiring external consultants for every technology project. They can leverage their existing expertise, reducing dependence on external resources and associated costs.

In summary, both external and internal tech consultants bring value during the evaluation, implementation, and maintenance of technology in the modern context. External consultants offer expertise, objective viewpoints, strategic guidance, project management, and vendor selection skills. Internal consultants provide in-depth knowledge of the business, company-specific context, strong stakeholder relationships, ongoing support, and cost-saving potential. The combination of external and internal expertise can lead to successful technology initiatives that align with business objectives and drive growth.

What is the role of external or internal tech consultants? What is the value they bring when evaluating, implementing and maintaining tech in the modern context?

Tech investment can enhance not just productivity but life itself in various ways:

  1. Efficiency and Convenience: Technological advancements help streamline processes, automate tasks, and improve efficiency. This allows individuals to accomplish tasks more quickly and easily, freeing up time for other activities that contribute to a better quality of life.
  2. Access to Information and Services: Technology provides easy access to information, services, and resources. With a few clicks, people can access online banking, educational materials, entertainment platforms, shopping options, and more. This convenience saves time, expands choices, and enhances the overall experience.
  3. Connectivity and Relationships: Technology facilitates communication and connectivity with people around the world. Social media, messaging apps, video calls, and email enable people to maintain relationships, connect with loved ones, and build new connections. This fosters a sense of belonging, social support, and personal fulfilment.
  4. Personal Development and Learning: Tech investment offers various opportunities for personal development and continuous learning. Online courses, educational videos, e-books, and interactive learning platforms allow individuals to acquire new skills, pursue interests, and engage in lifelong learning. This promotes personal growth, boosts confidence, and expands horizons.
  5. Health and Well-being: Technology has transformed healthcare, improving accessibility, efficiency, and quality of care. Medical advancements like wearable health devices, telemedicine services, electronic health records, and AI-enabled diagnostics contribute to early detection, preventive care, remote monitoring, and personalized treatment options. This helps individuals take charge of their health and leads to improved well-being.
  6. Entertainment and Recreation: Tech investment has revolutionized entertainment options. Streaming platforms provide on-demand access to movies, TV shows, music, and digital content, allowing individuals to relax and unwind at their convenience. Virtual reality experiences, video games, and immersive technologies offer thrilling recreation experiences that enhance enjoyment and creativity.
  7. Environmental Sustainability: Smart technology and IoT devices contribute to environmental sustainability efforts. Energy-efficient appliances, smart thermostats, renewable energy systems, and eco-friendly transportation options reduce carbon footprints and promote a greener lifestyle. This contributes to a healthier planet and a better future for all.

By investing in technology, societies can unlock new possibilities, improve well-being, and enhance the human experience. It is important to ensure that technology is accessible, inclusive, and used responsibly to maximize its benefits and minimize potential drawbacks.

Tech and interdisciplinary collaboration, why is this important?

Tech and interdisciplinary collaboration are important because they bring together diverse skills, expertise, and perspectives to solve complex problems and drive innovation. Here’s why this collaboration matters:

  1. Holistic Problem Solving: Complex challenges often require knowledge from multiple fields. By fostering collaboration among experts in different disciplines, tech solutions can address the multifaceted aspects of a problem. For example, addressing climate change requires inputs from environmental scientists, engineers, policymakers, economists, and technologists working together to find comprehensive solutions.
  2. Innovation and Creativity: Interdisciplinary collaboration sparks creativity and promotes innovation by combining ideas and approaches from different fields. When people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives collaborate, they can generate fresh insights, challenge existing assumptions, and develop breakthrough technologies that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
  3. Tackle Grand Challenges: Many of today’s pressing global issues, such as healthcare access, poverty reduction, sustainable development, and cybersecurity, cannot be solved by a single discipline alone. Collaboration between technology experts, social scientists, policymakers, business leaders, and others ensures a more comprehensive and effective approach to tackling these grand challenges.
  4. User-Centric Solutions: Bringing together interdisciplinary teams ensures that solutions are user-centric. By incorporating insights from various disciplines, tech products and services can be designed to meet the needs, preferences, and values of diverse users. This results in more inclusive and socially responsible technology that enhances user experiences and improves overall quality of life.

      5.Ethical Considerations: Interdisciplinary collaboration helps identify and address ethical implications                     associated with new technologies. Integrating perspectives from fields such as philosophy, sociology, and                       ethics helps ensure that technology is developed and deployed in a responsible and morally sound manner.                   This includes considerations for privacy, fairness, transparency, and the potential societal impact of tech                       innovations.

  1. Increased Impact: When technology experts collaborate with professionals from other disciplines, the outcomes can have a broader impact on society. By integrating technological advancements into fields like healthcare, education, transportation, and governance, interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to transformative solutions that benefit a wider range of stakeholders.

Therefore, fostering tech and interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial to addressing complex societal challenges, driving innovation, creating user-centric solutions, and ensuring technological advancements are developed ethically and have a positive impact on society as a whole.