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Making AI Work In Conglomerates: How India’s Mega Companies Are Betting Big On Artificial Intelligence

Making AI Work In Conglomerates: How India’s Mega Companies Are Betting Big On Artificial Intelligence

Aditya Birla

India’s top multinational conglomerates are in the midst of a digital transformation. Indian companies, not usually viewed as disruptors are now seeing a critical opportunity in leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to identify newer opportunities and adapt to the fast-changing business environment. We are seeing a trend where business leaders across industries are deepening their commitment to AI and analytics and seeking ways to apply them at scale.

However, making AI work in a conglomerate is not easy. For companies of the scale of Aditya Birla Group, Mahindra & Mahindra and the Tata Group, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to driving cross-division synergies and catering to every division’s needs. AI is not a plug-and-play capability. This means that decision makers helming large corporations have to deal with challenges including technology infrastructure along with upskilling existing workforce. While new age companies have a jumpstart, mega-conglomerates have to augment legacy systems with new age platforms and digital solutions. AI has become a watchword at mid and large-cap organisations. 


India’s Multibillion Dollar Company Puts Data At The Core Of Operations 

We can see the winds of change coming in many large companies where AI has leapt from a futuristic technology to mainstream capability. A quick scan of top innovators shows a few mega-corporations upping their AI game and leading the charge of digital innovation alongside India’s unicorns. 

In this 2-part series article, we look at one of the largest Indian multinational companies — the Aditya Birla Group (ABG) and how it is pursuing its AI ambitions to make a long-term impact. ABG is a prime example of a new breed of large conglomerates pinning its growth on AI-led digital transformation, investing in new talent to prepare for future and banking on open source technologies to drive efficiencies and standardization across operations. With strong C-suite support and AI leadership team in place, the multi-business group is transforming its companies by implementing AI-centric innovation processes. The group has global leadership in sectors like cement, aluminium and copper, carbon black and a strong foothold in fashion, chemicals, textiles, telecom, and financial services among many others. 

Preparing For An AI-driven Future 

It all began in late 2017 when the global powerhouse set up a Group Data and Analytics function with the agenda to work closely with various business divisions on strategizing and delivering impactful insights by leveraging digital analytics. One of the first tasks the function tackled was strengthening the company’s data infrastructure with its in-house analytics platform called “Nucleus” built on cloud which is scalable and flexible to meet the growing needs of this dynamic organisation. This best-in-class data analytics platform captures and stores data in all forms — structured, unstructured and high-speed industrial IoT data. Though by nature it is central, it is structured for every business to get its own version of “mini Nucleus”.

Deep Thomas, Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Aditya Birla Group

AIM spoke to Deep Thomas, Group Chief Data & Analytics officer who leads the Data & Analytics function to understand how he put people, processes and technology in place to steer the multinational towards a new stage of growth. Thomas started out by assembling a strong leadership team with extensive domain expertise who can make ABG’s businesses more data-focused by providing analytics solutions and AI/ ML products that can affect both top and bottom line. 

Today, the small yet high-powered analytics arm of ABG builds solutions and products that can be scaled across its key domains like cement, metals, retail & textiles, finance and chemicals among others. “We started out by implementing early AI initiatives with the aim to sharpen business decisions and improve operational efficiencies. After the success of early AI pilots, which provided tremendous value, we implemented these across the wider enterprise” said Thomas.

The GDNA cell, as the analytics arm is known also provides a digital sandbox environment where teams can experiment with code, software and emerging technologies. 

Creating A High-Performing Analytics Team at ABG

making big data work
Image used for representation purpose

Centralising AI & analytics talent and resources is a major issue for most big organisations. But ABG succeeded in putting together a multi-disciplinary leadership team who bring in decades of deep experience in analytics to fuel the next stage of growth. As the company takes bold steps towards digital transformation, the GDNA cell has strengthened their exceptionally talented analytics leadership team with people and Practice Leads from diverse backgrounds who bring domain expertise in industries like BFSI, Industry 4.0, e-commerce, consulting, materials science, and supply chain to drive new business growth and deliver successful outcomes in its biggest sectors. 

Amongst the top brass is analytics leader Nitin Sareen, SVP – Head of Analytics Solutions & Delivery who joined from WalmartLabs where he led the development of analytics-driven products and solutions that helped in driving key decisions for the parent company. Another key hire is military veteran Naveen Xavier, VP & Head Data & Analytics Products, who previously co-founded DataVal Analytics and is now building cutting-edge AI/ML products at the group that are powering operations at some of its largest subsidiaries. 

The leadership team also comprises of Practice Leads ⁠— business leaders with more than a decade of experience and strong domain expertise who are leading various business verticals. This includes Bhargab Dutta who joined from General Mills and Shankar Sivaramakrishnan, ex-GE Digital who has extensive experience in industrial IoT and Industry 4.0. The team also added Sayani Nag and Purnesh Gali who have prior experience with Dunnhumby and Accenture respectively. Other leaders include Ashutosh Joshi who had long stint at Citi’s analytics COE before joining a startup and Arun Raghuraman worked at Accenture while Abhishek Garg moved from e-commerce major Snapdeal to ABG.  Sandesh Nandagawe is an ex-Harsco Corporation executive and Utkarsh Somaiya, who has formidable experience in risk analytics joined from Sutherland Global Services. Heading Data Engineering operations is Manigandan Venkataraman, ex-Vamsoft Technology and Consultancy executive. This top-notch analytics team is not only driving results across their business lines but also advancing the state of knowledge in data science within the group. 

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Pankaj Rai

With experience in leading multi-disciplinary global teams, the Practice Leads are playing a twin role ⁠— understanding the challenges and business priorities across front-end and back-end business processes, implementing AI solutions, mapping their business value and scaling these solutions across domains. Some of the broad areas they are working on are Demand Forecasting, Pricing Analytics, Churn Prediction, Feedback Analytics, Design Planning, Freight Optimization, Network Optimization across different business verticals. 

“Our GDNA cell is made up of a highly-skilled team from various sectors who have deep experience in developing and scaling AI solutions for the enterprise. With the talented leadership team in place, our data scientists and engineers are powering the analytics journey across business units,” shared Sareen.

Up Next

aditya birla
Image fore representation purpose

For conglomerates to drive the innovation agenda forward, the right people, processes, and technologies are needed. Also, a certain level of autonomy which empowers teams to link strategic business goals with analytics initiatives is required. In the case of ABG, a centralised analytics unit supported by a team of data scientists and domain specialists helps the company both in terms of building next-gen capabilities and deployment of solutions. With AI and analytics becoming a well-established focus at ABG the GDNA cell is helping the multinational build domestic and international markets and establish leadership positions in key its sectors to enter a new stage of growth. 

In the next part of the article, we shall explore how the GDNA cell has proven to be a game-changer for ABG by making older assets more competitive and harmonising data quickly to operationalise analytics. We shall also see how India’s most powerful company is building competencies in areas like AI/ML and analytics to set the stage for future innovations. 

Watch out for our next part where we talk to ABG analytics senior leadership on fostering a culture of experimentation, risk-taking and making the right moves to propel the organisation’s future growth.

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