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Wading in the New Oil: Student Reflections on the Global Business Experience to India

By Kate Beach-

By Elizabeth Goldstein (Class of 2016)

Liz Goldstein and MAtt Frenier, both Executive MBA Class of 2016 students, on the India Global Business Experience in January.
Liz Goldstein and Matt Frenier, both Executive MBA Class of 2016 students, on the India Global Business Experience in January.

I was one of two Executive MBA students who joined approximately 20 residential MBA students on Darden’s Global Business Experience (“GBE”) to India which commenced on January 6, 2016.  The GBE, led by Professor Casey Lichtendahl, allowed students to visit with Indian companies on the cutting-edge of data analytics.

One of the speakers on the trip, Rahul Kansal, was from the English language newspaper, the Times of India, which is engaging its readers both with a print newspaper and on-line.  Kansal spoke about several of the campaigns the Times had done.  In 2014, it initiated a campaign called, “Lead India”.  The speaker shared a video  created to promote the campaign, which starts with a young boy with a cherubic face looking out a bus window to see why traffic is at a standstill.  When the boy leaves the bus, the viewer sees that he is dressed for school in a button-down shirt and khaki shorts with a matching backpack. The boy keeps walking until he sees that a tree has fallen and its trunk blocks the road.  It then begins to rain. While adults honk their horns and two government employees appear to sleep in their truck, the boy tries to move the trunk out of the way.  Some other kids quickly join him in the effort.  Despite the bad weather, adults leave their cars and auto rickshaws to help the kids with the tree.  When the group reaches a critical mass, they are able to push the tree trunk out of the way.  Traffic begins to move and the government employees wake-up.  The rain stops, the sun comes out, and the group that moved the tree begins to celebrate.  Most are dressed in Western clothes, but some are wearing more traditional clothing.  During the celebration, a Hindi song plays in the background with a line that repeats, “If you go, India goes.”

This advertisement can be seen as a good allegory for India’s future economic growth. If India is to succeed, the younger generation must be willing to lead a diverse group.  This is because one-quarter of India’s population are under 18 years old and 50% are under 35 years old.  India has over 22 official languages and a vast number of ethnic groups.

As we learned from a speaker from Vodofone, the government is often slow and dysfunctional.  The Vodofone speaker further explained, government efforts often consist of three steps forward and two steps back.  The video’s focus on a traffic jam is not surprising as India’s lack of infrastructure is often the constraint to further economic growth.  India’s roads are inadequate, electricity can be unreliable, and not all Indians have access to indoor plumbing.

Several of the data analytics companies that we met with as part of the GBE sought to turn these infrastructure challenges into opportunities with the use of data analytics.  As there is a plethora of traffic in Indian cities, two of the companies we visited, Flipkart and Amazon India, deliver goods directly to consumers.  Both Flipkart and Amazon manage their supply chain and establish the routes for deliveries through data analytics.

We also visited with Ola Cabs, a fierce competitor of Uber’s in India.  As the traffic in Delhi was becoming unmanageable and pollution a significant problem, the city has recently instituted, for a trial period, a rule where private vehicles are allowed to run on the streets on alternate days depending on whether their license plates end in even or odd numbers.  The head of Ola Cabs’ shuttle service explained to the Darden students that he saw the automobile restrictions as a boon to Ola’s shuttle business.  Ola uses analytics to develop the routes for its private bus service.  Ola also uses data science to provide dynamic, surge pricing for its taxi service.  One of the Ola speakers explained to students how Ola derives this algorithm from raw data.

One of the professors at the Indian Institute for Management Bangalore spoke to Darden students about working with a bank to use analytics to determine how to make credit decisions for businesses that have no credit rating, loan payment history, or substantial documentation to establish annual income and costs.

While we visited data science companies spanning many different industries, the data scientists who shared their basic methodology shared a similar approach.  Our speaker from EXL identified four steps in the process of using data to solve a business problem.  These were:

  1. Gather and Manage the Data
  2. Analyze and Monitor the Data
  3. Build a Predictive Model
  4. Incorporate the Predictive Model into Business Strategy.

With all the power that analytics can provide, our Amazon India speaker reminded us that not everything is predictable.  Thus, no matter how powerful your analytics tools are, they cannot be employed in every business situation.

I was interested to learn from our data science speaker at Flipkart, who was in charge of analytics, what separated the best data scientists from the mediocre ones.  He said that the best data scientists were the best listeners.  They carefully listened to what the internal client needed and crafted a solution to meet these specific needs.

UVA Rice Logo at EXL in Delhi.
U.Va. rice logo at EXL in Delhi.

Our first speaker at EXL, a data analytics company headquartered in New York City with a large office in Delhi, proclaimed that data is the new oil.  While India does not have the greatest supply of this new valuable commodity, I learned that they do have many of the top wildcatters, who know just where to search in unproven ground.