IT leaders who (literally) keep the lights on

First-world tech executives can learn from the way CIOs in developing countries maintain connectivity and keep services flowing.

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In 2008, Mahindra committed to building an automobile factory in Chakan that would be part of a manufacturing hub that the government hoped would someday rival Detroit (GM, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen are among 10 manufacturers with facilities there now). But at the time, the site not only had no factory, it was also what's known as a "greenfield" -- it had no roads, water or electricity, explains Krishnan.

Krishnan first brought in what we in the U.S. call modular computer systems and what are known in India as trolley containers: 20-foot trailers powered by generators that each contained a network rack with 24U Hewlett-Packard ProLiant servers running everything from file-and-print services and databases for attendance tracking to project management tools and Cisco VoIP services for telephony and videoconferencing. That got the project started.

Next came contingency planning, with connectivity being the highest priority. "There was a lot of simultaneous development activity. The bulldozers would routinely cut through the fiber, and getting it back up again took four to eight hours," says Krishnan. His solution: "We set up a hybrid system that combined wired and wireless." When the wires were cut, the wireless was there for backup.

But that wasn't the only contingency plan Krishnan needed. "We focused on building high availability into every layer of the plant," he says. "We have 100% redundancy on everything -- servers, storage, databases, applications." Why? When you're in "the middle of nowhere," it's hard to get replacements -- for hardware or staff -- in a timely fashion. "Building in redundancy protects you from the tyranny of distance," he adds.

Labor and Laws

Finding and retaining employees, which is a challenge in developed countries, is especially tricky in emerging markets, CIOs say. The astonishing growth in some areas only aggravates the issue. "The vast majority of companies in India and [other parts of] Asia are driven by one characteristic: growth," says Ralf Dreischmeier, global leader of the IT practice at Boston Consulting Group. "I've seen banks in India growing revenues by 30%. Telcos might grow even faster." That makes it hard for companies to keep employees, especially when they're enticed by large, established companies like Infosys and Wipro.

As is the case in developed countries, organizations in emerging markets that can't pay as much as bigger operations must try to attract employees with other enticements. For example, Dreischmeier says that Boston Consulting advises companies in that situation to offer training programs. In many countries, he notes, "it's easier to get government funding for a training program than it is setting up a business. That's a key lever to get the right talent on board."

In particularly remote regions, it's especially important to find skilled people. "Our on-site IT staff has to be multiskilled," says Mark Reilley, director of IT at the Washington-based Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which has medical facilities scattered across sub-Saharan Africa. "The team here in Washington uses remote tools to log in to a desktop to tweak settings, and we visit on a fairly regular basis, but the IT technician there has to be able to deal with desktop, server and connectivity issues."

To offload work from those key employees and make the entire team more productive, Reilley has set up internship programs in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Mozambique (with more planned in Tanzania and Ivory Coast) to bring in college students majoring in IT-related subjects to help the on-site staff. "They may not have a full IT skill set, but they can set up printers to free up the dedicated IT person to focus on higher-level issues such as business continuity," says Reilley.

Sometimes employers' labor practices run afoul of, or at least get bogged down by, local labor laws. Over the past 20 years, Roger Seshadri, CIO at gaming and entertainment company Melco Crown Entertainment, a $4 billion developer of casinos and hotels, has opened properties everywhere from Peru and Curacao to a riverboat on the Ohio River in Indiana. He's currently working on a resort in Macau.

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