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HCL Makes Moves Into Experience Design

This week, the global systems integrator (SI) HCL briefed industry analysts on the latest developments in the company’s strategy and service offerings. Based in India, HCL is one of the largest SIs in the world – it earned $7 billion in revenues in its FY 2016, and employs over 110,000 people over 31 countries. As was to be expected, the content was, unsurprisingly, highly focused on IT topics such as automation, analytics, and IoT. What was less expected was the news that in the last year, HCL has been building up a digital practice to offer companies user experience and design services.

Experience design means major cultural change

HCL’s experience design practice is called BEYONDigital. Its leadership includes several former Deloitte Digital executives as well as executives and practitioners from digital practices at similar firms. Currently, there are about 200 people in this organization, whose top executive reports to HCL’s CEO.

The establishment of BEYONDigital represents a potentially big cultural shift for HCL, as the cultures of a global SI and an experience design firm are worlds apart. SI services typically include designing enterprise architectures and/or applications, integrating with existing and new hardware and software, and migrating data and content (see the recently published Digital Clarity Group report “The Five Types of Customer Experience Management Service Providers.”). They tend to follow agile development methodologies, which are characterized by a high level of continuous collaboration with customers and frequent iterations that allow for feedback and adjustments throughout the course of an engagement.

In comparison, experience design firm services include user experience, web design, and digital advertising and marketing. While a design firm may also have technical expertise, it is typically not as deep as that of an SI, and may be limited to a specific software vendor partner’s technology. In addition, design firms are more likely to use waterfall-based development, which puts less emphasis on collaboration and iteration than agile methodologies. Waterfall involves collecting customer requirements, then going away and building a solution that is delivered as the final product.

To be clear, HCL is far from the first global SI to expand into experience design. In 2015, Wipro bought Danish firm Designit. Accenture and IBM have each spent billions over the last two years acquiring digital agencies around the globe to add to their iX and Interactive divisions respectively.  So HCL is not the first to be taking on this culture change challenge.

A different approach?

HCL does, however, seem to be taking a different approach to experience design compared to its peers. Rather than trying to mimic a traditional design agency approach to creative-first through acquiring slews of design firms, the BEYONDigital group starts with a thorough understanding and audit of the customer’s digital capabilities from the infrastructure back-end. This recognizes the reality that many firms are far from “digital ready:” grand, wildly creative designs and plans may look good on paper, but without a complete understanding and overhaul of the customer’s back-end infrastructure, network, and applications, those plans are simply impossible to implement. BEYONDigital’s approach ensures that its designs fit within the parameters of the firm’s capabilities. For example, they might refactor existing applications or leverage edge device data in autonomics. These are approaches to reimagining an experience that would typically never be considered by a traditional design or digital agency.

The BEYONDigital approach also makes sense as it builds on HCL’s advantage of already being embedded in the technology infrastructure of its customers. The firm can capitalize on its track record spanning years of supporting mission-critical functions, not to mention relationships with C-suite and board level decision-makers. These relationships mean that HCL has a way in  to propose experience design initiatives as an add-on to existing engagements. Indeed, the customer examples HCL shared this week were just these sorts of engagements: for an existing clothing retailer customer, for example, BEYONDigital built a mobile app for in-store associates enabling them to access customer and inventory data in one place while on the shop floor.

This is not to say that BEYONDigital doesn’t face a formidable set of challenges ahead. For one, the firm needs to be careful is underestimating the ability of a separate division, even one whose top executive reports directly to the CEO, to mesh with the existing culture of the larger organization. A new business unit made up of outsiders like BEYONDigital needs to make significant investments in winning hearts and minds of HCL employees who have been at the company for years or decades. It will need to prove that it is looking to collaborate, not compete, with other business units, which is often the reality of how global service providers operate.

Another challenge HCL faces is ensuring that as it grows BEYONDigital, it retains its unique back-end first approach. Acquisitions are definitely on the horizon, and integrating acquisitions successfully is a challenge in itself. Lastly, a third hurdle for HCL will be building its reputation in experience design. In the short term, existing customers are the low-hanging fruit for BEYONDigital to build its portfolio of successful engagements, but in the longer term, it will need to compete with other service providers for new customers.



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