IT Sector Vital for Economic Growth– Chrishan Mendis
By Mario Andree
Sri Lanka saw its digitalisation drive heighten following the COVID-19 pandemic which threatens the whole economy. During the first wave of the pandemic last year many companies, which were following a more traditional model of business, had to make drastic changes to continue operations and these changes today have shown results which can be used for the future of the country’s development.
In simpler terms, the COVID-19 pandemic helped the Sri Lankan economy fast-track its digitalisation drive as many had to change their standard operating procedures overnight, which otherwise would have taken a prolonged period of time due to the mentality existing in the country.
Though many fear that the fourth industrial revolution, which revolves around digitalisation and automation, would threaten day-to-day life as well as livelihoods, many have failed to see the opportunities it will present for development.
Ceylon Today took the opportunity to talk to Chrishan Mendis, Chief Executive Officer of Just In Time Group, who joined the company in 1998 as Finance Manager and since then served in the capacity of Senior Manager for Systems Integration, thereafter General Manager for Strategic Finance, Commercial and Legal, Chief Operations Officer, and in 2018 took on the role of CEO.
Mendis has 28 years’ work experience, out of which 25 years have been in the IT industry handling multiple work areas including Project Management, Delivery and Support. He has served in the capacity of project director for implementation of many complex projects in the banking industry and has been in senior management roles for 24 years.
1. What is your opinion on the Sri Lankan ICT sector?
Sri Lanka’s digital wave has dawned and was heightened with the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital initiative in Sri Lanka began with the Government’s digital roadmap, where the Government, private sector and other stakeholders have a common belief that ICT is a foundation for a balanced accessibility of opportunity, knowledge and profit with purpose, for all citizens.
This will be our key competitive advantage as a Nation. This belief has resulted in a shared vision for an ‘e-Sri Lanka,’ with the idea to take the power of technology to every citizen, to every business, and to transform the direction to develop Sri Lanka’s economy, which is taking concrete strides, coming under the President’s purview, through the Ministry of Technology. The fast-paced globalisation has created many opportunities, and we believe that the Government and Sri Lanka are ready, having one of highest literacy rates in the world, talented IT professionals across all sectors, and digital savvy youth - hungry to take Sri Lanka’s ICT to the next level towards creating an innovative Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Government is aggressively building the necessary connectivity infrastructure across the country’s digital roadmap, enabling connectivity for every citizen. Sri Lanka is developing in every area, accelerating and enabling laws for e-government and e-commerce, modernising the public sector and delivering citizen services through e-government concepts etc., to bridge the digital divide aimed at reducing poverty and social development. The Sri Lankan ICT industry was reinvented with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, where digitalisation took over most of the traditional businesses overnight.
Conceptualised projects were fast-tracked and were online in weeks. This trend shows how talented the personnel in our ICT sector are. While many companies were struggling financially, ICT sector companies survived, while working day and night throughout the lockdown. Also, unavoidable circumstances like the pandemic unveiled that the ICT sector is embracing a period of fast-paced innovation. The organic growth of the sector indirectly benefits most other industries like manufacturing, supply chain, apparel, tourism and finance.
Technology focused start-ups were also visible in midst of financial crisis due to the pandemic, which also showcases the ICT industry was performing. We need to be stronger in my opinion, still if we are to brand Sri Lanka as a digital, tech and start-up destination. This also means that we need to have the thought leadership as well as investments in research and development in emerging areas of platforms and products, with services around it.
2. What are the growth projections for the local ICT industry?
As per global management consultancy AT Kearney’s Global Services Location Index (GSLI) 2017, during the period of 2013-2017 the number of employees in the ICT industry has doubled to 80,000. We are still in that growth curve. SLASSCOM anticipates to generate US$ 5 billion of revenue, create 200,000 direct jobs and establish 1,000 IT/ BPM start-ups by the year 2025. Many of the countries are suffering drawbacks of the pandemic, but Sri Lanka is enjoying its yield on BPO and software industry, providing low-cost, skilled services to foreign markets. Currently, the business intelligence and Industry 4.0 based innovations are developed as high-value services. Even though our country’s IT infrastructure is lagging, ICT industry is on par with global needs and catering beyond expectations. As per the Export Development Board, ICT services are the 4th largest export earner of the country.
Revenue of the sector has grown from US$ 166 to US$ 968 within a decade. As indicated by EDB, the Sri Lankan ICT sector’s vision is to become the number one foreign exchange earner in 2022, having a revenue of US$ 5 billion, 200,000 direct ICT jobs and 1,000 start-ups. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently shared that the “Digital Platform” launched, is a great opportunity for the public to voice their ideas and creative proposals to shape a more sustainable education policy framework.
This is the commitment needed to make a sustainable Sri Lanka, to back up the numbers we need to attract multinational companies, with a viable go-to-market strategy, for partners as well as other global players to boost Sri Lanka’s brand. We also need to extend our products and services to markets they already operate in - perhaps by way of launching a comprehensive innovation and co-innovation programmes in areas that we want them to invest in and aligned with Sri Lanka’s digital vision.
3. Are we competitive enough to challenge the global big-wigs?
Sri Lanka is placed 11th in Best Destination for Outsourcing Index among 50 countries. This index was developed by AT Kearney’s Global Services. Ranking among giants like India, China, Malaysia and Vietnam is definitely an achievement. It shows the talent pool is comparatively superior. The country’s IT infrastructure is expensive and data links are priced high. If the industry is to serve the international market, readily available infrastructure is a must. Further, we need a local government data centre or cloud to help the start-ups to incubate, to enable and empower our competitive edge. The proportion of total FDI that the ICT/BPM sector secures in other countries in the region is approximately 60 per cent. In Sri Lanka, it accounts for 12 per cent of total FDI, so here in the country we can make a substantial contribution to our economy by accelerating and optimising the growth of the sector.
Based on our strengths, value proposition, and differentiators, we must attract the rightsized clients to serve. Clients who have worked with our IT workforce recognise many differentiators on the qualitative, ethical, and professional aspects of our service delivery. We can definitely gain our competitive advantage by further improving, positioning and marketing such aspects.
As an example, the ICTA intends to deliver multiple projects and e-Services through this network, such as Lanka Government Cloud 2.0 which is the common infrastructure platform for government organisations, video conferencing facility for government organisations, eLand Hub, e-Samurdhi integrated welfare management program, State Land Information System, Cross Government Digital Documentation System (DMS), e-Local Government project, development of new electronic services, e-BMD, e-DS, e-PopReg, smart digital classrooms and e-Health hospital management system.
All the above initiatives will use the Lanka Government Network as their core network infrastructure to exchange data and deliver the services to the stakeholder groups. This will strengthen our digital infrastructure to be a great contender – as one small island, which has remained resilient through 30 years of war, the Easter bomb attacks and now the global pandemic. We are a resilient Nation.
4. What improvements do the Sri Lankan ICT sector need?
Even though we have a workforce of over 80,000 in the ICT sector, certain continuous improvements are needed, which I believe are in motion. ICT laboratories, English language literacy among younger generation and young inventor clubs, that will increase skilled workforce for future demands. The average person will find it difficult to have a laptop or a desktop with sufficient resources to learn software development, IoT or any trending platform. Some of the companies are purely domestic based and have less interest to move to international markets. So, we need to be ready to adopt to an international culture, which we are pushing towards.
We can see a push, with the most recent legislation to enable digital signature - The Sri Lankan Electronic Transactions Act, by the commercial name of LankaSign, which will provide the enabling legal framework to transform physical activity that is carried out, into the digital medium - except for certain classes of instruments where notarisation is needed, which are excluded from the ambit of the said Electronic Transactions Legislation. This is why our ICT industry needs to maintain proper ethics and habits, as a whole ICT industry can reach greater heights. IT is a sustainable industry.
Long-term plans should include changes to the school education system where originality, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, analytical skills, project-based assignments, entrepreneurship, professionalism, attention to service quality kind of supportive skills are part of the curriculum for all senior students who will be entering the labour market very soon. Create a passion for IT early so that students will naturally opt to select IT as a preferred stream early in their lives.
Medium term within the universities and technical colleges set up more research labs and research and development funds for the academics and undergraduates to benefit from student exchange and other scholarship programmes to tie up with foreign universities and commercial entities. The objective is to have exposure to state-of-the-art technologies and create unique intellectual property prototypes. Offer an incentive (example, a taxdeductible allowance) to Sri Lankan companies who will invest in supporting university research products to be taken to commercial, go-to-market production.
Regulate via accreditation and ensure a high standard is maintained for the quality of education of the private IT education and degree awarding institutes, their education programmes, labs, internship programmes, teaching competencies etc. The objective is to build a high-quality brand name for Sri Lankan IT industry and IT education quality to even attract foreign students from the region to study in Sri Lankan IT institutes. The objective is to build capacity for teaching and increase supply.
Short term implements such as IT parks, IT incubators, data centres and digitalisation programmes. Total IT villages and ecosystems as seen overseas. Give targets and KPIs for the foreign missions and ICT agencies to collaborate and secure new overseas clients to set up shop in the IT parks. As required, similar to the free trade zones and port city rules, have more client-friendly labour rules and foreign exchange rules for foreign companies operating from National IT Parks-to compete hard as a Nation.
I believe the long-, medium- and short-term plans will be implemented strongly, now more than ever, because of the newly-established Ministry of Technology overseen by Jayantha De Silva, which covers thirteen institutions. This will be a first in Sri Lanka, where all technology related government organisations will come under one roof, and be headed by a well-respected figure in the IT industry, upholding the President’s vision of a Digitally Inclusive and Prosperous Sri Lanka.
5. What is holding back development of the ICT sector?
People accepting, adapting and understanding the real value and power of technology. Our government and private sector can push only so much, but it’s the rest of the citizens that need to come on board as well, to support the ‘e-Sri Lanka’ drive. We need to expand ICT/BPM training and education across the Nation to improve student engagement and enrolment capacity and creating a more skilled, larger workforce is a must. Key areas should be focused on, such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT) and data science will be most beneficial.
6. What is your opinion on local ICT talent?
Local talent pool is very advanced in domain knowledge. We should focus on offering niche services and high-quality products and services.
7. ‘Digitalisation’ is the buzzword today. What are the new developments in this area?
It is not just a buzzword. It is the reality. Some things we never thought of in the 19th century are now a reality because of digitalisation. If it was not for the lockdown, we wouldn’t have jumped on the opportunity to be in virtual queues to buy our everyday goods. All the supermarkets realised the intrinsic value of the e-commerce consumer, from which they had to up their online platform performance, to cater to the requirements. So, the new development areas or trends will be, the jump into e-commerce, bio-tech innovation, supply chain technology adaptation, enabling remote work opportunities, video conferencing, digital banking - essentially anything that can be done and solved online or Internet based – this will pivot effectively. Sri Lanka’s highest Internet banking registrations were during lockdown. Since people were locked down, most of the transactions were via Internet banking.
People enjoy contactless payments using QR code or NFC. Even those technologies were there in other countries, Sri Lanka started to enjoy the benefits of those because of the pandemic. There are kids who has not seen their school for more than a year. But, they learnt, faced exams and continued their friendship via online classrooms. Some people never imagined that their office room will be their office for more than a year. Companies like Google have decided to make work from home their new normal. Many conferences, customer events, and musical shows were on digital platforms. This is digitalisation’s new developments.
Getting used to complete most of the day-today work via mobile or Internet is digitalisation. Technology will underly digitalisation and continue to evolve rapidly, even as they are being adopted throughout business and society. Digitalisation, is not simply a matter of “more technology,” it is important because it unlocks new thinking patterns and approaches in how a business or an organisation understands its role within its ecosystem, and the opportunity for improved productivity.
Therefore, with digitalisation in place, businesses and organisations can begin to generate new value chains and experiences that are interactive, collaborative, profitable, and most importantly sustainable. This is why the themes such as customer experience, mobility and sustainability are moving from trend to being essential.
8. Many look at the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) as a challenge to the labour market. What is your opinion on this?
4IR mainly talks about the enhancement of automation, in a way of describing the blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It’s a combination of progress in AI, robotics, IoT, 3D printing, and other technologies and the combined force behind many products and services that are fast becoming essential in today’s world. Voice-activated virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, GPS systems that suggest the fastest route to an end point, personalised Netflix recommendations, and Facebook’s capability to recognise your face and tag you in a friend’s photo. As a result of this perfect storm of technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live and fundamentally disrupting almost every business sector. This will reduce labour force to some extent but, it will create a big demand for ICT professionals. It involves artificial intelligence, process automation, machine learning and augmented reality technologies to deliver the service.
9. The recent pandemic shaped and challenged most technologies available. How are ICT companies working to resolve issues and provide better solutions?
The pandemic challenged many technologies like ATM usage. Digital banking is the solution for that requirement. Many paper-based activities were changed to computer-based platforms. ICT companies have been very proactive and provided the solutions. Delivery services stepped in to offer a sense of much-needed continuity for the economy and the citizen’s on-demand delivery service, these businesses were able to deliver their products directly to consume, then smart port, parksmart, smart agri and so much more – which are all addressing and working towards addressing the issues by providing better, safer and more efficient solutions. Nothing happens overnight, but it is in motion.
10. Cybersecurity today is a major concern. How are companies addressing these issues? What are companies in the ICT sector doing to help their clients to overcome these challenges?
As a result of digitalisation explosion since the pandemic, new and increased threats have come to organisations. That is to secure their data. Technologies like classification, data leakage prevention, privilege access management, file integrity manager, application firewall, data-at-rest encryption and SDWAN immerged. Many ICT organisations are helping their clients to overcome these barriers. As an example, during our first lockdown, a sequence of cyberattacks transpired on a few of our national websites with the high-level secure domains.
One of these attacks was launched on one of our local news websites, another was on the website of the Chinese Embassy operating in Sri Lanka, and the website of our Cabinet Office. The CBSL declared that “when information security professionals also work from home, focus is diverted towards new and upcoming challenges that general work related to cybersecurity go unattended, paving way for circumstances that provide a good opportunity for the cyber-attackers. Common areas that get overlooked are; system updates, patch management, log monitoring, and forensic investigation of security incidents.” To safeguard their data, many businesses are implementing Information Security Management Systems, such as the ISO 27001 system. This system was created to help protect your organisation, an Information Security Management System that ensures the confidentiality, integrity and security of company information.
To overcome this challenge, as a Nation, we must get on board with a measured drive with public-private partnerships, cybersecurity awareness programmes and capacity building projects for both public and private sector. There is no one-size-fits-all solution that can fix this hazard. It will take a joint effort, political leadership and committed work, and even at the end of that, we can never be 100% safe – we just need to be prepared. Cybersecurity is now and should continue to be a board level issue, where it gets the due importance and proper implementation.
11. As a company, how has Just In Time Group helped its customers digitalise?
Just In Time Group (JIT) is proud to highlight that we have helped out many customers in their digitalisation journey. Our digital banking project, is one such unique project which was key to turnaround and success in the banking sector, enabling a public bank to be the first bank in the Nation to go digital – winning continuous awards locally and globally, paving the way you could say, but definitely triggering the rest in the banking space to pick up the pace towards their digital transformation needs.
This is one such example that we create value through technology to empower and reinvent our customers’ digital journey. To give you an idea of how we have helped our customers digitise, is by looking at the basic numbers on the banks’ digital channels, from 2019 – the digital deposits came to Rs 90 billion during the year and Self Banking Units handled transactions worth Rs 82.3 billion and ATMs Rs 53 billion. In 2020, the total value of digital transactions surpassed Rs 300 billion, a huge increase from 2019. The number of People’s Wiz accounts doubled to more than 1.1 million, while the transaction value grew over 90 per cent to Rs 173 billion in 2020. People’s Wave mobile app and People’s Web retail Internet Banking new registrations increased 50 per cent to 530,209 in 2020, while transactions grew more than 75 per cent in 2020 to 7.3 million and total transaction value increased by 63 per cent to Rs 129 billion. This is just once simple way to measure the success and process from a bank’s perspective on going digital.
Then comes the Real Time Gross Settlement system and Scripless Security Settlement Systems that have been running for over 15 years, which validates JIT’s digitalisation success and resilience. Our contribution towards critical infrastructure through technology spans over two decades, and also keeping these technologies up and running. JIT has been revolutionising businesses and value adding to their customers through the power of technology – the power of going digital. We have long been playing a silent role in supporting the country’s essential services, delivering some of the Nation’s critical systems. We will continue to support our country on a journey of greater resilience and uninterrupted business continuity through technology, in delivering best-of-breed solutions and services to our customers to have the flexibility and opportunity to be world class.
25 years in business is no easy feat to get to, and while saying that, it has been an amazing journey, where JIT, stands firm in its commitment to ensure the continuity of its essential services for the Nation, for every citizen. Progress is innovating, and with the explosion of digitalisation, IT has become the source of growth for our economy, which we have been proud to play our part in, taking our Nation forward and impacting this trajectory for our peop