Is India Not So Innovative, After All?


Last month I wrote about speculation, fueled by a report from consulting company Zinnov, that the next epicenter of innovation just might be located in India. According to Zinnov, there are a quarter of a million Indian engineers involved with R&D activities, a number second only to California's Silicon Valley.


But is India really a hotbed of innovation? Not so much, say some experts, including Forrester Research analyst Sudin Apte and Vinay Deshpande, a developer of the Simputer, a handheld computer designed in India. Even though tech companies like to tout their R&D investments in India, most see the country primarily as "a limitless source of bulk staffing," according to a Forrester report. Apte says many companies pay Indian workers on a "time and materials" basis, which illustrates the kind of tasks they typically perform, often product testing and maintenance.


Deshpande tells InfoWorld:

The situation is a lot better than it was some years ago, but most Indian operations of multinational companies are still far away from defining and architecting products.

The article quotes an unnamed software engineer working for a multinational company as saying he (or she) and coworkers do not think out or architect new products in India. "We get to do the coding for new products, and are mainly involved in maintenance or making improvements to legacy products."


Could some of the fault lie with India's education system? In my July interview with Sridhar Vembu, CEO of AdventNet, developer of the Zoho suite of online applications, he told me that India's colleges are "highly regimented" compared to the U.S. and other countries. Vembu speaks with the voice of experience, having attended universities in both India and the U.S. He said:

Rote learning is more common than any kind of creative thinking. So when you recruit college graduates, you often get people with good grades but not a lot of creative thinking skills. You hear about India's IT prowess, but I'd argue that it happens in spite of the education system in India not because of it.

Despite India's struggle to be seen as more than a supplier of inexpensive labor, companies such as Cisco are making some pretty major investments in the country. As I wrote in July, one-fifth of Cisco's global executives will be based at its newly established Globalization Centre East in Bangalore by 2012. Under the aegis of its Global Talent Acceleration Program, the company also plans to open a regional training center in India by the end of this year.


A few companies, notably Intel, are doing product development in India, notes the InfoWorld article.