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Branding Sri Lanka’s Knowledge Industry


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Sri Lanka’s small scale and limited resources present a challenge when it comes to playing in the global manufacturing arena. However, the country has been able to overcome this barrier by providing quality products to world markets, with tea, spices, rubber and more recently through the manufacturing capabilities of the apparel industry.

A more recent contributor to the country’s growth has been the emerging Information Technology and Business Process Management (IT & BPM) sector, which now exports over $ 1 billion per year. 

The sector has grown by primarily providing non-repetitive work, related to complex or detailed services, often through small specialised teams servicing high-end customers. Sri Lanka’s IT / BPM industry has a small but growing foothold as a specialised niche player, very different in scale to what is offered by Indian companies. Sri Lankan IT / BPM companies have made their presence felt around the world, from US and Europe to Australia and mature Asian markets. 

Despite the importance of the industry for the country, global recognition of Sri Lanka’s IT/BPM capabilities is virtually non-existent. This is due to its small scale, compared to regional leaders – both high-volume players like India and the Philippines and high-value players like Singapore. Even compared to smaller countries like Poland, Romania and Costa Rica, Sri Lanka tends to rank low in terms of global recognition. Other small countries such as Ireland, Israel and Estonia have been much more successful in establishing a reputation for their skilled workforce and sophisticated capabilities in specific segments such as finance, security and e-government.

The local industry needs to address this limited visibility among global customers, if it intends to seriously compete with other countries. Doing so requires a well-executed and fine-tuned marketing strategy with the right investments behind it.

Showcasing the industry through a high-profile brand should have a multi-dimensional impact which goes beyond purely improving international sales. It can also accelerate the growth of the industry by engaging and convincing local students to take up careers in the sector, making more local professional service companies (like architects, accountants, lawyers and scientists) aware of the potential to export their services, and convincing local policy-makers to create a conducive environment for the growth of the sector. By defining the industry more broadly as knowledge services, it should also encourage leading companies in other sectors to focus on developing higher-value knowledge-based innovations for global customers.  



Advantages of being small

There are many well-known Sri Lankan-based firms who have already proved the industry’s capabilities in global markets by developing advanced IT solutions. Millennium IT, Virtusa Polaris, Sysco Labs (formerly Cake Labs), WSO2, 99X are just a few of those which have individually achieved success and which could collectively be used to showcase the industry, along with other firms.

As a small country without an inherent scale advantage, the industry’s positioning must be based on the superior skills and advanced solutions that it has to offer - much as the Garments without Guilt brand positioned Sri Lanka’s Apparel industry’s ethical practices in the mid 2000s. 

An extensive and in-depth study of the knowledge services sector enabled us to identify two key competitive strengths in defining the possible brand. 



Specialised services

The first capability we identified was the industry’s superior capacity for innovation, creativity and problem-solving. Companies like Millennium IT, SimCentric, Sysco Labs and LegalBase are already known for providing complex products and services in their respective fields. For example, Millennium IT (now owned by the London Stock Exchange) provides the world’s fastest trading platform for transacting shares and SimCentric specialises in advanced battlefield simulations for customers around the world, including the US Department of Defence and NATO.

Several companies with delivery centres in multiple countries such as HSBC and Copal-Amba (now known as Moody’s Analytics) have located their more complex operations and demanding customers, to be serviced in Sri Lanka.

The second factor we identified is the fact that Sri Lanka’s smaller, more nimble centres are particularly well-suited for developing new solutions and servicing complex accounts.

We found that companies like Virtusa Polaris and WNS have retained and expanded their relationships with key clients like BT and Aviva, because they are known for not just maintaining and operating existing processes and systems, but continually looking for ways to improve those processes and systems. We also found that companies with multiple delivery centres tend to start new clients and projects in their Colombo centre, before rolling out to other centres (e.g. Pearson, Virtusa Polaris, and Moody’s Analytics).

Several companies have built successful businesses specifically targeting medium-sized clients. Unlike large centres in India and the Philippines, more sensitive projects and new accounts get more management attention here.

This capacity for working on smaller, innovative solutions is also in line with emerging shifts in market demand. A recent article in The Economist highlighted that “Budgets globally are growing steadily, but an increasing amount of the money is spent on trendy stuff like analytics or the internet of things.  Such new ‘digital’ services will rise from a tenth of total IT spending in 2014 to over a third in 2020.” Even though this will become a challenge to Indian firms, as the article points out, due to their specialisation in fixing problems cheaply, not driving innovation, it could be seen as an opportunity for Sri Lanka.  



Defining the brand

After evaluating a range of options that could convey these two distinctive capabilities, a powerful and compelling brand proposition was presented and agreed by the industry. Built around Knowledge Solutions as the product offering, the brand idea that serves to best express the innovative solutions that Sri Lanka-based firms can offer is the phrase ‘Island of Ingenuity’. 

The brand highlights the industry’s capacity to offer customers high-value solutions based on ingenuity, while reinforcing the country’s image as a tropical island and a nice place to do business.  The term ‘Island’ also subtly suggests an island of creative problem-solving in a sector full of competitors providing non-creative, standard solutions.



Living the brand

For the “Island of Ingenuity - Sri Lanka Knowledge Solutions” brand to be successful, stakeholders must “live the brand”. It is not meant to be an empty advertising slogan; customers need to genuinely believe that companies can deliver the innovative solutions that the brand claims. The concern is that as an industry, if some underperforming company uses the brand, it risks undermining the value of the brand for all. For this reason, many of the most successful multi-user brands, such as Ceylon Tea or McDonalds franchises, have strict compliance standards.

Based on these considerations, industry stakeholders have expressed interest in the concept of a voluntary, progressive series of standards. There will not be a binary set of “eligible/ineligible” standards for companies who want to use the brand.  However, the brand owner (EDB and its Advisory Council) will be looking at a series of initiatives around recognising “ingenuity levels” for a company. There are two key pillars that need to be worked on to live the brand. One is the need to uplift HR practices across the industry to attract talented people and nurture problem-solving skills and the second is the need to increase the level of research and development across the economy.

The industry is already in discussions with the Ministry of Education on revamping the educational curriculum to be more encouraging of open-minded and free thinking, rather than the cramming of information and facts which is a priority in the current format. Also, there needs to be a better appreciation of world affairs, business and entrepreneurship to sow the seeds at a formative age. 

Initiatives are being planned by the industry to provide inspiration for owners, managers and employees to seek opportunities for innovation within each company, as the Sri Lanka Knowledge Services industry begins to stake its claim in global markets under the Island of Ingenuity brand.


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