Tuesday, March 28, 2006

“Never under estimate your own potential”

Meet Your Buddy Mr. Muthukumaran NS, Director AC Nielsen-ORG MARG

In the battleground of a market place, the fortune of various companies is re-written everyday. The companies are also expected to renovate their product offerings regularly to keep up with the ferocious pace of changing customer demands. Not just corporate, even organizations with a social mandate like the 'AIDS awareness campaign' need to assess the impact of their strategies and reformulate them if necessary. The field of market research is related with just this. It acts as a bridge between the marketers and the end consumers. As with any other field, it is nearly impossible not to find any RECT/NITT alumnus who is among the leaders of market research.

Meet your buddy Mr. NS Muthukumaran, another RECT 1979 jewel who is presently working as the Director, Head of Measurement Science and Technical Training, South Asia at AC Nielsen-ORG MARG India, the world's leading market research firm. He is also handling the online-market research department of the company.
Mr. Muthukamaran (standing on dais), in a panel discussion at XLRI, Jamshedpur

[Muthu, a Trichy local, completed his BE in Mechanical Engineering from REC Trichy and moved on to work with BHEL as a design engineer. He then moved on to complete his PGP in management from XLRI Jamshedpur. From the time of stepping out of XLRI, he has been in the field of market research – Business to business and consumer research. He has published a number of papers in market research journals and has presented many research papers in the Indian and International seminars on market research. For the past few years he has been visiting XLRI regularly and during such visits, he takes a few sessions for the Business Management students on Marketing Research. He is a person with varied interests, runs up to 5 km everyday, plays golf on weekends and will be happy to offer you delicious vegetarian dishes he can cook!]

Meet Your Buddy Team: Good Afternoon Muthu. Can you share information your background and career path with our readers?
Muthukumaran: Good Afternoon! I had a very simple beginning. I was born and brought up at Trichy where I studied at St. Joseph's School and College before joining REC. I am youngest in my family and our mother had the greatest influence on all of us siblings. My father was an employee with Indian Railways and was high on integrity, wit and physically activity. We learnt the values of integrity, hard work, patience and finding humor even in adversity from them.
After working with BHEL Trichy for 2 years and 6 months, I moved on to XLRI for a management degree. Thereafter I joined Marketing and Business Associates Pvt ltd (Now known as Gallup India) as a Research executive. I was a manager in 1990 when I left MBA to join MARG Marketing and Research Group Pvt Ltd as Branch Manager. When the company merged with ORG, I became the Vice President. During integration with ACNielsen, I was head of HR and communications for a period of two years. Later I became a Director at the company now called as AC Nielsen-ORG MARG.

MYB Team: Mr. Muthu, what do you consider as your career's greatest challenges?
Muthu: During the integration phase of the three companies – ACNielsen India, ORG and MARG, I was in charge of integrating the policies and practices of these three companies with a total work force of 1700. It was really a great challenge and wonderful experience. I had to learn so many different facets of HR, handling organizational ego etc.
During my initial years in MARG, I grew the Bangalore branch and the South zone from almost no business to a very large one with over 30% market share in a matter of four to five years. I had stabilized business in West and East zones and set up the Advertising research division in ORG-MARG. However, by far, the integration of the three companies diverse in culture and practices and aligning them with ACNielsen policies and practices has been the greatest challenge.

MYB Team: Many of us would like to know how much of a value MBA adds to a typical engineer. Why should one go for management studies? What are the important things to be kept in mind while choosing a management course?
Muthu: I believe that MBA adds a new dimension to an engineer. At the end of the day, most engineers work in commercial firms. It helps equip them with various aspects of a business. Apart from a good career option, it can also help you when you set up your own practice. In a B School, you get to meet a different but smaller (unlike in REC) set of individuals from diverse background who by their own right are bright and intelligent because of the stringent selection process. You learn a lot from interacting with these people with diverse background. Being a RECTian, your ability to adapt to new situations, surroundings, people interaction skills, ability to not be fazed by any adversity (being cool) helps in a competitive B School environment. (Essentially REC guys seem to be good at getting good marks without apparently putting in great efforts)

MYB Team: What are the most important soft skills that make one successful in the job market?
Muthu: I consider the ability to communication, people skills, ability to handle pressure and clarity of thought as the winning qualities in the job market.

MYB Team: What is the key differentiator of the market research field as a career? What opportunity does it provide for a fresh engineer from, say, NIT Trichy?
Muthu: The key differentiator is that it is very interesting as new types of problems and challenges crop up every other day. Thus, it is very high on job satisfaction as you provide the client a solution to his marketing problem and most of the times they adopt your recommendation. As you have to keep in touch with the consumer trends, it is the most dynamic field in management too.
We mostly look for people with marketing background. However there is a segment of business called B2B (Business-to-Business) research which handles problems of industrial marketing. The issues studied are demand/potential estimation for new products/ services, inputs for existing product/service improvement, customer satisfaction, communication research etc. In this section of business, we can have engineers to work on these problems. Engineers can also find a role in handling and managing databases in a market research/ business analytics firm. However, I would advise them to get a management degree before joining a market research firm.

MYB Team: How do you go about solving a problem in market research?
Muthu: The first task is to define the problem clearly and this is the toughest task. At times even the clients will not be able to articulate the problem clearly. Once the problem is well defined then we set the research objectives. Then we do the research design, which is a combination of target group definition, research methodology most suited to the problem, sample sizes etc. Then the data collection is done as per the design – secondary data, Primary data that could be qualitative or quantitative in nature using appropriate tool such as questionnaires or discussion guides. The data is then analyzed using various techniques and we provide answers to the research objectives and most importantly provide solid recommendation to the client to take a decision that will sole the problem.
For example, if the task is to make the REC/NIT Trichy brand stronger, we first need to ask ourselves who exactly our target audience is. It could be recruiters, students applying for Engineering etc or a combination of many groups. Then we need to find the status of the brand as it exists in their minds right now using appropriate research method. Having done this we also need to define where we want to be – say best known for producing students with good engineering skills or for producing students with well-rounded personality etc. This is the stated positioning in the marketing parlance. From these two steps, we can assess the gap areas between where we want to be and where we are now. The gaps could well be different in different target groups.
Once we get to know these gap areas, it is easy to design a solution to enhance the image to the level defined by us. It could well be just a matter of correcting misconceptions or it could be working on various aspects of the product/brand to improve quality actually on identified dimensions. Although it is only the perceived quality that matters, a better-than reality, perceived quality is good only for a short duration. You may get caught in the long run. We might then have to make structural changes in the ways students are taught and increase interaction with the targeted audience to live up to the perceived image.
However, in the case of the perceived quality being worse than the reality or the actual, we would need to create awareness across the audience to bring the perceptions on an equal footing with the actual. As we would see, the perceived-quality is the reality.

MYB Team: Sometimes it is observed that the market research on a topic such as 'Best B-School' fails to relate to popular perception. Why does this happen?
Muthu: We need to understand the methods used in such market research. This depends on many factors. For example, sometimes the client especially the periodicals may not be willing to spend enough time or money to carryout a robust research. In such cases, the quality of research may be compromised. For a good market research, as I said earlier, we need to understand the problem first and define it in most clear terms. Sometimes, people who stay close to the problem also are not able to see the problem clearly. Therefore, the results are obtuse or confusing. Having clearly defined the problem we should use the best methodologies and ensure the sampling is proper, the data collection method is correct and the analysis techniques are appropriate etc. to arrive at good, actionable solution.
In many of the cases, the representation of the research findings by the media is also not correct, as the reporters do not have the skill-set to interpret the data properly.

MYB Team: Sometimes, the data collection can have issues of rigging. How do you ensure the research quality?
Muthu: The quality of data in the research process is the most important parameter. We have methods that ensure that wrong sample selection, or in appropriate and wrong data collection does not take place. Extensive briefing and training is done for those who do the data collection. We have in place very stringent mechanism of back checks, spot checks etc to ensure that the data is not fudged. If we find that the data is rigged, we do cancel the whole lot altogether and re do the fieldwork.

MYB Team: What is the difference between global and Indian market and does it influence the marketing analysis methods to be used?
Muthu: In the developed countries, the markets are mature. They have many brands and different formats of retailing. However, they have a uniform set of consumers at least in terms of affluence. Our markets are very diverse, in terms of consumer evolution, affluence levels, culture, literacy etc. The researcher has to be extremely sensitive to these differences in researching these markets.

MYB Team: How different is an online consumer in India as compared to a consumer abroad?
Muthu: Though internet penetration in India is low, there is a high acceptance of online commerce among Indians (among those accessing internet). People here adapt new technologies faster than others do and hence this segment would see an explosive growth in the future. A good example in this case is the usage of mobile phones, how it has percolated to small towns and rural areas also. Our research shows that there is higher than average acceptance of e-commerce among Indian internet users as compared to users across the world.
(For more information about online trading in India and Mr. Muthukumaran’s views, do check http://www.acnielsen.co.in/news.asp?newsID=141)

MYB Team: How lucrative is the e-commerce market? Moreover, what are the challenges when one thinks of e-commerce? Why e-commerce is yet to pick up in India?
Muthu: The online market in India is worth about 500 crores now. The key challenges have been Internet penetration which is very low (less than 2% all India at present), Payment channels as people are often reluctant to use credit cards online. The delivery systems need a ramp-up also. Moreover, there are not too many merchants online yet to push e commerce at a faster pace. However, as I said, the Indian customer will catch up soon.

MYB Team: This series of articles is an effort from our side to establish a strong internal brand in campus. Can you suggest ways in which we can improve the Meet Your Buddy program?
Muthu: Deal with topics that are relevant and interesting to the audience you have. Get a mix of topics and people of different background to sustain interest. You can also try making a 'mail your friend' option on the website. Students and alumni can contact alumni in different fields for information and advice. Some articles that require inputs from many people together could be tried too. This will let you focus on one particular idea at a time.

MYB Team: What are the possible ways to increase alumni interaction with the students?
Muthu: There must be a forum (the more informal the better) for these interactions. Some of them could be:
a) Video conferencing on some serious technical topics by those alumni who are profs in some good schools in the US (We would like to bring to Readers’ notice that there are many former RECTians who are playing key roles in the best universities abroad, in some cases as Dean and Department heads. You may find some of them on Meet Your Buddy soon!)
b) By creating a body of counselors among the alumni who can help students by clearing doubts, providing information on career options to students etc. Could have some personal interaction as well occasionally (say every quarter for a day in the campus).

MYB Team: Mr. Muthu, what message would you like to give to the present students?
Muthu: Enjoy your stay in the campus; be focused on what you want to do, at the same time explore new avenues and possibilities and have an open mind. Most importantly, never under estimate your own potential.

[We are thankful for such a great response for the first article. We returned with a stronger belief that we as NITTians can change the equations of industry and set trends for others to follow. So what do u think? We are eagerly waiting for your feedbacks and responses. We are really charged now to move it by covering people from diverse fields. Will be back soon with a new face that once lived in this 800 acre campus]

Signing off,

Anurag Saxena (MT10105),
IBM India Private Limited, Bangalore

Arpit Agarwal (EC10105)
Ittiam Systems, Bangalore