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Issue of August 2004 

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The Road more or less traveled

At a senior level there are fewer permissions and clearances to be obtained, but it's that much more of a tight-rope-walk as far as project success is concerned. R. N. Ramanathan shares his highs and highers through his journey of life, SBI and IT with Deepali Gupta

Close your eyes…wait, not yet, first read the rest. Take a deep breath. Feel the cool monsoon air entering your body. Let all the thousands of stray thoughts cross your mind but focus on none, just let them waltz out the way they waltzed in. Now try it. Does it make you feel a strange sense of calm or see different shades of blue? Well, it's this refreshingly meditative feeling, from his morning walk, yoga and art of living, that helps keep R.N. Ramanathan, DMD IT, State Bank of India, together during his long hours of work. "It takes nearly two hours in the morning, but I spend time on a healthy body for the sake of a healthy mind," says Ramanathan.

"At my stage there are no holes barred, I have a green light from the chairman on any project I want to implement. And as such, there is no room for failures and excuses," Ramanathan clarifies. Although his role also includes participating in senior level executive meetings and decision making too, he ensures that he is able to visit each sub-group on the SBI IT team at least once a fortnight. This way all his juniors get an opportunity to interact with him, and the team morale stays high.

In 1985 Ramanathan took an aptitude test that made him in-charge of the Communications Center in Hyderabad. By then he had already spent 14 years in the bank, and in the age of minicomputers, Ramanathan picked up COBOL and MIS handling. "It wasn't until the early 90s that the bank took to branch computerization," indicates Ramanathan. At this stage however, he was not part of the branch computerization project, he was heading Systems for SBI in the UK. His share of branch computerization came much more recently, when last year he decided that the remaining 6,000 branches, that had not been adequately computerized needed amends. "Today all our 9,000 branches, those of SBI and associate banks, are fully computerized," he beams with pride.

Ramanathan assumed his most critical IT role in SBI only in 2000, when he became GM IT. He was brought there to further the Bank Master implementation he had been part of in 1993. The bank is still in the process of perfecting the solution–for another six months– before launching an aggressive rollout.

In 2001 Ramanathan embarked on a unique journey. This was the bank ATM project. At first there were a handful of ATMs in Hyderabad. Each ATM was associated with a branch, and only account holders in the corresponding branch could use it. So, the entire networking had to be researched from scratch. Initially SBI installed switches to connect a few local ATMs. It went on to connect the metros and finally connected every SBI ATM centrally. "Today SBI, along with associate banks has the largest single bank ATM cluster with 4,200 ATMs and 5.5 million ATM cards holders to show as proof.”

It sounds much easier than it actually was. In fact certain problems continue to persist. "The ATM itself generates an error number, but in some cases, a specialist must be readily available to visit the site," Ramanathan explains. For example, ATMs in Bihar suddenly disconnect due to power interruptions. Perhaps that's why a certain amount of ATM maintenance was outsourced.

SBI now has ATMs in formerly inconceivable locations. There is one on a Ferry, in Kerela. "We realized that a floating population of about 2,000 sail in the morning and are out of touch of the world for a large part of the day. It would save them time if they could bank on the boat itself," Ramanathan elucidates. Furthermore, in Goa SBI revamped the bus stations and attached ATMs to them, according to the DMD.

Ramanathan sees the need for Business Process Reengineering (BPR) in the near future, for the bank. According to him, in today's context clients are more discerning and extremely service conscious. At present the counter staff sometimes fall short on that front "because their banking roles are too complex and too many."

The IT department has assumed BPR as the next big challenge to be accomplished in the next year. This will mean that banking functions, such as day closing, will be done in a centralized back office. And the front office staff can devote all their time to attending to customers.

Life at SBI has been easy in some ways and challenging in others for Ramanathan. "The biggest challenge has been to deal with the kind of numbers the bank accommodates," Ramanathan says in awe. Indeed, it cannot be a cakewalk to implement something across India's biggest and possibly oldest bank. The expanse and severely different conditions in varied branches themselves can be intimidating. It is obvious then that more time and better planning is required for any rollout.

On the other hand, "the IT team and business team have never been at odds," he says. The reason is that SBI never lets officers settle into cozy spots. They ensure a balance between IT and operations assignments. Ramanathan for example was DGM Pune before becoming GM IT. In the final analysis then, there is no IT and business divide. Plus the selection process to incorporate people in IT at SBI is unique. "We select junior officers with aptitude within the bank to become IT officers, so the turnover is not as high as is associated with IT in general," adds Ramanathan.

In his 30 years at SBI Ramanathan has gathered profound experience in both IT and Finance. And while he is contended with the position he has attained at SBI, he has not lost sight of his imminent retirement. He loves to read his son's Jeffery Archer collection, spend a quiet day with his two children and wife… but all that he will keep for later. Immediately after his retirement he sees himself continuing his life “actively,” perhaps in a consultative capacity.

Life long Philosophies

"Fiction does not get priority on the reading list, but unconventional
books like the Alchemist by Paul Coelho, a mystique kind of fiction
or Jeffrey Archer books can be very alluring"

"TV Serials are essentially my wife's territory. I try to spend time watching with her, allowing I'm able to squeeze in that half hour over dinner"

"Beyond a point when children can take care of themselves, parents should only play the role of advisors"

"A perfect evening would be a dinner with family in a quiet cozy restaurant followed by a small outing"

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