Friday, December 29, 2006

About 2006 : A Season of Realizations

As I sat down - I am having a long christmas holiday like everyone - and started thinking what I learnt in 2006, both from public events and my private life, I realised it has been an unique year. Many things I realized, not just because they happened now - most probably because I came face to face with reality now.

Things like:

Monetarism: Milton Friedman died, therefore focusing minds on his legacy and thoughts. Also, interestingly, the house price led boom continued in UK, though it slowed a bit in US. But Bank of England's refusal to raise interest rates significantly pointed a potential danger in the way things are working now, post-Friedman. Alan Greenspan allowed the dotcom bubble to form and bust - causing misery for common men. The current czars also taking the same route, this time with house prices fueled by easy credit, and if and when it bursts and interest rates goes up to a rational level, lots of people will get hurt. and, then comes the eye opener, globalisation and monetarist thinking may result in this economic pain being spread worldwide, american consumer's lack of forward thinking may make a lot of people in Thailand [or elsewhere] go bankrupt, as the decision makers will be able to shift a large part of the problem on other countries.

Nationalism: The biggest enemy of human freedom and progress during last two centuries have been - yes, not communism as conventional wisdom has dictated - but Nationalism. This psuedo classification of human beings has caused untold miseries, created situations conducive to war or led to war, justified exploitation of men by men, limited the scope and reach of scientific progress and allowed evil men to prosper. This is the doctrine which allowed a set of people to think that they are better than others, be it the americans now, or the british in the 19th and 20th century, or the ethiopeans in somalia. Without nationalist blindness, the whole business of war may not be sustainable. Without the excuse of nationalism, the whole structure of economic exploitation will stand exposed, and appear to be what it is - economic exploitation. Without nationalism, democracies will be fairer, and markets, more efficient. So, if the human civilisation has to progress from where it is today, if this is not the end of history, nationalism should be rooted out from the civilisation. Globalisation, sadly, isn't the answer - being a first generation traveller in the global world, I know this personally. Nationalism is licensed to prosper, continually prepped up by media, taught in schools, and ingrained in culture. It wont go away unless and until a superior value system starts getting propagated. However, do have hope - human beings are capable of superior thinking.

Unilateralism: A military solution isn't enough for iraq, that's the end of year realisation of american experts. This sublimely contradicts the neo-con notion of the role, responsibility and power of america in the post-cold war world. America is an over-rated power, measured solely in terms of its power to destroy. Unfortunately, leadership does not come solely from the power to destroy and punish. To be the sole superpower and control the destiny of the whole world needs to come from a moral power, the ability to lead, create and give. On those terms, America can not operate alone, nor does it have the resources or abilities for the job. Death to unilateralism may have to wait a few more years, when the micro-nuclear powers will emerge, but this is an interesting turning point.

I am sleepy. More later.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

War, war, war

The recent theory among those who know is that democratic countries dont fight wars with one another. Really?

Well, my history may be weak, but it is not about history. It is more about political science - about what you call a democratic country. Also, about statistics - score keepers are not always engaged in sports fields. There are other things too, but let's keep the big thing until later in the discussion.

So, if you really start tabulating, you may not find a democratic country attacking another in recent history. Well, yes, count out the Greek City States, they were different types, and there were no newspapers [or electronic media]. Also, dont talk about remote islands and Africa and Asia - you dont know which is a democracy and which is not.

Yes, at the outset, it looks like a credible theory. Not set in stone like the free market monetarist staff, a bit woozy-fuzzy like Bible, but will pass. So, Britain wont fight an war with America, or France, or Italy. Germany .. well, Germany is a bit suspect, as George Bush says that it is a big job to bring democracy in Germany!!

And, these neo-con days [I learnt the word 'ex-con' from tabloid newspapers and 'neo-con' from the editorials of the most hardnosed types], theory means practise. So, the application of this theory means that democratizing middle east will eliminate all wars from the region. Or, for that matter, Korean peninsula. Or, Germany - okay, that was a 'bushism'!

So, how do you democratise Middle East? Not by throwing out the sauds, but by.. another Bushism - bringing it on! Fighting an war! This is the mystery of sorts - if democratic countries dont fight wars with democratic countries, why does democratic countries fight war with other types of countries?

The reasoning that it is always the undemocratic types which start it sound very feeble. Well, no reasoning - at least the human ones - apply to Israel, as you would notice they have even violated the mother theorem by attacking Lebanon, another democratic country. But even counting them out, it is America who started wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq!

Well, The Economist will say - it is america's responsibility to fight wars for democracy. And, it is - yes, you get it now - more about economics than about politics. War now has a pure economic logic - if we say that countries which has strong economic ties, with companies going cross border, banks having businesses, investors investing in respective stock markets, dont fight each other, it will be more appropriate. In fact, this is rather counter-historical, as a prosperous country doing trade with other countries used to be 'takeover' targets. Today, if the country is part of global suppply chain, and as long as it plays by the rules, it is unlikely to be attacked.

Playing by the rules is the difficult part though. Even democratic countries may make mistakes here. Even democratic countries - if they dont follow the rules, it will be quite like old times, a witch-hunt in the international media for the 'coercive' country, a war-crimes trial and some hangings and death sentences.

Gandhi, in a rare moment of humour, said - western civilization will be a good idea. The whole modern civilization stands on this principle of war - the rightness of strength, the freedom of the powerful. It is about these well-spun myths about democracy, and the callous remote-control wars, it is about the unjust violations of rights of innocent people - that propels our cars and keeps our lives running. If one's concerned about blood diamonds, half of every dollar is blood dollar! Every truth is a half-truth. And, in the backdrop of this whole economic and political confusion - the only living half-hope comes from History - the cookie always crumbles!

Yes, always.

About 2006 : 1

2006 is over. Well, almost – though terrorists, geniuses and newspapers don’t sleep, or at least don’t have Christmas holidays. We may still have a bomb in London, a cloned man [or woman – but they are more difficult to clone] or a new big fad, to end the year. But, for me – I am looking forward to a nice week’s lay-off, and the year for me is over.

A terrible year for me, personally! I lost my mother, the person I loved most and who influenced me most. No other achievement could erase that pain. While I recount, I could not make myself to think of a happy moment. There were lots of personal milestones, yes, but none registered with happiness – the great sorrow overrode my soul and inserted a tear in every moment that I lived.

So, what happens at 00:00:01am on 1st January 2007? Nothing – I wouldn’t forget a thing. It will be one moment versus my whole life, that way. But, it will be a new start, a new me – an endeavour again, without a guide this time.

But, before that, I wanted to post my notes for 2006 – not just personal, but on whatever happened to the world, and to people I know, and here is the first note.


Here are a few 2006 lists:

First, keeping with the mood, a list of prominent deaths:

P W Botha of Apartheid fame (or infamy), died in obscurity, largely forgotten

Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, who overthrew the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvatore Alande, shot the president and then ruled the country with scant regard to human rights or democracy. Was never put on trial despite several attempts, and maintained important friends, including Lady Thatcher

Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait, after a 30 year reign which saw prosperity, an invasion from Iraq and a rebuilding of Kuwait

Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslav President and Serb leader, died while on trial and awaiting verdict at the Hague, for Genocide and Crimes against Humanity

Naguib Mahfouz, Author and Humanist, a Noble Laureate – widely respected and admired, Mahfouz was an icon of modern day Egypt

John Kenneth Galbraith, economist and one of the great post-war Keynesians

Milton Friedman, economist, the leading light of Chicago school, a friend of Augusto Pinochet, the inspiration of Reaganomics and a hate figure for the Keynesians

Kenneth Lay, former Chairman of Enron, an icon of American Management and a whipping boy for corporate scandals – died while on trial and awaiting justice for the Enron scandal

Ray Noorda, former Chairman of Novell Inc., and a pioneer in Computer Networking

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Leader of Al-Queda in Iraq, died in an American Ariel raid, probably betrayed by some of his comrades

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Nudges, Banter and Amnesia

When Gandhi was shot, a point was proved. Violence is better, more powerful than non-violence. Did he not say – Hey Ram – his final, poignant realization of this ever-so-apparent truth?

There were many such moments in history. Many things were proved. As if these apparent truths needed any witness or proof. Like, human beings are animals. They do better with violence than non-violence. They thrive in war rather than peace. They are selfish beings. They innovate, because they are greedy. They are thieves and rapists, and only an ever-increasing police force can keep them in control. They are naturally amoral, so they must be taught religion in schools and at the courts to be kept in line.

Did I question any of that? Not a chance. In fact, we are living at the highest stage of civilisation – one of conformance – and this is supposed a last a thousand years. Thousand years – no, probably more – last time we heard of a thousand year civilisation, those guys were a little too rash.

Nowadays, it is much simpler to live. I am not mentioning about electricity, air-travel and Internet shopping. Those are already historical. There are no speed cameras on the road to progress. I am talking about the conformance revolution, when falling in line is the fashion, conventional wisdom is so highly regarded, and there is only one kind of man – economic.

Gone are those bunny-heads who thought economics is an anglo-saxon pollutant on civilisation! Gone and vanished, not to be heard of. A piece of stone is preserved in New York’s Museum of Modern Art to remind our children what we stoned them to death with.

Oh, some questions are still acceptable. Purely academic ones, those who do not challenge the fundamental principles of our great thousand year civilisation. Like, what we used to stone the heretics. Lot of people say, a hammer. A hammer and sickle on Russia – to kill freedom of thought. Another hammer in Mexico killed the heretic who questioned the logic of conformance. Another hammer still broke the Berlin Wall. Ok – hammer accepted – probably it was a hammer, and see how open we are to criticism.

But hands up again. Why do you say economics is at the centre of progress? How do you know GDP growth rates indicate whether a country is better off? Why do you think a musician creates great music looking at the royalty he will earn on his album? Or great innovations can only happen when there is IPR protection? Do you think humanitarian aid is enough for Darfur? Do you think Israel has the right to invade Lebanon whenever they wish to? Do you think Nuclear weapons make the world a safe place? Do you think we have at least 50 years before the earth becomes too hot to handle?

Good question. Next question? And, next? And, next? We are running out of time.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A History of Cut-and-Run

A western power finds itself in a ‘situation’. Their forces and administrators are running a country which is increasingly rebellious, and the rule, unpopular. The rulers' first response was to resort to the ancient rule of the Roman empire – divide and rule – and set the communities against one another. It did work for some time, too. But then it stopped working! Rather, there is now the added hassle of keeping peace within communities to have things going. Costs of occupation now outweighs the benefits. Everyday, the poor, dangerous country looks less and less appetising to its civilised administrators.

Besides, there is a resource crunch too. The ruling country has been involved in too many wars - not many fine young men of the 'expendable' variety are available to man the front lines. It is becoming difficult to use the natives, and the local army is increasingly against the occupation.

The public opinion at home is also turning nasty. First, the belligerent leader kept talking about staying the course. However, the public wants a withdrawal. Election, mostly on home agenda, brings in a new government with a mandate to get out.

The new government decides to end the occupation, sets a time-line [which the erstwhile leader calls a ‘guillotine’] and sends an weak and vacillating governor to get all communities on table, form a government of national unity [or compromise] and hand over the power to them.

However, divisions, years old and carefully nurtured, now run deep and it is not easy to mend it. The rulers can not set it right, anymore. No single solution is acceptable to everyone. The governor, a well-connected man with ambitions, wants to finish the job and get back home soon. He has important domestic agendas to pursue [One of them is arranging the marriage of his nephew], and wants to complete the handover of power before time.

So, caution out of the window – Cut and Run! Just appear to be doing the right thing! Stoke up the ambitions of the local leaders, play to their impatience, and sell the solution – PARTITION! The ruling power has no interests in the territory, so forget the niceties and the thoroughness the job demands, just ask a barrister to prepare a plan by looking at some demographic data. No need to do fieldwork, no need to visit the places, to need to plan contingencies if things go wrong – just get a plan out! The local leaders will buy it, because they are impatient – to end occupation, and also to get their own taste of power. So, be it.

This is a wonderfully laid plot. Did you think I was talking about Iraq? Or, about Afghanistan, in some way?

You are not far off the mark, because this looks like an increasingly plausible scenario. However, you did not pick up the hints that I left all over, the ‘guillotine’ comment, the governor’s story [let us now use the term - Viceroy] and the nephew.

Yes, we are talking about the partition of India. This is the thesis presented in Stanley Wolpert’s latest book on the subject – Shameful Flight - where he tells this story logically and credibly.

Of course, it does look logical. Cut-and-Run is a logical behaviour in the imperial world view, where lesser countries get ‘civilised’ by benevolence of the imperial masters, and values like freedom and democracy taught to them, and ungratefully, rebel - hence should be left to themselves after the 'job is done'.

And, note – all of this must be spun correctly, and the rulers should never believe what they preach. So, we had the great tragedy of the 20th century – partition of India – where millions of people died and many more lost their homes, everything! Similarly, we are also witnessing now first great tragedy of the 21st, in Iraq, where the figure is simply unknown. [I shall not even mention Palestine, which also has a similar story to tell.]

It is not pleasant to read Professor Wolpert, but then, the partition was not a pleasant affair. I am an optimist however, and do believe that we will get over it in my lifetime. A national reconciliation - we will all see our stupidity, and roll back the partition. [Yes, I do believe that it can be and will be rolled back, someday.]

This book reminds us of the selfish power-plays that created the half-century long instability and poverty in South Asia. Wherever you stand on this subject, it will be worth reading this book.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Trial in Baghdad

There was a trial in Baghdad,

And a President was on the dock,

He shouted, we are for humanity,

While body counts sored, and vultures flocked!


But he must shout, for the TV,

Though he knew his time is past,

He fought an unjust war, and must get punished,

While newsreaders chattered, the dice was cast.


We knew the outcome, still we waited,

For justice to take its course, as they say,

Our senses held in balance, and our values, at ransom,

Till the president’s judgement day.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Today's Quote

While Faith, rather like Love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.

Terry Eagleton – Reviewing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion

Read the full review at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lessons I never learnt

Reflection time, yet again! I suspect I suffer from these periodic depressions because I see time is running out for me, and I am getting older, without achieving much with my life. Don’t get me wrong – it is not about money – I don’t feel insecure in the least, but this is more about ‘what’s the point’ feeling, a soul-search on why I am doing what I am doing, perhaps very typical, mid-career blue.

In any case, today, when I was midst of one bout of depression, and coincidentally was blessed with a longish and solitary train journey, I started thinking about my grandfather. If I rate people who have influenced my life, he will come up on the top. And, today, I was thinking about the lessons I should have learnt from him, but never did – at least till today’s train journey.

Lesson 1: Work’s worth
He had a long life, but he never retired. He was never employed, either. Starting up at an early age in a business set up by his father, he attended office till he was 85 and got paralysed after a heart attack. He ran his business from his bed thereafter, and inspected the books last time the day before he died. Despite disabilities, his eyes failed him and he could not walk, he ran the business successfully and commanded its operations completely, something I would always envy him for. He found meaning in his work, he loved it. On the contrary, I wanted to set up a business so that I can retire early.

Lesson 2: My First English Sentence
I never took it seriously, but the first English saying I learnt was from him – Cut your coat according to your cloth. I probably never thought about it much. I started my first venture in the middle of dotcom, and always planned for Venture Capital in my business plans – I never succeeded, and I know why.

Lesson 3: How not to fear the taxmen
One of the funniest things about my grandfather was that he always paid his taxes in full. Funny, because in India, it isn’t common, and considered stupid. Perhaps, he overpaid. I do remember when we were threatened with an income tax raid, how calm he remained because he knew he was clear. He was angry at the suggestion made by taxmen that he can be let off with a small bribe – he challenged them to find anything wrong, and they could not. Contrast that with me – I earn a fraction of what he did, spend quite a bit more paying accountants, and yes, possibility of a tax raid would have given my nightmares.

Lesson 4: Bite what you can chew
I remember my grandfather turning down an order because it was too big for him. It created outrage in our family. I personally think it was not right – business is all about balancing your financial options and growing continuously. Being a man of his own principles, he never had time for these arguments – he stuck to ‘bite what you can chew’. Again, I am not sure I am right – bringing in banks or other investors may not be the best thing for businesses all the time. Especially if I love what I am doing, especially if the work is worth it, and I am not working just for the sake of retirement, I shall never turn to an investor or a bank.


Lesson 5: Demanding respect
It is my stated ambition to get into politics at some stage. Here I skipped a lesson too – my grandfather never voted. His objection was the black ink mark that is put on your fingers once you cast your vote, and he felt insulted by this. We argued about this for hours, I was all energy about democratic rights, but he will rubbish my arguments saying that if you can not trust your citizens, there is no point in letting them vote. I guess he is right. In a world where vote is considered to be the panacea of all social ills [certainly a very influential group of Americans and Britons think so], whether some societies are less ready for democracy is a blasphemous question. However, democracy without basic citizenship rights is bound to degenerate, as many African and Asian countries stand as example.

There are many more things from his strange world, a world which does not exist anymore. He belonged to last century, BDC, before Dot Com. I chose not to join the family business, because I found that too limiting, and pursued a global career instead.

But, today, in the train, at this very moment, when I felt confused, doubtful and unsure, I thought about these lessons which I should have, perhaps, taken from him.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Problem of George : Technology in Marketing

This year’s British Association of Advancement of Science’s annual conference in Norwich is an unlikely event of interest for marketing man, but a significant new prototype was being presented. Known as George, this is a conversational Artificial Intelligence [AI] system, designed for a contact centre environment, which can handle customer calls and log responses.

What is new about this system, reported, is that this one can track emotions, slangs and jokes. It can monitor the caller’s mood from the tone of voice and the use of words, and effectively escalate the call to a more specialised human agent in case it is not able to answer the query or the caller is getting annoyed. The system is designed to be adaptive too – learning from every call it could not handle, which it monitors and prepares itself with a response for next occasion.

The benefits of such systems are rather obvious. These systems, if effective, can effectively handle the first level customer interaction and can handle simple queries and responses. This will free up the resources for the ‘human’ team of customer service representatives, allowing the organisations to improve upon their quality of response by superior training and more selective recruitment, as well as by allowing them more time to spend with customers with complicated problems.

The scientists are enthusiastic that they may be able to develop quite effective conversational AI systems like George to be adopted in contact centre environments by organisations. Perhaps they are right. But, from a marketer’s point of view, adoption of such technology may still have three significant obstacles.

First problem is related to infrastructure. Systems like George are resource-intensive, and needs high specification servers to run the system. The scientists point out that the any actual implementation of such systems will be simpler, and a typical contact centre implementation may need only a few hundred thousand words – not the millions that the system has currently. Systems need computing power in line with their database size, and a scaled down ‘specified’ version will require less computing power, and the infrastructure can grow with the system, if needed. However, it is unlikely to be a simple proposition. A commercial product will need to follow the commands of economics as much as it does of science, and the ‘scaling down’ for economic reasons may not match the ‘scaling down’ perceived by its makers, and render the system dumb and ineffective.

The second problem is economic. Conversational AI systems may become smarter, but they will have to perform at an economic level and compete with millions of English-speaking ‘human’ agents entering or realigning in the workforce. Not just India, Ireland and Philippines will give George a run for its money, even the workers from the decimated manufacturing industries in the west will compete with George on cost terms. Remember, such systems will only start at the lower level simple tasks [forget about the scaling down for a moment – but even without that, conversational AI systems are only meant for simple tasks to start with]. And, remember, yes, AI systems will get trained over time once they are put in the job, but so will the workers. And, yes, there is a challenge teaching an Indian worker right accent and etiquette, but surely it is not harder than teaching an AI system to read human emotions correctly.

And, finally, the third problem will be of integration. A truly beautiful scientific invention doesn’t always follow the demands of commerce, as we were trying to point out above. The other end of the same problem is that often, real life services are a combination of many elements, and even a beautiful system like George, handling one part of the whole chain of functions, can only be as effective as the weakest part of the chain, often the management aspect of things – human decisions under pressure from the realities of the stock market. Without going into what may go wrong, let’s make the point – George needs to be able to work with other applications, some of which may be ‘not so great’. In reality, such integrations are rarely a success.

I am not sceptical of George, or for that matter, the technological inventions affecting various aspects of marketing. I am in fact euphoric, and know for a fact that technology has changed our lives and trades. But, I must warn against the pure inventions, and have a feel how far they must travel before becoming a productive system. When I read the story of George, this is exactly what popped up in my mind.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Today's Wisdom

Indifference will be the downfall of mankind, but who cares?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Advertising in The Age of Choice

I have been watching and talking a lot about the music industry recently. My interest is more business than musical – I see exciting news about the industry hitting the press everyday. I know this has now reached a Point of Inflection, a time when all the established rules of the industry change, and to survive all players must change the way they do business.

Incidentally, it is also ‘all change’ in another industry – Advertising! Advertising is dying, say experts. Maurice Saatchi gave this speech bemoaning the death of his old friend, advertising. Al Ries’ latest book is titled ‘The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR’. The industry is abuzz with debate, discussing quick fixes, back-to-basics solutions, and new age ideas.

At the first glance, again, it appears to be a technology-driven destruction. Yes, it certainly is – the media overload has diminished the return on advertising spend, and direct to heart ways of reaching an individual through search advertising has started delivering better results. However, the point I am trying to make is that it is not just a technology-driven restructuring, and I don’t believe that 50% of all advertising spend will suddenly move to online advertising in 10 years.

I have been ‘selling’ for more than 14 years now. I now see the selling function is undergoing a revolutionary change. And, I believe this is connected to the structural shifts in advertising, in fact, driving it. So, the way advertising industry will go over the next decade will not be just technology-determined, but customer-determined, where expanding technological possibilities will play an enabling role.

Let me explain. There is a lot of discussion on where selling and marketing are going [for example, refer to The Ending of War between Sales and Marketing, by Philip Kotler, Neil Rackham, and Suj Krishnaswamy, on HBR] and all commentators agree that [a] we are living in the age of explosion of choices; and [b] the customers love the choices and exercise it at every occasion they can. The fundamental shift in sales, then, is from broadcast messaging and revelling on Unique Selling Points towards knowing the customer and stretching the handshake – custom-building value proposition for each individual customer.

This is a key – the age of choice, driven by technology, helped to ‘individualise’ the customer at the same time as endowing them with a tremendous power of grapevine – the world of Blogs, chat and Wikis. The business models of this age of choice are different, as discussed succinctly by Chris Anderson in his now famous The Long Tail article. In my view, this ground shift in the sales/ marketing model is the key driver behind the changes in the advertising industry.

Building the advertising model for tomorrow is not just about building e-marketing capability and knowing how Google Adwords work, it is about adjusting to this whole new phenomenon of selling to individuals.

This shift, then, is about moving from the broadcast mode to one-on-one mode, a shift from output to input, from seeing customers as groups to customers as individuals, from presentations to conversations. This is a shift from Wal*Mart to eBay, and one needs a completely new pair of eyes to deal with it. And, as I mentioned earlier, Technology is just part of this shift, an enabler – not the shift itself.

I shall not be surprised if in 10 years time all advertising agencies routinely work on a profit share basis with clients, and newspapers and magazines [or whatever is left of them] dont have advertisements at all, but run sponsored company-customer dialogue [for example, how about a Ask Microsoft! column in The Times, of course sponsored by Microsoft].

While I agree that people need to be induced to buy, and more so in the age of choice and hyper-competition, this is an industry in the middle of a flux, and All change, please, all change!

FDI in Education : Comment

I saw a news item on Rediff.com that the Indian Commerce Ministry has recently recommended allowing 100% FDI in education. http://in.rediff.com/money/2006/sep/14spec.htm

Already a Danish company has come forward with the proposal of building 200 playschools across the country. Also, there are proposals from MIT, Georgia Tech and other American universities for building Greenfield campuses in India. Sadly, the left parties and the HRD Ministry is opposing the proposal. Here is what I posted as a reaction :


I am disappointed to see this news. I have a strong feeling that Arjun Singh is the wrong man, and he needs to be moved. He has a mindset of the last century, and is completely out of sync with the modern world. He is anti-meritocratic, as his penchant for various kinds of controls and reservations show, and the education system he wants to build will be only good in producing babus [in line with the good old specifications of the British Raj].

The FDI in education will be needed to let India move up the global value chain, beyond BPO and as a source of knowhow and innovation. It will foster competition, allow the best to be the best. If government is really serious about education, they should tax the profits the new institutions make, and plough the procceds back into building primary education infrastructure.

I would not comment about left parties. I come from West Bengal, and seen their systematic destruction they brought about in education, by bureaucratic intervention, anti-meritocratic and political appointments, and plain stupid policies. I would recommend that they should not be turned to for guidance on education policies, as their records will clearly show that they are not very good at it.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Legacy of Tony Blair

While the British Press and British Public are busying themselves at this time with the departure of Tony Blair, a debate is already raging about the legacy he is going to leave behind.

Not many men, even Prime Ministers or leaders of countries, can claim the position to leave a legacy. But, despite many shortcomings that he may have had, Tony Blair is one of those rare individuals who indeed can make the claim, having led Britain and the modern world to a ‘point of inflection’ in its history.

Also, it must be mentioned, legacies can not be judged at such a close range, except speculatively, as they are, by definition, meant for the posterity, and manifest themselves over a number of years. However, such speculations, at times, are worth indulging in, as in case of Mr. Blair’s, because this may impact our individual lives and the way we choose to live them in future.

Also, to be fair, it must be stated that judging a legacy is not judging a man, as legacies are seen in the context of the society, both current and future, and in the mirrors of many private lives and opinions. Any individual represents a combination of courage and frailties, a collection of varying moments each having its unique origins, contexts and consequences, and each individual needs his or her own apologists and critics to be fully judged.

All said, what does Mr. Blair leave us with, then? He, indeed, is a brilliant political strategist, who will find his place in history books with Bill Clinton as the men who did a Reagan-Thatcher act on left-of-the-centre. But, one can argue, that is not a legacy, but a tactic, employed in the context of a rapidly changing political fashion. Pragmatism was not a Blairite invention, though one may cite its rarity in the Labour politics, and credit him [or, blame him, depending on stance] with importing this eternal virtue [or, vice] into left-of-the-centre.

The other great legacy of Mr. Blair is the reshaping the welfare state agenda for the modern world. Labour, traditionally seen as the knights in the shining armour for failing public services, nailed the coffin of welfare state when it publicly and with impact moved towards ‘choice’, a thinly-veiled word for ‘monetarisation’ in the modern parlance.

This, though an essential shift by the new generation of Labour leaders collectively, was shaped and led by Mr. Blair’s own sense of history and destiny, his deep faith in Protestant Ethic, a sense of Darwinian Freedom, and above all, a pragmatic adjustment of labour ideology to the post-Soviet age.

Many leaders, ordinary men at the core, rise to the challenges of their task with a personal view of history. Likes of Hitler are the prime examples, who led and destroyed themselves by pursuing a vision of history over rationality – a Teutonic state pitted against Slavic Russia, but in some sort of coexistence with Protestant Britain – something that was far from the ground realities in 1939, but which sat at the core of his world vision, and caught up with him in his subsequent actions. Churchill, who had an imperial vision of the moral and intellectual leadership of the English-speaking people, and a deep sense of commonality with the Americans, drew strength from this and persisted steadfastly against the Germans. Churchill also saw the world in the historical terms of spheres of influence [should we credit Price Metternich with its origin], and could visualise an iron curtain, some sort of a garage-gate, coming down over some parts of Europe much better than his contemporaries.

Mr. Blair had his own sense of history, and he helped shape the world along its lines. His version of history has been deeply influenced by Churchill, and holds the common sense of purpose with the American people in its core. His sense of moral and intellectual leadership was based on ‘freedom’ – a combination of economic Darwinism, tabloid journalism, and free speech in English – and led him to visualise a free world with Afghan ladies in Bikinis, Swazi king campaigning for Ballots and the Indian farmers singing along Rolling Stones with conviction. He believed that there would be no stopping on the way to this in the post-Soviet post-Internet world. And, he pursued this vision with all his energies, and helped shape up the new battle frontiers.

This is the prime legacy he would leave behind, creation an Anglo-American alliance, committed to dominate and shape the entire world after itself. Mr. Blair saw himself as the High Priest and Intellectual Force behind this vision, much like Churchill. Mr. Blair’s world had to have its antagonists, and the Islamic world, out of favour after the soviet threat was gone, presented an alternate vision - the only other cohort of people with a global vision different from the Anglo-Saxon one – presented themselves to the cause. So, another competition for Global Dominance was set off – which will run over the next decades and will be aimed at hearts and minds and pockets of people, and will probably be concluded when the oil has finally run out, and a post-petroleum world emerges with its new ideologies.

It is unclear when and how Mr. Blair will go. But, no doubt, he presents us with a new world order – new battle frontiers, a new social reality, an inevitable climb [or, slide] to a dog-eat-dog morality and a tabloid intellect in a reality-show world. It is going to affect all of us, and our children. His legacy will be to make us free but to subvert the idea of freedom, just like he attempted to provide public services by destroying what was left of it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

McKinsey Survey of Global Executive Confidence

  • The confidence of executives in the global economy has fallen significantly in the past three months, according to a McKinsey survey.

  • Executives in India reported the biggest decrease: nearly 28 percent.

  • Yet they and a slim plurality of executives around the world still plan to hire additional employees in the next six months.

Highlights from the McKinsey Global Survey of Executive Confidence paints a rather gloomier picture this year, compared to the one 6 months ago. The fall in confidence is common worldwide, though in relative terms it is the highest in India. I shall see this more as a reflection of the worldwide trend than an independent development, and note that this is only in relative terms, 73% of Indian executives surveyed intend to expand their labour force in the next 6 months, highest worldwide, elsewhere in the same survey.

The fact that 2007 may turn out to be gloomier than 2006 can be ascribed to an old disease, inflation : the beast raises its head once again after a tame decade. This happens primarily as a follow-up of the global energy price rise, but also because the effects of Chinese and Indian integration in the global economy is firmly bedded in and approaches some sort of maturity, its downward effects on consumer prices and wages start to weaken. It may not fade away completely, but the relative effect of these will continue to weaken, putting pressure on inflation figures.

For a start, this may lead to sustained inflation – like the one noticed in Britain already – and force the central banks to raise the interest rates significantly. This may lead to a slump in house buying, and consequently on all consumer expenditure, setting in a deep recession worldwide. The effects on Indian economy can be quite devastating, now that we are far more exposed to global fluctuations than ever before.

This is not the only scenario though, and by no means, this is inevitable. But the key thing to remember is that it is likely. Increasingly, as the Business Leaders seem to know already. The solution is not to turn inward – because that will accentuate the disaster by adding a political dimension - but prepare ourselves for a few hard years ahead.

Business strategies that survived recessions, historically, have always been focused on the basics – innovation, good salesmanship, new ideas in value building and customer service etc – seen businesses through. Each depression cycle has seen a rise in public investment, and without being Keynesian, one knows that this will come. Lot of this investment will happen in infrastructure; physical as well as intellectual, things like education and skills, and businesses in these areas would stand to gain.

So, not everything is bleak, but times may get tougher, and need a set of new business strategies. Hopefully, Indian businesses will up their game and be ready for this new reality as and when it hits us.

Jairam Ramesh

A very endearing portrait of Jairam Ramesh as the Minister of State for Commerce in today’s Business Standard – reproduced in Rediff here http://in.rediff.com/money/2006/sep/04spec2.htm

We knew Jairam Ramesh for his sharp wit and analysis on TV, but here is a lot of common sense and what one would call ‘vision’. This is exceptional, as politicians are rarely concerned with things that don’t make big news, and do not usually concern themselves with fundamental ideas.

Contrast this approach with the State Industrial Promotion bureaus and the Chief Ministers who travel around the world scouting for foreign investment. In my opinion, they sell their states short and attempt to get investment with concessions they will never make to the ‘little guys’. They also rarely concern themselves with infrastructure – why this idea of an international airport in the Northern Bengal never came up on the State’s agenda?

I would strongly believe that foreign investment, unless it concerns a transfer of technology and know-how [which it rarely does], has usually no positive longer term impact on an economy. What they indeed have is short term impact and glamour, but they rarely solve local job creation problems, and are notoriously fickle.

What matters in long term development is grassroots entrepreneurship, which Dr. Ramesh is concerning him with.

A fresh, different approach, just what India needs at this time!

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Road Travelled

Our age has somehow become very similar to the time a century ago, when everything seemed permanent, civilisation reached a new height, and one could think – life will go on like this.

There are several reasons for this confidence. Several doomsday predictions failed to materialise. Soviet Union crumbled like a toy-house. Millennium Bug never arrived. The empire of money could expand into newer territories; even the Communist China was purchasable. Many of the fears that essentially created the defensive liberalism of the west seemed overdone.

Isn’t that very similar to the world early in the 20th century, when the centre of progress was firmly in Europe, Sciences and Arts were making unimaginable progress, morality seemed well defined and there was, all around, a sense of permanence. Everyone would have thought the European wars are over, and socialism, only a marginal force. The world seemed to have stabilized.

Had I lived in Britain those days, I would have now planned my career the way I am planning today. A global prosperity beckoning me, I would have saved money and picked up technical skills, convinced that the history has reached a plateau and if I look out, I can see the next 30/40/50 years, if not beyond.

I would have also probably thought that history itself has become a subject of no importance, now that science is leading us into a new age of prosperity and progress.

But, then, that was then, and I am living in Britain now. Similar hopes, but full of foreboding. I am a student of history, and the omens look so similar. The confidence at its height, the welfare state folded up, the world united under the empire of the money, moralities well settled, boundaries of civilisation well marked and the current system well fortified with the triple defences of media, money and military – this must be the height of civilisation and the end of history.

But, doubts linger. Why is the welfare state unsustainable? Why is the flow of money so contrary to the flow of labour? Why is democracy in Iraq looks so made up? Why, after all the confirmation from the wisebodies, globalisation does not seem to do good people who need this most [or, so we are told].

I am no revolutionary, and would not attempt to pose an answer. But, am I right in having a doubt? Does it seem similar to 1906 in some ways? Are we, humans, moving in circles really, and heading down the same road over again?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Giving up Planning

I just gave up on – planning.

It is absurd. It’s alright as long as you do it as a play, but it does not remain playful too long.

I remember, I never planned when I was sane, when I was in college and had no time, when I loved every moment of my existence. I started planning as I got hurled into a windowless office, and wishing every moment about the day when I can get out. That madness got me into planning.

I don’t mean that I never thought about future before I got stuck in an office. That would have been irresponsible. But I never planned, I dreamt – of playing cricket in Eden Gardens, of writing a great novel, of making my mother immensely proud, of seeing my eternally cynical teachers startled by my success – sort of. I could not have planned for these. So, I dreamt.

These dreams appear less absurd than my plans. For a start, I was not trying to run away from the present when I dreamt, I loved it – all of it – its lightness, its temporariness, and its possibilities. I was logical in thinking of conquering the world. I did not limit my possibilities. I felt the power in me, I trusted myself – and I lived in dreams.

The plans, on the other hand, were absurd. Or, may be, they were not my type. I made them to run away from the present. I lost faith in myself. I started believing that every moment is eternal, they keep coming back and hence must have the same pattern, and hence there is a point in planning. I planned to change the present, and assumed that the present is eternal, and gave up on dreaming.

Wise men tried to persuade that I should not give up planning altogether. I need both – dreaming and planning – they are what-s and how-s of the future. They are right, they ought to be, but they forgot to mention a few things. For example, dreaming pulls you to future, while planning pegs you back in present – the reviled present. Dreaming is about possibilities, planning is about limitations. And, I must not forget – if you think you can, you can – limitations are to be encountered and dealt with, not to be imagined and get scared of.

So, from today, I gave up planning. I shall follow the elemental myself; the cloak I put on ever since I lost faith on dreams will go now. I planned transforming myself all this while, but now the transformed me must give up planning.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Story Based Learning

Consider this story that appeared today:

New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYP) has ditched traditional classroom-based learning for a story-based approach to teaching fire safety to its 20,000 or so staff. The new Story-based Learning Objects (StoBLs™), delivered via e-learning, have been developed by the global e-learning producer, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) - and have generated strongly positive reactions from managers and thousands of learners at NYP. Staff trained via the classroom-based courses had consistently demonstrated levels of comprehension and retention which were lower than desired. One reason suggested for this was that the training was presented only in terms of steps and rules, without the application of the principles in a real-world situation. "Basically, the content didn't relate closely enough to the audience's daily experiences," said TIS's Chaitanya Hakkaladadi. "NYP, like many hospitals, has a recurring training requirement related to certifying - and re-certifying - that all of their 20,000 or so employees are aware of, and competent in, the basics of Fire Safety," commented Hakkaladadi. "This is necessary not only to ensure they can react appropriately in the event of an actual fire emergency, but also for regulatory/compliance 'spot checks', when fire and safety officials randomly show up, unannounced, and ask questions of anyone they wish. And if these employees don't answer the questions correctly, the hospital is penalised." TIS's solution was to create the 'NYP Fire Safety Course Demo' which uses a story-based approach to a learning programme which is built around the NYP fire safety acronym of 'RACE': rescue, alarm, confine, evacuate/extinguish. Each element of the acronym forms a module of the course. "Each module is a retelling of a fire event, from one character's perspective - so the same fire event is recalled five different times. Each module opens with the story, and then is followed by a series of 'teach screens' and knowledge checks," explained Hakkaladadi. "The StoBLs™ approach uses visual imagery and audio to bring learning content to life," said Alan Samuel, head of TIS's UK operations. "This enables the learning programme to achieve interactivity in the true sense of the term - engaging learners' feelings and emotions as well as imparting the knowledge that they need. "Everyone - of any age - loves a good story," Samuel continued. "Stories help to lower adult resistance to new ideas; can make the tedious memorable; make abstract concepts 'concrete' and simplify complex ideas to concepts that are readily understood."


This isn’t new – case studies are being used in Business Schools! Oh, I heard you mention Aeshop, or Panchatantra as in India, or Ancient texts. But, I must give to TIS that this is novel, whoever thought this up, as training and innovation do not usually go hand in hand.

Lessons from Kotler's Seminar in Mumbai [Business Standard/ Reproduced in Rediff.com]

Lesson 1: R&D must be market-ready
Kotler had a poser for his audience. His question: "If you were the chief marketing officer of your organisation, who would you prefer to be close to? The CEO, CFO, CIO (chief information officer) or the CRO (chief research officer)?" There was no single opinion, so Kotler decided to have the final say. He would have had it, anyways.
According to Kotler, the CMO needs to be close to everybody from the CEO to the CRO. Typically, the CFO does not see logic in investing behind brands because he is not close to marketing. And, there is an 80 per cent failure rate in new products.
"The R&D is farthest away from customers, hence they often get it wrong," he explained. Now, even in research-focused organisations like IT giant Microsoft, "marketing has become the front door and their new product success rate has become higher".
Lesson 2: Number-crunching is more than just calculating market shares
"In B-schools most students choose marketing because they did not like accounts," quips Kotler. He recommends that instead, most marketing professionals must be "clued into finance" so that the other functions in the company take marketing seriously.
"The CMO must demonstrate the return on marketing investment," he says. Kotler recommends the creation of a marketing scorecard that captures the number of new customers added every year, measures the satisfaction level of current customers and indicates the brand health.
Lesson 3: The co-creation mantra
"Make your business a workshop where your customer can draw what he wants," recommends Kotler, adding "marketing is the delivery of experience". His example is the Four Seasons hotel chain that customises hotel rooms for its guests. Whenever possible, the next time the guest visits the hotel, he gets the same room.
"While the aim of business is to create satisfied customers, the truth is companies continue to lose unsatisfied customers."
The message: plug the leaks by exceeding customer satisfaction and customer delight, moving to a higher level - customer astonishment. Kotler feels that iconic brands like Harley Davidson and iPod reach these higher levels.
What else? Devise a net promoter score to track customer satisfaction levels. Round up your most loyal customers. Ask them if they would recommend your products to others and become promoters for your brand. If the number of those promoters is increasing, it's a good score. Otherwise get the point.
Lesson 4: Expand market size
Kotler begins this lesson with the story of Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric who made it a thumb rule that GE would only operate in businesses where it was a dominant player.
When Welch asked his managers about GE's market share in their business, the executives would give impressive numbers in the range of 50 per cent.
Welch would reply, "I think it's only 10 per cent. We have not tapped the rest of the market." Kotler's point: in your rush to hit the bull's eye, don't miss out on the markets that surround the sweet spot. The dart board is bigger. There are more places to hit.
Lesson 5: Strategic trajectory for Indian brands
Indian companies face two challenges - defending their markets against the invasion of foreign labels. The second is to develop strong global brands themselves.
According to Kotler, the trajectory for Indian brands is to move from being seen as low-cost average quality products, to low-cost superior quality and finally to higher-end products.
He gives the example of Haier, the Chinese consumer durables company, which has successfully acquired a global brand status. In its first stage, Haier fixed quality. In the second stage, the company diversified its product basket from just making refrigerators to mcrowaves, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and other products.
The third stage was to globalise. Most importantly, Kotler recommends that Indian companies must lean on research. "Instead of reducing marketing to advertising and selling, it makes sense to stick to research," says the 75-year-old, with child-like enthusiasm for his pet subject.

NIIT & Element K : Analyst Views

Analyst Review: NIIT and Element K Consummate the Perfect Marriage

By Doug Harward, Founder and CEO of TrainingOutsourcing.com

On July 27, global learning services provider NIIT, headquartered in New Delhi, India announced that it had acquired Rochester, N.Y. based Element K. Combined the companies will have more than 3,000 employees throughout the world with revenues in excess of US $250 million. Instead of terming this an acquisition, I like to view it more as the perfect marriage of two complementary organizations. The union of the two companies has the ability to become one of the most powerful companies in the corporate and educational marketplace.
This is the second merger this year among "Top 20 Companies in the Training Outsourcing Industry" and definitely the most significant in terms of global reach. In June, ACS announced it was acquiring Ernst and Young's Intellinex Learning Services division. Although each deal has great importance to the industry, the NIIT - Element K deal combines two companies with strong international impact. NIIT has long been known for its content development and learning technology capabilities with a strong presence in India, China, Europe, and Africa, and a growing presence in North America. Element K's prominence has primarily been in North America through managed services for e-learning and learning technologies. Their KnowledgeHubTM solution has been well received along with their award winning suite of over 3500 online courses.

The Exciting Future of Music

From Rediff.com : On the Future of Music Distribution

Zinedine Zidane's seeing red in the final of the football World Cup has inspired a chart-topping song in France. The song is called, you guessed it, Head-Butt (or rather, Coup de Boule in French).

The reggae-ish song, which was reportedly composed in 30 minutes and posted on the Internet by a music producer trio, goes: 'Zidane a frappe, la Coupe on l'a ratee (Zidane struck, we blew the cup).'
Reports in most major newspapers of the world say the song is playing everywhere in France and being downloaded in the thousands from the Internet.

Warner Music France has bought the song from composers Franck Lascombes, S├ębastien Lipszyc and Emmanuel Lipszyc, who wrote the song out of the depression that hit them and all of France after their football captain's head-butt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi blew France's hopes of being champions of the world.

Reportedly, the trio sent the song to friends over the Internet and three hours later it was playing on Skyrock, one of the biggest French radio networks.

Interestingly, the success of the Head-Butt song -- on the heels of the success of bands like the Arctic Monkeys, who promoted their songs over the Web -- is being viewed as another example to illustrate that the Internet is where the future of music lies.

'It wasn't made to be a hit; it was made to be a joke for friends,' Emmanuel Lipszyc told London's The Guardian.

With Warner planning to release translated versions in 20 countries, it looks like the world is laughing along.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

End of History?

Have we reached the End of History, or it starts all over again?

For generations, men [and women] have always proclaimed the end of history. Like us, they felt that they have reached the apex of human civilization, at least in terms of the social organisation. It has always been assumed that technology will progress, more and more wealth will be created, new frontiers of knowledge will be explored and new powers will emerge, but essentially the human civilization will go on in its current form.

So thought the Romans, and the subsequent empires after them. Many thinkers thought so, Hegel most notably [who is thought to have invented the modern term], Marx in a different sense [as he thought of a future society which will be the end] and more recent neo-cons [influenced by Francis Fukuyama, who ended up writing the thesis].

But, as all of us know, while the end of history appeared to have arrived at many junctures, subsequent generations always found out that this was a foolish thought. The decline of Rome is of particular interest here : An empire unsurpassed in its power, a clear leader in technology and administrative system, a culture which was fast spreading around the world – does it sound familiar so far – had every reason to believe that they can go on, forever!

Yet, we know what happened, how it happened. Similar stories are littered all through our history. It proves again and again that technological leadership is not enough. There is almost no end of history, and human beings so far have not done a good job of predicting its path.

Yes, I am sure that this is not the end of history, we are heading out for an era-defining crisis again. How and when it will come is not sure, as I said, human beings were never very good at predicting the future. But it does not look good at the moment, and we must prepare for the rainy day sometime soon.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Games-Based Learning : The Hot New Area of Learning

This month’s e-learning network meeting covered a very interesting topic – Serious Games [or, Games-based Learning].

As you know already, this is close to my heart [I see a smile there – oh yes, I am not high on fidelity if you start counting how many things are close to my heart]. Not just because I play NationStates, or spent hours playing Brian Lara’s Cricket. Nor it is because I so deeply loved my stint setting up Neighbourhood Learning Centres back in 1996, when I was so deeply committed to the idea of teaching kids to play SIMCITY. For me, I did learn a lot through sports – while playing cricket or watching it or reading about it [Have you read ‘Never Say Die’?] – team play, discipline, commitment, character and presentation.

The presentations were based on a survey, where 50 large corporations across Europe were surveyed on their perception/ acceptance of the idea of games-based learning. The findings are, of course, suitably vague – most people say it is an interesting concept, but not many people are putting money on it right away.

However, if you think about it, the idea is not at all new. As I said, my school teachers [at least some of them] always knew that playing cricket needs to be an essential part of the curriculum. Monopoly has taught millions about negotiation, and various games have been used – for many decades now – in the business schools. Did you play mock parliament? No, I didn’t go to a college which used the method, but have met people who went to colleges which did.

I am not even sure it is a new concept in corporate learning. As it is, corporate learning itself is an evolving discipline; with major changes happening all over [will write more about this later]. But, use of Management Games in Corporate Learning is a very old practise, and there are many innovations – motivational games, use of humour, team exercises – which dominated the bold and the beautiful arena of corporate learning.

What is new is the use of technology in creating these games, and evolution of a literature around this area. Also, the new interest in this area is generating new sets of analytic and metric tools to trace and measure effectiveness of such tools. There is also a lot of work being done on simulating real-life business scenarios, and data models based on real businesses.

It is an industry in its infancy. There are lots to be done. But, I do see new games emerging which will have real, experiential data models and life-like simulations real soon. These games will leverage the internet and adopt multi-player architecture. And, yes, once someone has already created these games, corporations will put in their money on this too.

Before I sign off on this, an example of game-based learning that I thought is very interesting – try http://www.food-force.com/ and play the game that WFP is using to make people aware of the challenges and the pay-offs of its various food assistance programmes in various parts of the world. Even if you thought of the UN as a convoluted bureaucracy, you will be surprised to see that they have at least taken the lead in games-based learning over the corporations.

Monday, June 12, 2006

All work and no play? The brave new world of strategy games

I have spent some time on Games in the last two weeks. Oh, no, I am not talking football – despite the media frenzy on World Cup now. Nor I am talking Cricket, though I do feel that India is doing better than expected in the West Indies.

The games I am talking about are virtual ones, and concern themselves with Politics and Business. So, this is about playing the Father of a Nation - you can choose what you want to be - a Lenin, a Nehru, a Mandella, or a Mobutu Sese Seko.

Consider this one to start with, Nation States. This is game about managing nations. Though at an elementary level, it throws at you political and administrative issues at a regular interval, and let you choose a response. Based on your response, the nation you are managing grows or declines, gets into war or prospers in peace. This also has regions – a thriving community of other nation-managers and the United Nation, where the nations compete for influence, and debate and vote on issues.

This is free and fun, you can see where I am getting to with my new-born nation at http://www.nationstates.net/kolkata

The other one is Second Life, which is more about business, so this is about playing Donald Trump or Martha Stewart [No, not Steve Jobs - it is mostly about real estate and lifestyles at this time]. Here, you can be reborn, with a name of your choosing [subject to availability, and you have to belong to one of the clans from the list of surnames available].

The idea of Second Life is that once you are there, you can invest some money and buy land in different regions, and then do whatever people do with land – build a house, sell it, speculate with it etc. This, of course, extends beyond just Real estate – one can start businesses around the community. There are Second Life weddings, so services of Wedding Planner and Caterers are also required.

I have already come across people who have made money in Second Life – heard of a Second Life Millionaire, even.

I have so far created myself – as Alfred Chandler, after the strategy guru – and plan to start something. However, this may have to wait till I make some money in the first life itself, but let’s see.

And, of course, I must mention SIM City, which I started playing in 1995, but still love its new versions. The Sims have become far more diverse now, and do a lot more things – like starting a business and flirting inside office – but once you are hooked, you stay hooked.

I wonder how long it will take to include such strategy games to become an acceptable part of a Training Calendar. I am not sure why it is already not there, and who should take the lead in adopting these for such use – game developers, corporate managers or e-learning content providers. But one thing you will be certain about – there is an opportunity here, which not many people are pursuing.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

'Anyone Can Do It'

Entertaining and Inspirational, May 30, 2006

This is two books blended into one [just like coffee] - one, the human story of building coffee republic, the soul searching of Sahar and Bobby after their father's death, the journey, the obstacles and goof-ups and all; the other, more like a business book, with 57 laws, advise and sample business plans etc. From the structure, it seemed that the authors wanted to make it the latter - a business advise book. I have, however, given a 5-star to the former, the human story.

Dont read it if you are just looking for how to start a business handbook. There are those free guides from Business Link which will do better. Not only that - once you read this book, you may start feeling that you got to be incredibly lucky and well-placed [read the comments about going without an income for two years in other reviews] to become an entrepreneur. That's not the morale of this story here, at all.

But if you are looking for a real story how people build a business, you will find it right here. All in the package - starting with the motivation [Father's death and introspection in this case], the idea [Not a new microchip, but something they noticed and enjoyed in US], the development [Sahar moving around with a camera in New York, the business plan, the failures] and the actual process of business [getting a site, a loan, suppliers, employees and customers, complete with goof-ups and strokes of luck].

The best bit of the book? You will have to wait till the end. No, I am not trying to give out the plot - but I am sure you will discover why this real, humane story of entrepreneurship deserved a 5-star.

[This is the review of 'Anyone Can Do It: How we built Coffee Republic' by Sahar and Bobby Hashemi that I posted on Amazon recently]

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Entrepreneurship Notes: 3 Issues in Customer Service

Why do so many companies offer such bad customer service, when everyone knows better?

If you think of it, it is really amazing how bad things can be. I have worked with companies which preach the value of customer service all the time, but fail to deliver only too often. And, as a consumer, I am appalled by what I keep getting everyday – not from the start-ups but also from big companies – big enough to maintain customer support departments.

As an entrepreneur, one must know a solution. No one wants to offer bad customer service. So, how most companies end up offering such miserable services? I have heard people say that customers are at fault – they don’t read contracts, for example – but that is as dumb a statement as you can get. The real culprit here is that Marketing Director who devised such a ‘clever’ contract in the first place, so clever that the customers don’t read it.

Bad customer service usually catches up with the provider. We have seen big companies being shunned by customers for this reason – leading to their downfall. Even it catches up with governments these days, and they are desperately trying to improve the act. And, for the start-ups, they simply can not afford it, as for them every onlooker also counts.

So, where do things go really wrong? I have always spent time in a customer facing role, and I can suggest some pointers where things usually go wrong. However, one of the key jobs of an entrepreneur is to be in touch with his/her customers – watching the situation and knowing when things go wrong [for this, count nothing out – including making customer support calls by you or sending a friend posing as a prospect].

So, here is a TOP Three Reasons list – where your customer service may go seriously wrong:

Issues in Proposition
Too often, companies draw up ‘clever’ contracts and product propositions, often misunderstood by the customers. Leave out the fringe companies which do it intentionally. But this is more common than anyone would imagine, and I would say most companies try to do it some way or the other. What is the point otherwise in writing ‘£9.95 a month for Unlimited Broadband [for the first three months, £21.99 thereafter. A Minimum 12 months contract applies]’?

Sometimes, it is only clever marketing – but guard against being too clever. When the entrepreneur approves of such campaigns, the sales guy may take it as an approval for omitting the fine print to those who are dumb enough to ask him.

So, if your customer issues arise more out of not reading/ understanding the terms of service – let’s say, if it is higher than one call in your entire period of existence – it is wise to check whether you are being too clever.


Issues in Communication

This is familiar territory, isn’t it? We all know how bad an impression that Indian Call Centre guy created about such-and-such company, by not greeting properly, or by not understanding the commonest of English expressions [for example, what do Australians mean when they say "Scona rine," an expression phonetically recorded by humorist Alistair Morrison? Answer: "It's going to rain.", OR, What anatomical appendages are used to pay for something that is outrageously expensive? Answer: an arm and a leg]

However, it can indeed be larger than that. The biggest issue in customer service communication is disinterest [and the biggest winner is, vice versa, interest and ownership]. I have seen a client call customer service of a company to say that her software programme is not working, only to be told by the customer executive that ‘but it is working on my computer, ma’am, so the problem must be at your end’. The problem was indeed at the client’s end - her browser was not allowing pop-ups. However, this particular customer was furious about how she was treated.

So, how you solve this problem? By reiterating that customers are all important, all the time! Well, most companies do that all the time, so where is the problem? I guess the answer lies in a common management practise of customer segregation [is the correct term – segmentation? But I do think ‘segregation’ is more appropriate.]

Issues in Segregation
After I started my career in customer support for an e-mail company which had severe service problems and needed customer service intervention too often, we were going mad handling the volume of calls and complexity of the tasks needed to be done. So, one day, the floor manager made this ‘discovery’ – not all customers are equal, at least some of them are more equal than others. I remember being horrified – my middle class upbringing revolted by such a concept – but, as I know now, it is a very well-entrenched management concept.

I wont repeat it, as I know you know it already. But, this culture of ‘prioritisation’, which I learnt subsequently working with a large company for many years, is the single biggest mistake in customer service.

When a distressed customer calls in, it is your interest and empathy that matters. You inject strategy and legal niceties at that point of contact, I can assure you that you will out of business soon. I have read CEOs talking about missing the human factor for their customer service issues – basically meaning that their excellent processes are failing to deliver customer satisfaction because of a ‘human failure’ at the point of contact. Dig deeper, and you will see that too often than not, customer segregation is steeped into the culture of the company, and they have strategically ‘de-humanised’ the process of customer service.

I am writing for start-ups and for my own start-up, and hence this summary about surviving the Customer Service challenge : don’t be clever. Be human, be transparent – bring the spirit of the corner-store in your enterprise. Don’t segregate, remember the morale of Sainsbury’s story [They were known to be phenomenally rude to the small suppliers, only to discover that over time, those small company executives went on to manage large companies, and did not bat an eyelid to forget the ‘special relationship’ the retailer may have enjoyed when the going was good]: today’s small company executive may represent your biggest buyer tomorrow. Every situation is different, but there is one simple principle – be human.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Entrepreneurship Notes: 2 What's Wrong With Business Plans?

Did you know that 94.5% of all failed businesses globally lose the plot at the business planning stage?

Well, I did not know – I invented this statement. There is neither such statistics available, nor is such a survey possible. However, I got away asking this question to many business owners and executives. Some nodded in agreement, some argued [‘I thought it would be more’], some made a note in their writing pad and some said they saw this before – in a study, but they don’t exactly remember which one.

This is what is precisely wrong with Business Plans. Having lived through the experience [see why I failed in Netprotraining.com], I know the longer you live in this make-believe world of ‘Business Planning’, the more likely you are to lose the business.

So, what should the entrepreneur do? Go ahead without a business plan? Will the bank managers or investors be impressed?

Not at all - A business plan is an extremely necessary component of the business, and will always remain so. However, it is important to be clear in one’s mind what a business plan is, and what it isn’t. Only such clarity can save the exercise of making a business plan from being counter-productive.

Well, no pretensions of expertise – I have only failures on my side so far – so I shall say three top things what a Business Plan is not. I do think this is the most important bit, as the process invariably plods one the wrong way.

1. Business Plans are not actual Profit and Loss statements of the business for years to come

At the planning stage, you can hardly get your numbers right. So, despite temptations and pressures to do so, stay away from spending too much time on this. The key is to create a BUSINESS MODEL – a structure identifying revenue streams, necessary overheads and variable costs, and identifying a level where the business will be sustainable, and where it will be profitable. The BUSINESS MODEL should do precisely what the multi-year projections tend to undermine, highlight the market forces that may alter the premises and figure out whether the business can sustain [for example, by cutting overheads] such changes.

Nothing wrong with those detailed year-by-year projections people work out – just that they tend to divert attention from the real thing and gives the plan an air of finality, a mistake to be avoided at all costs. I remember making this business model which said we must have 20 students a month to break-even, and about 25 to earn a decent return on capital, but then spent a month working on ‘whether we can reach 50 students a month’. You do that once you are in business, not before starting.

2. Business Plans are not to SELL your business, but to run your business

Admittedly, you will have to make a business plan when and if you intend to sell your business. But, that is not why business plans are made – they are essentially blue-prints for running a business.

However, as more and more business plans get made for VCs, this is often forgotten. A friend argued that this is irrelevant, as the key objective is to make the business attractive and profitable.

But, as you will see, there is an important distinction between making a business attractive and making a business look attractive. As we all know, our actions, beliefs and statements are mostly guided by our economic objective most of the time – hence, such a distinction matter. This results in providing for too little in costs, projecting too high revenue, and usually both.

3. Business Plans are not about numbers and strategies, but it is about people and their aspirations

The other thing I have learnt the hard way is that business plans are not about numbers and strategies. The markets are too dynamic for any of these to be correct and viable before the start of business. It is, indeed, more about people and what they wish to do. Any experienced VC looks for this – as I have been repeatedly told – and essentially they look at whether the founder/ entrepreneur see this business aligned with his abilities and aspirations. The business plans are more about showing your heart is into it.

With so many tools and techniques and self-help books available in the market, business plans are no longer difficult to make. But it is easy to miss the point, business plans are the business owners’ manifesto for the business – what it is, how it is run and what it will be. I have pledged to myself – the next business plan I attempt to write, I shall stay away from Excel [till the very end of the process, at least] and use the old-fashioned pen and paper instead.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Entrepreneurship Notes : 1 My Mistakes with Netprotraining.com

Now that my plans to get into a business soon have all but evaporated, I could manage to catch up with my reading on the subject of entrepreneurship. Whatever is its practical implication in my life, it is indeed stimulating. Surely, I was thoroughly entertained by Bobby and Sahar Hashemi’s Anyone Can Do It – their story of building Coffee Republic, or for that matter, by the engrossing piece on Sabeer Bhatia’s journey in The Nudist In The Late Shift. The good thing about these is that they are not empire-building stories, they don’t come with the super-human aura of Bill Gates, or the flamboyance of a Richard Branson [I also read Losing My Virginity in last few weeks], or the almost surreal presence of Steve Jobs. The Hashemis or Sabeer Bhatia come across as people like us, a bundle of aspirations, limitations, ‘lucky breaks’ and failures, and makes the subject of entrepreneurship a human story.

This also launched me into thinking about my brief flirtation with an entrepreneurship – my Netprotraining.com years – which was full of excitement, ideas and possibilities, but eventually came to nought. So, thinking back, I compiled a list of what we did wrong [or would have done differently if I was doing it now].

For a start, Netpro had brilliant possibilities. We had a great product – a training programme just right for the time [I met IT Training entrepreneurs in England and India who made millions out of running similar programmes during that time], cutting-edge advantage [We not only identified great curricula, being ahead of the pack, got great pricing deals too]. We spent a lot on infrastructure and got the best-looking training centre in the town, had brand new machines, and kept investing in making things better. We also marketed ourselves well, and generated a steady stream of footfalls right from the start. Yes, looking back – we got lot of things right.

But, we got some key things wrong, and that made all the difference. Some of them were not blindingly obvious, and therefore, I run the risk of making these again. But, I hope that this reflection will make me learn, and I shall avoid these from now on.

Mistake 1: Waited Unduly

We decided to tie up with Prosoft in February 1999, got a company structure in place by 1st of May, and then started trading only on 6th December. We spent all the time in working out numbers on business plan – an excruciating but meaningless exercise – but not on things which mattered, like getting right people etc. Some businesses may take 10 months to start, but not the Internet Technology training business right in the middle of dotcom craze. We missed out big time, and when we finally went to market, the timing was horrible, with two big scams breaking [training companies disappearing with student money] and the first news on dotcom crash coming through.


Mistake 2: Wrong Numbers
I don’t regret the timing so much – because I could do nothing to control it – but I do regret wasting the time on a meaningless business plan. Meaningless, because if I remember correctly we hardly added new ideas after 1st May, but spent all the time window-dressing the numbers. I was jobless at the time – heroically left employment to be an entrepreneur – and was on my credit card all the time till I find finance. Funnily, the investor we spoke on 1st May was the man who went on to finance the venture, but he made me rework the plan and project higher numbers – for ourselves [!] – many times over. Those numbers were meaningless, because by time we opened shop, all assumptions have changed.

Mistake 3: Wrong Aspirations
To this day, when in moments like this, I bemoan Netpro, I wonder what we set out to do. I don’t have a definitive answer. I wanted to have a global career – but surely one does not start a training business to achieve that. My financer, a young businessman with an MBA from Babsons, wanted to build a billion-dollar business in three years. Surely, training was not for him too. He wanted to start and sell off, and was always worried that we are not franchising enough to be saleable.

Mistake 4: People Mismatch
We picked wrong people, on top of it. We wanted to save on wages, and the VC was not keen on giving out equity. So, we ended up inexperienced people, and more critically, inexperienced managers. So, it was a non-starter from day one.

Mistake 5: When your heart is not in it..
The mother of all mistakes – by the time we secured the finance, I lost the game personally. I was aware of the market turning nasty, and also the protracted negotiation with the financers ate up my excitement. I gave away too much of the company and control – thinking back, not because I had to, but because I was almost sure that we lost the plot. I accepted defeat before we even started.

Looking back, I wonder why Netpro survived as a business for as long as it did, or did well at least for a period. I am tempted to think that if I stayed on, we would have still made it. But, no, above everything, I remain painfully aware of these mistakes, and I still know, for all my enlightening, all of them are very easy to repeat [I almost did, last year].

Friday, May 12, 2006

Poll Results in West Bengal

I saw a lot of messages on other message boards yesterday on why LF won this 7th term. The reasoning is widely varied - ranging from rigging [somewhat mute this time] to indoctrination of people of West Bengal.

I do think these armchair experts are in denial, they can not quite figure out why the LF can not be dislodged in WB. I never voted my local LF candidate, but was always of the opinion that rigging alone can not produce such a consistent majority over such a long period of time. As far as the 'indoctrination' theory is concerned, I take offence as this undermines the intelligence of the electorate, and has an 'anti-democratic' slant at the very least.

I would believe that the LF keeps winning because they are the best available alternative. They have delivered a consistent and stable administration, and have contributed in making lives better for a lot of people. They have also won two big strategic wars - first, when they were losing way in the midst of various corruption scandals, by installing an untainted CM and giving a make-over to the whole administration, and second time by staying low key and effectively allowing the opposition to dis-unite under personality battles.

This said, I do not think that such an unchallenged stint is good for people of WB. While the CM is doing a great job, his whole administration is not as effective, and hence it needs the checks and balances, at least a more effective opposition in time for the next election.

And, how? I guess the big problem is the current opposition - this whole personality cult around Mamta Banerjee. I am just hoping that this election will serve as a reminder that Mamta Banerjee is probably the best thing to happen to CPM in many years. Till such time the opposition keeps pitting this fire-breathing self-obsessed past-sell-by-date opportunist against a 'seen as efficient' administration and a transparent, focused CM - it is only going to get better for LF.

In summary, I do think people in WB are pragmatic and they have chosen the LF for practical reasons, and not ideology. It is time we confront the reality. It is also absolutely necessary that we have an effective, policy-oriented opposition, which has its own vision for WB and own ways of doing things. So, time for everyone to think - and time for the opposition to take a strategic make-over.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Google Trends

Have you checked out Google Trends yet?

This is the new service from Google, which allows you to see overall trends in usage of search terms, for regions, cities, languages – over a period of time.

Google Search, being what it is, an entry point to the world for most people online, is a powerful indicator of social trends. Meant for marketers, who can optimize their marketing campaigns [especially in terms of search engine marketing] – but this is a service which throws open an enormous possibility of social research. And, also, such things are also entertaining.

You can access the service at http://www.google.com/trends

Here are certain things that I learnt:

Searched on ‘Training’ and it seems most searches originate from Delhi, India.. trainers in Delhi, you seem to be a lucky lot.

‘University’ – 7 of top 10 places go to US cities, and the other three to India, Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi. Are you surprised?

‘Tower Bridge’ – I wanted to see how accurate this is, and 9 of top 10 places are in UK – quite understandably. Stuttgart stands on the 10th – made me wonder why – and my guess is that Stuttgart’s famous Television Tower and pedestrian bridges have something to do with this.

But, ‘Iraq’ has fewer subtleties – all the top 10 places searching for Iraq are in US, the top one being Washington. Mr. Bush is definitely having a busy time.


Things like this tell you a story, don’t they – a global story! Have a play, discover, it can be quite useful. It is wonderful for marketing too, I have now discovered that Online Learning is twice as popular a search term than elearning in UK, and trying to change a few things on our website. I am sure you will soon have your share of profound insights too.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Life Beyond BPO

I must be wrong – I have been discouraging an old friend of mine to get into BPO business. I told him that in Fast Company’s list ‘5 jobs that won’t exist in 2010’, the jobs of Indian Call Centre worker ranks third. But, then, I saw him getting disappointed, and I backed off.

To be honest, I ended up encouraging him in the end, connecting him on Ryze and leading him to the Outsourcing forum, in case he manages to get a lead. But, yes, deep down my heart, I was not convinced that BPO is a good start-up opportunity anymore, if it ever was.

I am not exactly sounding sane, and I am conscious of that. But, I have my reasons, and I must try to make my point in the assumed privacy of my blog. So, here goes – my laundry list of reasons why someone planning to launch a business now should start thinking beyond BPO.

Reason 1: It isn’t easy

Providing Call Centre Support or Accounting etc isn’t easy. Remember, when you take on your US or UK clients’ order, it comes with a Service Level commitment which isn’t easy to meet. You need a workforce that is cheap [so that you can maintain the cost advantage] and able [so that you can deliver service]. Now this puts you up for a competition with IBM, Accenture and EDS as you start up, not the best competitive landscape one hopes for, I suppose. Too many business plans get drawn up without factoring this in – a fatal mistake! The inevitable equilibrium is reached by settling for a second tier workforce, neither meeting the customer’s requirement nor earning a nice profit, as eventually the costs keep rising too.

Reason 2: It isn’t new

I guess it is essential for every successful business venture to start with a question: what value can I deliver? No, I am not a believer that all business ideas have to be new, fresh out of the oven. But, there has to be a clearly identifiable value-add, an answer to this question: why should this business exist? I am sure it is okay even to have a pedestrian answer, something like ‘there is not a single decent curry house in this locality’, or ‘I know how to sell an event like this’, or even ‘I do great designs and I must let people have that’. But, saying ‘I think there are lots of potential in the BPO market and I shall put up a shop and see whether I can get a trickle’ – nah!

Reason 3: It isn’t sustainable

Well, you can point out that you can build competencies / specialisms by being around in a business. True, if you count contacts, market knowledge etc – just being around in a business, you can accumulate the value-additive inputs. But, then, BPO isn’t a very sustainable business that way, it is cash hungry – you must get good people paying good money, and keep service levels high. Otherwise, you will not get anywhere with contacts or knowledge. So, if you are trying to get your feet wet, this is not something you should be looking at.

What Offended My Friend?

I told my friend this is a good time to start a BPO unit only if he knows someone in one of the Industrial Promotion Boards or other various government agencies and can get some low cost loans out of them. I have seen such scams in Bangladesh, where the World Bank created a fund for such new businesses [dubbed EEF], dispersed a lot of money for BPO units – given out as equity funds which the entrepreneur must buy back after 2 years – and ended up funding over-costed units, where the promoters removed the low cost funds from the business and invested in shares or other items of luxury. Did anyone pay back? I doubt, because bankruptcy of the business was an easier alternative. But even if some people did, they did not earn their money out of BPO.

I did not mean to offend him though. The government is always very bad at spotting opportunities and promoting them, so it is actually a bit of an enterprise spotting the idiosyncrasies of public policy and earning an arbitrage from adjusting it to markets.

So, Isn’t India Going To Shine Anymore?

I didn’t say that at all. I am certain – India will become far more powerful an economy that it ever was. But, that will not be because of outsourcing in its current format. Nor it will be for big companies like IBM or Accenture setting up large sweatshops in Indian cities.

It will be because the entrepreneurs like my friend will eventually discover the life beyond BPO. They will create the new wave of software and services – I have already come across entrepreneurs in Calcutta, Bangalore and Mumbai talking about investments in Web 2.0, Software as Service concepts, e-Business enabling services for domestic markets, e-education and rural telecom projects, ideas and businesses which will spawn a new generation of service business-owners in India. These people are not only looking at the western market, and does not want to remain low-paid clerks; they are looking at markets in China, South East Asia, Africa, Middle East and domestic market in India, and trying to be the best in their own classes and categories.

We are all set for life beyond BPO, I suppose.







Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Failed States Index 2006



For all the optimism about India’s economic progress, one must keep watching its back – the region seems to be entering an unstable, violent phase, next only to Central Africa in terms of its regional stability.

Why do I sound so grim? Look at the Fund For Peace Failed State Index for 2006 and you will discover almost all of India’s neighbours in Top 25 Failed States in the world. Pakistan at 9, Afghanistan at 10, Myanmar at 18, Bangladesh at 19, Nepal at 20 and Sri Lanka at 25 – do not paint a rosy picture of the region at all.

India itself is at 93, somewhat cosy, but slightly worse than Libya in some of parameters [OK – oil money, I agree!]. Bhutan at 39 also does not look too good – especially when citizens’ quality of life is the professed aim of the state over economic growth.

Does this index say much? Depending on where you stand politically, you may or may not attach great value to such studies. Fact, however, remains that the region IS indeed unstable. To get anywhere near India’s aim of becoming a developed country by 2020, we need to sort our own house in order first; in this case, we mean the neighbourhood.

Am I talking of a solution? There is no easy solution perhaps. This is a nuclear region, with a history of hatred and division. But it is time for Indian policy makers to sit up and work out a clear, balanced and unambiguous policy towards its neighbours. If the region continues to sink in chaos, India will have no choice but to keep spending on military hardware and fences [isn’t that what we thought about Bangladesh?], instead of education and health.

One does not easily become rich in a poor, violent neighbourhood – or at least, let me say, in cases of countries, it does not work that way.  

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