Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Final Solution : How Private Ownership of Public Services will come unstuck!

It has been about 20 years since the heyday of Reaganomics, Thatcher's privatizations and Milton Friedman's great triumph. The popular media has this habit of convoluting things - but it is almost two decades since the evil Soviet regime collapsed in Russia, and also about 20 years since Tienanmen [though this must be forgotten on the year of the Olympics].

In our minds, save that Tienanmen bit, or in fact including that Tienanmen bit, this is actually the bits of the same picture - the win of free will, capitalism, or whatever name you call this by. An ideological triumph, that is. Unquestionably, as all countries have fallen in line, there is a free market for everything including nuclear weapons, and except the poor farmers in Europe and the United States, everyone wants Doha round!

However, there is this ugly spectre of credit crunch around the corner, which must be dealt with. It is not going away, though many people have predicted at different times that the worst is past. Some doomsayers like me would like to think it is going to stay - and it will be far more humane than Sharon Stone's ill-advised comment on Chinese earthquake as Karma [she got fired by Christian Dior for saying that] to say that the payback time for all our Karma for last 20 years has come.

Consider public services, with Thatcher privatized in Britain with such pomp. The conventional wisdom is that the Public Services improve under private ownership, though this is another urban myth in the same class as The Superman. It can't, all things remaining the same. Public Services can be managed efficiently and effectively, one does not know why unions always have to be seen as an unmitigated adversary, and there are many examples of successful public services generating money.

The private ownership of public services can not work, because, for most public services, competitive models don't apply. And, allowing private ownership in a monopolistic marketplace is the next best thing after hell. The objective of public services are to provide people with a level of service to keep the society functional - and the private owners of course wants to make as much money as quickly as they can - the two goals are incompatible.

No doubt, the public services were badly managed and the private ownership enjoyed an initial bounce. However, the twenty year cycle is over, and potentially we are looking at the long, deep recession in its face. Under the watch of a generation of central bankers who knew nothing but interest rate manipulation, inflation has now returned, the efficiency gains from global expansion and peace dividend from the end of cold war have evened out and costs of fuel and food have climbed up to unimaginable level. An almost Malthusian crisis has arrived, a turn of the long term growth cycle, something which our generation hasn't experienced yet.

This isn't another stock market crisis or house price meltdown. This is the first general crisis of the post-cold-war economics. The private ownership of public facilities - transport, water, electricity, gas - will be the first to fail the society now, as the incompatibility of their objectives will show up for the first time. The governments will initially try the ineffective way of subsidy, which is taking money from us to protect corporate profits under another name, but even the space for that is minimal.

It seems that the FINAL SOLUTION of Capitalism has come to unravel now, and we shall see a wave of nationalization again. Who said retro fashion does not work in politics?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The 'New' Sales

It was not long ago, experts announced the 'death' of sales function. Well, not that many businesses will buy that idea, but with the advent of Internet, consumer empowerment and abundance of information, sales seemed to be a redundant function. Or, its effectiveness was assumed to have greatly diminished.

In the sales-less world, of course, Branding reigned. The trust that people endowed a salesman was supposed to have been replaced by the trust on a symbol - a brand - and this was assumed to be the 'final solution' in the cluttered marketplace.

The point, of course, is that this is too good to be true. Instead of making products rise above the clutter, branding itself created the clutter, bringing to fore meaningless differentiation and assuming the know-all stance that every consumer always hated in a salesman. The other problem was that brands intended to be everything to everyone, that street-corner salesman at least had occassional anger and disappointment, but brands instead were perfect chameleon, spawning out line extensions at a dizzying rate and losing all appetite to represent any single notion.

Of course, I generalize. Isn't that the nature of a theory? The text book distinction of marketing and sales wouldn't last its first 30 seconds of reality in the commercial world. But the idea is not whether there is a difference, but that there should be a difference. This is the reason why marketers should have a glass office, whereas their poor salesmen cousins should not even be given a chair, lest they sit down a moment to think! The marketers are supposed to be about analysis and getting the customer to come to us, whereas the salesmen should run around and get the customer.

And, obviously, in the new world of Internet and customer empowerment, it was marketers who were supposed to keep their jobs. After all, they were mostly MBAs, whereas the salesmen did not know what's happening.

It is, however, rather sad that the opposite is happening. In fact, the opposite is happening in a dizzying pace. The real world's boom-bust cycles are very effective BS killer - so the current downturn will nail marketing to where it belongs: In front of the customer.

So much for the theory and corner offices, and of running away from accountability and wearing the creative smoke! Internet empowered the consumers to pierce through the information shield and figure out what's really important for them. Comparison sites bringing loads of information together, and weeding out the inefficient and the unneccessary. Branding faces a serious challenge in the mind of an increasing eco-ethics aware consumer. Regulation and Preferences are driving more disclosure - of a product's feature, origin, carbon footprint etc - and all that makes the logo look smaller, not just physically. The increasing fragmentation of TV is driving the favourite child of mass media era - 30 second spot - to oblivion. [Read Joseph Joffe's Life after 30 Second Spot] What marketing can do to the product is becoming limited in scope.

But this also heralds the return of the salesman. Not the salesman as the order taker - he died long back - but the salesman as the strategic relationship builder, salesman as the market researcher, salesman as the last mile connect with the increasingly volatile customer. In a tough, competitive world, everyone sells - but it is the salesman who holds it together, keeps it focused. He can now rightfully claim that glass office and respect from the other, cerebral, colleagues. The small firms always knew this, but I guess the tough times make it so obvious that even the academics can see it.

Arise, new sales!

Case for a National Talent Management Office

I did write about this before, but newspapers everyday are sore reminders of how badly this is needed. Living in Britain of today isn't very different from the experiences of British observers in India in the late Seventeenth century - a rich society immersed in the luxuries of life, and yet oblivious of the growing threat to its prosperity. A society in denial - in short! Yes, it was not so obvious to British observers travelling to India then, but should be clear to us now with the benefits of hindsight, but hardly anyone seems to care.

Today's news is that of Conservatives accusing Gordon Brown that during his Chancellorship of last eleven years, most of the newly created jobs have gone to immigrants. The British people, they say, have moved on to benefits and lived a life of 'poverty'.

Well, honestly, conservatives being what they are, they don't even know the meaning of this word 'poverty'. Yes, indeed, living in municipal housing and receiving a payment end of the week for doing nothing is poverty, but not of the kind the word implies to the rest of the world. Immigrants are alternately accused of free-loading the public services and stealing jobs, both of which can not be simultaneously true.

Gordon Brown obviously can claim being hard on the immigrants too. He, after all, abolished the 10p Tax rate, and effectively doubled the taxation of immigrant women who worked part time to make ends meet. He did offset this draconian measure by offering more benefits to 'hard-working families', though immigrants being mostly excluded from benefits, those hard-working families mostly live in the government houses and read football news for work. He tightened the immigration system too, made it hard for people to come legally into Britain, and dis-incentivized the skilled workers from coming altogether.

However, in today's world, managing immigration is talent management, a job that requires skill, sensitivity and imagination. I am an immigrant myself and I must state my case - most immigrants work hard, live legally and peacefully and contribute the most in terms of taxes. They keep the house prices and rents up, inflation down, curries served and roads cleaned. Without the immigrants, there will be no public services. If the immigrants left the town, 'British people' will not come back to the workforce - they will claim higher benefits as the cost of living will go up.

As a skilled immigrant, I had choices of other countries, and I chose Britain because of cultural familiarity. However, the inconsistency and insensitivity of the government to the issue of immigration, the tendency to paint all immigrants with the same brush and this 'stealing jobs' argument are simply annoying. I am familiar with other skilled migrants who will go through a longer waiting period to go to Australia or Canada, which presents a more humane approach to immigration. The national statistics already indicate that many of the East European migrants who came to Britain after 2004 have already gone back. The point everyone seems to miss is that this isn't a good thing.

The great Mughal kings did not see it coming, but Gordon Brown as well do. The competitiveness and the long term well-being of Britain is under threat. One can wrangle about statistics, but step inside any NHS hospital and you know what I mean. It isn't any secret also that the great American prosperity in the 20th century coincided with the great wave of skilled migration from Europe in the wake of the great wars. [One wonders whether the decline of this great power will also coincide with the chauvinism and closed doors culture, which preceded Europe's decline]

Time Mr. Brown enlists some help and this needs to come from Talent Management experts. One suggestion: Jose Maurinho is still looking for a job.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Calendar

This is a personal note. I am now back in London and shall not travel till end of June.

Wow! What a break - I say to myself. I always wanted a travelling job, but when it materialized, like many other things, it was at The Wrong Time! I quite enjoy being in different places - not the touristy bit, but the fact that I am involved in setting up real businesses in different countries is indeed exciting - but my life is in a mess right now.

When I started doing this an year back, I was patiently accumulating brownie points in adjusting in a new country. I was building my career all over again, bit by bit, and I was having a good run. Then, this opportunity came - something I wanted to do for a while. I took it - not taking that would have been against my grains.

Looking back, that was actually a step backward. I was leaning on my past rather than striving towards my future. I know I am good at this kind of work - when I say I am possibly one of the best in the world in selling training, I am only half-joking - but resting on what I have done in the past wasn't necessarily the smartest strategy to improve myself.

Anyway, I am into it now and have this unenviable task of building up several new businesses - I would not have known how multiple teething pains feel if I did not do this - but I have let the agenda of my self development slip. That's the key mistake - I almost became too comfortable last 12 months.

So, here I am - trying to recontruct my life and put myself back on track. I obviously know all the work I have done in the past four years does count, but I am setting myself as if I am starting from scratch. I already have a job, which is a great thing. I am now working on getting enough paper qualification so that I have demonstrable proof of competence - joined an MA in Marketing Management to top up my CIM qualification - and working on and updating my skill sets quickly. I am conscious that this will take up all my time in next few weeks, and hence, if I don't talk about anything else other than marketing and my work, that will only be indicative how busy I am keeping. Focus as a strategy never worked for me in the past; I want to give it a final try.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

What it means to be an Indian

Winston Churchill famously said India is no more of a country than the Equator. And, I guess many people all over the world will agree with him, including most Indians. The diversity of India is staggering. The sheer largeness of the country, the number of people, the differences - social, economic, linguistic - makes one wonder how this could remain one country for so long. As Churchill eloquently expressed - the modern European concept of a nation can not possibly explain the 'Indian-ness'.

Despite this, there have been several attempts to define Indian-ness in modern terms. The nation that Nehru built, more precisely. It always appears a bit of an hotch-potch, a political rather than a natural identity, more of an ideological construction in the lines of Vincent Smith's Unity in Diversity. Or, may be more like the abstract idea contained in Nehru's Discovery of India. In this construction, average Indians spoke English, lived a liberal social life in the cities, wanted a secular state to strive towards social and economic equality, and was attuned to democracy over the communal and casteist preferences.

But the reality on the ground remains starkly different - the diversity in Language, Religious Belief, Caste and Class remains unbreakable. Therefore, this idea of Indianness remains unfathomable to the majority of Indians - who speak no English, live in villages within the confines of their caste and accept the unbearable burden of poverty and social disgrace as God's will.

From this confusion, arose another view of the Indian identity - that of the Hindu Nationalists. The Indianness they preach is based on Hindu-lite, one that mixes Veda with Bollywood, the mythology of Kalki with the fables of superman, the common law of Manu Samhita with the code of WTO. This vision of India over-rules diversity in favour of Hindu and Hindi. This identity is no less mythical than the first one. And, no more acceptable - as the majority of Indians are not Upper-caste, or Hindi-speaking, or Male. Paradoxically, while the Nehruvians set out to construct a nation in European sense and misses the target, the Hindu Nationalists assume the existence of a nation in the European sense and are wide off the mark.

So, is it possible to identify ourselves as Indians? Yes, indeed. If Churchill, instead being the old snob as he was, studied history, he would have known that India was a geographic identity since the ancient times, land on the south of the Indus. It was a historically consistent identity too - the king who integrated the landmass of India country was Ashoka, the buddhist emperor, about 250 years before Christ. The land was united by language and culture and tradition for many years before the British rulers set out to unite it by tax codes.

Any study of Indian history tells us then how it is our frame of reference that makes us ask the wrong question. Why do we have to define our Indianness in the context of the modern european thinking of a nation?

We seem to confuse identity with attributes - and this sets us out in a wild goose chase for 'Indian-ness'. The India that was always there, one that we accepted when we are born and never had to 'discover', is almost overlooked. It indeed is that geographical, cultural identity, where one is told a set of stories, regardless of their caste and religion, a land where nature is revered and manifested in Gods, a land where material possessions of life were less important than spiritual achievements, and where people, for generations, accepted a supreme design, working side by side with their own efforts, determine their destiny. This is the land that the kings we know of ruled. It is a mix of traditions, stories, ways of looking at things that made us Indian.

The modern European 'Indian-ness' or its reverse Hindu image talks about certain attributes. For example, it attempts to determine which Gods, Kings and Stories are Indian. The truth is - all of that was Indian, because India, as tradition will say, has everything, contains everything. These views attempts to tell us what should be regarded Unindian, which is an oxymoron, as India is the land of the whole.

Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet whose 157th birth annivarsary we just celebrated, viewed India as a meeting place of all cultures, religions, traditions and beliefs. For him, the inclusiveness was Indian, the tolerance was Indian. The English imperial vision was that wherever there was an English soldier buried, that little land was England. Tagore's vision of Indianness said - anyone in the world, who believes in inclusion, tolerance and continuity, is an Indian.

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