Sunday, August 24, 2008

India Meets The World

I am travelling for the first time in three months and my first flight - Gatwick to Dubai - was usual, tiring and boring. I saw two movies and listened through two audiobooks! One of them was Grassroots Management, a feel-good business book which tells the story of a fictional garden and explains how tp create an innovative, involved workplace. It is okay to listen to - the production and all that was good - but hardly makes a new revealation. I also did A Tale of Two Cities, just to explain how boring the last part of the flight was, and saw a movie called 88 minutes, a complex thriller starring Al Pacino. However, it is indeed the other movie - Outsourced - that I intended to write about.

I liked the movie, and I shall suggest anyone involved in outsourcing, or who has any part to play in making the world flat, should see it. It was a story of an American salesman, Todd, whose department gets outsourced to India and he comes to the country to train the new agents. It is Todd's Discovery of India - where he lives through hell, in all the chaos and squalor that India projects to the world - but finally discovers it, led by a fellow american's advise 'Don't resist India and it will come to you'. Set in a small town outside Mumbai, it has a very real feel and lively characters, Future Call Centre Manager, Puru, the 'discovering herself' agent Asha, the Guest House owner Auntiji among them. Having seen some of the call centre set-ups, this film feels right - with a cow tied in the backroom and water flowing in from the nearby field to submerge the work-floor. And, despite the squalor, the poverty, the relatively primitive infrastructure that the film shows in abundance, focusing on those will be wrong. The film passionately tells that India is people - it shows the dignity of people despite poverty, resilience in the face of difficulty, ingenuity at the time of a total breakdown. The film had its poignant moments too - when Asha stares down an irate american customer, when she talks about her 'only holiday in Goa', when Todd's boss tells him that the company has decided to move the call centre etc. I shall not spoil anyone's party telling the story any further - I shall say this one is a 'Must-See' for people like me and I am glad I chose to see it today.

However, for me, the movie reaffirms another important message. I am reading Jeremy Seabrooks' Consuming Cultures and through his discourse, questioning the validity of one global culture. This is a particularly European thought, that human civilization is what the white Europeans [and now North Americans] define it to be, and this is a somewhat 'superior' form of culture than any other local culture. As an extension of Churchill's Iron Curtain thinking, modern G8 leaders often talk in terms of a Civilization Divide, and talk about exporting 'superior' western cultures, democracy and free market for example, to other nations devoid of such things.

The extension of this thought is that all other nations, cultures, must model themselves after the Western Nations, and if I may use the word, benchmark themselves against the standards set by America or Britain. Seabrook passionately argues that this is wrong; local cultures and way of lives need to be protected and nurtured, because they represent what people really are. Besides, while Western nations made huge progress in terms of material production and wealth creation, the progress in terms of social cohesion, morality and ethics have been conspicuously limited.

This is something which this movie talks about, though it does not consciously makes the point. It is important for Indians to get more culture conscious - I have a feeling that we did much worse there compared to the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians - and try to define what India is and should be, in new terms. Such self-consciousness is a pre-requisite of being a developed nation.

The sad truth, of course, is that there is no nation in the world which is as self-oblivious as the Indians. Particularly so in last sixty years since Independence, we systematically wanted to be something else. Recently, I have re-read Sunil Khilnani's brilliant narration of the story of Indian cities [in his Idea of India]. He talks about how the great Indian cities - Delhi, Surat, Murshidabad - gave way to the colonial trading posts like Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and the cantonment cities like New Delhi. He compares their structure and function - and among other things, reveal startling facts like that though these colonial cities were modelled behind the European cities, they were not designed to have public squares, an essential ingradient of the European city life and an enabler of public discourse on social and political issues. So, essentially, the colonial cities were structured to be just that, colonial, inhabited by the rich and the educated, who respected the european norms of public and private spaces and behaved accordingly. He also talks about the Indian villages, which surrounded these cities and fed and nourished them, but who never got the message of the cities, the individuality of it, the facelessness, the code of conduct. This set in motion the essential conflict which defines India today - one of the village and the city - where the city dwellers remain forever disgusted with the ignorance and squalor of the 'villagers' [in fact, this is a form of abuse in Indian cities]. Khilnani explains the brilliance of Gandhi's strategy - bringing the village at the centre of his politics and dressing up as one, defying the norms of city behaviour set down upon us by the British. Gandhi saw the village as anti-British, the true India which the British neither ruled nor affected. He talked about the development and empowerment of the villages, an economic system aimed at strengthening village economies, while encountering the British cities with his political tactic of non-violent non-cooperation.

It is sad that Gandhi's message never reached his colleagues, who built modern India. Nehru was an idealist, but somewhat imperial and out-of-touch, and he seemed to have never understood Gandhi. In fact, the vision of modern India was built around its cities, in being 'like the west', towards the prosperity of city economies.

I do think that's where we got it wrong. Sustainable economic development can not happen at the expense of the majority of our population and alongside the demise of our culture. New India, if it has to happen, has to start in our villages. India would meet the world, indeed - but not as a client state mimicking the 'global' culture, but in its own time and its own terms.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Singur: Where Do I stand?

Ratan Tata today expressed his dismay in Kolkata on the ongoing violence and agitation in Singur, the village outside Calcutta where Tata Motors is building a factory to make world's cheapest car - Nano. It is a big decision for Tata Motors, and I am sure they will consider all aspects and pull out only if the project is completely unworkable. This is a big moment for West Bengal too - the state of India I come from - as a pull-out will land a significant blow on the state's future prospects of inviting investment and development. It is a moment to decide, which side one's in, even if someone is as distant as I am. However, it isn't easy to take sides, considering the issues and personalities involved, and this is why so many Bengalis worldwide are in a state of confusion over this issue.

Let me explain. At about $2500, Tata Nano cars are bound to change the urban middle class of India - their consumption pattern, the way they shop and ultimately they think about their life. It was an interesting decision from Tata Motors to build this factory in West Bengal in the first place. West Bengal isn't known for its friendliness to industries, due to its leftist government who have actively sponsored industrial action and scared away most of the industries from the state in the past. But Tata's decision, partially facilitated by his excellent relationship with the state's Chief Minister, was an important step - a signal that West Bengal's industrial isolation was finally over, and spawned a new sense of optimism about the state and its prospects.

It is sad that it has to come to this. The state Government made a series of mistakes in implementing the deal. Out of their desperation to get Tatas to invest, they spread out a deal incredibly sweet - 900 acres of prime land near Calcutta [and on the main transport links] at a throwaway price. However, while part of this understandable and goes on to show the relative positions on the negotiation table [every state in India wanted the Tatas and this high profile factory; it was the prize project that could change West Bengal's perception as an industry friendly state], the government made a series of mistakes in communicating the details of the deal, underestimating the potential problems in acquiring land and the reaction of the media. All the Chief Minister, Budhdhadev Bhattacharya, the prime architect of the deal was concerned about was some prime time minutes for himself, projecting him as the turnaround artist for West Bengal, with the likes of Ramkrishna Hegde of Karnataka, among others. The way the communication exercise was handled goes on to show how complacent and inefficient the party in Government has become after thirty years of rule - they lost touch with people and their sense of accountability altogether.

Apart from the naivety of the Government, the other problem arose when the opposition leader, Ms Mamta Banerjee, a rable rousing loser, chose to make this deal an issue and wanted to fight for 'farmers' rights'. Ms Banerjee has proved herself to be an opportunist of the worst kind - she went in to launch a statewide agitation against this factory in Singur. Soon, the project was no longer the central issue at all - it became a referendum against the left rule and surely there are lots of people in the state who would love to see this government go. However, what Ms Banerjee did not realize, or did not want to realize, is that she was playing with fire - subverting this project will reinforce the industry-wary image of West Bengal and permanently damage its future. She did not care, precisely because she believed that she can not win an election anyway - all she wanted is some prime time minutes for herself and spoil Budhdhdev's party.

So, the state of West Bengal was caught between a Prime Time hungry Chief Minister and Prime Time hungry opposition leader. So were the Tatas, because the resulting violence and disorder is now threatening their project and will potentially delay the launch of the car. This car has now got world's attention - I have seen all big-name publications covering the news of the '$2500 car' - and such delay will be a huge embarrassment and cause competitive disadvantage, because many other companies have a budget car in their works.

It will indeed be very harmful for the state if Tatas have to pull out now. Mamta Banerjee's grasp over economic issues were always a suspect, but her comment that the Government should go ahead and allocate the 600 acres of land earmarked for the Tata factory, but return the other, 300 acres or so, earmarked for ancillary units, to the farmers, leaves me clueless. Does she think that ancillary units are not needed? Or does she think the job creation will happen in the main factory, and ancillary units have no impact on local jobs? And, who does she think will own and run the ancillary units? Tatas will have a choice of the states, but the ancillary units are owned by local entrepreneurs, who face potential ruin after investing in the units for last year or so. This will have a long term impact on the local economy, more harmful than just the loss of investor confidence and will result in real ruination of real lives, and I am sure Ms Banerjee does not care about this at all.

So, I am on state government's side, wants the Tata factory to happen, right? Only partially, in the fact that I want the Tata factory to happen. It is too big a cost for the state to back-paddle. But the State Government has messed up big time, and will only be saved by Mamta's foolishness. The true issues with this deal are not whether the factory should stay. The true issues are whether this is the right model of development - will such big name factories solve the state's employment problem? Hardly. The state government is as much biased against small industry as Mamta Banerjee. Their model of development is completely off the mark - in fact, they don't have any model except some cheap mimicry of the other pioneering Indian state chief ministers. They lack the vision and the perspective, and an intent to secure the future. As enterprise isn't something they care for, so is environment. Millions of small cars on the street and heavy industry around the city suburbs will not be a model of development in near future. Cities will have to compete with their environment and energy efficacy. Left parties voted against the nuclear deal recently shows us how much they remain tied to the past; their big industry model of development exemplifies how they continue to suffer from their failure of imagination.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day 67: Starting to Make Sense

Some time back, in fact exactly 66 days ago, I charted out a 100 day journey. At that time, I ran out of my visa to stay in the UK and needed an extension. I was just back from a business trip and that being the 80th day of travel in just 4 months, I was tired and exhausted. I did not have any plans for future then - and not even a plan for the present. I was not completely satisfied with my work, but did not have any idea what I want to do about it.

My aim - to be achieved in 100 days - was simple. I needed to restore focus in my life. Migrant life is always pulled to different directions, not least by the frequent changes in the government policy. I came to Britain four years back without any clear ideas about what I wanted to do, and while I moved up and did something better every year, I did not achieve any greater clarity towards what I wish to do in the end. So, my day's work was often fragmented - doing little pieces of work without having any idea whether they are going to contribute to an end objective, because I set myself no end objective. Not even the usual ones like money. I was not even sure whether I want to live in Britain or go back to India, and seek a more stable family life.

Two-thirds down the lane, I am not sure I have progressed any further. Yes, I have got the visa, which allows me to stay in the UK for two more years. I don't really need two more years - under the current laws, I should qualify for an indefinite leave to remain by this time next year - but it was nice to have. My work has not progressed much - in fact, it has gotten worse - bearing the brunt of the credit crunch and low investor confidence in the market. I joined an university course, doing a post-graduation in Marketing Management, but did not do much study in the face of my work demands and continuous adjustments that I needed to make to get it going.

Standing here, I know I need to set things right now, without any more delays. I need to relook at what I want to achieve in life and see whether what I am doing now falls in line with that objective. I know I would quite want to have the Indefinite Leave to Remain, so that should be there on my list. I am not fussed about a citizenship, because I have a feeling that India actually presents more opportunities to realize my ambitions than Britain at this time. I am not sure the degree I am pursuing will help much, though it will surely enhance my knowledge quite a bit. And, my work - while it is going nowhere at this time - I am choosing between the roles of a loser and heoric dead, and I am increasingly convinced that I do not prefer the latter.

So time to rethink, refocus, redo. That starts NOW. I have to inject a new momentum in my life and everything around me. I know the problem - waiting for the Indefinite Leave to Remain has put me on a waiting mode, a 'Hold' mode, in my life. I need to come out of that, and start a different run. I am not sure refocusing will mean continuity necessarily - I am convinced that I need to achieve dramatic results over next thirty-three days in both my personal and professional life. Some of this may involve change - in what I do and how I do. 23rd September is the D-Day - Day of Decisions - and I must now deliver.

The Education Salesman

I have spent most of my working life selling education and I sure want to get out of it when I get the first chance. I do not mean I hate it - I quite love it. However, I have done it for last 15 years day in and day out, and the truth is - I am bored. Yes, I do get bored quite easily, but don't think anyone can blame me for being bored with a job after 15 years. I had my variety - worked in different countries and sold different things - IT Diplomas to Management Training to English Language Certification now. However, the point is selling education always seems to have a pattern, some sort of a formula, which gets repeated regardless of country or type of education.

Let me explain. Let's take this great myth of QUALITY in education. Every institution talks about great/unique/world-class quality of education. I am not doubting that quality plays a great role in education, and some institutions do a far better job than others. But I am a humble salesman, and from that point of view, selling quality of education is useless. I say this because the quality of education is post-experience and no one can prove to a potential buyer what is good quality and what isn't. Buyers also can't do comparison shopping or try a tester [in most cases]. So, quality of education is as good as perceived in the brand [say Harvard] or perceived in the person who is making a statement [say Me]. There are also university league tables and student perception surveys these days, and the beast called Word-of-Mouth reinvigorated by social networks and Internet forums. But, at the point of sale, quality of education, in the absence of a well-recognized brand, is voodoo, as good as the person who is proclaiming quality.

I am saying in education sales, quality = brand. This is sort of obvious, but for most people, quality = tutors [not really, because it needs a leap of faith to believe a man with grey beard or a long tail of degrees will always teach better] or quality = infrastructure [not true, infrastructure is sort of hygiene, needs to be good but does not make a difference at the top end, as the differences are negligible]. I have seen many institutions feel that they win the argument boasting about different elements, and can get away without investing in the brand.

There other key point is that education actually can not be sold. It needs to be bought, and this is why I am mentioning the importance of branding. Most educators believe in these two grossly contradictory things - that education can not / should not be marketed/branded in the usual way and that what is really important is the quality of education and students don't know the true worth of what they offer. The role of an education salesman is seen as a combination of the sly pimp on the street corner who did not care about the quality of their ware, the lazy apparatchik who takes credit for an act of nature and someone who is living on borrowed time till the truth becomes self-evident and everyone discovers the true messiah. This isn't a statement in bitterness - I have done rather well for myself selling this snake oil - but rather a notice to the uninitiated, that fresh eyes are badly in need.

The problem with education selling is that it is never clear who pays or should pay for education. It is seen as a public good - with rather long term payoffs - and often paid for or subsidized by the governments. This contrasted the average students expectation out of education - an immediate payoff in terms of a good job and secure career - and swayed the educators away from what they should be doing in the first place : focus on the financial payoff of the education they deliver. The logic seems straight-forward, at least for the higher education: that students should pay for education as they expect a payoff and the educator should deliver the outcome. [Primary education is a different beast - it has a great relevance to the society, and the government should actively promote free and great quality Primary Education for all]

So, the role for a salesman is quite cut-out. To sell education, one must reinforce the brand - and sell the outcome. The promise at the end reinforced by the trusted seal. The education salesman isn't a snake charmer, but someone who needs to be able to become at one with the learner and know the outcome they want and should be able to provide the solution that will get them there. It is actually that personal interaction which shapes and defines the promises and expectations of the education - and the salesman, as I am arguing, is an inextricable part of the value delivered.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Should Our Business Have a Blog?

I am still on the subject of blogs, though my life has become considerably busier. I am all set to travel next week - I have missed all the bank holidays except one this year and going to miss the one in August too - and getting back to travelling habit is a bit of work. But, one of the things I address while in India is the question of a new website - not just the one for our Indian business but also the whole website family for our company - which I am supposed to build. So, my studies about blogging are not too much off the mark, we need to take some quick decisions on this.

The first of these questions, indeed, is whether we should consider blogging at all. One may reasonably feel that one needs to move sequentially - first get a decent website up. The extreme point of thinking is that blogging may actually be a marketing fad, which will not last long as the recession bites. In fact, despite spending countless hours on writing this blog, I think such thinkers may actually have a point. There are quite a few companies, who have gone down the blogging route without much thought, and apparently found it difficult to sustain the effort.

I also know that the hosting package that we are considering comes with a blogging facility. This indicates that blogging must have become fairly commonplace among business customers. Now I know that blogging is an important and emerging medium, and millions of people have already joined the conversation. It is already a part of marketing thinking [read Joseph Jaffe's Join The Conversation] and companies can indeed benefit from a good blog. But, the question that I needed to look at is - should every company has a blog?

I think the answer is still NO. Blogs, while it is not a fad, it is still a novelty. Not every company hosts a blog, nor every hosting service provider would offer one. As I think, it is indeed excruciatingly difficult to keep writing about a business every day. That is, without talking about other people/ personalities, without revealing the goings-on, without talking about strategic thinking, without talking about new products and ideas. As Blog Rules reminded me, companies should remember their legal exposure arising out of employee blogs, and, yes I am serious, the book suggests that every post should be reviewed by a legal counsel beforehand. I know what happens if one implements a company blog following all the best practise advices - it not only becomes excruciatingly difficult to write, it becomes terribly difficult to read. And, therefore, if there is nothing to say, it is best to spare the poor readers and not have a blog at all.

I am therefore trying to frame a set of qualifying criteria to decide whether a business - our business for example - should have a blog. I can see some clear questions that must be answered in affirmative for this, and I thought I shall share it here so that I can get some ideas and suggestions.

First, whether the business has a story to tell. I don't think all businesses necessarily have a story to tell. Some are just made to make money, which is indeed interesting for its owners but rest of the world isn't interested in that. And, besides, a business may have a story, but a secret story. The business may be based on keeping that secret. I think this is Criteria One - whether we have a story to tell which will interest the others and whether we want to tell the story.

Second, as every business is about money, it must be understood whether the business gains anything by telling the story. I mean, monetarily - in short term or in long term. Because if it does not have a clear commercial benefit, blogging for business may actually become a fad. Yes, you can reach millions of people and you can engage them in a conversation, which is exceedingly interesting to me - a loner - but for a business, that conversation must translate into something measurable. It can be Thought Leadership, Loyalty or plain visibility. For us, we may not be after Thought Leadership, because I doubt whether we can project any new insight which will be of interest to general public. Plain visibility is equivalent to marketing voodoo, and millions of pounds are wasted on that promise - so I shall loath to go there. Only thing we can achieve out of a blog is a set of loyal customers - who engage in a conversation - but I doubt whether we can achieve that by simply talking about what is going on in the business. I think it is going to be more like an Exploration in English blog, where the blog writer or writers explore the nuances of the 'ever unfaithful' English language [I picked up the expression from another blog]. This is sort of thought leadership stuff, but unlikely to be path-breaking and therefore, it will be more of an exercise to start a conversation than to teach anyone anything.

Third, I think it is hard to override the personal nature of the blog. Companies can not converse; people do. So, unless a key executive or the entrepreneur is keen to reveal himself/herself and allocate some time to the exercise, there is no point trying to put a company blog. I know planning a Direct English blog is almost surely adding another thing to do on my list, and it is important for me to know what that means - a compulsion to post every day whether I am travelling or not. Or, finding someone else in the organization who can do that and has the necessary time to do that. And, whether it is me or someone else, this commitment must be recession-proof, something on the list which is important and urgent and unavoidable.

While all of this seems obvious and the Language exploration blog is already sounding like a great idea to me [it does not have to be novel - that's the beauty of blogs!], it is a hard decision and I may still decide not to pursue the project at all. I have no intent to make this a marketing brochure for the company - I can have better brochures which will be easier to produce. Besides, my golden rule is that all marketing should sell, and I am not yet there in terms of creating a business linkage, and not convinced that I even should. The personal time commitments are a big question mark too. It is not just about committing my time. I enjoy writing this blog and engaging in a faceless conversation; but I am not sure I can do the same thing when I start writing about the business.

The good thing is, of course, I don't have to decide today and can take my time till next week. I am planning a quick read of Naked Conversation, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel's bible of Business Blogging. Hopefully I shall get some new ideas and get more convinced that we must have a blog for our business. Meanwhile, of course, I shall keep blogging!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

About Business Blogging

I am reading Blog Rules, a best practises handbook for business blogging. The book is indeed useful, at least in answering some of the key questions I had in mind. For example, why blog for business? I have always found this blog an wonderful platform to talk openly and honestly about my life and feelings. Though I would have made occasional comments on my employment and the project I am involved in, the same candour was impossible to achieve.

This isn't just because of any rules laid out by my company. As far as I know, my employers are yet to set any policy for blogging. However, business is a social activity and it is impossible to exclude information about other people and their work if one has to talk about the workplace. And, while one can be candid about themselves [or engage in a 'blind conversation'], it is immoral to do so involving other people.

However, indeed, blogs are important for business. This is just because they are an important communication medium today. Millions of people read blogs, search engines include blogs in their search results. So, it is something like that newspaper, which you may not read yourself, but must include in your communication planning. Because if you don't talk on your own behalf, someone else will.It was interesting to know what businesses use blogs for. Most people surely treat this as a PR tool, another medium which must be covered.

It is interesting to note that blogs are used to give a human face to the organisation and 'commission' a honest voice. I know about Robert Scoble being commissioned by Microsoft already, but I am not sure whether he is being able to maintain an independent voice. I remember reading his blog in the middle of the controversy regarding Microsoft's 'bribe' to bloggers on the wake of Windows Vista launch in December 2006 [when Microsoft sent out 90 top-of-the-line ACER Ferrari laptops to influential bloggers, yours to keep], and Scoble thought it was a 'fantastic idea' and defended Edelman and Microsoft vigorously. The whole thing seemed like an unusual way of influencing opinion - just like PR.

But there is more to a blog surely than just another medium. Blog is an active medium, a platform to conduct person-to-person conversation. Like any other opportunity, consultants and lawyers will attack this medium and set out rules [just like Nancy Flynn tries to do] and make some money in the process.However, it is a bit early to judge whether it will all go right. The rules here are evolving slower than the technology, and the opportunity thereof. I see the blogs to be the predominant medium for a new kind of communication, one based on stories and human fables.

Of course, I read Made to Stick and found the Heath brothers rule of SUCCESs [Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories] to be the cornerstone of successful communication. Blogs offer an unique platform to tell such stories - one which can demonstrate an unexpected candour, credibility of being straight from the heart, concreteness of being experiential, emotive of being personal and necessarily simple, everyday thoughts. I am not sure corporate blogs, rule-bound, can actually take advantage of such attributes.

I actually think blogs are much more useful for non-profits and smaller organizations. Corporate Communication may still endeavour to buy up the mainstream media and blogs along them, but the grassroots nature of the blogs can create a level playing field for smaller organizations and not-for-profit. They have stories to tell and personalities to project, to start with. Besides, they will fit perfectly with open-collar culture of blogging. However, these blog rules can actually send wrong messages to such organizations, which actually need to go out and harness the power of the blogs at their free, independent best.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where Do I Go From Here

My career is at a crossroad right now. Or, so I feel.

I have spent exactly 15 years doing various things - mostly in education business and mostly setting up franchise networks. My roles, well mostly, as it is today, involved helping independent entrepreneurs setting up training centres in small towns and villages in South Asia. So, this meant doing everything from sales to managing human resource, managing finance to writing contracts. Like small businesses do. Watching over everything, being careful - lest the business slip out of control. And, being able to be optimistic, dream about things and believing in the greater purpose of the business - changing lives and whole towns as a consequence - was an essential part of the job.

I must admit that I took my job seriously, possibly a little too seriously. I lived and breathed my job. I was fairly good - this is possibly because I had enormous respect for those entrepreneurs who ran these education centres and made things possible. I know for a fact that this allowed me to see the entire business from a different perspective and I could escape the trap of zero-sum thinking that most franchisers get beset with. I must admit that it did not always help - sometimes, I was expected to short-sell and push unnecessary products, which I refused to do, and while this endeared me to the franchisees and even kept the business healthy, this did not always impress my bosses.

I was so enamoured to the idea of entrepreneurship by watching these businesses succeed that I even tried my hand being an entrepreneur. I started a company, which was possibly a bit ahead of its time, though I had to take financing from someone else. In my experience of watching businesses from the sideline did not teach me one golden rule: That business is primarily, and solely, for earning money. The other thing I missed, thankfully, is the great folly of business thinking - it is who provides the money, owns the company. While I learnt the first rule hands on, the second came to bite me soon - when I realized I got the formula wrong, I left and went back to employment.

That moment of realization was the first defining moment in my career.

I went back to do what I did best - selling education franchises. This time I worked outside India, with people from different cultures. While this was supposed to be enormously more difficult, my respect for entrepreneurs and my education of going through a failure helped me enormously. I could close myself off from everything else in the world and focus on the job at hand, as the taste of failure was still fresh in my mind. And, I built relationships based on respect - this is one thing that comes back to you as you give it - and soon I was more comfortable doing my job outside India than I ever was in India.

This isn't supposed to be my life's story, but a thought where I go from here. So, I shall skip the chronology and jump straight into today. Of course, in between I have done some brave things - or rather things which were one part brave and three parts foolish - like migrating to Britain without a job in hand or any specific plans or sufficient money. It worked, somewhat, again thanks to my learning through failure and respect for other individuals. I think while my hair is going gray, if I can keep this respect thing going, it will keep myself young and allow me to learn a new thing everyday. Of course, after coming to Britain and somewhat scraping by the first few months, and then struggling through a salesman's career, I learnt how good my experience actually was. I was almost ready for anything. I was conditioned for hard work, practised in the integrity that one must maintain if one is working with franchisees and ready to learn, ready for surprises.

Now, four years down the line, I feel I am reaching another crossroad, just like the year 2000, when I had to take decisions on what I do next. This does not obviously mean that I am planning to leave my current employment like last time and start doing something new. Not the least. At the hindsight, I have realized that leaving that point of time was a mistake, though things turned out well thereafter. Also, one can not run away all the time - sometimes, even if things are not great, staying and taking the hit is a good way to do things.

By crossroads, I mean I am at a decision time. I must think through what I shall be doing for next five to ten years. Not necessarily I have to start doing these things tomorrow morning, but I must set the ball in motion. In my mind, this is possibly the single most important task I have at hand right now.

Of course, I am thinking beyond my current employment, and I see nothing wrong in that. The English training business is a great project with lots of potential, and admittedly, I learnt a lot working on it. This has been a fantastic opportunity, as it came. However, I have been fairly open about the fact that I saw this as something which I shall do for a couple of years, while I take choose my career path for the next level. I of course do want to see its start-up phase through, but I have plenty of time left for that too. I have also consciously worked on creating management structures in every country that I am looking into, and a clear succession route when I leave. So, I am entering the final 12 months of this project with optimism and a clear conscience - I sure want to leave this in good shape and in able hands.

This is something I was told in the past, and am reminded again, then what would I achieve by hanging around? There is a point in this thinking - the first two years in such an ambitious project is bound to be difficult, and we won't even make much money. Consequently, my expectations of financial gains out of this project is fairly limited. And, as everyone knows, idealism does not pay. So - what will then be my takeaway from this project?

Many, I would say. As I see it, this is my final two years of business school. I learn to make a business successful - what else can be better than this education? I already had my lesson in failure and this time, I wish to have one in success, and in the process, discover my true calling. I get invaluable opportunities to learn, to reconnect back to India and to see a bit of the world. I could not have expected a better test than this of my abilities.

So, what would I do next? I have actually thought about multiple opportunities, and I have to take a final decision quite soon:

A. I can take a year's sabbatical next year and go to a good business school to complete an MBA. I thought of Warwick or Durham, if I can get through. The problem is that I am too old for an MBA, and this is more like pursuing a degree when I can gather far greater understanding of business by actually working. Besides, behind this MBA thinking, sits my desire to go back to a corporate job. I am not convinced that I am cut out for that kind of sedate, predictable life.

B. I have been working on few different ideas and I can possibly take a plunge and start a business. This has always been there in my mind, and I thought one advantage I have is a common-sense feel of new technologies. Being so close to business problems, and my professional education and exposure gives me a fairly unusual combination of business skills and technology knowledge, and it would be a good idea to attempt to monetize this. However, as I have learnt from the past, it isn't easy to raise money for a business and remain independent. In fact, most probably, it is impossible to do so. So, next time I try this, I would like to ensure that the money for the business comes from myself or from people who I know and trust, not from any speculator who thought my idea will give him/her better returns than investing in petroleum futures.

C. I am also thinking of going into an independent career. I need some pre-work for this, but I am estimating that I have fairly non-standard skills and exposure, and it is possible, with some additional training and preparation, to float an independent consulting career. I joined CIM with that aim, and still pursuing my Post-Grad studies. So, hopefully, in 12 months, I shall be ready to take the plunge.

D. The other idea is what I would love to do. I am thinking of leaving the job/career route altogether and go to work in development management. The route will be similar to option A, just that I won't do an MBA but take a Development Management course. I have a Post-grad degree in economics, another in Marketing, a fair idea about technology, experience in entrepreneurship and come from the poorest part of the world. I have worked at the grassroots, travelled extensively and speak at least three languages. Hopefully, this can make a fairly compelling CV. Just that, if I take this route, I have to start living an unusual life, staying in difficult places and earning a lot less money. But this is where my heart is, and just like last time, I may actually want to pursue this.

This blog is my diary and I would love to live my life as an open book. This is an interesting experience, talking about plans, feelings and ideas openly to myself, or to a group of strangers, or to a set of faceless friends. However, living an open book life has its advantages - like meeting someone who knows all about your dreams - and it is indeed rewarding and exceptional in this identity-crazy world. But I tell you my plan, and will tell you how I go along - whether you know me or do not really does not matter - as long as you know that life is a journey, and the pleasure of life is in telling the stories and fables than anything else.

The World According To .. ME

Interesting times, these. Only a year back, the British Chancellor was talking about the 'longest uninterrupted period of prosperity' since the war. It was only twenty years when the Cold War was finally over, and the supremacy of United States was completely established. Only four years back, American public believed that George Bush can indeed make America a safer place and put him back in office. Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history - the human civilization reaching its highest form.

But, in 2008, we are staring at a different world altogether. Under George W Bush, America started believing that they have won the cold war and went out to shape the world in their own terms. And failed. Like all great empires before them, they overestimated their power and stretched themselves thin. They walked into a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lost the moral superiority and the hallow of the winner, which they needed to sustain the global empire. They forgot, like other great powers before them, the superiority of arms often allow a power to degenerate morally, and that always bring about their downfall.

Also, Britain's stretch of economy prosperity is over. In fact, the Prime Minister can very well start talking about the worst economic downturn ever, when the pains from the recession will far exceed the pains of the great depression or of the winter of discontent in the 1970s. The house prices have turned irreversibly south, the banks have abdicated their role as the drivers of the economy and global prices have rendered monetary policy instruments useless. The government is clueless and frozen into inaction.

Consider this: In the middle of the housing market meltdown, a senior official in the treasury was heard talking about a 'stamp duty holiday' on a train, which started a huge rumor that the government will soon exempt house purchasers from stamp duty. When asked, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, did not deny this and said the government is looking at a 'range of options'. That was two weeks back. The government is yet to come up with any policy so far. Needless to say, such rumours called any possible purchases that would have happened despite the downturn, making a bad market worse and forcing many estate agents to close shop.

Meanwhile, the business continues to consolidate, springing one deal after the other spelling out the end of independent organizations and creation of global empires. So, 95% of world's personal computers use the same software, about 10 information providers control 60% of world's information flow and despite the cacophony of television channels, the uniformity of news, opinions and views remain astonishing.

Soviet Union was sure bad, when the big brother watched all the time and one was forced to conform. However, we are entering a world where one is programmed to conform, and watched and listened to all the time [I know London's Piccadilly Circus has more than 300 cameras]. However, no one talks about the problem - we all know how evil socialism was and how its end spelt the start of the age of freedom. However, freedom is sure on the retreat and no explanation is available on the media, except that the public want safety first.

So, how did we come here? Why did history not end and the prosperity did not last? I shall pretend to give some simple answers:

1. The enemy of freedom is fear. But fear is good business. Fear is good propaganda in democracy. However, fear is unsustainable, because it stifles minds. Soviet Union was based on a system of fear, so it went down. We replaced it with our own elaborate system of fear. We should know where we are heading.

2. The only good thing about capitalism is competition. But no capitalist loves competition. That is the essential conflict at the core of the system. Despite all the regulatory attempts, competition is stifled in many industries, though new frontiers of entrepreneurialism has opened. But if the world is uniform, which it will be for lack of freedom and dissent, competition will die to. It needs to survive to keep our world going.

3. The world is governed by short term considerations. Financial markets are, because that's their nature. Professionally managed and publicly listed companies are similar. Democratic governments also are. No one seems to have any space left for thinking about tomorrow.

4. There are limits to prosperity. The big limit is Environment. It can only take so much. However, we have defined our world in terms of money. But, because of the short term nature of our financial markets, and the systemic blindness of our short-lived governments, money can not any longer represent the true value, or cost, of anything. Hence, what we think is increasingly at odds with what it actually is.

So, this hardly looks like the end of history. It actually seems like the beginning of another phase in human history. Do we need Noah's boat? May be, who knows how severe the revenge of history will be.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Day 59: Whatever Happened So Far

I started writing a diary and then got diverted. That's me - can't complain - this is why, my teachers would have told you, I remained an underachiever in school. I am entertaining myself thinking that I have an adolescent streak.

The thought invariably flatters me as I am getting old. But, anyway, as I always found a justification, I wrote about Georgia, Creative Capitalism and everything else as if they are part of my life. In a way, they are, but let's face it - I was bored.

I was bored being out of action. I was bored sitting at home, while my passport sat on a long queue at the Home Office waiting to be stamped for two months. This time was useful - no doubt - I got those few days to pause and think what I am doing. However, I run a business, for someone else, in some other country. Or, countries. My head office is in Northern Ireland, I sit in London, and the business I am supposed to run are in India and other places. Without a passport, it seemed I did not have a job.

I did spend a lot of time thinking about future. Asking the questions which I must ask myself. Wondering where my life is going. Reading books like Po Bronson's What Should I Do with My Life and Richard Templar's I Don't Want Any More Cheese: I Just Want Out of Trap. And, wondering whether I am wasting a big chunk of my life chasing nothing.

One thing I sure know : I haven't been chasing money and that's a mistake. For me, life so far has been like a game - fun, adolescent fun. But this space of time tells me that I am getting old and I better SETTLE DOWN. The problem is I don't even know what settle down means. The word is staring on my face with 'settlement' as in getting Permanent Residence in Britain, but, to be honest, it is less exciting a goal for me than I would have thought it would be. I came to Britain on a settlement visa but with a tourists' heart, and so far it has been an enjoyable journey. But, times like this, when everything pauses, I get to wonder whether I am giving up the best years of my life chasing something which I don't want.

So, what do I want? As people who know me will tell - I am the last person to know that answer. But, I do know that answer. Just that it is a bit fuzzy for everyone else and therefore, I never attempt to explain this. But let me try.

I remember this frozen moment in my mind - sitting inside my school classroom and looking out of the window to the playground, on a rainy day, just after the death of my uncle. I was never particularly close to him. And, he was very sick - bedridden for a number of days - and we, the children in the house, were not allowed to go to close to him [lest we disturb him]. I remember seeing him, the day before his death, coming out of the bathroom, his tall figure almost covering the bathroom door, but frail and stooping. I remembered him smiling and saying something, which I did not hear properly as I stood in a distance and he did not repeat. He walked on to return to his bed, and I moved on to do something else, erasing that moment completely.

But, then, next morning, before I woke up, he was dead. I was woken up, but could not enter the crowded room. So, I was standing outside, exactly at the same place where I was the day before, wondering how to wake up my cousin who just lost his father. And, then I noticed - his clothes, what he was wearing the day before, left in a heap just by the bathroom door, where he was standing the other day. Waiting to be laundered - that's what it was supposed to be.

It is hard to say whether I remember the colours of the clothing, or who else was around. I just remember it was raining. I remember my mouth felt stale as I did not have a chance to brush my teeth, and I remember there were people crying and talking in the background. But, I remember what I felt, clearly as this was yesterday. IT MADE NO SENSE.

The clothing left to be laundered, but no one to fit into it. The same moment - the bathroom door and all - with the person missing. Such meaningless emptiness. And, I remember knowing this emptiness looking out in the school ground on a rainy day, knowing that the passing moment stole another wee bit of my childhood away, and it is so easy to be gone. But I wanted to stay - stay on that school bench, forever, waiting for the class to get over and stepping onto the playground with a football.

That moment stayed with me all my life. That mix of emotion - of fear of losing the moment and of knowing that I shall lose it - reminded me every day of the doorframe, of my uncle, of the clothes left to be laundered and of the words I did not hear and I can't hear anymore. Thereafter, I have always been treasuring every moment that I live, knowing full well the meaningless of this all.

With one desire - to not to end in the emptiness of the clothes to be laundered. To make some kind of difference - to have a play. As all boring classes must give way to the moment of the playground, my life must allow me my moment. Of freedom, of play, of making a difference.

I always envied Neil Armstrong therefore - who would sign off thinking he was out to the moon and made that giant leap for mankind. I wanted to have that one defining moment in my life. And, yes, I know that it will come.

Now, can I blame everyone else if they complain they did not understand what I want? Difference is not something you can want, because you don't know what it is. It is difficult to describe as I can't take them to show that empty doorframe, with the heaps of clothes lying about. I can't tell them what I did not hear.

All they can see - and they see - is a boy looking out to the playground while the class is on.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Creative Capitalism

Bill Gates spoke about 'Creative Capitalism' in Davos and recently wrote about this, at length, in TIME. [see How to fix Capitalism].

The idea is essentially to pick up opportunities of business among the poor, in poorer countries. Gates is influenced deeply by Prahalad's work on Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, the key premises of which is that businesses tend to overlook the huge economic potential of the low-income countries and low-income consumers. This is because the existing business thinking - the framework of risks and returns, for example - can not estimate the potential of such consumers. Prahalad cites a number of examples from Business Strategies of multinationals - of Cemex, ITC, Hindustan Lever and the like - to show how companies can turn this unexplored 'bottom of the pyramid' market to an enormous opportunity. Obviously, Prahalad's vision of this opportunity is its sheer size - that is why the 'bottom of the pyramid' imagery - and he asserts that this is going to be capitalism's next growth frontier.

Bill Gates' assertion is based on Prahalad's, and he advocates the need for a creative thinking in expanding capitalism to solve the world's problems. Interestingly, this is different from Prahalad's idea in terms of intent - Prahalad's ideas were purely about business strategy and growth opportunity. Gates' ideas are somewhat similar to what others will call 'Social Enterprise' - indeed he cites examples like Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which built a micro-credit empire and helped millions out of abject poverty. Gates' idea is that such creative thinking is going to make the world a better place.

Bill Gates, one must note, is uniquely qualified to talk about business and solving world's problems. He created one of the most valuable business empires in history, and also sits atop the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has the largest sum of money available for charitable work. Therefore, he can put his ideas in action, and, hence, businesses must listen to what he is saying.

Currently, it seems that we are heading towards a worldwide recession, full on. Unlike other times, this recession is coming with unusually high prices of food and fuel globally. And, therefore, this is going to hit like no other times, and it is going to hit the poor first and the most. No one so far knows how long this will last, but if this lasts too long, political stability of many countries, even many regions, will be in doubt. This will strengthen the extreme ideologies in some parts of the world, reverse the global economic integration on the back of protectionist tendencies in the United States and Europe and lead the world to a face-off, economic or military, or both.

However, while Gates' advocacy is indeed timely, how much of an effect this is going to have on business strategies? The financing structure of large corporations today - determined by the short term planning horizon of Wall Street fund managers and critically dependent on meeting the quarterly forecasts - is biased against such high risk opportunities. The existing business thinking weighs heavily towards the top of the pyramid, and the developed world companies have developed, in most parts, a systemic arrogance which keep them blind about the opportunities in the low-income markets.

As far as the need to solve the problems of the world are concerned, the corporations are in no great hurry. So far, even environmental concerns, which can have a disastrous consequences on long-term sustainability of businesses, were only superficial and treated along with AOB in most boardrooms. Poverty is even further from the core agenda. In fact, the 20th century invention, the professionally managed company, has proved as bad in handling longer term issues as the democratic system of governance. The professional managers, whose tenures are getting shorter, invariably bring to their job a reliance on proven formula and a focus on Urgent issues. That's what the capitalist system is all about, and it is hard to see how the business strategies can actually become 'creative' without a fundamental shift in business structure first.

Of course, Gates, on his part, is only too aware of the roadblocks, and in his vision, it is a journey that must start. Admittedly, there are companies which are already doing it, and based on Prahalad's work, a systematic framework for strategic thinking already exists. Interestingly, Marx' prophesied this future for capitalism about 150 years back - the Capital is all about capitalism reaching a limit of growth, and expanding ever further on the imperative to bring societies in far flung territories into its remit. It isn't impossible to see today that Capitalism can indeed reach its limit - its cycles getting more and more severe every time, and the new markets often represent the route to growth.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Georgia : Does It Matter?

At the time of writing, Russian bombers are still bombing Georgia and United Nations in currently discussing the crisis. It is expected that the security council will call for an immediate ceasefire, if it can get past a possible Russian veto. The civilian casualties are rising - so there is indeed an urgent need to do something. However, is this important - given that there is Beijing Olympics and US Presidential Election around the corner - to be counted as the most significant news at this moment?

Georgians certainly need all the help they can from the international community. Russian Military superiority is overwhelming. Russia is, of course, interested in teaching Georgia a lesson and from the recent interview Mikhail Saakasvili gave to CNN, it seems they don't have much time left before their military is wiped out. Of course, Georgia has offered a ceasefire to Russia, and obviously Russia isn't interested at this time, when they are winning the war.

What will the world do? What can the world do? Talk, of course. But can they put sanctions on Russia? Out of question, with Oil being Russia's most important export. Can they face down Russia? Unlikely - it is too great a risk. An UN resolution - which may not come because of Russia's veto - isn't going to stop the war. The war will only stop at a time of Russia's choosing, and all the unnecessary civilian deaths will happen. It is a shame. But I do think this small war will have wider significance beyond its immediate consequences.

It is important to note that Georgia started this. Agreed, there has been this breakaway republic of South Ossetia in the middle of Georgia since 1992. The North Ossetia is part of Russia and South Ossetians are close to Russians, protected by Russian peacekeepers and many carrying Russian passports. Georgia, last week, sent troops to 'attack' South Ossetia. Russians went in to Georgia in response.

What is puzzling is why Georgia took the military action first. South Ossetia exists till 1992, and the Russian response could have been easily predicted. It almost seems that Georgia wanted this to happen, just that they did not expect how bad this could become. Their timing was possibly wrong - with World's leaders gathered in Beijing for the opening of Olympics, where, for a moment, the news of the war sounded like an unwelcome distraction.

The possible reason is for such recklessness can be that Georgia wanted to establish their credentials for admission to NATO, which it sorely wants to become. Georgia, of course, believes that joining NATO will assure its security, from threats as this one from Russia. NATO, of course, sees Georgia as their frontier - to push the conflict deep inside Russia's 'Sphere of Influence', to become the first casualty in a conflict if it eventually comes. Unfortunately for the citizens of Georgia, the conflict has already come.

I say this has wider significance, as the outcome of this conflict will determine three things:

One, whether we shall remain in the shadow of the old 'areas of influence', an imperialist hangover which got passed onto the free world by the post-war leaders. It was a false assumption that in the unipolar world, such concepts will not hold valid, and accordingly, the post-Cold war thinkers in the Washington continued pushing the frontier. However, we shall realize, post this conflict, that such concepts are not valid in a nuclear world. Some countries are more powerful than others, may be overwhelmingly powerful. But, yet, no single country is powerful enough - nor ever will be - to dominate the entire world. So, post-Georgia, we shall possibly return to Areas of Influence - through this Russian assertion by force and American acceptance of the same by inaction.

Two, this conflict, taken to its logical conclusion, will configure a new world order. Over last few years, Russia and China has worked in unison for many international issues. After Russian display of force in Georgia and Chinese display of ability in Beijing, it is possible that a new formation will emerge - in direct counter-balance to the United States. As we read in any history of Cold War - that it was more a state of mind than an actual reality - we shall enter into a new age of conflict and competition yet again.

Third, this conflict and the resulting power formations will mean that the emergent powers will not have the necessary capability to take on the mantle of a World Super-power, like the old Soviet Union and current United States. The world will then work in regional formations, rather than in two straight camps. So, eventually, Europe has to stand on its own, and Asian, African and Latin American formations will emerge. Accepted, even continent-wide entities will be too large to have a singular interest, and hence, possibly, these will be sub-continental formations, led by one or two major states. This will, eventually, lead to the erosion of national identities, and contribute to the emergence of a strange combination of local (such as Ossetian) and regional (great Russian) identities. Nation is so nineteenth century as a concept, and soon it will be history.

The problem is that such a scenario is possible, and this makes perfect setting for an war of the world. Unipolar or Bipolar systems actually work for stability, at a great cost to freedom and human rights, but no one wants destruction in those settings. But, when churning comes - such as the one possible - destruction of the existing world order helps a group of people against others. Without making a far-fetched prophecy, it should surely be mentioned that this conflict has all the necessary attributes of becoming such an era-defining event.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

What is happening to THE CUSTOMER

Remember the Customer Revolution? The lofty corporate announcements that customer is king? And always right. The lovely things said about quality, the great commitments made towards customer service and the theories about the loyalty effect - the way to continued business survival through loving thy customer.

The fact is that most companies forget the poor customer first whenever there is an economic downturn. He still pays the bill, yes, but it seems that whenever whatever hits the fan, he is asked to mop up. It is 'counter-intuitive' - indeed it is. That's the problem of seeing the world through numbers and contract codes - they were not on Noah's boat, we forget!

Consider this. This August, the holiday season is already looking grim in the UK. Mortgage approvals are at half their last year levels, and home repossessions have doubled. Inflation is 4%, double their target levels, Petrol is £1.19 a litre - up from 85p same time last year, and recession is more than a theoretical possibility. Every bank - in the Europe and United States - has taken a hit and governments are paralysed from the lack of mandate [Bush has 5 more months left in office and Brown, possibly, even fewer].

In the middle of all this, some customers still decide to take a holiday. They are brave, optimistic souls, the kinds which keep the wheels running, the world going. However, they defied the code set upon them by businesses - they chose to compare prices using a tool, which is now commonplace, Price Comparison Sites. They found the best prices from RyanAir, the impossibly arrogant Irish budget airline, which sometimes forget that aircraft run on petrol and assume they can fly themselves. However, that is besides the point - these doubly-brave customers [for taking a holiday, and leaving the fate of their holiday in the hands of RyanAir] then decide to book their tickets.

So, if you are to write the end of this story, what will you write? That RyanAir sends them bouquets of flowers? Or they are given honorary memberships of RyanAir Hall of Fame? The first row of seats were named after them? Or, at least, Michael O'Leary himself sends a personal email to each one of them? Isn't that what all the business fables - of Nordstrom, of Virgin - tell you?

Well, the real end of this story is not so pleasant. RyanAir actually decided to cancel their bookings. Because they came through Price Comparison Sites, which apparently were not permitted to display RyanAir prices! I anticipate the question, and must clarify that RyanAir, of course, got paid - in full. But they just don't like the fact that the customers looked at the price comparison sites.

And, there is more. They refund the money for cancelled bookings to the price comparison sites, and not to the customer who actually paid. The RyanAir statement says that it is up to the Price Comparison sites to refund the money to the customers. How much more bizarre can this become?

Budget Airlines always have a problem with their prices. Remember the time, not so long back, when they advertised attractive prices without mentioning the tax. They have started advertising 'Inclusive Of Tax' prices only after being forced to do so by a Court Order. And, immediately after starting that, they started charging extra for bags and the chance to scramble into the aircraft first, and I am told that they are looking into ways of charging more [How about paying for access to toilets during flights?].

So, instinctively, they want to cheat the customer. They don't like them to compare prices. They are ready to go as far as penalising those who even chose them, after a comparison. The customers' cardinal sin, as far I can gather, was to look around, when they should be irretrievably married to RyanAir.

This is abhorrent behaviour. Agreed, some price comparison sites may have crossed the line by pulling RyanAir data when they were not allowed to. In that case, the airline, going by any usual ethical or behavioural standards, should have accepted existing bookings, but stopped the practise and sued the sites. In the worst possible scenario, when this isn't acceptable to an egoist boss [which RyanAir surely has], the airline should have refunded the money back to the customers direct and sued the sites. Ryanair does neither - they cancel the bookings, sue the sites but refund the money to them! They show that they are actually angry with the customer because they compared the prices.

What is, then, happening to the CUSTOMER? In the middle of this severe downturn, he is still paying the bills, but that's really not enough. Companies like Ryanair, which built a business exploiting a gap in monopolies, have become monopolistic themselves. They don't care about the customer - they want to cheat and rob them. Not surprising that Jessica Stillman writes that the Harris Poll's annual survey of Public Attitudes to twenty industries put Airlines at the bottom of heap, along with cable companies and Pharmaceuticals (you can read the post here). This is done in America - I am sure Airlines will fare even worse in Britain after the price-fixing scandal at BA and the pricing disputes that don't seem to die down.

Before I finish, I shall present another perspective. I am wrong when I said that the customers are usually forgotten in the middle of a downturn. It is actually the other way round - forgetting the customers bring about downturns. The downturns are customers' payback time - to arrogant companies and bad bosses. Once the score is settled and these companies disappear, those who cared about customers survive - to the next boom - till the time they become complacent and forget the customers again. Call it the Customer Attitude Cycle or any other name - this is one of the key things businesses need to crack, and they prove that they are hopelessly bad at it.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Future for Kolkata

I wrote about various disappointments with Kolkata, and how the lack of political leadership has dragged the city, and also the state of West Bengal, into the current state of hopelessness that it is in. However, as I said earlier, it is imperative that Kolkata changes and progresses, as this will be critical to bring change in the poorest parts of India, and in the neighbouring countries too.

I talk about neighbouring countries here, because I do think national boundaries essentially distort our perspectives. I was explaining to someone yesterday how, when we talk about ancient India, we refer to great emperors of Ujjain and Kanauj, some of which are little more than city states in size. My essential point was how our perception of space changes with the advances in transportation and communication technology. As an extension of this thought, I think Nation is a very 19th century concept, which is past its prime, and we are moving towards a world of opposites, great regional clusters made of smaller local, cultural identities. European Union shows that in action - there is no conflict in Scottish Nationalists' desire to secede from the UK but to have a closer integration with Europe.

So, anyway, coming back to the point, Kolkata needs to regenerate itself. I hope that time has come to imagine the Post-CPIM future. Time has come for a new leader to emerge, with a new agenda. I hope that this time we shall get it right.

So, what are the things I think need to be done to regenerate Kolkata?

I think the first thing is actually about developing other townships in nearby area, and also in other parts of Bengal. The problem with Kolkata is that it has too much of a population pressure - the problem of being in the middle of a poor region - and only developing other centres of commerce can relieve this pressure. Of course, some work has happened in the last two decades. Cities like Siliguri, Burdwan and Haldia has emerged. But, this isn't enough - as this growth was not supported in terms of developing the infrastructure of these cities and no incentive was offered to anyone to move out of Kolkata. Also, the growth of these cities coincided the collapse of other cities like Durgapur and Asansol - and therefore the net effect remained the same.

The first task of a new, Post-CPIM administration will therefore be to create a blueprint for coordinated urban development in West Bengal. Incentives must be given to companies to move to inner cities, and I see no reason why the big BPO campuses can not move to Durgapur, or software centres should not move to Kharagpur.

Besides, it is imperative that we look at Education and Environment in Kolkata. Education is one of the long-neglected subjects in Bengal and this needs to be given a fresh look. It needs to be freed from the clutches of the state control, given the necessity of a significant upgrade of state's educational infrastructure. Some work has happened, again. But, unfortunately, the efforts are still minuscule with regard to requirement, and more investment needs to come in. The state should actively pursue the centre for a tax holiday on education business in the state. They should offer earmarked land and other incentives for these education enterprises to move to inner cities too.

Also, environment has not yet featured in the government's agenda. But environment is going to be a crucial factor for a city's competitiveness, in the days to come. The public transport system in Kolkata, once the best available in the country, has degenerated after years of corruption and misrule. This must be reversed and people should be encouraged to use public transport. The current vested interests in the transport ministry needs to be broken, as well as an upgrade of roads need to happen quickly and efficiently.

Kolkata also sits on an enormous opportunity of building bridges across the national border with Bangladesh. I think special incentives should be given to Bengali industrialists to invest in Kolkata. This is going to be well received - as this will open the doors for Indian markets to Bengali industrialists across the border and yet they are culturally so close and feel so much at home in Kolkata. One must forget past animosities and acknowledge that Bangladesh, despite its political problems, has demonstrated its entrepreneurial spirit in abundance and Kolkata and West Bengal will only benefit by allowing the cultural relationship to flourish in commerce.

And, lastly, someone needs to stand up and say that - it isn't over yet and this is our city to build. I stated earlier I think it is my responsibility to go back to Kolkata at some stage of my life and work there. I am sure there are thousands of Bengali expats all over the world, very successful bankers, doctors, businessmen, who would all want to do the same. I am an optimist - I know when change happens, it is an irreversible process. We just have to wait for that first spark - that emergence of a new leadership.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Recounting Kolkata's Past - How we got there

Yesterday, I wrote rather flippantly about Kolkata. I was not thinking, but I was happy and feeling light, particularly after finishing a few tasks which was sitting on my to-do list for ages. However, I did not know I was touching a few raw nerves there. At least one person reminded me that it hurts to be reminded that Kolkata has fallen so far behind. Another mused that everyone knows that Kolkata needs a future, but there isn't one - it missed the boat. A friend complained that I stated something that I did not justify - how to turn around Kolkata.

I shall keep this for tomorrow. Because, before that, we need to talk about how we got into this current mess in the first place. I do think that the politics is primarily responsible - as politics plays such a central part in life in India and it is one of the least professionalized (I don't mean in money terms) disciplines. However, it is plain to see that West Bengal, and Kolkata, lost out the promise it had at the time of India's independence, when it was a pre-eminent state and had great intellectual capital to boast about. As many observers agree, the process started immediately after independence, but the degeneration became faster since 1970s, and particularly acute since the economic reforms set the rest of India on a different platform in the 1990s.

Let me explain. This story of degeneration can be traced back to the years in the early 70s, when under a delusional Mrs. Gandhi, the whole country lost its sense of direction, compromised its principled foreign policy, devalued and eventually suspended democracy and created a bureaucracy-driven license raj. Thinking from another angle - that was actually an window of opportunity for India. The perennial challenge from Pakistan seemed to have subsided then. The Nehruvian self-reliance created the platform, as it was designed to do, and the world economy was approaching a tectonic shift. This is the time when America will lose in Vietnam and go through Watergate and the entrepreneurial energy of silicon valley hippies will eventually win the cold war. This was the time when the time was on side with democracy and enterprise. However, we missed the boat collectively, failed to change the agenda [while China did] and sided with the losing side.

West Bengal, then, was ruled by a set of opportunistic wheeler-dealers, who shamelessly rigged the elections, suspended their judgement to curry favours from Delhi and brutally suppressed any opposition. They criminalized the state, subverted the independent media, compromised the education system and underfunded the development. They failed - as did the rest of the country - to see the opportunity and take it.

It was clear, much before it happened, that their time was over. They would have lost elections had they not shamelessly rigged some of them. But the symptoms of implosion was evident. The opposition was hounded, and therefore, gained resolve. The political center point was empty because the leftward lurch of the rhetoric in the congress party, further accentuated by the suspension of democracy in the whole country in 1975. So, when finally emergency was lifted, the congress leaders were booted out as promptly as they came in, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), uniting with other left parties, came to power.

The first, and the biggest achievement of this combine was to redistribute land among the tillers and end the terrible inequality of land ownership, which plague the quest of agricultural efficiency in other parts of India. The reform of land ownership was a huge step, as this created shared prosperity in the villages of West Bengal and created the goodwill for the party.

However, since this was completed - in the early 80s - CPIM did not achieve much, except a key political victory, which I shall come to in a minute. Their list of failures, on the other hand, grew substantially over their reign of three decades. They helped to degenerate the education and health care system, completely subverting the meritocracy and decimating the intellectual leadership. They allowed systematic neglect of Kolkata's urban infrastructure, pursued an agitational politics to keep the private industrial investment out and allowed the public sector units to fail. Their decision to abandon English in schools spelt disaster for children attending state schools, and their blindness to see how other states are benefitting by allowing private investment in education seriously hurt the competitiveness of the state.

But, still, CPIM remained in power. This is because of a key political victory - executed to perfection by the man who towered over Bengal's politics for almost five decades, Jyoti Basu. They chose their opposition. CPIM systematically trashed all opposition from all angles - from within and without - by a combination of political canniness and other methods which were not so civilized. But, they did not leave a vacuum - they promoted the firebrand Mamata Bandopadhyay, the divisive rabble rousing congress leader, to a position of prominence, and eventually to megalomania.

Ms Bandopadhyay has many great qualities of becoming an opposition leader, but none that of a leader of government. She has impeccable personal integrity, which compares so favourably with many of her colleagues' records, but no political principle, which makes her appear an out-and-out opportunist. She is fiery in her opposition, a great naysayer, but has no vision of her own. She defined her politics as that of being uncompromisingly anti-CPIM, unwittingly handing out an eternal run in the government for CPIM as long as she dominates the opposition agenda.

I feel that if the first achievement, of land reform, kept CPIM in power for their first 15 years, the second one, implanting Ms Bandopadhyay as the opposition-in-chief helped them for their next 15.

But, as all good things come to an end, this political game is drawing to a close in Kolkata. Though no opposition leader is yet in sight, Ms Bandopadhyay has proved that she can not win an election [actually, in modern politics of indifference, no leader so divisive can ever pull the majority with them]. Her primacy in opposition is running on extra-time. She is like Robert Mugabe [though to Mugabe's credit, he is an winner] - an excellent mass rabble-rouser who has a delusional megalomania, far removed from people and aspirations. Ms Bandopadyay shows all symptoms of directionlessness - appearing quixotic most of the time. She is waiting to be relieved, and it is only a matter of time for a fresh face, with a fresh agenda, backed by the full power of Satellite TV to appear on the scene.

CPIM's new leadership, which succeeded Mr. Basu, is also clueless on how to create the next agenda. Agreed, they are constrained by their central leadership. The problem of all communist parties [is it because Marx was German, and as Engels famously observed, the German Philosophers always believed in finding an universal answer] is that they always pretend to be a world party, even when their agenda is intensely local. For a long time, CPIM maintained a central leadership drawing from leaders from other states, to create a facade of a national entity. However, these leaders had no political experience outside their college campuses. Hence, CPIM's policy making, dominated by these politico-bureaucrats, became far removed from people and agendas of the day. Since in the great communist tradition [and in pretence] the party comes first, the leaders of government in West Bengal always acceded to the political agenda of the party, failing to do 'the right thing' on many occasions.

It is undeniable that they tried, but the failure of these attempts actually show why their time is up. They reversed the earlier politics and started inviting industrial investment in the state. For many industrialists, the state's undemanded land combined with its underpaid labour, was tempting - so they came in. The administration tried to invite investments in IT, and incentivized the BPO, in the hope to follow the success story of Bangalore.

However, their attempts were as piecemeal and misdirected as the soviet attempts to open their economy in the late 80s were. They did not change their policies of de-meritorizing education. They did not attempt to reform urban infrastructure, particularly public transport. They did not attempt to encourage small scale industry and home-grown businesses. Just like the Soviets, they thought big investments will change the economic landscape of the state, but still counted the home-grown entrepreneur as a class enemy. It was too little too late and completely disconnected from reality.

I say the attempts were too 'prime time', where the Chief Minister behaved as a Prima Donna rather than a man of the people. In their desperation, they dished out arable agricultural land to satisfy the demands of industrial investment. They failed to realize the anger of the people, who were encouraged to connect to their land by the same party thirty years back. [Again, is this in Communist grain - as Lenin promised 'Land to the People' to come to power, and Stalin went through the barbaric collectivization exercise?] When people protested, the civil governance was suspended in the affected areas, and party militia attacked the protesters to 'teach them a lesson'. While the carnage was going on, the administration remained indifferent, and the Chief Minister excused himself saying that he is a party man first.

But economic development, so far, failed to arrive. Not surprisingly, while the Chief Minister was cat walking for the industrialists, I was amazed to find that trade licensing, an essential step for small businesses to start, was suspended for more than two months because of a political dispute between two ministers. In the end, CPIM's attempts to industrialize are full of symptoms of an impending implosion, just as it was thirty years back for the Congressman.

So, CPIM has an organic deafness and Ms Bandopadhyay is megalomaniacally blind, and poor Kolkata is caught in between them. But I still remain an optimist. I imagine the politics in Kolkata/ West Bengal is approaching a crossroad, and there is a real possibility that a credible political alternative to CPIM, which has ruled Bengal for last 30 years, will now emerge.

Why I say so? Because the world has moved on since the time CPIM or Mamata Bandopadhyay learnt their politics. India has become aspirational. New issues, and opportunities, have arisen. Possibilities have been created. Taboos have been broken, cultures have been fused. From a state of fear, Indians have moved to a state of empowerment. From thinking what we can not do, we have come to think what we can do. I am no fan of Gandhi clan, but Rahul Gandhi's recent speech in Parliament - think like a big country - has a point. And, that is precisely the point Kolkata has missed so far. And, this is the message, of hope, of optimism, and of future, will surely now rise - that is the nature of human history.

Let me conclude this statement with a quote from - oh lo behold - George W Bush! I shall, of course, quote what he is going to say, rather than what he has already said [and, therefore, this is Bushism-proof!]. George Bush is scheduled to make a speech tomorrow morning in Thailand and advance copies of the speech is available through the White House website. I have, of course, taken the liberty of replacing the references of China with 'West Bengal' in the quote:

"Change in [West Bengal] will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and traditions. Yet change will arrive."

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