Saturday, August 29, 2009

7 Leadership Principles for 2010

As we get ready to emerge from the recession this time, we should learn from this near-death experience. If this recovery should sustain, which means that we shall not have an inflationary run, absurd interest rates and countries going bankrupt in the near future, the way we conduct ourselves must change. So far, it seems that we have learnt little, and waiting, like little boys, to return to life as usual.

The only way we can move forward is by accepting that there will be no return to life as usual. We must move forward, not back, and that includes not trying to replicate past templates. Bonus et al included, we should not wait around to banks get back to their old ways soon and start buying houses beyond our pay. We should save and not go back to our free-spending days. Businesses must focus on create value, and not just sustain themselves on easy credit or the naivety of investors. But, before anything else, we must acknowledge that we have this terrible habit not to learn, and must start changing ourselves at this time.

There is no hope that this is going to happen, without some inspired leadership. Leadership is a much abused word now. It passes off for positions unearned - like a CEO is a leader whoever he is. The underlying meritocratic assumption may not work. For many reasons, including that we are usually looking for wrong qualifications and because the world has changed. We must start with acknowledging that leadership is not what the leaders do, but it is what is expected of leaders. And, what is expected of the leaders is changing fast and thick, and in a sense, 2010 will usher us into a brave new world altogether.

So, what are those leadership principles for post-recession world? I tried to list out my thoughts here:

Principle 1: Optimism without Abundance

2010 will turn a new page in our history, where we must learn to live with scarcity. That actually is an understatement: We shall have to accept scarcity as a way of life. Our culture at this time is constructed around abundance, and we know scarcity as bad, abundance as good, in a rather straightforward way. The leaders tomorrow have to be optimistic and positive about an age without abundance and bring the faith back in the our human nature, which excels at the time of trouble. In Governance, Business and Education, the leaders have to show us the way to increase our resource efficiencies, cut waste and be happy without the opulence that marked our last few decades.

Principle 2: Leadership As A State of Mind

While we have got used to a fairly predictable world, and particularly accepted the idea about a stable end-of-history world since the end of Cold War, uncertainty will now be back with a vengeance. The political instability will rise. Inflation will be back, sovereign states will fail on their obligations. To survive, we shall need leadership as a state of mind instead of leader as an individual. The successful leaders will bring the leaders out from all of us and get us into a 24x7 leadership.

Principle 3: The Short Long Term

While the abundance allow us to focus on immediate term, the scarcity necessarily forces us to think long term - at least till the end of the tunnel. This will define the new ethos of leadership - thinking beyond the immediate term - and focusing on projects and ideas which did not seem to matter in short run.

Principle 4: Knowing the Limits of Cognition

We thought we knew best, but we don't. The recession was not just a market failure. It was a failure of the models and statistics and all the analytical tools, and a return to pure guts and people instincts. Our last century successes were mostly about overcoming our physical limitations by use of technology, and we have built a system of thinking supplementing our quest of physical ability. The recession showed us that we were not very good at handling our cognitive limitations though; we built systems that often fail and do not serve us well most of the time. The new leadership thinking will be focused upon questioning what we believe now and building abilities to overcome our cognitive limitations.

Principle 5: The Multi-local World

Globalization has taken a hit, though the international trade must keep its momentum and peace must prevail. The difference in this new world will be that we must acknowledge the diversity of the world and allow the local cultures, beliefs and customs to foster. No more of export of democracy, this means; rather accepting the fact that India and China will soon become two huge consumption markets and getting ready to know their ways.

Principle 6: The Citizen Leader

There is a low level of trust on leadership, after we have so badly let down. So, after 2009, it will be age of citizen leader rather than the celebrity leader. We shall trust those, who like Gandhi or Martin Luther King will walk and suffer, and less of those like Churchill and Kennedy who will charm and dazzle.

Principle 7: The Continuous Leadership

In this fractured, uncertain, scarcity-driven world, we shall need faith. And, that will make us want leaders who show us a complete way of living our life, not just discreet and often incomplete functions of getting rich or making cool staff. We shall need leaders as a model for our lives and we shall have fewer, but continuous and complete, leaders to provide that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bankers' Bonus: Looking Back in Anger

I am contributing in the blog on the Institute of Wellbeing website. This is an interesting assignment, as this will allow me to reflect and write on various subjects on the news on British tele. Here is another post I sent last week.
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Alistair Darling is looking angry. He has a right to be - his dream job turned out to be one of 24x7 crisis management almost the day he started. And, just when he seems to be getting a grip, there is an embarrassing possibility that some bankers, the same bankers who gambled with their depositors' money and rewarded themselves with hefty bonuses, may be at it again. This time, they may play with taxpayers' money, of which Mr Darling is in charge.

He can clearly see something coming. AIG, the ailing insurance company which was kept in business by a huge injection of taxpayer's money in the United States, decided to reward its executives and traders few months ago for risk taking and making short term profits, almost costing the job for Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary. There was a very public furore, but AIG gave those bonuses anyway. And, as if it did not matter at all, Citigroup just announced, despite being on life support, that they will be handing out $10 million on average to its top 25 executives, and more than $100 million to its top trader.

We are, indeed, going through the due motions of anger. The irreverent media stories about the obscene amount of money some of executives are getting paid. The opposition did their bit calling the banks to scrap the bonuses altogether and generating a consensus around the need to tougher regulations on the banks. The government unveiled some of the measures of its own , including the requirement that the bonuses can not be guaranteed for more than a year and the senior executives in the financial institutions need to spread their bonuses on a longer, three year, period.

But almost everyone knows that the governments can do very little. The Americans have set up an executive role overlooking just compensation in the organizations currently receiving public funds, but given Kenneth Feinberg, the incumbent, very little to play with. His job is to ensure that the executives are paid in line with the industry - an industry which has just got smaller through mergers and acquisitions and has the reputation of being an old boys' club anyway - so that the 'talent is retained'. Read differently, and this is what he is supposed to be doing - let the banks run their businesses as usual, but keep the Treasury Secretary out of the mess!

It indeed seems that the Governments everywhere know that they are at the mercy of the bankers - they knew it since the moment they had to pay for the bankers' follies and had to rescue banks which were 'too big to fail'. Since then, the banks have been well fed with cheap public money, given not just as direct handouts but also through increased money supply by the Bank of England [and the other Central Banks] at low interest rates. And, despite Mr. Darling's earlier displays of anger, banks merely focused on rebuilding their balance sheets with this public money and kept loans out of bounds, or very expensive, for businesses, which needed the money to create jobs. And, similarly, this time, it seems that while Mr. Darling [and Mr. Osborne, the Chancellor-Waiting-in-the-Shadow] has shown the due anger, banks will do exactly as they wish. Including the bonuses, indeed!

I say that because the governments on both sides of the Atlantic seem to have bought this nonsense about 'retaining talent'. No one seems to be saying 'what talent?' and that will anger anyone who have to pay taxes and worry about their jobs in a rather untalented way. This same talent brought us where we are, remember - no one seems to be shouting back; rather it seems that somehow the ministers have bought the unconvincing theory that the crisis was caused by a few bad apples, and the institutions themselves should remain out of blame and should be allowed to run their businesses as they always did.

The bonuses are a case in point, possibly very centrally so. The banks seem to believe that the bonuses are the only way to make people do a good job. Behavioural Economists dispute that assertion, and proved scientifically that while bonuses and incentives, the if-then rewards, work well for straightforward tasks [for making 50 phone calls a day, for example], they are actually counter-productive when the tasks involve a rudimentary cognitive skill [for example, make 50 phone calls and report accurately the problems the respondents were facing]. In summary, bonuses work well for dumbed down tasks. Now, if we turn the statement around, and say that a bonus-driven culture actually lead to dumbing down of work, that may not be scientifically substantiated, but the experience of this whole credit crunch affair will give that theory some credence.

The point I am making is this: the story leading to Credit Crunch almost reads like Our Man in Havana, the Graham Greene classic where the experts ['talents' in the current jargon] behaved in a particularly inexplicable way because they wanted to believe what they were hearing. And, even when the game was up, it was better to hide the mess and continue the business as usual rather than accept the truth, because that would have undermined an institution. It is not impossible, reading through the accounts of events leading to credit crunch, to visualize bankers and other non-banking intermediaries involved in the process developing a black art designed to fool people, intentionally dumbing down the due process and replacing it by a false sense of safety in complexity.

In summary, bonuses do not retain talent, it discourages it. Not only that. This madness about bonuses destroy organizations and its values. The sobering voices are already being heard. Henry Mintzberg, a leading management thinker of our time, is writing about the urgent need of organizations rediscovering themselves as communities, of employees, shareholders and customers, as they have originally been. Robert Reich, Clinton's Treasury Secretary and a Professor of Public Policy, is writing in his blog about the destructive effects bonuses had on the usual functioning of the banks and financial institutions.

As for the politicians caught in the middle, they can seek solace from the work of James March, Professor Emeritus at Stanford and a leading organizational theorist of our time. Professor March argued that our economic decisions are not just based on our self-interest [like what gets me most money] but also on our sense of identity [what would a man in my position should do]. Currently, most bankers are on the State payroll, like our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is time they recognize that, and stop insulting everyone else by implying that people can not do a good job without a bonus being paid.

A Note on Bonus

I noticed this video on Alex Goodall's blog and then on ted.com. Comes at a time when we were talking about bankers' bonuses paid for by tax money. To retain talent, that was the standard excuse that the banks were giving out. I thought this was a very timely outing of whether bonuses mean better performance.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why There Was No Post on Sunday?

Because there was nothing to write.

I suddenly feel - almost for the first time - very depressed. Oh, yes, with a laugh. But it seemed either age or recession caught up with me. I spent an useless weekend doing nothing, wondering where I am now and where I wish to get to. Not for the first time, those who know me will testify, answering the second question was very difficult. It almost seemed like a series of flashing images, an endless list of alternative futures. But, for the first time in my life, I craved for some certainty.

My first problem, indeed, is that I am homeless. It was always there - I sure recall days long time back, when I shall stand on the terrace of our family home in India on a wintery morning and feel that I do not ever want to go away, but at the same time telling myself that I must go and see the world. I lived a life of compromises - going away with a promise to return - but I obviously know how difficult it is to return, to anything, at any time.

I intended to study abroad, see the world, when I was young. That did not happen. I almost never knew how to do that, and I am still figuring out. That's a legacy of my comfortable provincial past, where uncertainty or ambition could not touch me. Like many others around me, I saw my world - the lovely wintery morning which I can still visualize with my eyes closed - disappearing, but lived in denial about this altogether. I almost assumed that I shall never grow up [and those who love me tells me that I haven't]. Funnily, I also thought that the world will remain exactly the same when I complete my travel and do return - no one else will grow up too.

Do I blame globalization? I could, but then it made me whatever I am. I defaulted into an IT course and worked - first as a technician and then as a preacher - for the advent of the Internet, and how it will change life in every corner of the world. I was preaching it to fringe communities, remember, to the small town Asia, and it took real faith to do that. And, I practised what I preached and built my life around Internet. To this day, I have more virtual friends - and I am talking about the quality of friendship than the number of friends - than flesh-and-blood ones. My life, work, studies and beliefs, are all built around the Internet. I was destined to become a regular blogger long time ago.

And, then, globalization caught on with me. I always consider my stay in Bangladesh to be some sort of a watershed, when my beliefs changed. That's the first time I lived in another country, and frankly, that's the first time I lived outside Calcutta for some time at a stretch. The first thing it did is to break stereotypes in my mind. I was, indeed, suitably warned before going to Bangladesh - about the problems of living in a Muslim country, about the adverse feelings Bangladeshis have about the Indians, all that. I still consider the four years I lived in Dhaka, on and off, to be the best in my life yet. I met some of the best people I know, genuine friends who I shall treasure all my life. Also, that broke my imaginery barrier about who I am and what is an acceptable future.

I remember when I announced my plans to migrate, my manager told me that Bangladesh did it to me. Her thesis was that since we lived in usual expat comfort in Bangladesh, I have been spoilt, my expectations have been spoilt, and therefore, I can not settle back in the usual, mundane, tough working conditions in the home country anymore. She was on the money, but she could not understand the causation. It was not about comfort, it was about confidence. There was a sort of a Sinatra factor - if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere - and the fact that I met so many enterprising Bangladeshis who were not ready to accept what life handed out to them. One must admit that the life in Bangladesh was far more difficult than India, particularly West Bengal, where people live in a sort of grey eventlessness, wherein the life in Bangladesh is usually fraught in danger and instability. But, Bangladeshi businessmen and common people take that in their stride and make the best out of what they have, a remarkable quality worth observing. This spolit me - the confidence and the urge to seek my own path regardless of what I seemed destined to do.

But, indeed, this was always going to be a lonely journey and that's what I feel now. I can not indeed expect a return after renouncing what was laid out for me - a life in a job, usual progression - marriage, mortgage, pension, death - and the social design we are all born with. Today, there are these moments of sadness, loneliness, and of lost identity, when I wish to return, be the same person I was born. But, the moment the subject was broached, conversations progress into - you can't go back - or you should not come back. The life I am living pulls me back with the force of habit, the life I have left behind rejects me for my betrayal and sets out a conditional welcome peppered by impossible rules. It was almost like - give up your consciousness and return blind - and one knows that the alineation is so complete that there is almost no choice but to reinvent oneself completely.

I am a migrant by choice and that's a sin. No one understood why I left and no one wants to understand, therefore, why I may wish to return. I know this already - we all like formulas and if one is not behaving to the pattern, it upsets people. Recession was one such window - where I could have failed and returned - but I am possibly too proud to hide behind a formula, even for the sake of acceptability, what will essentially be an act of choice.

But, then, these journeys teach you one thing - that life, though short, have endless possibilities. I crave for my identity as the drums tune up for the pujas and white, light, clouds bring up the autumn in Kolkata. I feel homesick. But, some point of time, I realize that I have already embraced the world and my identity has changed - to that of a traveller.

Friday, August 21, 2009

China's Consumption Challenge: Video Interview from McKinsey Quarterly






Diary: Why do we love a bomber?

It is perplexing to see a hero's welcome being extended to one of the Lockerbie bombers who has recently released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, a convicted man for the Pan Am Jet explosion above Lockerbie in 1988, is suffering from terminal prostate cancer and was released by the Scottish government based on the principle of justice usually applied in such cases. This led to worldwide condemnation, drawing angry reaction from victim's families, and also from English and American leaders who saw this as an excellent opportunity to show they are tough on terrorism.

The Scottish government indeed was following the letter of the law. They applied the principle that normally applies in such cases, and chose not to make an exception. The British government, not wanting to appear soft on terrorism, tried to keep this as low key as possible, first by being less than clear whether the appeal will be granted and then by trying to make sure that the return of Mr. Mergrahi remained low key. It indeed failed on both counts - the delay allowed the build up time for world wide condemnation and the expectations in Libya, where a significant crowd turned up at the airport to receive Mr. Megrahi and gave him a hero's welcome in full view.

This indeed throws up usual questions and the new ones. Could, and should the Scottish government make an exception in this case? Should we be able to forgive a man whose actions directly caused so many deaths? And, most importantly, why does anyone love a bomber?

Let us start with this question of exception. Should political considerations of a government necessarily affect the process of justice and administration? The moral answer is no, but the practical answer is that it does. Inevitably, while Gordon Brown and Barack Obama were afraid of looking soft and thereby making noises that the bomber should not be released, Alex Salmond, the nationalist Scottish First Minister, possibly saw this as an excellent platform to launch the Scottish foreign policy. Yes, indeed, Scotland always stood for compassion and justice, and the Libyans at the airport turned up with Scottish flags side by side with Libya's. So, this indeed is a fairly political action on both sides, which takes no cognizance of the innocent people who suffered, on both sides.

Of course, the British media and their American cousins are horrified that the Scottish government stuck to the letter of the law and did not make an exception despite their agitational op-eds. This comes as usual from the double standards of the mainstream media, who were full of sympathies for Samantha Orobator, the 20-year old from South London who was caught with drugs in Laos and escaped prison sentence by becoming pregnant while in Prison. The Laotian law was followed, which forbids prison sentence for pregnant women, and despite her crime and the obvious fact that she became pregnant just to avoid the sentence, the letter of the law was followed. The attitude of the British media then was, yes she is a drug smuggler but she is our drug smuggler.

But for all the obvious politics and self-serving coverage in the media, possibly the law remains the ultimate arbitrator and justice is best done following the law. And, in that sense, following the letter of the law is a much better moral stance than following the politics of the day, since this may mean no moral stance at all.

But, yes, indeed, we may not be able to forgive a man whose acts resulted in so many deaths, of innocents, and wrecked families and lives. Or, should we able to? One of the lessons of civilization is possibly to be able to differentiate between a man and his actions, and while the crime must not be tolerated, one should be able to show compassion to the person. The question here was of remorse, and the media reported there was none in Mr. Megrahi. This is most surprising, because he himself is not far from the end of life and had enough time in prison to reflect on his actions.

I think one missing bit here is that Mr. Megrahi was not put face to face to the human tragedy he caused. He should have been put in contact with victim families, before he was released. Possibly, this would have told him who he killed were humans after all; may be, the victim families also discovered him to be human and a slave to his circumstances. However, it is unlikely that this will ever happen again and we will ever be able to reconcile and be in peace.

And, this leads to the most amazing spectacle of all, the hero's welcome Mr. Megrahi receives in Tripoli, as his plane arrives. Nationalism is a nasty thing, in Britain as in Libya, and once under its spell, we refuse to recognize that carrying drugs or killing people is unacceptable after all. I am certain most Libyans are peace-loving normal people, and they don't start the day saying that 'I am going to kill an American'. It is politics again, this time from wily Colonel, who allowed, if not organized, this uncivil display of nationalism.

I follow John McCain's tweets and know that he was recently in Libya and met Colonel Gaddafi and found him an interesting man. Colonel Gaddafi is a new found friend of the western powers, someone who is willing to bury his differences with his old enemies [or pretend to do so] and choose to play ball in the fear of growing instability in the Islamic world. But, friend or not, the old Colonel is a master of playing the nationalist card and that's what he has done again. Libyans may not love their bombers, but some of them needed show up for the sake of Colonel G's political survival.

In all, in this game of convoluted nationalism, people and decency were forgotten. The only thing mattered is media minutes. The old nasty nationalism reared its head, once again. Justice and usual human feelings were, as usual, considered as not that important.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lead India video

I liked it so much that I gave in to the temptation of putting this up here.


Diary: Dealing with Wallenda Factor

I had this interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday, who was describing my state of mind being similar to one of being in an unhappy marriage - can not stay, can not go away. With a little reflection, I realized that is exactly correct. This blog trail, and many other conversations, will point to the fact that I have always talked about my responsibility to 'complete' the job at hand, but never looked forward or communicated my excitement about what I am doing. This has lasted very long, I would guess since early 2008, and particularly since August 2008, when I decided to leave and put myself in a self-determined long notice.

She indeed pointed out that I am not giving 100% to this job, which is indeed correct. I keep saying I am doing my best, a statement designed to confuse, and in every sense is a qualified statement. This is one of those statements in English which has an underlying mitigation - under the circumstances, as the qualifier - and funnily, I am doing my best indeed means I am not doing my best, I am doing what I can best do under the circumstances. And, the I-am-doing-my-best is indeed a bottomless statement, because one can very much use it as an excuse of not doing anything.

The point is, of course, why I am not at 100%. The discussion soon turned onto a list of things that could have been done. But, as she soon pointed out, that was also not the point. Things did not work out as it should have, okay. But what have I been doing? This is that can't-get-out part, which was being very rightly pointed out, that defies explanation. If everything was bad, why was I playing an waiting game?

My stated reason was that I had a responsibility and I did not want to walk away, leaving customers, partners and colleagues to look after themselves. This is absolutely sincere, and comes from the fact that I think I have walked out from my responsibility far too many times earlier on in my career. This time, I was determined not to be a quitter and leave at the first sign of trouble.

But, then, a question must be asked whether I am actually doing justice to all those concerned by staying on rather than going. Not that I am not trying hard, but the question is about the rather hypothetical situation - whether things will improve if I leave. I haven't felt so - at least till this point - and rather saw a real risk of implosion if I chose to walk out. And, this last bit, indeed, was exactly where I was wrong.

Incidentally, and trust me this is pure coincidence, I was reading Warren Bennis' Leaders on my flight back home and I discovered the Wallenda factor. Named after Karl Wallenda, the greatest tightrope walker of all time, who fell to death during his most dangerous tightrope walk in Puerto Rico. Bennis names this factor after him because, after his death, his wife, also an aerialist herself, explained what went wrong - Karl Wallenda focused on not falling rather than walking the tightrope.

Yes, we could have called it the fear of failure, but Wallenda factor definitely sounded more apt. This is exactly what I was doing - trying to avoid failure and not taking it head on and embracing the learning - which kept me dissatisfied, less than 100%, and made me ineffective. I came across a four-quadrant model eventually, with Wallenda Factor on one axis and the Self-regard in another. Looking at this, I knew immediately what we were talking about that morning - I do not lack confidence or self-regard, but I was too afraid to fail, and was not succeeding therefore.

So, whether I walk out or not, I need to stop sulking and start doing my job. If I am to ensure success, both in my life as well as in the business I run, I must do this by fully committing myself and by not being afraid of anything else. I was in this self-imposed shell since early 2008, as credit crunch hit us hard. I almost concluded, without ever trying, that I shall not be able to find a job if I try, and started looking around for an escape - an year at the university, perhaps! The point indeed is to take life head on and not fear the failure, which will surely come. What I am thinking is - failure is inevitable, but never irreversible - which is a bit of common sense, but never occurred to me before.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Diary: The Flip Side of Talent Management

Talent Management was, and still is, the buzzword. As championed by numerous management gurus, including the uber-guru, Tom Peters, Talent Management is envisioning your company like a football team. He says, you must have the stars and the others. Like a football team, you must have the miracle man, who will pull up that miracle goal, which will make all the difference between winning and losing. In today's hyper-competitive economy, that's what makes a difference.

Makes sense, indeed, just that the companies are not football teams. They are not even an orchestra, which is the next best parallel that Talent Management consultants draw. Well, they can seem to be, if you all you care for is 90 minute glory. But if one sees a business organization as the hard long term slog that it actually is, suddenly the poor knowledge workers seem to be as much valuable as anyone else.

The point I am making is - yes, stars make a difference. But since building a great company usually is a long term process, these human organizations are more like a country where everyone must contribute, rather than one or two stellar leaders.

Before I explain this, I shall also state why I think talent management seems so attractive. Because that doctrine is in sync with our culture, or it used to be. Our celebrity-crazed culture, where inequality is accepted as a norm and some people are supposed to earn more than others, not 10, 15 or 20 times more, but 1000 times or so more. So, the management gurus were not importing the analogy of football field to companies, they were actually reading up their morning tabloid and was having their eureka moment.

But then, suddenly it all came unstuck. Consider the whole debate about Citigroup giving $10 million on average to their top 25 executives, and roughly $100 million to their top trader, while they are still receiving taxpayers money to remain in business. Similar things have happened in AIG last year, and also in Britain, where failed institutions took money from government to survive and then allowed the failed executive team to steal some of that money. All in the name of talent management!

Yes, the logic of these completely unbelievable bonus-giving is that they need to retain talent! Talent, what? The same failed executives and traders who almost brought down the whole bank and created misery for so many across the world. That talent to mess it up completely! This whole drama suddenly shows - in one capsule - what's wrong with the management of the companies today: thinking that business is a football match and the ultimate objective is to win at the end of 90 minutes [or 90 days, if you will].

But business used to be about making a difference, creating economic value by bringing resources to requirements, building communities of people - suppliers, employees and customers together - and creating happiness and satisfaction. Management books still talk about this; every business degree extol this as the final goal. But, in business practise, when did we lose sight of this?

I shall blame the culture of 'talent management', which is about creating a group of unconnected, and often untalented people, who runs the organization to their own selfish ends. And, short term ends, because they run away exactly when things start going bad. Henry Mintzberg, in his recent HBR essay, points this out - companies have stopped becoming communities. And, this has been exposed clearly by the recent sub-prime debacle and its aftermath. If the end of Cold War was anyway a triumph for modern management, this is its nadir.

Once this whole political furore over unjust bonuses settle down, it is likely that everyone will return to business as usual. Not because it is the most sensible thing to do, but because it is the easiest. The point, however, is that we have seen the crisis this brings. One can argue that such recession is once in a lifetime affair, and it will not happen again. But, that can not be the excuse to make the same mistakes over again, and wish nothing will happen. [Besides, I strongly believe that this is going to be an unfinished recession and these ghosts will come back in 10 to 15 years time for one terminal crisis for the system as it is]

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Diary: My Plans

I have been writing this blog for three years running now, and it has been extremely useful to me personally. Unlike some of the other bloggers, I did not start with a purpose. I did not have a product or service to sell. Instead, I used this blog as a scrapbook of ideas, partly to keep a tab on myself so that I can look at my years in 'exile' later on and reflect back on these days. Also, I intended to use this blog as 'morning pages', following Julia Margaret Cameron's advise to practise writing everyday so that I can learn to overcome the writers' block. But, as I started writing, I achieved something else which I did not anticipate - I started building friendships. Friendships with people I know and did not know, but a continuous friendship without the barrier of spatial limitations. It did not matter how far or near I stayed, but we kept in touch, with people managing to visit these pages once in a while and leaving comments, either here or by email, and turning this whole exercise in a long, never ending conversation.

This is what sustained my blog writing enthusiasm. One can notice I am all over the place - I write about politics, business, economics, Indian affairs, ideas, technology - and one can simply see this to be a pointless exercise because I had no 'theme'. But, then, I had one - a conversation - which I conducted with my friends, many nameless, who agreed some times and disagreed most other times.

And, also, I wrote about my own life. Yes, in a very impersonal way, mostly talking about work while keeping inside the legal requirements of non-disclosure and non-defamation, but I still talked about what is in my mind and what I am planning to do next. At times, this was awkward, especially when someone will read a message which I did not mean or try to turn my general observations into specific. But still it made sense, to be clear, at least in the sense of airing the confusion that is in my mind and getting people to weigh in with advise and comments.

So, I kept a diary, mostly public but sometimes in the form of private postings. I kept writing about my life, plans and work. As usual, those diaries were full of an emotional, idealistic tone, which meant that they are straight from the heart, because that's the kind of a person I am - a dreamer, idealistic, emotional. However, I also understood one limitation about writing about what's on my mind, as writing has an inherent sense of permanence, but the mind, in its ordinary state, should be agile and flexible. So, yes, reading on, it does seem that I am terribly inconsistent, indecisive life. On my defence, I may say that I live a 'learning' life, open, flexible, questioning and progressive. And, these blog posts are neither an autobiography, which presents facts long after the time and with a perspective, nor a manifesto, which is temporal but presented with a purpose. They are what they are - blog posts - temporal statements about a thought or a state of life, and should be treated as such. So, if you are like me and see the life as a set of interconnected but independent moments, and do not wish to reduce this to some kind of boring rationality, you will get the sense. This blog is more like a sequence of discreet snaps rather than an attempt to weave different frames in a movie.

Like this one, where I started without an end in mind, and just discovered this similarity between photography, my other love, and blog writing. Both has some kind of presentational obligations, but is a reflection of the raw truth in that frame. Besides, the blog posts are as temporal, and built around a very personal, which can be commuted for a rather universal, perspective. This definitely keeps a record, but to look for a consistency of opinion over a three year period where life was full of defining moments, a sequence of fast changing circumstances and unpredictable people is equivalent to a moronic existence which I long left behind.

But, anyway, coming to the point, I have a new plan. As always, not a final one, but some sort of a guidance for the coming weeks. I am always grappling with the question when to return to India, but in the middle of this recession, suddenly the question what I shall do there has become more important. I am quite averse to taking a job there, at least in the private sector. So that leaves with the options of starting a business or being self-employed, both of which will require me to stay abroad for a period of time, either to build up capital base or to build skills and portfolio. I am more set on being self-employed, as a business in Kolkata, where I shall be if I return to India, will be a difficult thing to start under current circumstances.

So, decision one - I shall be abroad and travelling for, at least, next three to five years, with the goal of building a capital base for business, or skills and portfolio base for a self-employed career, or both. During this time, I shall reconstruct my life in India, not just by sorting out where I am going to stay, but also what I am going to do and how I shall start. I have made a few false starts recently, ending up dealing with complete charlatans which I had to exit in a hurry. I don't want to make similar mistakes any more, and this time, I shall be far more circumspect and slow in moving forward.

I have said before that I wish to exit the current employment in August. That's only a few weeks away. To be absolutely sure, I have not moved from that position yet, though it seems my goal of leaving this at a steady state - sort of cruise control - will make me wait out a few more months. We are possibly moving towards a sensible business model now, with some positive changes around the corner, and I am hopeful that I shall get things sorted out in a matter of weeks. Once that is done, I am ready to move. I have started looking out for opportunities which are closer to my heart. I am also setting myself up to write a book, about the business opportunity in India and ways to tap the market, by the end of this year. This will connect directly to my experience and the disappointments I had in trying to bridge the gap in understanding and planning for the Indian market. I am taking this up as a project, side by side with my dissertation and reading on world cultures.

So, my plans for sabbatical shelved now, and I shall return to that thought later in 2010, if appropriate. But I am now focused on moving forward, finishing my tasks at hand and focusing on things which will help me augment my skills, build valuable experience and build a portfolio of work.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Diary: National Identities

I would have titled this post - 15Th August in Croydon - to denote how sad it feels to spend this usual Saturday of shopping and housework away from home. Yes, India is surely home, however much I settle in Britain and even if I take up a citizenship here, as my life is so deeply shaped by the culture of my origin that I shall always be an alien anywhere else. This is not to condone any narrowness or stating whatever Indian is good and need no improvement; culture is a dynamic entity and any culture that fails to change with time normally gets wiped away. So, my way of looking at this is that I am deeply Indian and will remain so always, but I shall travel and learn, engage with the world and accept the learning with humility. Woodrow Wilson told the American salesmen at the beginning of twentieth century to go out to the world and sell the brand of America. Time has come someone tells this to us Indians too.

I make no secrets about my wishes to remain Indian all my life. Frankly, I am quite proud about my roots. But then, after travelling around a bit, I have understood a couple of things about this pride. It is important to feel proud about one's own origin, and cherish it; but this should not be the chauvinistic, we-are-superior kind of pride, but rather pride in the sense of love - love for the lost winter afternoons of local cricket matches, the puja festival around the corner from the house, the mornings of holi and the dancing troupes in Shantiniketan, the training journeys through the green pastures of Bardhaman and Medinipore, and the like. And, in that sense, this pride has nothing to do with India as an emerging power. It indeed is, but that has nothing to do with my feeling Indian.

As is which passport I hold. Increasingly, nations are becoming irrelevant - except in America - and the process will only accelerate in the next few decades. Interestingly, I am reading now Us and Them, an effort in understanding our tribal mind. Indeed, we all belong to tribe, but then our world is getting bigger and bigger, and nations, in most part of the world, are becoming an irrelevant and dated concept.

This is what I exactly think. I shall follow Benedict Anderson to say that nationalism, or the imagined community of a nation, was constructed by the simultaneous erosion of religious magic and the rise of print capitalism. Going further with this thought, one can quickly and easily correlate the concept of national newspapers and nationalism, and the fact that newspapers are in terminal decline in the post-nationalist society [which has experienced the perils of nationalism and paid a high price] whereas it is stable and growing in the Asian nations which are rediscovering a national identity [India, for example]. I also feel that we are living inside a time of great change, where the broadcast media gives way to interactive media, and suddenly the power to create a consistent imagery of events is far less diffuse and gets passed on, from a group of editors schooled in the same tradition, to a great body of amateurs with different views, backgrounds and persuasion. So, in a space of few years, the consistent national view of events is gone, and instead, we have individual views with diverse frames of references to deal with. Love it or hate it - and one can read a bitter tirade against the erosion of the power of editorial influence in The Cult of the Amateur - the individuals on interactive media will change the society, some day. Nations were built on dissolution of mystic and aggregation of reality; nations will die with the accelerated disaggregation of reality.

Funny that I feel this on 15Th August. I feel proud being an Indian and see the irrelevance of nations at the same time. And, to add another dimension, I strongly believe that world isn't flat and made understanding of various cultures and their effect on business and communication my principal focus of study. But then 15Th August is not just a national independence day; it is also a day of freedom and when the domino effect of Asian liberation was first felt. It just did not create a nation, it gave a people a sense of identity, a promise and hope of being treated as what they are. That's important in this journey to universal humanism that we are on - the fact that finally all the barriers will come down starts with the assumption that there could no master or subject race. But then, it is a start and not an end in itself, and technology and human dynamics will soon us get us to the next stage. And, would the world become one entity, if the nations prove unsustainable as a way of organizing ourselves? I do see an intermediate future, more in the line of the European Union but progressively more pervasive, when communities move to a super-federation of nations as a governing entity but become more self-governing and identity-conscious at the same time. A bigger and a smaller world for us at the same time? A thought to cherish, indeed, on this very special day!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blogging for IOW/ Social Issues: Remember Peter Connelly?

I am contributing in the blog on the Institute of Wellbeing website. This is an interesting assignment, as this will allow me to reflect and write on various subjects on the news on British tele. Here is another post I sent last week.
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Well, Baby P. We have been watching the stories of cruel torture and bureaucratic indifference leading to the tragic death of an unsuspecting toddler on the media for weeks now, which alarmed many and ashamed us all. As if we needed proof of the demons within, Baby P stood for many things that keep going wrong - abusive adults, an uncaring and violent mother and indifferent social workers - and gave us a reason to cringe and a symbol to hate.

But, then, hate it is what helped us arrive here in the first place. Because the people involved defied the normal human instincts of affection and love for a child. Because, they cared more for themselves and had little capacity to think about anything else. And, the namelessness helped us to construct a simple image - a nameless baby in computer imagery, a mother who seemed unlike any we have seen, and a group of people who acted with complete lack of human sensibilities. It was an easy picture to deal with.

But, suddenly, Peter Connelly, who? Or, more distressingly, we see ourselves looking at Tracey Connelly's face. Slightly disorientated, slightly drowsy perhaps, but a human face with a name that could be any one's. And, of Steven Barker - Tracey's partner in life and crime - who seemed like an average bloke next door. Suddenly, the disorientation of Baby P's case is complete, with real people, names and all. Suddenly, the pain is more intense and the possibility more apparent - closer home and more surreal at the same time. There is no more any escape in imagining shadowy people with cryptic identities. It is almost time that we start watching out for marks of abuse on our neighbour's child.

But is turning ourselves into a vigilante society is the answer to this cruel vulgarity?

The vigilante society as modelled after the American sex laws, where the sex offenders are put on a very public list and restricted from living a normal life. When a convicted sex offender moves in, the community goes into an overdrive into making him [it is usually him] an outcast, and in many cases, driving the person out altogether. Every once in a while, when we are shocked by a sex crime in Britain, we tend to look at the other side of the pond and demand the American style harsh punishments for the perpetrators.

But then, these laws not just change the life of the criminal but the community as well, and becomes permanent by creating a cruel system of exclusion and persecution. That may neither be ideal or even effective, and indeed, the officers involved in this case maintained that Tracey and Steven will be allowed to change their identities once they have served their sentences. Whether it is possible to leave the story trail behind them in this world of Internet and 24x7 media where one can see the MI5 boss in his swimming trunks and News of The World picks up royal voicemail is a different matter, though. But, whether we press for a lifelong persecution for this undoubtedly heinous crime or allow a redemption through switching of identities, we must now learn to look at these faces and names [and the changed ones] and live with them.

Which will eventually come down to live with ourselves at peace even after this incident. It is easier to live with enemies without than within, and identities, and the lack of it, has a deep relevance here. The media will keep reminding us of Baby P for years to come and usually point us to the wrong direction - demonizing these criminals and promoting a sort of negative exceptionalism - and goad us to look out for abuse marks on our neighbour's children. But the lesson of this identity outing should actually be just the opposite - so that we rediscover how precious our own children are and how much we treasure every moment of their presence. Small boring staff, indeed, but that's exactly why we should remember Peter Connelly.

In Defence of the NHS

Cousins sometimes fight, but it gets too personal if the beloved NHS looks 'evil and Orwellian' to politicians in America. Have the Americans not had enough of this myth about socialised medicine and still believe the stories that boards decide which medicine one can get? That's utter nonsense; for all the little disappointments I had with NHS in Britain - and I am an immigrant - I can't ever say it is evil, because it was mostly better than I expected.

Agreed, I come from India. But then I am not benchmarking against the state hospitals in India, but against the better run private ones, where one can get world class treatment if they can afford it. More like America, I would say. Or the ones in Thailand and in Dubai, which is no less expensive than anywhere else in the world and no less luxurious. True, our local Mayday hospital may not stand in comparison in terms of luxury, but I have met some of the best professional doctors there, who were really committed to patient welfare. Besides, the best thing about NHS is that you never have this feeling of getting mugged, which is precisely the feeling you get while visiting some of the privately run hospitals here.

Here is an example. Once I had a visitor from India who did have travel insurance, but not complete coverage. He fell sick after coming to Britain and it emerged that his pacemaker battery ran out. He was not entitled to the NHS treatment, being a tourist. However, I still rushed him to the local hospital and to the Accident and Emergency department which operates round the clock. I did disclose that he is a tourist but requested them to take him in as it is an emergency. They took him in, no questions asked, and told me that I may have to pay, but that could be discussed with the finance director once she comes to office on Monday.

The following day, Monday, we were duly met by the Finance Director, who asked us to fill out a form accepting the obligation to pay. I was a bit hesitant, as I was still trying to figure out whether the insurance company will pay. However, the operation was already due and I was still trying to get a pre-authorization from the insurance company. The Finance Director, to my surprise, said that I could take my time and see who will pay, but meanwhile they will go ahead with the operation. I was surprised and wanted to clarify - did she say that they would operate regardless. She indeed said that - she said human life is more important to them than money and while I figure out who pays, they have to go ahead with the operation.

This is exactly what happened thereafter. The patient was operated, batteries changed and was released. I meanwhile failed to get the authorization - as all insurance companies play with the fine print - but got the patient home. I realized that it is an inefficient system, and since I haven't signed anything, I can get away without that. But, at the same time, I was deeply grateful, given that I met some very efficient and sympathetic doctors and nurses and got great care for someone who is obviously important to me. I did sign the document and paid up. I would have felt terrible if I didn't.

Beside this one sterling example, I have met some great doctors and nurses in the NHS. I must also complement our GP, who will rarely go beyond OTC drugs but that actually ended up making us fitter and less dependent on drugs. I would rate the care as excellent, particularly for children and vulnerable people. There are indeed wait lists but that's okay if you are not paranoid about getting one extra test done. You can always jump the queue if you are in emergency and usually the care is excellent.

One of the great myths of our time is that private enterprise has always the best answer. I thought the myth was busted with so many banks messing it up so clearly. I can give other examples, like British Rail, where Private enterprise actually worsened the problem. Economically speaking, I think Private enterprise can do a good job in the areas where there is assured competition and in the buyers' market. Essentially, it does a very bad job in markets which become natural monopolies, or where it is easy to form a cartel, or where there is a great social cost to be accounted for apart from financial efficiencies. Railways fall in the first category, and health care in the third - and I do think private enterprise can not have the final answer and the state needs to have a role to play. Besides, I wonder why Americans can ever object to 'socialised medicine' when they are unable to find a better way than 'socialised banking' to keep their economy going. And, if they have to falsely accuse our beloved NHS for their failure of imagination or the fact some of their politicians have sold their souls to insurance companies, we have to stand up and show them what Britain can still teach America.

Diary: Reactions to India's New Tax Code

The Finance Minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee, released yesterday a draft tax code, which is expected to replace India's Income Tax code by the next fiscal year. India's Income Tax code was indeed dated, written in 1960s, and confusing, with too many amendments and exemptions earned by pressure groups riddled all over. The new tax code, Mr. Mukherjee stated, will 'simplify' the matters. Besides, it is expected that this will modernise the India's tax system, and rationalise it for the new Indian economy.

It is a revolution in waiting, indeed. Consider the changes it proposes in personal income tax. Today, a tax payer pays tax of 10% once he [there is a different slab for women] crosses Rs. 160,000 in income. This applies up to Rs. 300,000, above which, and up to Rs. 500,000, one has to pay 20%. They have to pay 30% on anything above Rs. 500,000. Besides, there are a number of surcharges, completely irrational levies that the government puts in ad hoc, on top for the top bracket of income. Recently, there was an Education surcharge, as if the government is not supposed to cover education investments from its usual tax proceeds. Now, the following changes are proposed: One pays no tax up to Rs. 160,000, pays 10% for amounts above Rs. 160,000 and up to Rs. 1,000,000, 20% for amounts between Rs. 1,000,000 and Rs. 2,500,000 and 30% for amounts over that.

This will greatly benefit India's knowledge workers. A typical starting salary of a graduate engineer in India is anywhere between Rs. 300,000 to Rs. 600,000. Today, someone with a salary of Rs. 600,000 a year will be required to pay Rs. 84,000 in taxes, which will be reduced to Rs. 44,000 after these changes are affected. I know this isn't as straightforward - people are already grumbling that lot of exemptions will go - but these should go, because many companies built various perks and allowances to circumvent the dated, unrealistic tax code anyway. It will indeed mean less work for the tax collection agencies, less work for the company payroll and HR, and also possibly less for Chartered Accountants.

The corporation tax will also come down from 30% to 25%, though the company asset base will now be counted and taxed. The first hand feel is that it will reduce the taxes on service sector companies, who do not necessarily build an asset base, but work against companies, particularly in manufacturing, who needs to invest in capital assets. Though this seems a bit harsh at the outset, we don't know the details yet. But, essentially, this tax code has a new economy bias and that goes well with where the country wants to go and where it holds maximum competitive advantage.

As with any political talk, there is already talk about whether this is an Anti-poor tax code. Few things on that. First, the poor is poor, and usually they do not have income over Rs. 160,000 a year. Second, if less tax for rich means more burden on the poor, the people who hold the view need to wake up. They have been sleeping for a few decades too long. India is fast becoming a modern economy and this tax code will encourage knowledge workers and talented individuals to stay and work in India. This will mean more wealth and opportunity for the country, which should benefit everyone in a sense.

Besides, this tax code has a number of measures which discourage rentier behaviour. Like treating capital gains, long term or short term, as income. Like taxing interest from savings, which will now be extended to cover most kinds of savings instruments. This is also in line with the structural shifts in the economy, when the wealth and employment creation is happening faster and bigger in the new sectors than the old ones.

I do think the deeper structural reform of India has started now. I am sure there will be many changes in this tax code before it gets operationalised and integrated in the system. But, overall, this shows the intent and that's a good sign. They will disturb the status quo, indeed, like Kapil Sibal's proposals in education has, but it seems that the new Congress government has understood the nature of the country better than others. India today is an aspiring, forward looking and positive country, and it is no longer enough to manage individual seats through pork-barrel spending and unreasonable handouts; to stay in power, the government must act and help the country move forward. Unfortunately, this understanding needs to get passed on to the state governments as well, who play an important role in India's federal system. Most of the state governments are in still in the rip-van-winkle stage, in denial and believe that pork-barrel seat management is the way to cling onto power.

I am celebrating the tax code more for the intent than for its content. The commitment to change is needed in India, and there has been ample evidence that we are finally showing the courage to change. Manmohan Singh's gentle leadership is proving to be more effective than his charming predecessor; things have indeed started moving. Even in the middle of this deep recession [though, with the good news coming from France and Germany, it seems that the worst is now over], the hope about India is hope, the forward looking attitude and the belief in the future that is being displayed by the Indian government, businesses and public. History shows that every nation reaches such inflection points, and if they can take advantage, they transform themselves. So far, the story of India is running uninterrupted - and there is reason that we should remain hopeful.



Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Conversations on Culture

I am fascinated by the studies I am doing on cultural variations among the countries and peoples, and how this affects business, people management and marketing. I am current reading Marieke de Mooij's Consumer Behaviour and Culture: Consequences for Global Advertising and Marketing, a very insightful book which, in my opinion, should be an essential read for everyone trying to sell to international consumers. Which is to say pretty much everyone, including my neighbourhood pub, as the pubowner told me, in a friendly non-racist way, that he has more Indian patrons these days than the Brits and planning to add some Indian dishes on the menu.


The key debate in this field is whether the world, integrated by internet, facebook, google, instant and mobile messaging and above all, twitter, with the common footballer heros and Daniel Craig, is becoming a more uniform place. That's the conventional wisdom - enthusiastically proclaimed various anglo-saxon writers who variably want to proclaim the permanence of the colonial experience or the superiority of American values. So, the world goes American, as demonstrated by landmark historical events like the frying of first McBurgers in Moscow or the opening of Disneyland in Asia.

However, in reality, the opposite indeed appears to be true. The world is actually becoming more diverse, with global long tail of culture getting more emphasized and exposed. In fact, it seems that the cultural genocide pushed forth by the broadcast media has been rolled back by the interactive media. If that needed proof, my facebook page is full of requests for attending Indian cultural events in London, unsolicited offers from a bengali matchmaking service in Canada and from a bengali publisher somewhere in Leeds. It seems that the advent of big media has irreversibly stopped and individual as media has brought us into a more diverse age.

I have commented before about the fallacy of arguing that businesses across the world wants to be, or should be, like anglo-saxon businesses. This is a prevailing, and wrong, orthodoxy that dominates the Western business thinking. The success of Japanese businesses have already shown that there is an alternate way; and so will be proved by Chinese and Indian and Latin American businesses soon. The point is that the entrepreneurs everywhere know how to make money, and one does not necessarily need a person from a different culture to tell them how to get things done. And, global business, as economics push forward the economic frontiers, has this cultural catching-up to do, and the sooner we get on with it, the better.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Diary : India's Asian Future

India is a strange country. It is truly central to Asia, sitting right between the Middle East and Far East from the modern European perspective. Indian scholars like to point out that it has always been the meeting ground of ideas and civilizations; we should add that this is primarily because of its geography than anything else. It was always easier to get into India than to get out of it, and India has accumulated an wealth of knowledge and possibilities from the various tribes that set foot on its land.

There was a distinct shift in India's history, however, during the last 500 years. The intruders of the age came from its south - via the sea - rather than across the Himalayas. This time, the Europeans sought to change India forever, by creating a country within a country, and by tearing a group of people apart and made them more like themselves rather than their fellow Indians. This was a brilliant strategy and it sure worked - for a while. While this contributed to a long term economic decline and destruction of India's military power, it also connected the country closely with Europe, where exciting technological and cultural developments will take place in quick succession, leading to unbroken hegemony of European powers over World affairs till the 1940s. This shift also prepared India to align itself well with the emerging American power, which essentially drew from the European culture and took advantage of the flight of knowledge and money during the destructive European wars in the Twentieth century. However, throughout this journey, when a class of Indians looked outward to the West and aligned themselves with the European/ Americans, the country moved away from itself, and its deep history and culture and its Asianness.

Now is a moment to rethink this once again, as the balance of power in the world has started shifting. The European/ American civilizations were structured to thrive in the world of plenty, and of individual enterprise and of pursuit of material wealth. There are three important changes today which is, however, exposing the shortcomings of these civilizations. First, we are entering an age of scarcity, where the earth's climate will put a limit to what we can materially have. The European/ American cultures are not prepared yet to adjust to this new world of scarcity and limited resources. Second, following on from this world of scarcity, cooperation and community feeling are suddenly gaining its lost importance. Individual action, while still important, is no longer enough to ensure progress. Here, the more communitarian Asian cultures are better prepared to address the requirements of the world compared to the more individualistic European ones. Third, the European/American societies, at the same time of reaching to the height of human achievement through individual enterprise, have hurled majority of their citizens to despair and nothingness. The social fabric has been maintained through the invention of Welfare state, but, to the new generation of policy-makers, it has become a drag and both the rhetoric and the reality point to severe reduction of the scope and depth of welfare provisions in near future. However, to a visitor to a Western society, it seems that the unsung idea of the Welfare state is indeed the point - that is exactly what sustained these societies and allowed enterprising individuals to pursue individual wealth without guilt - and the coming demise of the welfare state will severely undermine the social structure of these nations. So, over to Asia soon - when the Asian economies and Asian values may take the lead again.

Justify Full
India is not prepared for this shift. Besides, India has followed the Western model of social and political organization so far and incurred great internal costs in doing so. Indian democracy was a great achievement, but there exists no benchmark to tell us whether that is the best we could do. However, one thing is for sure: While India's economic progress is being celebrated, it is going through a terrible strife internally - not just the increasingly divisive civil war raged by the Maoists in the Indian heartland, but also the deep alienation of its Muslims and other minority religions, the regionalism which is standing on the way of true national integration and the very real economic discrimination among the states of India - and this needs to be resolved first if India is to continue its journey towards progress and economic development.

Part of the solution indeed lies in returning to Indianness, which is deeply embedded in India's asianness. One must start by looking at Indian values, and by no means, I am advocating a regressive traditionalism. Indian values as relevant to the modern world and there are plenty to draw from, indeed. One of the key things in this quest is a respectful, balanced assessment of India's past, but one should do this at peace and not to construct any thesis to discriminate against any community. But, also, India should look into future and try to connect to its Asian neighbours and partners.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Diary: Burma - The Forgotten Country

My first exposure to Burma was when I went to live in Rangoon for a few weeks in early 2002. My purpose was to set up a computer training network there. Before I left Dhaka for Yangon, I tried to study about the country as much as I can. However, not too much information was forthcoming, except for the fact that there was a big conference about ICT development in Rangoon in January. Besides this, the ever helpful first secretary in the Burmese embassy in Dhaka connected me up with his brother-in-law and sister, who were in business and could possibly look at getting into IT training business. This, and a Lonely Planet Guide, was all I had for Burma.

Rangoon did not disappoint. I was expecting quite a backward country and preparing myself for quite an adventure. Instead, I landed up in a $200 a night Trader's, and realized that with the unofficial rate of 1200 kyat a dollar, I am quite well off with my par diem. I learnt, just before the ICT conference, that what the Burmese refer to as Internet is not the Internet as we know it, but a severely restricted Burma only version of it. But the ICT conference was full of businessmen from ASEAN, and there was a lot of talk, including visits to IT Parks etc. I did try to raise the question who will buy the software produced here, as Americans and Europeans boycott Burmese companies. Besides, I tried telling people about human capital development if IT has to be successful, but that discussion did not go too far.

We never did business in Burma, eventually. The Intellectual Property protection was dodgy, and we could not build a business model based on such an enormous variation between the official [7 kyat a dollar] and the unofficial [1200 kyat a dollar]. We did not know what we should charge. If we charged too less in dollar terms, we shall soon be caught for under-invoicing. If we charged too much, we would not have a business. Direct investment was out of question, given that we were sure that the country is going to implode one day. My grand planning about having a nationwide network of IT Training centres came to a standstill when we learnt that, outside Rangoon, Burmese cities do not get electricity for more than six hours a day. The partner we talked to tried to convince us that we should transfer the intellectual property to the Burmese company, and eventually gave up when we did not agree.

Apart from the sheer impossibility of doing business in Burma, I carried back another image of the country. I did discover this small bookshop down in an alley which sells books about Burma. Not just the officially approved ones, but also photocopies of Western books about Burma, which talks about the usually excluded things like democracy and human rights. However, when I tried buying some of those, the shop owner advised me not to, saying that they may open my bag at the airport and I may be in trouble if I am carrying these books. I understand he was doing this for self-preservation, but I was completely disarmed by his sincerity and genuine concern. And, this was not just an one off, but I was amazed by the basic decency and warmth of people, as if we have gone back to a time when gentleness could be seen on High Streets and marketplaces. I looked around to see a slow and decent, even if repressed, life, in stark contrast to the vulgarity of the streets of Bangkok and Manila. I thought of Burma as a country frozen in the 1960s.

There were odd moments, indeed, when my hosts looked at the hotel ceiling when I asked whether Suu Kyi was likely to be freed any time soon. I feared my passport was taken when a rather stern looking policeman took it away for photocopying inside the hotel. A number of students tried to communicate how desperately they would want to migrate, without saying so, while I was visiting Burma's highly successful NCC centres. And, lastly, when an Indian businessman from Singapore advised me to route all businesses through him, as, he reasoned, an Indian company has very little chance of success in Burma.

He was right. The Indian government always had a highly ambivalent attitude to Burma. To Indian policy thinkers, Burma was a lost country. Lost to the Chinese, that is. This was India's triple humiliation in the 1960s - losing the war with China, giving up the military advantage in the 1965 war with Pakistan after the Chinese threatened to intervene, and the loss of Burma, a close neighbour with shared history and democratic mindset, to military dictatorship propped up by the then Chinese hegemons. Burma was lost - and then forgotten. As Indians developed their own Monroe doctrine, they excluded Burma altogether. Never mind that the Burmese bases were freely used by the Chinese navy and air force - Indians would not hear anything about Burma at all.

And, so it went. The Burmese military leaders kept going on with one of the world's most repressive, unjust, cruel dictatorship, and Indians, along with other Western nations, conveniently forgot the country after putting some sanctions in place. America made noises and pushed the sanctions, but never stopped its allies, the Asian nations, to trade and cooperate with Burma. And, thus, Burma, Southeast Asia's biggest nation, an one time part of British India, home of an essentially decent and hardworking people, were irretrievably lost.

There was indeed some due circus when the Burmese oil made news. The Burmese, of course, always had the oil. However, they became somewhat willing to sell that to the outside world [ex China] recently. The Indian government duly lined up, forgetting the commitment to human rights and democracy etc, and started greasing the palms of Burmese plutocrats. The mistake was compounded - the Burmese people were completely abandoned - by most of the world.

Burma remains, in my mind, a problem that the world needs to solve. It's culture, history, sanctity, people are all under an enormous risk. It is likely to become one big sanctuary of world's criminals. It is already one of the most important sources of narcotics in the world, and it is likely to worsen. No country has suffered more than Burma for the international politics. No country has ever been ignored, so shamefully, as Burma. It is one of the world's most corrupt, reclusive country, which is a key point of call for narcotics traders, arms traders, nuclear traders of the world. If any of the world's leaders think they can sleep without sorting out Burma first, God bless them, but we shall continue to live in fear.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Diary: One Asia?

For me, the years of living in Europe was significant learning experience in many ways. I learnt about the deep impact technology can make to daily lives, and saw an advanced economy in action. Besides, I understood how liberty frees up minds and gets the best out of most people, something which 'planned' societies failed to do. But, above all, I discovered my Indian, and Asian, identity, and saw, with the benefit of perspective, how Asian countries pulled themselves down in the past and continue to work against their own interests. My current reading list is full with attempts to go beyond the euro-centric vision of the world, and discover the Asian heritage, which India is a part of it. Paradoxically, I would not have appreciated this as much if I did not stay in Europe, and saw not just unbridled racism in some quarters, but a sophisticated euro-supremacist conception of the world in other, more educated quarters. Not only I found this offensive, but increasingly, I am finding this false and counter-productive. I have started feeling that Asian values in business, while it may not work that well in some areas, may work better in some other areas, and possibly the Japanese concept of 'face' would have saved us from the likes of Bernie Madoff, who obviously thought money is more important than any social obligation.

While I am in this quest of retracing back the history - and by no means I am turning an Asian supremacist of any sort - I am trying to understand why Asia became as backward as it currently is and searching for ideas which sought to build a more prosperous, peaceful Asia. I do think this is a worthwhile exercise, because not only it will allow me to understand Indian history with a more 'oriental' perspective, it will possibly throw up important lessons for my own career.

To start with, I am intrigued by the career of Count Okakura Tenshin, whose Ideals of The East was published in Britain in 1903, and which started with the statement 'Asia is one'. To start with, Count Okakura's understanding of Asia as a geographical entity was different from the understanding of Asia in an euro-centric world. The Europeans saw Asia in the diverse lands lying east of Europe, and saw this as culturally, militarily and economically inferior to themselves. Count Okakura, writing at the time of Meiji restoration and in a resurgent Japan, invoked the Sino-Japanese Budhdhist concept of Gotenjiku [five indies] concept of the world and placed India at the centre of the world, with China as its prominent partner, and sought to promote an unified Asian entity incorporating the Southern Islands and Japan [in which he included Korea]. Unfortunately for Asians, Count Okakura's works were much abused by the Japanese militarists, and this was an accident of timing that his Awakening of Asia was only found long after his death and it was published in Tokyo in 1939, and thereafter he was associated with the Japanese fascism [which made Asians suffer terribly] and generally shunned. But, Count Okakura was a visionary dreaming about a resurgent, united, peaceful Asia based on shared values and principles, a far cry from the militarists of 1930s, who had more in common with European nationalists of that age.

It is sad, tragic, that Count Okakura was associated with Japanese imperialism, because he stood exactly at the opposite end of such imperialist ambitions. He, along with other leading Asian thinkers like Sun Yet Sein, Rabindranath Tagore and Aurobindo Ghosh, looked at an independent, peaceful, prosperous Asia as the answer to the questions we are trying to answer today - world hunger, poverty and terrorism and others. He was an idealist, indeed - he had to be, to think about progress at a time when most of the Asian nations were under colonial rule. His ideas started with freedom and would have been complete with a peaceful federation of Asian nations, which never happened.

This is possibly the precise point we need to get to. Asian nations and people have suffered enormously during the colonial era, world wars, cold war and now in the era of sub-national warfare. The current race to abyss, facilitated by erosion of nationalism and rise of militant Islam, an wobbly financial system which creates more misery than wealth, and an environment teetering at the brink of collapse, can only be accelerated by Asian conflicts. However, the only thing our history and policy thinking revolves around are the Asian conflicts. And, the failure to achieve cooperation and understanding among Asian nations is the key problem we need to focus upon.

Coming to India, a key Asian nation, it seems that we are blissfully unaware of our eastern neighbours. We show little commitment to Asia. To start with, we know little and we care little. We have let our country be run with western ideas and western bias, and modelled our education system following the west. We quietly abandoned the path traversed by thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore, who sought harmony with the world without abandoning his deeply Indian, Asian, values, and tried to build an elitist, exclusive educational system which leaves out most Indians by definition. We turned history and common sense on its head and started seeing China as our biggest enemies and turned ourselves into a pawn of a global game, which must be fought out on Asian soil.

That is a recipe for disaster. It was never more relevant to think about these issues, as we are closing 2009, a year when 40% of the global GDP growth will come from Asia. A harmonious Asia, and I repeat, this does not mean a militarist one, is of everyone's best interest, and most so for the Asian people themselves. We are waiting for our own Jean Monnet; however, in the meantime, we need to reach a deeper appreciation of the likes of Count Okakura and build the bridges among our ancient nations.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Diary: Training Sales People in India

While I am on the subject of Leadership Training, I had this interesting discussion about sales training in India with a friend. He was emphasizing the need of developing sales training modules specifically for India, and not rehashing the western modules available off the shelf. He also made the point that sales has a changing priority in India, because the new commercial frontiers are the villages and hitherto untouched customers for most industries. His point was - and he had been doing this for more than a decade - that the western models, if it ever worked in India, are losing their effectiveness in the context of this new marketplace.

Indian trainers, indeed, covet the western practises. This is primarily based on, I believe, the faith on the superiority of Western business culture. After all, modern business culture in India is deeply influenced by Western business thinking, passed on through customer interfaces and expectations, or through consultants and executives trained in the West. Besides, the benchmarks used in Indian businesses are mostly western, and the Indian business schools covet tie-ups with British and American business schools and follow their techniques and curricula.

This was okay as most businesses, especially the service-oriented ones, looked to Western clients and multinational organizations to sell their wares. Not all though, some successful businesses in India focused on the government business and they were culturally very different from those which sold abroad. The ones which focused on the 'Indian' consumer, the banks which extended their branches to the villages, Life Insurance Corporation, Indian Railways, were almost all monopolies, and they never felt the pressing need to sell, other than creating awareness. Suddenly, this market place has surfaced after the liberalization and economic affluence, suddenly the small town and rural India are attractive and competitive market places. Insurance companies, telecom providers, education providers, even recruitment organizations must now penetrate this market and compete. So, they need sales and service capabilities for this market, and alas, there is very little that is available which takes into account the particular dynamic of this marketplace.

Richard Gesteland makes this point in his popular Cross-Culture Business Behaviour, and recent analysis of Indian consumer behaviour brings this out too. There are some cultures, mostly Western, which are deal focused cultures. Here, you win business by offering the best deal, no matter what your relationships are. However, India and other Asian cultures lie predominantly at the other end of the scale - these are relationship focused cultures, where people buy from people they know, no matter whether there is a better deal available in the market. So, in that context, length and depth of relationships matter far more than the attractiveness of the deal, and this is missed out by most Indian companies while training their sales force.

To start with, a very popular sales training model in India [still] is SPIN, as popularized by Neil Rackham and Huthwaite. This is still used, though this is a bit dated now, and is normally seen as one activity that the organization should do to move their sales force from feature based transactional sales model to relationship-based benefit-focused competitive selling. I remember trying to adopt this model in our sales process while in NIIT back in 1998, and how we felt about it while practising the technique in student counselling and franchise sales. To start with, we felt the model is wonderful, not because it worked, but because it was superbly presented and offered us - for most, the first time - a structured model showing us how the customer should be led to the sales through a sequence of logical steps, while showing concern about his/her particular situation and connecting up the benefits of the product we have to offer to these requirements. But, back in real life and with the benefit of some perspective, this was more of a placebo than a method that worked - all of us soon abandoned all that we learnt and went back to what we did earlier.

Looking back, I can see some clear shortcomings in a model like SPIN. For example, it mistakes superficiality for relationship. It assumes, based on the predominantly western practise, that asking a few opening questions and showing some concern about the customer's background and particular situation allows one to win trust and build relationship. Not so in Asian cultures, where one has to spend a significant length of time and really connect to the customer to win that trust. On reflection, a model like SPIN may actually decrease sales effectiveness in the Asian context than enhance it, because it substitutes superficiality for empathy and thereby pushes the sales people to operate at a much shallower level of relationship than they should be doing.

Edward Hall, the well-known American anthropologist and popular writer, differentiates between slow and fast cultures, and an Western model, developed in the context of a fast culture may actually be quite unsuitable for a slow culture like India. [And one may add, when one goes out of Indian cities, and approaches Indian villages, everything gets slower] It is worth reproducing Edward Hall's examples of fast and slow messages here, for a better understanding of the point:

Fast Messages / Slow Messages

Prose / Poetry
Headlines / Books
A communique / An ambassador
Propaganda / Art
Cartoons / Etchings
TV commercials / TV Documentary
Television / Print
Easy Familiarity / Deep Relationship
Manners / Culture

I picked up this list from Edward and Mildred Hall's Understanding Cultural Differences. I use this list to explain various things, like why newspapers are dying in Europe while they are booming in Asia [though a more reasonable explanation is that print newspapers have a deep relationship with nationalism, and while they are losing significance in post-nationalist Europe, the Asian nations are reinventing their nationhood], but in the context of this discussion, I shall focus on the easy familiarity part. Edward Hall was describing not Asian cultures, but was essentially contrasting the French and American cultures here. Here is more on that point:

In essence a person is a slow message; it takes time to get to know someone well. The message is, of course, slower in some cultures than in others. In the United States it is not too difficult to get to know people quickly in a relatively superficial way, which is all that most Americans want. Foreigners have often commented on how 'unbelievably friendly' the Americans are. However, when Edward T. Hall studied the subject for the U.S. State Department, he discovered a worldwide complaint about Americans: they seem capable of forming only one kind of friendship - the informal, superficial kind that does not involve an exchange of deep confidences.

Conversely, in Europe personal relationships and friendships are highly valued and tend to take a long time to solidify. This is largely a function of long lasting, well established networks of friends and relationships - particularly among the French - that one finds in Europe. .. Nevertheless, many businesspeople have found it expedient to take the time and make the effort to develop genuine friends among their business associates.

The key point is that RELATIONSHIP as defined in a Western, particularly Anglo-Saxon sales model is not what Indians will understand by RELATIONSHIP. And, the prevalence of such models in sales training in India will render most of the training useless once it comes to selling to Indian customers, particularly in small towns and villages.

I know this problem is well acknowledged. I have come across a telecom company which wants to tap the rural customers and trying to recruit sales people from respective villages, take them through a training programme and let them return to their village. This inverted model gives adequate importance to village roots than 'product knowledge' and is likely to be more successful. There are some business schools which have started exploring the Indian reality, though, unfortunately, most of these explorations end in a superficial spiritualism, which is spatial and often not the answer. What I am suggesting a modern, scientific understanding of the Indian consumer in its own cultural context and sales [and sales training] models developed accordingly, and that's not going back to the vedic age.


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