Saturday, 22 April 2017

Book Review - Being Mortal

BACKGROUND OF THE BOOK

Being Mortal is a book by an American Doctor, Dr. Atul Gawande; a book written for an exclusively American / Western Audience, with little or no practical utility or learnings for the Indian Landscape, given the massive socio-cultural and economic differences. I do not deny the presence of a segment within India for whom this book is of some utility : but, given our population of 127 Crores, that segment as of now and for the foreseeable future forms a minority, might even be a miniscule minority. The book is about old age, and how to tackle the problems arising out of old age, and your parents {and your own} last years.



RATING

Paradoxically, I highly recommend this book for all of us; even more paradoxically {sorry for  butchering ze Eenglees Language like this} – I recommend reading this book despite my rating of 2 stars. That rating is basis its current lack of utility, massive socio-cultural difference between the landscape of the book and our ground reality, and some minor viewpoint differences I have with the author. That last point can be ignored, which would mean an unbiased rating of 2.5 stars. That’s as high as I, an Indian, will go in rating this out-and-out American book written by an American for an American {Western} audience




THE MINUSES

So, whats bad about the book? Let me get to the minuses first, so that my readers can leave with the pluses. Not much, that’s for sure. It is superb literature; of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. Yet, appreciation of literature has a very strong cultural basis, hence I can both appreciate the content as well as give it a low rating, borne out of my reading, as well as the difference in the landscape mentioned above. Shakespeare and Leary are gibberish to me; I don’t fathom their content. Yet, I find deep interest in reading the Ain-i-Akbari, Nal-Damayanti, Panchtantra, Al-Beruni’s India etc  to name but a few.


For starters, the book is too long; way too long. The content isn’t technical, though it is practical and experience based – and frankly, you require to have gone through a similar experience in life to really appreciate. I have gone through such a brutally hard test twice in my life, so could easily connect with the content, and find it deeply moving and absorbing. For others – this is a boring book, as the content could have been shorter by a few dozen pages with better editing. As to whether you should read this book, read the pluses and make up your own mind.


The second minus is that the content – the treatment of old age & family elders – isn’t as serious a problem in India as it might be in some other countries. I don’t know about lands other than India – I am an Indian, and frankly don’t want to be anyone else. Fine, you might have a situation when one sibling is a naalaayak, or has serious problems that hinder; more often than not- one of the others proves he or she is the true son or daughter and steps forward, not because it is duty, but because it is love. I admit old age homes are rising in India; no point denying the obvious; but their penetration is currently at miniscule levels.


The third minus  deal with the specific content. I don’t profess to be an expert – Dr Gawande is the expert; but I have seen 6 cases of elderly people. And to all those 6, not one of the social aspects can be said to have any application whatsoever; this might be a cultural thing. Of the medical aspects – well, the Author IS a doctor, and a good one at that. So, 100% applicable. My main POV difference is with the collective approach; my experience {limited in comparison with the author} tells me that Old people prefer, in specific order of preference: presence of family, good food loving food made by family, companionship of loved ones, total independence, and a complete lack of haggling in all 6 people I am aware of. {Again – cultural difference?}


THE PLUSES

Now the pluses – there are many; recounting all is not feasible in a short review of a 1000 words.  First and foremost, as a young man or woman you are brought face-to-face with the ultimate, harsh and brutal reality of old age; respect to Dr Gawande for taking the trouble to write this. We never think of what our old age will be like; we just go after money, thinking that will solve all problems. Well, this is the book you should read if you think the above.


Next, this book forces you to examine yourselves deeply – what would you like your old age to be like? What would like to do? What would you do with your time? Even more, the setting in the American Culture, so totally alien to our own, forces a comparison with our own: a culture where family is paramount, where it is expected by parents and society alike that youngsters take care of elders. And you realise with a hard shock that though the kids may take care of you, you may live with them – you are going to be alone for much of the day. What would you want to do?


Third, this forces a deep self-introspection; as you begin to realise the scope for arguments and problems that may arise in such an arrangement. You also, through the content, understand just what happens in old age, through the myriad and frankly tedious examples quoted in the book at some considerable length. And you ask yourselves – am I physically prepared for that, in terms of health? But most critically, you realise that in all the quoted cases, mental health was the determinant of a full life. Are you doing enough to ensure your mind remains in top functioning health during old age? Do think of that.



Fourth, the hospice method highlighted in the book has deep learnings, even across cultural barriers. This resonates immediately with my experiences about the choice elderly people make. We young ones might find that untfathomable – but that is our love for them speaking. This is an important lesson – the entire way to deal with it, and the problems that can arise. Ultimately it is an individual choice, and we need to respect that; that said, in India, elders have a far deeper role in society and family. We don’t take decisions for most part unless the elders agree, for example. So, the applicability in India will have to be different – but yes, there are decided benefits, one we Indians can learn from and adapt to our cultural reality!  


Friday, 21 April 2017

Book Review - Culture Of Encounters: Sanskrut At The Mughal Court

THE BACKGROUND
We are witness to, in the current socio-political mileu, increasing critical examination of especially The Mughal Period, which is being examined, at times without any basis in fact, threadbare on Social Media and the population at large. Therefore, the current book under review represents a timely intervention as well as a much-needed fresh look at the history of that period from a literary and cultural perspective. This is critical, since the Political, Military history is well established; the Economic History and the Cultural History is what needs further research and clarity

Akbar-watches-Tansen-take-lessons-from-Bhakti-music-composer-Swami-Haridas
Image Courtesy : Google Search


Whereas the British Period is examined in great detail by Dr Shashi Tharoor, Jaswant Singh, NS Sarila and many other contemporary writers in the past 4-5 years, The Mughal Period shows a lamentable lack of authoritative research at least in the popular realm. What is more disturbing is that there is evidence and research of the Socio-Cultural Realm of the British Empire and its searing horrifying damage to the Socio-Cultural fabric of India – Maria Misra and Pavan Verma come to mind here – the same is marked by its total absence with reference to the Mughal Times, at least from what I gather in India.


THE BOOK
This is where the current tome – Culture Of Encounters : Sanskrut In The Mughal Court by Audrey Tuschke fills a major gap, by analyzing the literary aspect of Mughal activities in India, thereby telling a story totally unknown, even to an avid amateur history researcher like self, a person read and learned in and with several dozen top history books in the past 8 years. The content comes as a complete surprise and shock, and a welcome reminder to an amateur like me to continue reading, keep up to date with latest research and not get a bloated head, to be frank!




Audrey Truschke


The book delves deep into The Socio-Cultural realm of the Mughal Court during Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb’s time, giving us a surprise every few pages that causes us to recalibrate our thoughts and our knowledge. The book contains proof and evidence which you can check for yourself; more of this in the bibliography. The book is a unique and fresh look at a period of history that we clearly do not understand fully, one that needs scholarly examination. The one regret that I have is that this was thought of, researched and written outside India by a person not an Indian!  Why cant such telling research be conducted in our universities; and if it is being conducted – why isn’t it being made popularly available?


This is an examination of the socio-cultural multiculturality of the Mughal Court, and the focus of successive Mughal Emperors to engage with Sanskrut {and increasingly Hindustani – precursor of Modern Hindi, which was standardized & Sanskrutised into the tongue we now speak}. This covers translations as well as deep engagements with Sanskrut texts – a myriad of Sanskrut texts, right from the most Famous, like The Mahabharat & The Ramayan to the comparatively lesser known works like Nal-Damayanti and many others folklores and books.


It looks in depth at the Brahman and Jain influence at The Mughal Court, the Sanskrut translations and texts written for the court, translations of Sanskrut works into Farsi {Persian}, examination of Indian History basis Sanskrut works, re-examination / alteration / rejection / questioning / acceptance of both Sanskrut literature & {Sanaatani} practices as well as  questioning {in one case} prevalent Islamicate Practices, literature on The Mughal Empire in Sanskrut, and incorporation of Sanskrut in the Persian world. The book closes on a deep but potent note – asking as to how did Sanskrut become extinct, a question that naturally arises from the text, given that it was a living, thriving and robust tongue right till the early 1700s, and given that texts were produced in it right till the late 1700s, and early 1800s.


THE ANALYSIS
This is an in-depth and solid research; I traced the bibliopgraphy repeatedly while reading the book, and the sources seem impeccable. I made the effort  of downloading one of the translations of the Ain-i-Akbari, and read a few pages of the 3rd Volume, which pertains to Sanskrut textual history, from The National Digital Library. This text – The Ain-I-Akbari is extensively referred in the current book. From that experience, I can state this is, in addition to a ground-breaking research, a great resource book for further reading, with a plethora of great resources of ancient documents to choose from.






The book takes pain to look at the extensive Multi-Culturalism of The Mughal Court, and the extensive interaction and erudite, surprisingly open and well-informed debates between Islamic and Brahman/Jain scholars at The Mughal Court. The extent of Mughal support for Sanskrut, and later Hindustani, literary activities comes as a total shock. Did this extend to the Cultural sphere? That is a tantalizing thought – I just hope someone does some research on that.






The best part is the even, fair and balanced tonality of the research. I could not detect any western bias, which is pretty much a first {or rather, second – Will Durant being the only other Westerner I respect in this regard}; the book is transparent and very, very logical throughout. It maintains a fine line between Multiculturalism and secularism, which is welcome. That said, this research work does clarify to a very large extent some of the fog around The Mughals, and provides strong irrefutable evidence of their Muticulturalism, as well as tantalizing evidence that The Mughals after and starting from Akbar regarded themselves as Indian, which is a welcome thought.


What this seminal research does bring out is the difference between the Colonial approach – that of an alien power, and the Mughal approach. While, as painfully portrayed in Pavan Verma’s classic {or indeed in the classic books - What India Should Know & Operation Red Lotus, which showed up the shoddy way Indian history was written by The West} , the colonial period saw a subjugation of all things Indian. By complete contrast, The Mughal Interaction was on a different scale, very open to local sensibilities, accepting of divergent views. This method managed to keep both traditions alive and healthy; they {The Mughals} managed to keep their culture, their world views intact; while we Sanaatanis managed to keep our language, culture and literature intact.


It created what I can best call a Win-Win situation, leading to the right conditions. This hypothesis can only be established by a further examination of the Cultural Realm of The Mughal Era, but there is strong evidence in support of this in the Economic and now Literary sphere. In a telling contrast, while 300 years of Mughal Rule did not impact our language or culture too much, 150 – 190 years of colonial rule redefined or rather suppressed the Local Linguistic, cultural, literary and social landscape. So much so, that it has taken 6 decades for the local arts, culture, vernacular languages and economic landscape to rise to something resembling what it was in Pre-Colonial times!



All in all, rated 5 stars; one of the finest books in the History Genre I have read!

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Measuring Performance - An Alternative Systems & Technological Approach

MEASURING PERFORMANCE

Performance and its measurement is, at the best of times, one of the most complex tasks a modern organization can engage in; capturing all the small and big, vital and not-so-vital indices in the “chart” without rubbing too many people the wrong way and without causing heartburn is an impossible task. This is a task at which the best minds in this business have either failed, or had partial success at. Thus, let me at the outset clarify that this article is mindful of the above reality, and the enormity and the impact of the task I am analyzing.


ARE CURRENT SYSTEM ADEQUATE?

However, after a rather deep study and considerable mental mathematics that go along with it, I have come to the conclusion that while the current systems that I have seen are adequate, and do as reasonable a job as it is feasible to do under the given constraints and market realities – there remains tremendous scope for improvement. This scope covers topics that are increasingly relevant to the ever-changing ground reality,  and are now increasingly becoming vital to not just great & continued business performance – but in some cases, the very survival of organisations.


REAL EXAMPLES

I approach this matter from the perspective of my function – Sales, to drive home my points. All examples used herein are real, only names and precise details have been withheld for obvious reasons. First, let me establish a few examples from 2 industries that are critical to the further points being made :
1.  Company 1 had a sales loss of between 50-60% {estimated} in the space of just one year. That same company was saddled with huge inventories of finished products that had to be liquidated. Thus, new product introduction was slow in a market changing at a blinding speed.
2.  Companies 2 & 3 lost the confidence of its entire distribution in several states {5-6 that I am personally aware of}.
3.  Company 4 lost its marketshare by 14% over a period of time, as the two main competitors clicked in the market thanks to a series of successful new product launches, smarter distribution and accounting policies and a robust marketing plan
4.  Company 5 had inventories amounting to several months of finished products
5.  Company 6 came in with a revolutionary Sales Strategy – everyone laughed in the trade- Retail, Distribution, etc. 4 years later, it is a major player without compromising. This same company also had excellent but premium priced products in its portfolio
6.  Companies 1,  5 and 7, 8 and 9 lost their marketshares, which were eroded by huge margins as they failed to anticipate the trend.


MISSED WARNINGS

Look at the above examples; most of the people in the trade would probably put it down to the business cycle; but look again. It so happens, there were enough hints present on the ground in each and every example that should have given Managements a hint that something was changing, and that they need to adapt – and adapt as fast as possible. And yet, in each case, the warning signs were missed. I don’t blame them – the teams were too busy meeting targets, firefighting, ensuring continued market presence in retail and distribution to worry too much regarding overall macro trends, and mid-range threats.


Why should this be so? This is a complicated question to answer- and yet, this is the one question which needs to be answered. Quite a few people in my personal circle were aware of some of the parameters; we do discuss. One person I know very accurately noted the rise of a new competitor and a new trend in the market in one example above; another one – one of my reportees – noted a trend-shift, and bluntly said, what difference does it make? I am not going to worry. If things get hot, I will simply move on. We noted the shift in consumer preferences in another example, which grew into a tidal wave very shortly.


LEAD INDICATORS OF CHANGE

The point I am making is that in each of the above examples, there was knowledge, there were hints available in the staff and in the business partners and the channel that either the strategy is not working – or that the realities are changing. The first hints almost always become evident much before actual change; and yet – in each case, disaster struck as listed in the bullet points above. This clearly represents a straightforward gap in the overall Market Intelligence System of the organisations. Not only that, given that Managers were rewarded, {I myself have been awarded large  variable payouts} – and despite this, the company/s lost big-time. Now that, I respectfully submit – needs an explanation.


IS THE PMS REALLY TO BLAME?

Prima Facie, it would seem that the PMS is to blame. Now what if I make a paradoxical claim – that the PMS was not at strictly fault – and neither was anyone else? And no, it is not an issue of the Business Cycle either. Each cog in the system was doing the Job it was perceived as being designed to do. In such a scenario, you cannot apportion blame to any one function or person. What actually happened is the External Environment changed so much that it put the internal processes that run the organization out of sync with the market and the prevalent trends. The perception that the organizational processes achieved in the eyes of everyone was a direct result of this delicate imbalance : people forget that the market is dynamic; and thus, the processes have to be updated regularly!


Vital data points were not reaching the decision makers; the middle management and junior management was in fire-fighting mode; there was lack of connect between companies and the staff; finances were increasingly strained as it cost more and more to get the same sales and even lessening sales; in some cases it was an issue of survival for employees… this is par for the course when the external environment changes at too rapid a pace – or changes too much. This increases overall system stress, leading to the issues and results pointed out above.


A VICIOUS CYCLE

This created a vicious circle, as employees, instead of changing with the times, had no option but to keep on doing the same tasks in the same way, when the situation demanded a radically different approach. At this point the key question should have been – how to change this behaviour? In at least one firm, this question was asked; but the chosen answers taken were wrong. This again points to insufficiency of data in the system, leading to incorrect assumptions. Instead, the taken strategy paradoxically refurbished cynicism within the ranks, that the old methods are the ones that Management is looking for as the new strategy lacked depth and was not in consonance with the coming market changes on the field!


A POSSIBLE ANSWER

What is the source of the requisite data for decision making within an organization? One is the Market Intelligence Network, and the other is the Performance Measurement System. The first is amorphous in nature, not defined at the first 3-4 levels of the structure, and the second, which gives periodic status reports to Management on the company direction – clearly did not capture the trends, else the damage would obviously not have been so severe and so debilitating. You have to have a method in place to identify, capture and escalate these trends and events that can have serious import.



Unless the relevant market inputs are properly captured within the system & reach the decision levels in any organization in a clear logical format, change cannot happen. This isn’t easy to do; but such changes always have lead indicators, the precise nature of which depend on the industry. Identifying and tracing these lead indicators can generate actionable Market Intelligence. And that is the point on which, using Big Data, Analytics can be successfully used in the Sales Function…  Details in next part…

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Facebook & Fake News Issues

The title of this article just about says it all… The Facebook Issue. This article is coming after a long self-examination and Facebook feed examination, with the explicit purpose of putting Facebook and its contemporary utility in Social Media with relevance to me as an individual. This deep introspective examination has lead to startling revelations to myself, which is what I am attempting place here, with an intent to support my decision to move my Social Media content away from Facebook due to issues arising out of the feed and the interaction that happens on it.


MY HISTORY WITH FACEBOOK
But first, the background. I came onto Facebook as a means to get in daily touch with family, find old friends, and keep connected with them. It then grew into a method of chronicling important events in my life through Photographs & Posts, that I could visit later. Both the above have given excellent results, and shall continue as important aspects of my digital profile with added security features, like sharing in Secret Groups, and strong personal security options.


Facebook then developed into a News Feed, as I liked the home-pages of all the publications I follow; it became an easy way for me to access the news as it happens. This has given superb results as well as  many, many discoveries and learnings through pointed articles. Not only that, it has also lead to my discovering other great Media Vehicles for topics of my interests. This is now becoming a major issue, and the most significant reason for my hunt for other options.


TIME PASSES, OLD TURNS TO NEW
However, there has been a significant change in past few months, maybe an year or two, which has increasingly caused me to wonder how to manage my feed. The problem was it wasn’t as simple as cutting a few people – whose views I may not agree with, but with whom I am close. In other words, I place a greater value on my relationship with them, than disagree with their views. One doesn’t stop interacting just because you don’t agree; true relations thrive despite differences.


The other, bigger problem was the contamination of my feed with POVs which are rather disturbing, things which  are too close to my Value-Belief Matrix for me to ignore. Being mature, one can ignore once, twice, thrice… but there comes a time when your defences drop, and you end up responding to the views, which is not the way forward. However, this is again related to POVs of my circle, one which can be managed by the simple measure of disengaging, like I have done on Politics totally. This has helped preserve some relationships – indeed deepen them.


By far the biggest issue is the scepter of Fake News, which is rampant, and appears regularly on my News Feed. The reason is that Facebook is by far the most popular Social Media Vehicle. This is compounded by the belief systems of my circle, some of whom tend to believe in these fake news articles. What is more disturbing is that even I have fallen to these articles and, on occasion, believed in them – despite my rather excellent repertoire of reading on a wide variety of subjects as documented on my blog quite faithfully over the past 5 years and more. This complex of Fake News + Belief Systems amplifies this Fake News, making it appear all over my News Feed.



While I can disengage with my circle; that is easy to do – it is not so easy to disengage with these articles which keep popping up with disturbing regularity. That increases the risk of I myself falling prey to them exponentially, as quite a few people in my circle also read and circulate them. And that is what is not acceptable to me as a person. My primary usage of Facebook was as a News Feed and as a means to keep in touch with family. Now, there are options available that can fill some of my needs…


THE OPTIONS
Whatsapp has filled a major gap; now it is easier than ever to remain in daily touch far more effectively. That apart, one can access Facebook once every day just to see what is happening with Friends and Family, achieved by cutting off all Social Media Engagements & Likes, which will purify my feed instantaneously. Sure, FF feeds will still appear, but, over time as my Facebook time falls, the quality of my feed will improve automatically, leaving all of us the happier in the bargain.


I cant disengage with Facebook totally; that would be stupid. I am just stating a smarter more strategic usage of the same. My blog still gets good readership from Facebook just to take another exampe, meaning it is valuable resource. All I am saying or rather advocating is the full usage of the other emergent technologies that are coming – like RSS Feeds, Email Subscriptions, Paid Subscriptions to content – and most of all Twitter. A judicious combination of these will fill the gap, give me a relatively clean and pure feed of news of my choice, keep me engaged socially as well.



Reason is that these vehicles are relatively uncontaminated as of now, especially Twitter, which is virgin pure almost. There is a near-total absence of disturbing nonsense as of now on Twitter, as it is not as populated and popular as Facebook. Likewise, RSS Feeds and Email Subscriptions, Paid content can be managed easily by regular monitoring. This will ensure the purity of my news feed, free from Fake News and disturbing content which is increasing by leaps and bounds on Facebook. And if Facebook’s attempt to clean up Fake News works, then maybe, some day, I can start re-engaging in the old fashion… 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Retail Investor Confidence & Trust

YET ANOTHER INVESTOR ISSUE

A headline on TOI drew my attention, when I read that a firm had allegedly illegally raised several hundred crores from the unsuspecting public, some 55,000 of them. I was initially surprised, then stunned, and  finally shocked at the article, and its implications. For starters, how did a company raise 600 Crores from the public, all of 55000+ people – without having the requisite approvals? This was stunning beyond measure. Where are the famous checks and balances?


This news, and other such news titbits, introduce an element of needless risk in the minds of the people untouched by this event; it introduces doubt and uncertainty. Unitech isn’t a small company, in that it is quite well known and high-profile, with forays in Real Estate as well as Telecommunications. How does an investor trust any private company offering, regardless of size? There are mechanisms in place, of that I am aware – but are these enough? And, more critically, are these well known – not to the business managers, but to the investing public at large?


ACTION ON THE GROUND

The issue I am raising isn’t the core safety of the money; I am not aware of the specifics of this investment, and further, all investments are subject to market risk. The point is straightforward – as per the news article, a company raised money without approval, which is a shocker to be frank. How did this come about? This is by no means a normal occurrence, one to which answers are urgently needed. The article goes on to state that many investors have approached the National Company Law Tribunal, which passed orders for refund of the money. These orders were not fulfilled.


That brings me to the second aspect : despite orders being passed for refund, nothing was done. Where is law and order? Where is compliance? To be fair, the company appealed for time, and reduction of the payable interest rate. This appeal was rejected, and as on date, the money is still outstanding, with investors still doing the rounds hoping for their hard-earned money to be given back to them. One can only hope that at least these investors get back their dues from the company.


THIS ISNT THE FIRST ONE

If the above statement sounds sarcastic or morose, there is a whole history, a deeply personal history behind it. A history related to another very well known Indian Company, a household name almost. This company shall remain anonymous, but the story is telling. My father invested a large percentage of his savings {almost 25%+} in this well-known company’s division. The intermediary was an ex-employee, well known to and related to us {blood relative}, a senior employee now retired. Dad went ahead and invested. That was the last we saw of that money, and the end result was a shock for my poor Dad, and a house we had to forego as the investment failed, and no money was available. It has been decades since then, and we still haven’t seen hide nor hair of that money.


Of sure, all of the above happened. We and others complained; orders were passed – in our case, timely repayment in installments and all of that. To the best of my knowledge, only 1 installment was ever paid, at least to my Dad. We still have to recover well over 1 Lac plus interest from them. Will that money ever be recovered? I don’t think so. It was in that light of that sordid history that I made the above sarcastic and morose comment : one hopes these investors get their money back!


ADDRESS THE ISSUES, PLEASE

This latest is just another case of a corporate getting its hands dirty. We have an excellent system in operation, we have the laws governing this system that are, by and large, followed. That is something to be proud of, and repose trust in. Any system has loopholes; that isn’t the issue. Sadly, such things will happen; witness the Subprime issue and its proximate causes. That is the world we live in, sad to say. The problem is that once these issues come to light – they should be addressed on a war footing


RETAIL INVESTOR CONFIDENCE AND TRUST

The reason is that each such happening undermines the investor confidence and trust in the system; and that we in India can ill-afford. As it is, retail investor participation in markets is very low indeed. And given that we Indians have no social security system in place, we need returns on our investments that are higher in returns to enable an independent old age. Such repeated happenings only serve to exacerbate the problems, and ensure that the retail investor keeps participation at a low level… which we need to increase


What we need is urgent and effective speedy redressal in order to deepen the markets, which will serve as an additional safety valve, as an informed investor class will be created. It is a no-brainer that more actively participating investors will be better informed, more proactive in analyzing companies and investment avenues, will have greater options to choose from etc. This will in turn make it far more difficult for “operators”, as well as spread the investment, as investors will be less likely to invest large percentages into one avenue of investment…


Will this happen? I hope so, but I fear not…. 


REFERENCES:

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Book Review : HBR Top 10 Must Reads - On Innovation

BACKGROUND





In my previous reviews on HBR { Harvard Busines Review } books, I have noted the penchant for a top-level approach; lack of data and concrete detailed examples as opposed to the shortened snippets they give. In this, the third HBR book I am reviewing, these errors are repeated; that said – this one is easily the best I have read from the HBR stable. In fact, this book is among the best Business Books I have ever read, though not quite The Best. I would highly recommend Middle Managers and above to read and absorb the contents




THE BOOK
The current book under review looks at Innovation; at the end of the book, I can honestly state that I understand not only innovation, but can also apply the concepts contained in the book to my real world experience in the Telecom Trade, and can identify errors and craft a rudimentary path forward which is clearly superior to the ones adopted by either self, or my managers at that point in time. The content has helped clarify some issues, unlearn some concepts; as well as broken new ground by teaching new processes and methods of daily tactical operation as well as strategy


KEY ARTICLES
The key articles that I highly recommend reading carefully, and certainly more than once in this book are Stop The Innovation Wars, Is It Real –Can We Win – Is It Worth Doing?, Innovation – The Classic Traps and Discovery Driven Planning. While I haven’t mentioned the other articles, let me clarify that most of the articles are really good, well thought through & presented. It is just that the ones above are those that made the biggest impression on me, as well as taught me the most.


To be frank, there are small learnings scattered through the pages of the other articles that I haven’t mentioned. In The Innovation Catalysts, one can see the importance of experimentation; In the article How GE is disrupting itself, the importance of unstinting support from the Top Management is driven home, given that innovations and new strategies are by definition risky. There are similar small and pertinent learnings to be had from almost every article, which is what makes this book special.


WHO SHOULD READ
It would be a capital mistake for people at junior and middle levels to ignore such books; as I observed above, I was able to practically apply the concepts contained herein in the real world to gain a better deeper understanding of successes as well as failures; and was able to craft a far superior response in terms of self KRAs as well as identify problems from above, with ideas of how to tackle them. Such books  open new paths, give new ideas and serve as excellent refreshers. It is with a sense of deep regret that I note that the modern world manager regards management literature as a sign of being bookish; it is looked down upon in the corporate environment with disdain, something to be discouraged!


REAL WORLD EXAMPLES
The first article that I liked – Stop The Innovation Wars, talked about how you need to plan the innovation implemention; how you need buy-in from the employees; how innovation teams should be a mix of old and new and such pertinent points. My mind went back to one of my experiences, when I was among those charged with the implementation of an innovative strategy.  This bombed, company-wide – just as the paper implied, in an almost textbook fashion. It did so as the Performance Engine {The team that gives the company numbers and share} was the one responsible for implementation. This team sabotaged the strategy as they were more fixated on current performance and methods.


And Is It Real –Can We Win? Carries the learning forward; I actually did recreate the entire model for this above example, drew the charts, and saw the errors that management made. The goal was lofty, needed; but the underlying assumptions were inaccurate. When I drew the charts, they foretold a failure chance of over 75%... and that is again nearly precisely what happened… Of 14 markets in my area, we got success in 3… a ratio of success of 30% - exactly as the model plotted.


I achieved my numbers; in fact exceeded the quotas comfortably; I was in charge of both the performance and the innovation aspects; there was no dedicated team; targets were the same; support was lacking. And, just as theory foretold, the innovation failed. Yes – we did hit the numbers; but that was a short-term play. The industry reality had moved ahead, and we weren’t in sync. This lead to serious issues later; the entire company was in fire-fighting mode. With a more focused and planned approach, we probably could have done it… but, again as another paper in this book points out, that required major implementation changes and support from the very top of the organization. Innovation cannot succeed unless it has support from the very top!


CONCLUSION

That is the most powerful part of this book : if you are reading with focus and attention, your take-aways will be many, diverse and pertinent. These are concepts you can apply  in your job, your function; you can enhance your skill sets; you can gainer deeper insight. I also gained insights into an innovation I implemented that succeeded – what was different in the two cases? Exactly those points the model and my experience above highlighted. Support from the top; focus on innovation; de-linking innovation team and performance team; mix of innovative and performance people; different targets… The second example on analysis gave me deeper insights on how to go forward… all in all, this is one of the most useful books you are likely to ever read!

Monday, 3 April 2017

Telecom Service Providers - Which Way Forward?

BACKGROUND
The first Telecom Big Bang has happened- Vodafone & Idea… with this, hope is being expressed that the Telecom trade is now beginning to settle down. I wish I were as sanguine as some of my friends on this point; I fear that this may be the tip of the iceberg. I don’t lay claim that more mergers may happen; though that cannot be ruled out. There have been many exits already. But for this to translate into on-ground sanity will require a  lot more to happen… to understand this, we shall have to glance at the industry statistics in some representative parameters…


SERVICE PROVIDER INDUSTRY IN INDIA
There is no easy answer to this ills of the service industry in Telecom– the service industry isn’t in exactly a great shape. Let us look at a few examples to illustrate; Idea has a debt of 49K Cr, and has an ARPU of Rs. 157; Airtel has a debt of about 97K Crore, with an ARPU around 188, just to name two examples. Jio has already notched up 2,01,000 Cr Debt. Usage isnt taking off; the demograhic & income profile of the nation, demographic distribution are major issues, lower prices in the past 6 months notwithstanding.


The investments in this industry are very high indeed -as can be seen from the examples above. And the ARPUs aren’t what they could be, for one. Second, data isn’t returning the value as of now; it is a long haul in that aspect, as again we can see from the network speed and data ARPUs that are coming in. A rough calculation on Reliance Jio for 100 Million customers indicates an ARPU target of Rs. 434/- just to recoup the debt over a period of 10 years. This does not account for Opex and other expenditure, system ugdrades that will be needed in future… Agreed this is a simplistic calculation, and a lot more goes into it – but compare this with current ARPUs and you get the drift!



REVENUE STREAMS
There are two revenue streams mainly – Data, and Voice. Both are under pressure from various sources. That should indicate a firming in prices; but the on-ground reality is different, as Jio has no option but to increase subscriber base to survive. That means, the other firms are in a catch-22 situation; the industry sorely needs an upward price correction – and yet the recent history belies this, showing a massive downward correction. If they increase prices – they run the risk of irritating a customer who may already be chafing under less than optimal performance. If they decrease prices – they exacerbate the problem… to that you add fresh cash flows and the hope of the future, and you get the scenario.


What the companies will do remains to be seen; but I for one most certainly do not foresee an upward trend in prices. And unless Prices firm up, this industry will continue to face massive pressures from all sides. The core problem remains,  not one company in this trade is able to hold onto a price premium for any length of time whatsoever. And that wont happen unless services improve, which in turn may require a further infusion of capital if the underlying systems are required to be augmented. Add to that the risk of Reliance Jio have a relatively fresh network {though, to be honest, it has issues of its own}


ANALYSIS OF PROSPECTS
This is not an easy scenario to either analyse, or to take decisions in; several forces are intersecting. First, Jio; second – consolidation,  third – low overall revenue realization per user & fourth – crowded n fully covered market with many competitors. Jio is a threat, but for that threat to be most potent, the call setup has to be regular; that is, the calls should go through. I frequently am not able to connect with Jio numbers, meaning I don’t really have the incentive to switch my primary number to Jio. Add to that the competitive response of other brands, which has lowered prices and/or decreased tariffs. Here again, we see that increased tariffs have not come about!


That does not mean Jio wont succeed; it is only a matter of time before calling issues gets sorted; for all I know, it might already be under implementation. If that does happen – prices will come under more pressure, and go down. The low overall revenue per user means increasing per customer realization {ARPU} is a prerogative for all companies. But the competitive scenario does not allow any scope for that to take place as of now. It is a crowded market; we have over a Billion mobile users. A new entrant, and an already crowded market means there is little strategic space for a price premium.


DATA
As far as Data ARPUs are concerned, that is another story entirely; India is a nascent market, and requires a completely different strategic approach, one that builds, deepens and develops market. Sadly, that is not happening; this is one space where companies need to stop competing and come together in a solution mode to deepen the market! In June 2016, around 1.4GB per active smartphone user was the average data consumption; with the data rates being what they are, this is abysmally low. The market needs two divergent strategies for Voice & Data; will this happen? Let us see…



I am aware of reports claiming a manifold increase in both data consumption as well as 3G users in India. I don’t see that happening to that scale; the income and demographic profile of the country does not support such a contention. I don’t see 90% of the population using data regularly – not in the next 5 years, at any rate. Data consumption will decidedly increase; let there be no doubt of that. But the spread and frequency of the same will be as per the income profile spread of the nation; this will require a completely different strategy – one that is not mass, but niche or selective…