Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Grow old at your own risk !

Gender or race discrimination at the workplace has received a lot of attention and any organisation that overtly does this is in for serious trouble. But a different form of discrimination has become widely prevalent in the last ten years. Age discrimination. The corporate world favours youth and tough luck if you are an older person. The problem with this is that everybody has to get “older” sometime or the other.

The dice is loaded against you if you are considered too old. The inflexion point comes suddenly on you in the early forties. If, by then, you haven’t “made it” you are on a slippery slope. You get passed over on the grounds of being “too old” and that a younger person is a better future bet. And then by 50 you are a prime candidate for being laid off.

Therein lies a profound sociological problem. By the grace of God, on an average we’ll live longer. Perhaps for 75 years or so. So if you lose your job, or leave when you are 50, you have another 25 years to go. In countries where there is a well defined social security system, this becomes a huge drain on the working population. In countries which have no system, and where the traditional support system of the family is crumbling, what could you do ?

Consider the plight of a 50 year old who’s been laid off, or has been forced to leave. Chances of getting another job are extremely low (does anybody hire a 50 year old these days ?, a sure sign of age discrimination). For many, their very being is defined by their job. When that is gone, self confidence, respect and social standing take a beating.

In the rich world, there’s a clamour for people needing to work longer and not retiring early and claiming their pensions. But the problem is that few people can keep their jobs until they reach retirement age. They’ll have to leave well before that. How many retirement parties for 60 or 65 year olds have you attended in the last couple of years ?

What can be done ? I am not sure at all. The greying generation can do a few things to help themselves. Constantly retrain and update skills. Price themselves competitively against younger guys, taking salary cuts rather than salary increases. Maintain, and demonstrate, that priceless combination of experience and dynamism. Do all this well before reaching 50. But none of this is any foolproof insurance.

This post comes after I read a report in The Telegraph that a High Court in the UK has ruled that compulsory retirement at 65 was valid in law. I think that its an irrelevant judgement. Forget 65; you're lucky if you can hold your job at 55. It’s a scary thought.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Chinese tyres vs American chicken

There’s a spat going on between the US and China that is threatening to become a trade battle, if not a war. The US imposed tariffs of 35% on Chinese automobile tyres on the grounds that imports were surging and that the domestic industry had to be protected “temporarily”. China immediately appealed to the WTO and there the matter stands now.

But China is a prickly nation. It is quick to take offence. It announced last week that its launching an investigation in American “chicken parts” being dumped in China and putting Chinese poultry farmers out of business. Of course, this was entirely unrelated to America’s action on its tyres.

Reading this made me sit up. Is America capable of exporting something that undercuts China ?? How on earth was that possible ? But it indeed does seem to be the case. The “chicken parts” in question are wings and legs. Apparently these have no use in the US – they are virtually worthless and go for 2 cents a pound. But these are delicacies in China – one of the quaint experiences of mine in China is to see elderly women go out early in the morning to buy fresh chicken legs, just as Indian women might buy milk. These “chicken parts” sell for 40 cents a pound in China. Lo and behold America is cheaper than China !

A spat is brewing and if nationalistic fever is stoked (all too easy in both the countries), this can escalate into a mini trade war. This is exactly what the world does not need today, although politically this will be, unfortunately, popular. It will be a sad day if the world’s economic direction is dictated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the prickly faceless mandarin in Beijing.

These are difficult times for free trade. Capitalism is on the defensive and free trade is becoming a four letter word to far too many people. But it is precisely in these recessionary times that the world needs more of free trade, not less of it. But then a free market evangelist is somewhat akin to a paedophile these days.

Whatever might be your views, surely there are more worthy causes to fight wars on than chicken feet !

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The "different" Brenda Barnes

Financial Times recently published its list of the top 50 women in world business. The usual toppers were all there – Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), Andrea Jung (Avon), Irene Rosenfeld ( Kraft), the highly controversial Ho Ching (Temasek – as our Singaporean friends will know). At No 14 stood Brenda Barnes, Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee, the makers of Kiwi shoe care, Douwe Egberts & Senseo coffee, Hillshire Farm meat, Good Knight mosquito coils and a whole host of famous brands.

She’s a lady with a difference. And her story merits telling.

In 1997, she was president of Pepsico North America. One of the top jobs in Pepsi. A glittering career. She would have surely risen even higher. But then she turned her back on the job and walked out. To spend time with her family – her three kids - and be a fulltime mom.

Seven years later she came back. Sara Lee hired her. A year later she was Chairman and CEO. Consider this for a moment – the upper echelons of corporate America is a dog eat dog world. If you step off, its even harder to come back than in lower or middle level positions. And yet she did . Any working mom, or dad for that matter, wondering if a career break will end working life need only look at Brenda Barnes' journey

Click here for an interesting interview she gave on her taking that career break. She says she sees life as a series of chapters. She says the time she took out was like going to graduate school.

Sara Lee even launched a paid internship program, dubbed returnships at Sara Lee, targeting professionals with a gap in employment.

The corporate world is not kind to people with career gaps. It’s the women who bear the brunt of this, when they are juggling with starting a family and continuing an aggressive career. This is particularly a serious issue in India. The demands of corporate life are such that balancing work and family life is virtually impossible. Something has to give. And many women, to their eternal credit, refuse to sacrifice the family. And end up sacrificing their career.

To all ye women, who made the right choice for your family. Brenda Barnes is your inspiration. The corporate world will, and must, change.

The wonderful world of tags

Tags are a wonderful and frustrating thing at the same time. They seem to spring up from nowhere and have a life of their own. They go all over the place. Usually it’s a girl who starts it, with such gems as “What are you wearing ?”.

I’ve now been tagged by Athivas. A wonderful blogger who writes lovely verses. She’s so very friendly and writes such superb comments to make any blogger’s day. So when she tagged me with one of the girliest of all tags, I had to discard all semblance of business, dress up in a “pink dress” , imagine myself as one of the Mills & Boon girls and write this :) Be warned – all answers are of the “pink pink variety”. Athivas is the most sporting of bloggers – so I know she won’t mind me having a little bit of fun at whoever originated this tag.

1.Grab the book nearest to you, turn on page 18 and find line 4?
“She looked into his eyes longingly and her heart fluttered wildly. He held her hand and they gazed into the sunset”

2. Stretch your left arm out as far as you can & touch air?
I stuck my left arm out and touched the love of my life. He smiled a smile that made my heart go flutter, flutter.

3. What is the last thing you watched on TV?
I watched with a lump in my throat as they looked into each other’s eyes . Soft light, lilting music and the credits rolled over.

4. Without looking, guess what time it is?
9.00 PM?

5. Now look at the clock, what is the actual time?
11.30 PM – Oh my gosh – have we been holding hands for so long ??

6. With the exception of the computer, what can you hear?
I can hear the beating of his heart, the song on his lips, the music in his ears ….

7. When did you last step outside? What were you doing?
I went out to buy a rose to pin on his lapel ; for the smell of the rose will keep him mine …..

8. Before you started this Q&As, what did you look at?
Into his oh so lovely eyes, to find that deep inside, I could see me.

9. What are you wearing?
What he gave me the first time we met.

10. When did you last laugh?
Every moment. There’s laughter in my eyes for he is with me and the world looks all colourful and fun.

11. What is on the walls of the room you are in?
He and me – holding hands, laughing , hugging, running, …..

12. Seen anything weird lately?
Not for a long time. For I have been gazing into his eyes.

13. What do you think of this quiz?
Oh; what a great way to wear a pink dress and write all about me and him.

14. What is the last film you saw?
We went to the movies, but we held hands and looked at each other. Forgot the movie.

15. If you became a multimillionaire overnight, what would you buy?
I’ll give it all to him. And he’ll give it all to me. I’ll keep it all for him; I’ll only take a little out to buy a pinker dress.

16. Tell me something about you that I dunno!
I only think of him and he only thinks of me. Did you know that ?

17. If you could change one thing about the world, regardless of guilt or politics, what would you do?
Make sure he’ll be besides me always.

18. Do you like to Dance?
Only with him. And then I like to dance and dance and dance and dance ….

19. Imagine your first child is a girl, what do you call her?
(Blushing) – I’ll ask him what he’d like to call her

20. Imagine your first child is a boy, what do you call him?
(More blushing) – I’ll name him, He jnr.

21. Would you ever consider living abroad?
Yes, wherever there’s a beach, there’s blue sky, there’s gentle water lapping at our heels as we hold hands and gaze into the sunset.

22. What do you want GOD to say to you when you reach the pearly gates?
(sobbing) – how could you ask that ?

Whew ! Ugh ! Phew again !!!

I’m running to get off that pink dress. That was real tough.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Where should a CEO live ?

These days many companies are global. Does it matter where they are based ? Or where their top executives live ? I believe it does.

This post is prompted by the news that HSBC’s Chief Executive, Michael Geoghegan, will relocate from London to Hong Kong. This is a consequence of the fact that the future of the bank will more and more be in China.

In most companies, there is a corporate headquarters. Usually this is a historic accident – the headquarters are where the company originated from , even though its current business may be in completely different places. The CEO and most of the senior management reside in HQ. Sure they travel a lot. But they live in the base.

In the past, this made sense. The top team had to be physically together. Meet often. It doesn’t make sense today. It is much more practical to meet personally at regular intervals , but meet often virtually. That’s the way most companies are run anyway.

Its important for the top team to understand the countries which are most crucial for its operations. And real understanding does not come from travel alone. It often comes from living there. A CEO’s visit to any country is a carefully orchestrated event that gets him to places and see things that everybody wants him to see. There’s no way you can understand China, by alighting at Pudong airport, driving to the Shangri La, having a zillion presentations at the office, meeting two senior government officials, having dinner at the Yongfoo Elite and going back. However many times you do this, you won’t “understand” China.

For a truly global company, its top team must be spread over the major markets it operates in. The major geographies where its operations are. In the last team I was associated with, the top leaders were based in France, Germany, the UK, the US and China. It resulted in some arduous travel, but it achieved an important objective – it was a truly global team.

Its entirely appropriate that the CEO of HSBC resides in Hong Kong. After all its one of those rare “countries” where a commercial bank issues the local currency notes. HSBC issues most of the dollar notes in Hong Kong and one of its employees signs it. In the future the CEO might want to sign them himself. After all how many CEOs can have the satisfaction of taking his wallet out and seeing his signature every time he hands over a dollar bill. It must be the ultimate status symbol.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Eight is auspicious

In China the number 8 is considered very auspicious. That’s why the Beijing Olympics commenced at 8.00 PM on 8.8.08. When my dear blogger friend, Preeti, tags me with the “Eight tag”, I just had to pick it up. Everybody in the blogging world knows Preeti. I can fill a post with her credits, but let me just say, if you haven’t read 34 Bubblegums and Candies, do get hold of a copy; it’s a lovely read.

With a little journalistic licence, I’ll twist the tag to fit into a business blog and hand the post over to my good friend Abracadabra Technology Ltd. It’s a small company. It’s a legal person (companies are). But nobody lets a company talk. So here’s the opportunity.

8 “TV shows” I like to watch in my office

I don’t watch TV but see plenty of interesting stuff that goes on in the office.

1.The “boss” is flirting with his secy. Now what on earth is that ugly, bald, fat, oldie thinking ?
2. Those two maamis are at the coffee machine for the last 1 hour chatting away when they should be working.
3. Everybody is peering into a computer screen. But Oh God. Some are playing games. Some are checking google mail, some are blogging, some are tweeting, others are idly browsing. Can’t see anybody who’s working. Thank God the IT guys have at least blocked out the porn.
4. Look at that meeting going on. Hey you - don’t snore so loudly.
5. The staircase really stinks. Everybody smokes there. I hate to see that place.
6. There’s somebody yelling at a poor little thingie, who looks like she’s going to cry. That monster of a Project Manager… Grr !
7. Open offices and telephones don’t go together. There he goes again, yelling like mad.
8. They’re all bitching about the new HR head who joined last month. Can’t repeat what they say in the polite company this blog keeps.

8 favourite places to eat

1. The canteen of the neighbouring company
2. Your own desk
3. That streetcart selling kachoris – made from machine oil
4. Andhra restaurant down the road
5. The posh conference room ; especially when dripping sauce on the carpet
6. Dinners when clients come – you always go to a good restaurant. Only pain is you have to smile at whoever has come
7. The coffee machine (not for the coffee; for the gossip)
8. Every place other than the company canteen, which stinks.

8 things I look forward to

1.The day somebody changes my name. Why do people give boring names to companies.
2. When they’ll clean the carpet
3. The annual day. Great fun. Everybody dances like crazy.
4 The day when they’ll shift office from this grubby place and build a campus
5. When I’ll have 10,000 people working in me. After all, size is everything , you see !
6. When they’ll serve some decent food in the canteen
7. When the buses to take my people home takes the right person to the right home
8. When the IT geeks will allow all my nice people to blog from the office.

8 things that happened yesterday

1.The system crashed
2.The power went 27 times
3. 4 visitors from Europe came. And how much all these so called bigwigs here groveled.
4. They had a fire drill. And nobody followed the evacuation plan.
5. 74 people came for interviewed. 26 employees quit. HR didn’t know who was who.
6. The shuttle bus came late and then most of my people were stuck on Marathahalli Bridge.
7. 3 birthdays were celebrated. They really sing Happy Birthday in an awful tune.
8. Travel dept bungled the tickets of 13 of my people who were to fly to Germany. Instead they were sent to Korea.

8 things I love about winter (assuming what goes on here can be called winter)

1. New Year celebrations. Everybody who works here has a ball
2. The annual pay rise. Everybody grumbles, but still ….
3. End of the budget season – what a torture that is
4. The coffee in the machine, suddenly becomes warm and drinkable.
5. Lots of “goras” come – since its too cold “out there”. So all get some nice free dinners
6. Most of the people can come an hour late – as those strange Yanks and Brits have put the clock back by an hour
7. All those wonderful white people are off for Christmas for a week. My people have an easier time.
8. They don’t turn the AC on to max and freeze everyone to death.

8 things on my wishlist

See the list of things I look forward to.

8 things I am passionate about

1. My people are treated properly and are not yelled at.
2. They don’t “window dress” me but show my true colours
3. They make me grow, and grow and grow.
4. They do some good for the poor people who are all around my office.
5. My people are all safe – come, go and work in safety.
6. They spread less bullshit around, for it really stinks.
7. They beat the s$%^ out of that s.o.b who calls himself my competitor.
8. They find new stuff everyday. I get bored with the same thing very quickly.

8 words or phrases I use often

Since I can’t talk, I don’t have favourite words, but I’ve heard these spoken the most in my office

1. HELLO (yelled at 15000 decibels on the phone)
2. You must improve and do better
3. System down
4. Blah Blah Blah
5. Need more money; can you do better than your budget ?
6. Variance analysis – why has the cost of paper cups gone by 14.296 % ?
7. HR goofed up, again.
8. I should be paid more.

8 things I learnt from the past

1. HR will never pay salaries correctly or on time
2. Finance will delay every bill that is to be paid
3. Sales will miss their target and have a wonderful explanation why
4. Marketing will produce an suave, sexy ad, which will bomb when aired
5. Everybody will miss their budget by at least 10%.
6. The project will be late.
7. New ERP costing several millions will be installed and will bomb on day one.
8. The CEO will award himself a 74% pay rise.

8 places I would love to go,visit or see

Since I don’t go anywhere, I can’t really take this on, but I can tell you 8 other places where I would have loved to be incorporated rather than where I am

1. Bahamas
2. Virgin Islands
3. Mauritius
4. St Kitts and Nevis
5. Luxembourg
6. Dutch Antilles
7. Canary islands
8. Barbados

My only slight worry is that the companies who I’ll have for company (if you’ll pardon the pun), there will all be crooks.

8 things I currently need or want

I really don’t need anything, but I would love if the following people joined me

1. A Journey Called Life
2. The Thoughtful Train
3. Le Embrouille Blogueur
4. Reflections
5. Kiwibloke
6. Kanmuri
7. Exkalibur66
8. Athivas

They have such lovely names they hide under. And I have such a boring name …

Friday, 18 September 2009

Forgive me Lord, for I have drunk a glass of milk

There is gathering momentum for product labels to be required to state their “carbon footprint”. So that consumers can feel guilty about contributing to climate change and perhaps do something about it. Nothing illustrates how difficult it is to calculate the environmental impact of daily life , than the attempt to label a milk carton with its carbon footprint. When it comes to environment impact, nothing is what it seems.

Now, what can be the carbon footprint of a carton of milk. After all its as natural a product as can be.

On first thought nothing at all. A little later it strikes us – yes the act of transporting it and packaging it surely has a carbon impact. And what about refrigeration – another significant carbon impact. Slowly milk is starting to look a little less saintly.

But wait a minute. Maybe we should revert to the old Indian habit of getting fresh milk from a cow or buffalo milked in front of your house. Then no transportation, refrigeration and all that carbon spewing stuff.

But what about the stuff the cow eats to produce the milk. Now cattle feed is grown somewhere (carbon spewing fertilizer eeks !) manufactured somewhere and transported. All this adds to the carbon. Right we’ll tell the milkman; no artificial feed for your cow ; it can graze on the natural grass, or more likely, eat paper if you are a self respecting city cow in India.

But it so happens that the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emission in the supply chain of milk is not in the feed; not in the carton; not in the transportation; not in the refrigeration. Its in bovine flatulence. No, I’m not joking. It’s a real fact. Cows produce so much methane that Arthur C Clarke has written in one of his books that if an alien civilization approached earth, the first signal that there is life on this planet would be from the chemical footprint of our atmosphere caused by bovine flatulence.

If you still don’t believe me, click hereand go to the bottom of the article.

Now the ahem, noxious output of the cow is governed by the nature of the feed. Natural grass feeding may actually be more harmful to the environment. Back to square one.

Just goes to show that nothing is simple when it comes to the environment. Popular fads may actually cause more harm than good – see an example I wrote about sometime ago here. What is needed is a comprehensive research and clear advice from a global organization of high credentials. Focus on the big ticket items only. And then all of us can act on them. And stop making people feel guilty on petty stuff.

Cheers – gulp down your glass of milk.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Remember the dot com mania ....

Sure public memory is short; but that short ? Especially when it comes to your hard(ly) earned money ?

Twitter is raising funding at a valuation of $ 1bn. That’s right; ONE BILLION. How do you ascribe that sort of valuation to a company that hasn’t made a cent and that has no idea how to make a cent ?

This is exactly what happened during the dot com craze. Get the eyeballs. To hell with revenues, let alone profits. Mad valuations. And when an occasional guy like Warren Buffet said the emperor is wearing no clothes, he was written off as an old geezer who “doesn’t get it “.

Now has all this been forgotten ? One billion for Twitter. Did somebody say we are in the midst of a financial crisis ?

I am gobsmacked. Forget learning any economics or going to business school. Just stand on a street corner and punt like crazy. I am an old geezer and I “don’t get it”. For, you see, I don't tweet.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Socially Responsible Consumer

A lot has been, and will be said about the social responsibility of businesses. But what about the social responsibility of consumers ? This article set me thinking

Each one of us, as consumers, have the power to make or break businesses – every time we buy, or not buy, something, we hold in our hand the fate of every business in the supply chain of that product. Should we not exercise this power in a “responsible” way.

Most of our purchasing decisions are purely dictated by what is good for us – cheapest price, the best quality, whatever. Nothing wrong with that. But its worth a thought if some other criteria might also come into the equation.

The area where consumers are beginning to act is climate change. Like buying locally made goods. Shunning products that are harmful to the environment (like gas guzzling vehicles). Carbon offsets in flying. And so on.

A few companies have tried to compete on a social theme. Companies like The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry ice cream, etc. But in the end they have been swallowed by traditional big businesses. That’s simply because consumers and shareholders haven’t attached enough of an importance to their social theme. But I believe that’s changing rapidly in today’s world.

It’s an interesting thought. As a consumer, why do we not consider products (without a too material sacrifice on quality or price) that either do “good” themselves, or come from companies that do “good” more than others. Admittedly it’s a difficult concept and we may not know enough to make that choice. Many a time, what appears on the surface isn’t true either. But if this starts to get into consumers’ mindset, things will change rapidly.

So perhaps the ball is in our court.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Gross National Happiness

President Sarkozy of France has proposed “Gross National Happiness” as an alternate measure to GDP in measuring progress of a nation. He was releasing the report of a study he had commissioned by two Nobel Laureates – Jospeh Stiglitz and Amartya Sen - on this subject.

Now even for the flamboyant Sarkozy this is something. Presumably it is an attempt to push the French higher up on the world rankings as 35 hour week, August month long holidays, fine wine and such other niceties contribute to happiness, but perhaps not to GDP.

This is not a new concept. The world leader in this is Bhutan – its former King was the originator of the idea and Bhutan has been adopting this for many years now. Click here for the Bhutanese logic of this – it makes an impressive read. The trouble is 99% of the world population cannot point to Bhutan on a map. Therefore it remained as an isolated concept which the irrepressible Sarkozy has caught on to.

Of course there are many problems with GDP. A common criticism is that it does not measure anything which is not paid for – for example a stay at home mom running the house and bringing up kids does not contribute to GDP, but if a nanny or a maid was employed for the same purpose, it does. Sure GDP can be improved, but the problem is one of doing it in an objective manner that can be followed by every country in the world. The current definition may be having holes, but at least its objectively measurable.

The new assessment will reportedly include figures relating to work-life balance, recycling, household chores and even levels of traffic congestion. Now how on earth do you measure such stuff from Andorra to Zimbabwe ?

Despite all the rhetoric of Sarkozy, this is unlikely to catch on. And in any case Monsieur le President needs to be wary. It is by no means certain that France will be higher up on the table of Gross National Happiness than it is on GDP. God Forbid – it may even be demoted to the ranks of the developing countries in the “GNH rankings”. And surely there will be war if French wine’s contribution to GNH scored lower than that of the Napa Valley in the US !!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century died on Saturday in the US. He was 95.

He was the inventor of the high yielding, disease resistant, varieties of wheat which enabled the Green revolution of the 1960s. While his work benefitted the world – three countries gained the most from his work – Mexico, India and Pakistan. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. India awarded him its second highest civilian honour, Padma Vibushan.

Its quite likely, that unless you are an agricultural scientist yourself, you have never heard of the man. But he would rank right up there with the greatest scientists of the 20th century. It would be hard to find another scientist, even Einstein, whose work directly improved the lives of so many millions of people. For he helped purge the scourge of famine from India and Pakistan. He started his work in Mexico in the early 60s. Between 1965 and 70, his work was mainly in India and Pakistan. During this period wheat yields doubled in both these countries. He , along with others, then replicated this magic in rice. Both these countries have overcome famine ever since.

But think of 1965. India had famine. There was not enough food to eat. If you really want to know what India was facing then, click here. Readers of this blog might be too young to remember PL 480 , but India’s survival depended on this handout from the US. There were endless queues in ration shops – for foodgrain was rationed. Having enough to eat was a luxury.

By 1970, it was a different story. Agricultural yields boomed thanks to the Green Revolution and India became self sufficient in food. And it has never looked back since. There were many heroes – rightfully MS Swaminathan, the father of the Indian Green revolution is idolized as the biggest of them. But globally Norman Borlaug is recognized as the father of the World Green Revolution.

A 2006 book about Borlaug is titled 'The Man Who Fed the World”. “More than any other single person of his age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world," Nobel Peace Prize committee chairman Aase Lionaes said in presenting the award to Borlaug. "We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace."

Norman Borlaug was one of the greatest citizens of the world. For Indians of the yester generation, he was the “annadaata”, as the Times of India calls him in today’s obituary. We may have forgotten him, but the nation, and indeed the world, should remember with gratitude today, a true hero.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Thank You

This is senti Sunday time. Off day from business, and so a different post.

Every blogger’s lifeline is that wonderful person who takes the trouble to read and comment. And I have been blessed by your kindness – by your warm words, by your sharing of an incisive thought, by your encouragement and by the many “aaawww” moments when your lovely comment touches me.

So want to say Thank You. Xie Xie. In an amateurish, but heartfelt way.

A wonderful couple these two are
Pip pip toodle oo; oh very British
From her, of blogging, I became aware
Thank you Preeti and Satish

A big fella, he sure is
All bravado, but in fact a softie
Those expert comments are all his
Thank you, the bloke called kiwi

From far away in the US of A
Months ago, he b’came my first “follower”
For all his wonderful words I say
Thank you le embrouille blogueur

A fellow business blogger is he
Extolling the virtues of Not Being Sarkari
A more helpul blogger, there cannot be
Thank you Sidhus, Adesh & Zoobie

Among a billion people, I found this man
Produces gems and then disappears for long
The picture of optimism; “yes we can”
Xie xie xiansheng Hang

The warmest blogger of all, even when impromptu
All rolled into one – mum, woman and wife
Who shows us the magic world of Chotu
Thank you A Journey called Life

Now, what can I say about this lassie
Pulling her leg, I shall now refrain
Makes my eyes often go misty
Thank you Oh So Thoughtful Train

His words, are music to my ears
Such a wonderful man is he
A dear friend for thirty or so years
Thank you Ravi, or dada to me

The naughty girl has vanished away
To trace her, shall we place some ads
There’s no Italian dude she doth say
Thank you, you cheeky Rads

And then I bump into this super guy
Foodie, artist, writer, a mind free
His words and thoughts, money can’t buy
Thank you Sir, oops sorry, Sri

A traveller – one among the few..
Lovely blog, but only a few posts, alas
For stopping by, a big thank you
Savitha, or should I say, Athivas

And to everybody else who does comment
Mahesh, Kotla, Aashish, Nan.., and all ye dear
Every word of yours is a fond present
Thank you for all the cheer

Friday, 11 September 2009

Are you human ?

If you would like to comment on some blogs (not mine), or do various other things on the internet, you are required to prove that you are a human being. How do you do that ? By looking at a mangled word and typing the text into a box. Since humans are better at pattern recognition than machines, it is then presumed that you are a human. Though judging by the number of times I get it wrong, I must be at least half machine.

Apparently this sort of stuff is called CAPTCHA – Completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart). Trust somebody to come up with an abbreviation like that. As a digression, you may want to read an old rant of mine against meaningless jargon like this here.

Now this set me thinking on various other strange stuff we have to prove in daily life.

• I am always amazed at the need for a birth certificate to prove that you have been born.

• Ditto death certificate to prove that you are dead.

• One of the companies I know requires pensioners to reaffirm every year that they are alive, by producing an “alive certificate” (in prescribed format, no less) to continue drawing their pension.

• How many times have I needed to sign on documents that I am “of sound mind”. Now that’s an entirely debatable assertion.

• I am aware that in our good old country, a farmer can get a write off of a buffalo loan by proving that his buffalo had died. Acceptable proof was the production of a buffalo tail. Needless to say a thriving market existed in reused buffalo tails and the service of rendering your alive and well buffalo tailless.

• Certain countries (there being one really notorious one which I shall not name), require a formal marriage certificate attested by a multitude of government agencies to accept that your spouse is your spouse. Now in countries where a marriage certificate was not the norm, this is a really tough matter. The simpler way is to remarry (complete with sons, daughters, grandchildren present), to the accompaniment of much mirth, to get that prized certificate.

• I am often required to prove that my daughter is my daughter. Her calling me papa is apparently not enough. Thankfully, I got her birth certificate which says so; so it must be so !

• I have just signed a visa application to visit a certain country, where I have been required to aver that I am not a terrorist.

But back to CAPTCHA. Apparently an outsourcing industry has sprung up to serve spammers. Machines have outsourced the job of beating CAPTCHAs to human beings in developing countries. I believe the going rate is $3 per 1000 CAPTCHAs broken. You can, but only, marvel at the business acumen in the outsourcing industry. Make a business of proving to a machine that you are a human. Now that’s something …

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Internet gains vs Wall Street innovations

This is the title of a very interesting article written by Prof Prabhudev Konana of the University of Texas at Austin. Click here to read his article.

He compares two massive streams of innovations in the last two decades – the internet and the financial sector. The Internet has revolutionalised our way of life, created jobs and wealth for a lot of people and , in general, has created unprecedented social good. Financial innovation has created lots of wealth and done good, but it has done bad as well. Prof Konana wonders whether the rewards for financial innovation have been disproportionate and whether our systems for rewarding innovation are appropriate.

Thought provoking article ( the Professor has written it for the average reader and not a scholar – so its refreshingly devoid of 25 letter words that business professors often inflict on us, mortals). It nicely captures one of the dilemmas I have been musing on – is the reward system for the financial sector “right” ? On the one hand, these financial innovations have enabled many liquid markets to emerge, enabled access to capital for business which otherwise would have been impossible, given tools for people to spread and manage risk, and brought efficiency to markets and businesses that have been unprecedented. On the other hand, huge sums of money can be made (or lost) on just timing or luck without an attendant economic benefit – in fact often to the accompaniment of economic destruction.

I am having great difficulty reconciling with the idea that a society can bestow the highest wealth on just being at the right place at the right time. The concept of “easy money” as opposed to one “earned through hard work” is sitting uneasily in my “socialist heart”. I am a subscriber to Narayana Murthy's view that you should be a capitalist in your mind and a socialist at heart !

There are of course many sides to this argument and a blog post is not the equivalent of a research thesis. This blog is a muse on business; so I can take the liberty of wondering aloud and perhaps stimulating you to do so too. As Prof Konana asks – should the contributions of Prof Berners-Lee and John Paulson be even on the same page ??

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

"Shocking" gender pay gap found in UK finance

Thus screamed the headlines from a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK. In their report, they made fantastic allegations – Women earn 80% less performance pay than men in the financial services industry in the UK. There was also a 30% gap in basic pay between women and men. Every newspaper in the UK carried this story of how women are discriminated against.

This is precisely the sort of research and conclusions that we can do without. I have some experience of this sector and this country to know that this large a discrimination does not exist. So I read deeper. What has this worthy Commission done ? They’ve simply added up the salaries of women they surveyed and compared with the men they surveyed. And found this difference. So what does this say ? It does not say discrimination. It just says women are doing less senior jobs than the men. Or a greater proportion of women are doing lesser paying jobs than men. The right comparison , in case there was gender discrimination, is if a man and a woman were doing the same job and were being paid different. That is unlikely in any significant scale – its against the law anyway.

But we live in the day and age of instant soundbytes. Message in 140 characters or less. Somehow there’s an air of authenticity to surveys and reports. And therefore you can get away with headlines such as “Shocking gender pay gap”.

Do women face a non level playing field ? Sure. Is there a glass ceiling ? Absolutely. Do companies have friendly policies that are conducive to balancing work and home? No. Do women drop out of work because of having home responsibilities ? Certainly. Are the senior levels in companies filled with testosterone ? Completely. Is there a machismo culture ? For sure. But is there a “shocking gender pay gap” ? NO.

Shame on you – Equality and Human Rights Commission. By such sensationalism, you actually harm the cause of women. By not addressing the real issues they face.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A soap opera begins

On 17th October 1988, late in the day, Monday, Philip Morris announced an unsolicited bid to acquire Kraft. It set off a soap opera , the likes of which have not been seen since.

October 1988 was an unbelievable month in business history. Two weeks earlier, on October 3, Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) launched a hostile bid for Pillsbury. But then on October 20th, the atom bomb fell. The management of RJR Nabisco announced a bid to take the company private. That set off a bidding war with KKR, a private equity firm, who ultimately acquired RJR Nabisco for a staggering $25 bn. For 10 years that was the largest acquisition in the world by far.

Between October and December of 2008, for the first time, the front pages in newspapers around the world were filled with business news. With three large hostile bids going on simultaneously, daily gossip, who did what, who was seen with who, became staple news. News helicopters hovered above company headquarters taking pictures. The soap opera was in full swing. The food industry was dominating news – all three companies in play were either food companies or had substantial food businesses.

I was reminded of this when I read yesterday of Kraft’s unsolicited bid for Cadbury. Sense of déjà vu. The brash corporate raider from Chicago against a good British company ( pip pip, toodleoo, Right Ho !). It will be another soap opera. Won’t be like October 1988, but nonetheless will be a riveting story to follow.

But back to October 1988. The battle for RJR Nabsico was immortalised in a book – Barbarians at the Gate. It’s a fascinating read – strongly recommend to anybody who has an interest in business. Its written like a thriller, and all of it is true. You can buy it in the US here and in India here. It was even made into a movie.

Fast forward to the present day. The Kraft Cadbury dogfight will be great to watch. For my long time colleagues, this will be particularly interesting, for one of the characters involved is somebody whom we know well ….

Monday, 7 September 2009

Make a fortune with Lehman Brothers !

Yes that’s right. Lehman brothers. The same company that went bankrupt. You could have made a profit of 600% in a couple of months. Welcome to the insanity that sometimes grips markets. And trust the finance world to dignify the madness with a high sounding name. Its called the “lottery ticket rally”.

Lehman Brothers shares were languishing at 5 cents for most of the year. Last week, they touched 32 cents. If you bought at 5 and sold at 32 , you could have multiplied your money 6 times. They ended the week at 14 cents. Even if you missed the 32 and sold at 14, you multiplied your money a respectful 3 times.

Never mind the underlying economics. Big parts of Lehman’s erstwhile businesses have been bought by Barclays and Nomura. What’s left is all sorts of losses being unwound. Most certainly the rump left has negative net worth. By all laws of economics their shares must be worth nothing. And there’s nothing secretive about this – the travails of Lehman have been well documented. And yet, its stock has zoomed.

This is just mad speculation. People punting with complete irrationality. Apparently the same is happening with shares of other bankrupt companies as well.

Sure the punters who make 600% also lose 1200%. But that’s besides the point. A society that rewards insane risk taking over an honest day’s work needs some navel gazing. This isn’t socialist claptrap. Some introspection is called for, even amongst die hard capitalists.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Whoever flies first class ?

One of the undisputed pleasures in life is when you enter an aircraft and turn left instead of right.

For all of us not privileged to be in that position, we can console ourselves that only an idiot would fly first class these days.

Its obscenely expensive. HORRENDOUSLY so. And what do you get for it ?

- A flat bed, which is now pretty much standard in business
- The oldest stew in the crew on the grounds that the seniormost serves First Class. The prettiest ones can meanwhile be found in business.
- Some unpronounceable wine. Alright that might be a real goodie. I don't know. Le embrouille blogueur might !
- Same average food - served on nice cutlery.
- A nightsuit that you can change into to sleep,that looks a bit like the stuff you buy at the end of Commercial Street / Ranganathan Street / Shangxiajie lu
- A toileteries kit that's no different from business and increasingly looking like the stuff the state barber uses on the roadside.

Thats it. For this privilege you pay some twenty times the cost of an economy ticket. And some four times business.

Now who does this, I wonder. The seriously rich don't fly commercial at all - they have their own jets. So who is this guy who can afford to fly this way ? Sure his company is paying for him, but isn't somebody axing this perk ?

Actually why am I writing this post. What business is it of anybody, who flies how ? Why grudge the guy who's living it up ? Good luck to you mate !!

A post like this is an occupational hazard of writing from an airport lounge ; which is what I am doing !! I just saw a family of three enter a plane and turn left ....

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

CSR in the developing world - Volunteering

What's the most precious thing in the world ? Depending on the context and the person, you can get hundreds of answers. If I ask the question in the context of Corporate Social Responsibility - What is the most precious thing a company can give to the community?, an expected answer would be money. It would not be mine. Mine would be time.

My eyes were opened on how organised volunteering has become in some parts of the world from Chris Jarvis' excellent blog - Realizing Your Worth. Chris is a practitioner; that's his business and you can see from his posts, how much can, and ought to, be done.

What social organisations often lack are some specific skills and numbers of committed workers. They have passion in plenty. They are committed to causes in ways I can only marvel. They usually feel they are short of just money. No; they are often short of organisational and management skills and of specific technical skills. Very often such organisations have grown from a small group of extremely committed individuals who built an operation through sheer passion. Now its become a largish organisation. It needs support. Step forward corporate volunteers.

The best a company can do, is to encourage its employees to give their time to causes and organisations it supports. For you and me, it can be the way to a very fulfilling experience. How many times have we felt we wanted to do something to help somebody less privileged, but haven't got around to doing it meaningfully. Sometimes we write a cheque. Sometimes we do some bits and pieces. But in a sustained and effective manner - only a committed few. But for all of us, it can give meaning to the work we do. We use our skills and knowledge, not just for business, but also for the community around us. A company can give the framework and the means to make it happen. It will be rewarded in employees who will affiliate to the business with more than a contractual relationship.

Nowhere is this truer than in the developing world. Volunteering is at its infancy, at best. Its where the need is highest and where the maximum difference can be made. So companies - establish a formal volunteering programme. Let it be run by your employees. Run this like any other business initiative - in the most efficient manner possible. Give a little time off for your employees to participate in the programme. It can be the best activity in the CSR space you could do.

I know its not easy for us to volunteer out time. After all, in our parts of the world, the working day is usually 12 hours at the office. And then the 2 hour commute back home. But ..... Take a deep breath. Enrol as a volunteer. It may change our lives.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

CSR in the developing world - alleviating poverty

If you are a company doing business in the developing world, chances are that you are not far away from poverty in a very basic form. You cannot, and should not, be an island behind electrified fences. And at the same time, its not your job to solve global hunger. What can you do ? What should you do ?

You are doing something, by the very fact of your existence. You provide jobs to people. There is no better way of fighting poverty than that. This is the greatest good that companies can do. Locational choices on where to operate are dictated by a whole host of considerations – nearness to market, availability of inputs, government incentives, cost structures, etc etc. I suggest that one more criteria be added – poverty around the location. Other things being equal, go to a place with higher poverty. Perhaps go to places where others haven’t been. Go outside of the big cities. This isn’t an ideological rant. In my business life, I’ve been part of many many locational choices. Our best decisions have been when we have gone to unlikely places. My greatest emotional satisfaction from many a job has been the job opportunities we have given to people who otherwise might have had none.

Having gone there, a company would do well to get involved in the local community. Not give money – in my experience nothing destroys a community more than sudden wealth. But link up in ways that are natural to your business. Encourage your employees to volunteer in building skills in the community. If you run a factory and have a captive power plant, sell electricity at cost to the neighbourhood (all too often they have none). Give water from your borewell. Source inputs, if you can, locally. Train them to get you those inputs. Fund local entrepreneurs as a venture capitalist to set up ancillary industries to supply you inputs. Extend the health education you give your employees, to the local community. And so on. Above all, don’t build electrified fences !

The greatest good that a company can do to the community is to further economic activity. For there is no way out of poverty than to create economic opportunities. Help local government create the right climate for attracting more industries. Be a vigorous spokesman for your community in attracting others to come. Run the business on highly ethical lines – it rubs off on everybody around. For decades, Tatanagar in India, was an oasis of calm right in the heart of a violent region, largely because of the values Tatas brought to that place.

And one of the best acts you could do is to encourage volunteerism by your employees. That’s a theme I’ll pick up tomorrow.

But please, oh please, do not become an island of wealth, bounded by a 15ft high wall, in the midst of abject poverty. Quite apart from it being morally difficult to stomach, it is also not sustainable. One day for sure, somebody will torch your fence.

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