Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The online MBA

The online MBA. Yawn. Can’t be done. No value. Wait a minute. How would you like it if you could say you are a MBA from the Jack Welch Management Institute ? Sitting up ? What if it was 20% of the cost of a regular MBA. And what if you don’t have to leave your job for 2 years to do this. Interested ? Read on.

Jack Welch is taking a 12% stake in a company called Chancellor University System LLC, whose leading investor is Michael Clifford an evangelist for online education. His lending of his name to the MBA program will immediately catapult it to star status. But will it work ?

There is no doubt that technology has the capability to transform education. Firstly the pros. It is cheaper and you don’t have to give up your job. You can do it from anywhere in the world. The monster that is the US visa officer can be kissed goodbye. Many more people can do it. The limitation of the classroom size largely goes away.

But there are serious doubts, of course. Can the academic rigour be maintained ? What about case discussions, which are so important in a MBA program ? Personal interaction, networks, etc are a key part of learning. Can this be replicated online ? How about the experience of living and studying together ?

While these are very valid concerns, the issues are not insurmountable. Don’t we build strong networks and friendships online through social networks ? I haven’t physically met most of the people who comment on my blog and yet I am intimately connected with them. An online classroom, which closely mimics the actual classroom is now a reality. Take the example of investor presentations, which are almost exclusively on line these days – they are extremely and intensely interactive. And the youth of today are much more adept at interacting and sharing online.

Methinks online education will be a significant part of the learning systems of the world. It won't replace the traditional university for sure, but it will be a very real choice for people.

There’s something in this. Jack Welch says he first thought this was a daft idea, but is now a convert, thanks to Michael Clifford’s evangelism. And we all know, Jack Welch doesn’t make moves lightly.

What say you ? Wanna enroll for the Jack Welch MBA ?

Monday, 29 June 2009

Thanks, but no thanks, Oprah

Oprah Winfrey is taking all her staff and their families on an all expenses paid Mediterranean cruise. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it. Actually not. I am not privileged to work for you, but if I did, I would say thanks, but no thanks.

For a semi serious look at why this is not a good idea, click here to read Stuart Jeffries' take.

I am adding my own two penny bit.

Company socials, especially with spouses, are a massive bore. Ninety percent of the conversation is office gossip anyway. Now, I’ve had my fill of it at the office – do I really want more of it. And the spouses. Their lot is terrible. Have you noticed how the office organization structure is quickly evident amongst the spouses. I’m sure they hate it, but have to dutifully attend.

I’ve ranted before of how spouses should have nothing to do with the company. Click here to read this misanthropic rant.

Of course, all of us have some very good friends amongst our office colleagues. Hanging out with them is extremely enjoyable. But privately. Nothing to do with the company. Certainly not at a company do where there are five friends but equally five guys you can’t stand the sight of.

Nobody says at his leaving do, “the thing I enjoyed most about this company is the socials we had every week”.

Grumpy mood today !!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Dead Right Carol - but you could have put it better

Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo, said a few days ago, that it was “not our job to fix the Chinese government". She was responding to a question from somebody from Amnesty International who asked a question at the company’s AGM about filtering of internet information in China.

She’s dead right. It is not the job of companies to advance political or social causes. That’s the job of governments, the United Nations, religious institutions like the Church, etc. Not companies.

She could have put it better though. Her choice of words was not exactly great.

Companies come under increasing pressure from all sorts of organizations who want to promote their agenda and find companies as soft targets. They use pressure tactics and publicity to force companies to further their agenda. These range from very worthy causes to cranky, and to , frankly, batty causes. But the worthiness of the cause must not cloud the issue. It is the not the business of companies to further political, social or religious causes at all.

Companies must follow the law of the land. Period. Fully, in letter and spirit. Since laws are mostly national, they must follow the law of the country they operate in. 150%. If they do not, then by all means quarter, censure, kill them.

But what is to be done if the laws of any particular country are “not right” in the eyes of another country or some non governmental organization. That is the business of governments to sort out. They need to take it up , either bilaterally, or in multilateral institutions, like the United Nations. If they dislike the laws of a country so badly, they can prohibit their companies from operating there at all – like the United States has with Cuba and Iran, or many countries in the world had with South Africa in the apartheid era. Once they allow companies to do business with a country, then companies should obey the laws of that country fully – its not their business to question these laws.

The US Congress, periodically summons executives from Microsoft, Google, Cisco and Yahoo and lectures them on the "morality" of their business in China. Wants them to admit to shame. The shame is actually on the US Congress for hitting at soft targets. If you are so concerned, why don't you preach this to Hu Jintao.

In the case of internet censorship, I, living in China, find it abominable. But I don’t blame Yahoo, or Google or Microsoft for it. I don’t want them to solve the problem.

Friday, 26 June 2009

No bailout for Air India

Air India is lobbying furiously for a massive bailout. Most airlines around the world are sick; so its no surprise that Air India, which is a particularly badly run airline, is in deep trouble. The mood these days is in favour of bailouts of whoever shouts loudest or scares the most. But look at what Air India is reported to be asking

- They want Rs 15,000 crores ($ 3bn plus)
- They want foreign airlines’ “sixth freedom rights” – the right to operate to multiple destinations in India to be reviewed (read stopped)
- They want capacities of foreign airlines to be frozen to give Air India “breathing space”
- They want to stop private Indian airlines from operating to areas like the Gulf so that Air India can “gain”.

All in the name of “public interest”.

Hello ! The cheek to even make such a demand. Air India – do you think the tax payer and the poor flying customer are idiots ? You guys just don’t get it – you are in business to serve a customer, not to screw him.

Just look at yourself in the mirror. You are a bloated, inefficient, organization. Granted its not all your doing – politicians and bureaucrats have long pillaged you. Unions have ensured that you cannot succeed. But the fact is that you are an airline no one wants to fly in. Millions of Indians travel abroad, many for the first time. They would love to travel in a familiar Indian environment. They don’t particularly like foreign airlines, many of whom treat Indians condescendingly. But it should tell you something that no one would willingly choose you over even Air France.

The government should not succumb to the temptation of playing Sir Galahad to an ugly crone. Take Air India into bankruptcy. Force it to restructure and come out leaner and somewhat resembling an airline rather than the employment agency it is now. Make it sell its bits and pieces. If an icon of America, General Motors, can go through this, so can Air India, which is no icon. If Air India can do all these things, help it along. If it can’t, or won’t, shut it down.

I am a consumer and a taxpayer. I am not prepared to do charity for Air India.

JRD Tata must be turning in his grave.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

China vs Google

There’s a battle going on between China and Google. Google can’t win and China can only lose. Just for the record, its China who started this battle .

The stakes were upped yesterday night, when the Net Nanny blocked Google. Yes b-l-o-c-k-e-d Google. Google everything – Search, Gmail, the works ! I’m gob smacked. What are they thinking ?

For some weeks China has been demanding that Google block searches from throwing up pornographic content. That’s the official stated demand. But we all know what this means. We know what they want to block.

In China, Google is not the dominant search engine. In fact their market share is some 20% or so. The dominant search engine by far is Baidu. This demand for blocking has not been made of Baidu and searches on Google and Baidu throw up virtually the same results.

Google is in a bind. How can they react. If they give in, this is against all that they stand for. If they don't, they get blocked and out of one of the most important markets in the world. Heads I win, Tails you lose.

China has also brought in a rule that from July 1, all PCs sold here have to have a net blocking software called “Green Dam Youth Escort”, preinstalled. Again the ostensible reason in blocking pornography. But we know what the intentions are. The move has raised a separate storm, with a US company Solid Oak claiming that Green Dam has plagiarised its software and threatening to sue. The University of Michigan waded in publishing a host of security weaknesses in Green Dam. What a mess.

Meanwhile a whole host of services – YouTube, Blogspot, WordPress, …. remain blocked.

Something is happening in China. This is not business as usual.

- Maybe this is some form of protectionism – taking sides in Baidu vs Google.
- Maybe there are some internal power struggles
- Certainly this is taking censorship to a new level.
- It is difficult to believe that the nanny really thinks she can win.
- Meanwhile a whole army of people are pissed off.

India can rest easy. China is not a threat to its IT and services industry. Its lead is safe and China is not going to catch up. Not with such asinine stuff.


PS - After I posted this, my blogger friend Hang, posted on this matter in his blog, Beijing Barefeet. Click here to read his post for an authentic Chinese response to internet censorship.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Traveller's Tales

Business travel can be just as amusing, interesting, scary, hilarious, as leisure travel. Having unfortunately travelled too much on business, I’ve accumulated a few traveller’s tales. Here are two of them.

1. There was this good British gentleman who was 6ft 6in tall and built of substantial proportions. He was a very senior director in a global company and had the air of the Lord of the World. He was as pompous, as pompous can be and spoke in a regal manner. This is what happened on one of the flights he took.

He walked in to the plane and took his seat (first class of course). The stewardess hurried to serve him champagne. After a few sips, the man presses the call button

Stew (coming running) – Yes, Sir, what can I get for you
He – Can I have a complaint form please ?
Stew (very flustered) – Sir, did we do anything wrong. Can I apologise. Can I get anything at all
He (in the most patrician voice) – May I have the complaint form please.
Stew runs away looking ashen and returns back with the “Cabin Services Director”
CSD – Sir, My colleague said you asked for the complaint form. I have it here, but Sir, could you tell me what is wrong
He – Nothing.
CSD – But you asked for the complaint form
He – Yes
CSD – But may I ask why sir ?
He – (In the most pompous of voices) I may need it during the flight !!

2. This happened a long long time ago – I can’t imagine it is possible in today’s world. There was this rather portly gentleman who was prone to forgetfulness and nodding off at the drop of a hat. He was a senior manager then and had travelled to Calcutta and was to return back to Bombay. He came to Calcutta airport to catch the Bombay flight, checked in, got his boarding card, boarded the plane and promptly dozed off. Two hours later, fasten seat belts, plane lands, the steps are brought, he deplanes, walks into the terminal, gets out, searches for his driver and can’t find him. As this was before the advent of mobile phones, all he can do is sit and wait. He waits, but no sign of the driver. Finally, he looks around and the place looks a little strange. For he has come to Delhi, when he should have gone to Bombay !!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Et tu Tom ?

Tom Peters is a legend in the business world. He's such a legend that this doesn't even have to be said.

But that doesn’t make him always right. Occasionally, he can be wrong, for he is after all, human. In this instance, I think he is dead wrong.

I refer to his blog post – “I do not wish you harm”. He rails and rants against Robert Diamond, the President of Barclays plc for his “earning” $36.5m consequent to the purchase of Barclays money management business by Blackrock. He objects to the grin on Diamond’s face calling it “appalling – insensitive – stupefying – outrageous – disgusting - sickening in June 2009”. He seems to be objecting to the public spectacle when “thousands are in the process of receiving pink slips”. Read the comments on this post which are even more vitriolic.

Blackrock , a US based money management firm is buying the fund management division (Barclays Global Investors) of Barclays for $ 13.5 bn. Barclays, an UK based bank has been badly hit by the financial crisis like every other bank. So far, it has shunned government help and this sale is a means of raising cash. Barclays staff who own shares in BGI will get a windfall. Diamond himself will get $ 36.5 m. This is what has got Tom’s goat.

Sorry Tom. I don’t grudge Diamond’s payday one bit. This transaction is completely legal and above board. Barclays stands to make a profit of $ 8.8 bn from this deal. Read that again - $ 8.8 bn. I don’t see why a CEO who realized a profit of $ 8.8 bn for his company, should not make $ 36.5 m as a consequence. And do it publicly , with a grin. Why should he be apologetic about it and do so under the table ??

Just like we don’t grudge you your speaking fees which reportedly go upto $ 100,000 per engagement. You are a guru. You have much wisdom. People are ready to pay that amount to listen to you speak. It may sound incredibly excessive for a Somali farmer on the brink of starvation. But that is absolutely irrelevant. I do not grudge your wealth one bit. For you have more than earned it.

The clamour over compensation for business people has gone completely uncontrolled. Where it is “unearned” or gotten by thievery, pelt stones for sure. But where it is earned, applaud it. The world won’t become a better place by pulling down the wealthy. It will become a better place by pulling up the poor. Deng Xiaoping, a great man, said “to be rich is glorious”. That’s what made China, what it is today.

Robert Diamond – I wish you well.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The unfortunate PWC partners

Is there a justice system in India ? Does it really work ? I’m not so sure.

These plaintive questions are in response to the continued detention of S Gopalakrishnan and Srinivas Talluri, the PWC partners who had certified the accounts of Satyam Computers. I argued that their detention is completely unwarranted here.

They continue to be behind bars. One after another, their bail petitions are rejected. When I wrote the earlier piece in April, I had expected that they would be released shortly. We are in end June, and it has still not happened. Read an account of their ordeal here.

I am not a legal man. I am just an ordinary citizen of India. But India is a democracy. The ordinary citizen has a voice too. So here’s mine. This is an open letter to anybody in the justice system in India

- May I remind you that in law, you are innocent until proven guilty. It appears that this principle does not apply in India.

- Detention pre trial is not a matter of routine. I know you lock up thousands of people for periods beyond what their jail sentences would have been even if they had been found guilty. That doesn’t justify doing it all the time. Shame on you.

- In this case, there is absolutely no reason to believe that either of these two gentlemen, or PWC for that matter, would not cooperate in the investigation. They have provided you 50,000 pages of information. They are not going to run away – you have enough ability to prevent that.

- Your system stinks. When umpteen Members of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them and they sit in Parliament, when convicted criminals are at liberty for years as the appeals process drags on, you lock people up , at will, for months and years, even before their case comes up for trial.

- Bring these two gentlemen to trial. If they are found guilty, by all means lock them up and throw away the key. But only after they are proven guilty. Right now, it appears they were guilty of incompetence, but not guilty of a crime. If incompetence is a criminal offence, the entire lot of you must be locked up for ever.

- What happens if after trial these two are not found guilty. Who’s going to recompense them for the months they have spent in the hellhole you call a jail. I would suggest that the Head of the CBI and the judge who keeps rejecting their bail petition spend an equal amount of time in the same cell in repentance.

Let me also suggest to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in India that you deserve to be quartered and censured for not even whimpering when two of your members are being subject to blatant injustice. Can you please justify why you exist ?

Let me just clarify that I don’t know either Gopalakrishnan or Srinivas, have never met them, never worked with them and hold no candle for them as individuals. But they deserve better, in this country of ours, where we claim the rule of law prevails.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Confession

I dropped a tag. That too from one of the nicest of bloggers, a writer par excellence, a warm human being and now a dear online friend. How could I drop a tag from A Journey called Life. Shame on me. With a very contrite expression, I make delayed amends.

I was tagged for the Honest Scrap award. The tag requires a post listing ten honest things about you. As I do with all tags, I’ll do so in the business context this blog is designed for.

1. I am horribly, “old fashionedly” loyal to my company(ies). I’ve never ever quit a company – only moved as a result of an acquisition once. I would not buy a competitor’s product. Hence my multiple posts on company loyalty.

2. I started with a love of travel. Now I hate it. I’ve travelled too much on business and at last count have spent at least a night in 30 countries. Now I hate the very sight of an aeroplane. As I am now on a sabbatical, I enjoy going nowhere.

3. One of the things I just cannot do is tell a person’s age by looking at him or her. Now that’s no big deal except in China where everybody looks 15. In my office, I am never very sure if the girls are truly above the legal employable age of 18. And then they show me the picture of their child !!

4. I hate wearing that contraption which can only be translated in Hindi as “Kanta Langot”. The tie was invented in the medieval ages when buttons had not been invented and they needed something to hold their shirts up. Now why on earth do we continue with this nonsense. Especially when the temperature outside is 40 deg plus.

5. I’ve travelled on every type of contraption for business – the normal ones, bus, car, train, plane … And some more exotic ones

- The ban (the Bengali van) which is a wooden plank pulled as a cycle rickshaw. Four people sit on four corners and the guy pedals away giving you a free treat of his Rabindra Sangeet
- On the roof of the bus ( half ticket if you travel outside rather than inside)
- Ferries; the type where you get on by climbing a 1 inch width plank.
- Bullock cart, horse cart, camel cart (once)

6. The strangest thing I’ve done on work was when I stayed in a village for 2 months. The company I joined, believed that city bred types had to learn the real India. So they dispatched all trainees to live in a village at the back of beyond – no electricity, no plumbing, etc etc. I had to organize a cattle camp to, ahem, facilitate bulls losing their masculinity (so that they worked hard without distractions). . I still remember one fine fella who was being led for the unkindest of cuts, who broke free, chased a comely cow, had a last moment of happiness, was then caught and then given the “treatment”.

7. The strangest company lunch I have been taken to was in Kenya. To this restaurant called the Carnivore. This is a giant barbecue featuring game meat – hippo, crocodile, gazelle, zebra …… And I am a vegetarian.

8. I love to teach. Given half a chance I would teach in a business school. My colleagues say, that’s because I love the sound of my own voice ! But no chance of that, as I don’t have a PhD. I contend myself with writing posts on education.

9. I wish I had learnt some languages. I am trying to learn Mandarin now and spectacularly failing.

10. I am intensely private person. Or so I thought. Until I discovered blogging. Now I can’t stop writing posts like this !

AJCL – Sorry Sorry Sorry ……

Friday, 19 June 2009

Those were the days

Another tag post. This time on the 'Good old days".

I've been tagged by Preeti Shenoy. She's one of the "Le blogueur éminent" of India. A poet, an artist and a superb writer - her book 34 Bubblegums and Candies, which was published last year, is a very nice read. I love cheating a little bit when she asks something, so here's some cheeky doing on the tag.

The tag is to write on the good old days and presumably I've been tagged because I can make it really OOLLDD (just joking :))

I actually did so in one of my earlier posts on accounting. Click here to read this trip down memory lane. OK OK, recycling posts is not on, but I told you I was cheating a bit.

If you like to wallow in nostalgia, I also strongly recommend watching Mary Hopkins sing "Those were the days".

Again, I ain't tagging nobody, but if someone wants to pick this up, consider yourself tagged !! And even if you aren't a blogger, why don't you write a few words on the good old days, in the comments.

Tagged

I’ve been the recipient of two tags – and it’s a sort of code of honour amongst bloggers that you pick up the tag. So today and tomorrow are tag honouring days.

The Thoughtful Train, a lovely blogger and a poet rolled into one, has tagged me on 10 things that send me “boiling crazy”. Well, lots of things send me boiling crazy, but since this is a business blog, I’ll list down 10 things at the workplace that I get pissed about.

1. Answering phones, reading e mails and cross talking in meetings. For God’s sake why come to a meeting to do other things.

2. Coming late for appointments or meetings and not apologising. Yeah, don’t care one bit about anybody else’s time.

3. Listening to a presentation and asking all sorts of questions on Slide 1. Hello – can you let the poor guy say his bit please.

4. Having 74 slides for a 10 minute presentation. And having the last slide that says “Thank You”.

5. Pulling rank. Especially on people 5 rungs below.

6. Talking bullshit. Lying, giving “economical with the truth” information to make one look as if one is doing great.

7. Not wearing a helmet / seatbelt, when commuting to work. I despair of such guys who don’t value their own lives.

8. Fudging expense statements. Instant dismissal can be the only sane response.

9. Yelling at someone . Can it be done privately and without raising of voices please.

10. Gossip mongering and rumour spreading – especially about who’s promoted, who’s quit and how much raise did the other guy get.

I ain’t tagging anybody, but if any of the readers want to pick this up, consider yourself tagged !!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Get used to oil price in three digits

The price of crude oil has climbed steadily to $70 a barrel. Its of course, way off, from the peak of $147 it touched in July ’08. But its been climbing steadily over the last couple of months. Two major events await us in the near future.

The first is inflation. Its already a big risk because of the massive amounts of money governments, the world over, have been pumping in to ward off the recession. When oil prices shoot again, everything is going to be affected. Inflation will hit the poor most – the price of food will rise. Many governments will be tempted to subsidise the price of oil and public finances will become a further mess than they are, in most countries. Inflation is going to be a killer ; unfortunately there’s not much that we can do.

Governments should have been acting through last year. When the price of crude oil fell to just above $30, they should have been creating a fund to cushion the inevitable rise that was to come. Nobody did this. Governments who control the price of oil in their countries should have been steadily increasing consumer prices in small doses. But that’s not a politically convenient thing to do; so nothing was done. “Cheap Oil” is an oxymoron. We’re in for a killer increase.

The second major event is the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. All of us, the world over, will transfer a huge portion of our income to fatten a small population in the Middle East & Russia. Sure, this is a free trade and not coercion; the price is after all determined in a free market. But oil is not just any other product, Like it or not, in the way we live, oil has become a necessity, like water and air. When the price of something as basic as that shoots up, it has a major impact on the world. In the long run we can adjust, but in the short run the pain will be high. This has profound social and geopolitical consequences. All of us will lose and a small percentage of the world’s population will gain immensely. History has shown us that when a few enjoy at the expense of many, a revolution starts.

This sounds like a doom and gloom post. Unfortunately, that’s how I see the near term future. We better get used to oil price in three digits. Oil, I’m afraid, is going to become a four letter word.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Knowing when and how to go

Timing is everything in life. The same act at one point in time is glorious; at another shameful. Leaving or retiring from a company or a job, is all about timing. Get it right and you can be remembered with fondness and respect. Get it wrong and all the good things you have done are forgotten and you are vilified.

I was prompted to write this post seeing the messy saga of the lawsuit by AIG against Hank Greenberg. AIG is well known these days for the wrong reasons. But before its financial products division landed it in this mess, it was a solid insurance company – the largest in the world. It was largely brought there by one man – Hank Greenberg. He was CEO of the company for 37 years – from 1968 to 2005.

Hank Greenberg is no saint. But it is an undeniable fact that AIG would not have become the largest insurance company in the world , but for him. It is easy to heap scorn on AIG these days. But they were an immensely successful company until the financial crisis hit them. Large parts of AIG are still superbly run businesses. Hank Greenberg brought them there The company, and all its shareholders and all the people who made money trading on AIG shares upto 2005, owe a lot to him. It may also be remembered that Hank left AIG in 2005. The crisis hit them in 2008.

The problem with Hank Greenberg was that he did not know when and how to go. In fact, he did not want to go at all. So finally he was dragged kicking and screaming and deposited on the front door. A thoroughly undignified way for a titan to go. Now his own company that he largely built, is suing him and the messy soap opera is going on in public. He is , and will be, a bitter angry man. What a way to end a glorious career.

There are , of course, many stories like this. Very few people know when and how to go with dignity. This is true not only for CEOs or famous people. It applies to each and every one of us in every job. Choosing when to move on is a personal choice. I have known many people who stick on for far too long until they are forced to go. I also know many people who run at the first hint of opportunity or trouble. Very few people leave a legacy that is respected and honoured. But isn’t that what everyone would wish for ?

Jack Fingleton was arguably, one of the finest cricket journalists. When Sir Donald Bradman, retired , at the peak of his career after the 1948 tour, he wrote a moving book – Brightly fades the Don. It’s a masterpiece in cricket writing. We remember Don Bradman, even today as the greatest cricketer of all time. He was a great cricketer no doubt. But he became a legend because he chose the perfect moment to leave.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Swine Flu vaccine dilemma

Novartis claimed last week that had made the first batch of the vaccine for the H1N1 virus that is the cause for swine flu. What caught my attention was Novartis refusing the call of the World Health Organisation to give the vaccine free to poor countries. Novartis says whoever buys, must at least cover costs. Click here for FT’s reporting of the story.

The issue raises a dilemma for which there are no easy answers. For both sides are right.

From the WHO’s point of view, this is about saving lives. They’ve just declared a global pandemic. Many millions could die. Here’s a way of preventing the disease. In poor countries, people just can’t pay for the vaccines. So if you price the vaccines, they simply won’t use it. So is it ethically OK to let many die when you could possibly prevent it ?

From Novartis’ point of view, they are a commercial organization, not a charity. There is a cost to producing the vaccine. What they are saying to the poor countries is, at least cover costs. If they simply produced every life saying drug and distributed free to people just because they were too poor to pay for the cost, they would soon be out of business themselves. Why would they even want to take up research on swine flu vaccine if they kneow they would lose their shirts because of it.

One answer could be that governments buy the vaccines and distribute free to the poor. But then governments don’t have the money either. What’s so special about swine flu. The common flu kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. Shouldn’t we be distributing common flu vaccines to everybody free. And why not Tuberculosis vaccines, or vaccines against other killer diseases ? There is definitely not enough money amongst governments to distribute every vaccine free.

This is not an easy dilemma. So what is to be done.

I have a humble suggestion. The concept of open source, in the IT world, lends a powerful model. People around the world voluntarily come together and donate their expertise for free. And such projects coexist with the business world where companies charge for a similar product or service. Consumers are free to chose.

In the case of the vaccine, the cost is all in the intellectual property of creating the vaccine. The actual manufacture costs a pittance. So why not create an open source platform for the researchers of the world to collaborate voluntarily. That way Novartis can create and produce drugs and vaccines in the normal business way. The open source guys will create for free.

Both have a place in the world. The on line world has shown us that.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The VIP Visit

Some light reading for a Sunday. I wrote a while ago, on how we, in India, sometimes go to ridiculous lengths to receive a VIP. Click here for a chuckle.

Here’s another instance. We were receiving a potential customer group from overseas and our sales guys were going bonkers. Part of the visit preparations was to choreograph their return drive from our office back to their hotel. This was in this wonderful city in India where the roads are lovely and broad and where the 15 km journey was only 2 hours long.

The problem was, what to do if any of our honoured guests was to , ahem, feel the need to pee.

An one hour conference call across three time zones was set up to discuss this extremely important matter.

Various bright suggestions were aired and discussed in all seriousness. One worthy suggested that in Bangkok of the past, where traffic jams were notorious, a roaring business had started in er, portable loos. Apparently two wheelers were circulating on the roads offering distressed car occupants this service. When you felt the urge, you flag down one of these guys, who passes you a contraption through the window. You do the job in your car and he’ll take back the contraption for a fee. Our worthy wanted to know if we could import a couple of these magic gizmos from Thailand for the visit.

Another wonderful suggestion was to map out the various hotels along the drive and , if the need arose, be able to turn off into one of those and ahem “provide the service”. This was shot down on the grounds that when stuck in the traffic , this was unlikely to be very useful to our squirming guest.

Finally the solution agreed was not to provide bottles of water in the car, make the statutory warning before they left the office, and hope for the best !!

Oh, the nonsense we sometimes do in business …….

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Astronomical Pay

How would you like a job offer somewhat like this

- guaranteed 5 year contract – you cannot be sacked

- first year wages $ 15.5 m, or $ 43000 every day

- automatic wage increases every year so that the fifth year wages is tripled at $ 48m. That’s a pay hike of 25% per year

- all these wages are irrespective of performance. Doesn’t matter at all how you perform

- you really have to work only 100 days in a year. The real work is only for 90 minutes in those days – but add and subtract getting ready for work, maybe 4 hours

- you are allowed to make money on the side. And the money you make on the side is going to be a multiple of your wages. So much so, that your wages is actually small change. That’s why its called wages; not salary !

- your cost to your company is $ 60m a year

- the government is very kindly helping you out by having a special tax rate of 25% to give you an incentive to come

- your employer is supposed to be a “non profit social trust”


And there is a not a pipsqueak in public outrage. No moralizing on fat cat parasites in the midst of the toiling masses. No sermon from pompous politicians. No “Pay Czar” to examine this package.

Welcome Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid.

Friday, 12 June 2009

The Pay Czar

Kenneth Feinberg would rather be called anything else. But the name that is sticking is “the pay czar”. He’s the guy appointed by the Obama administration to oversee pay for the top executives in companies that have received US government bailouts. While his remit is only the companies that have been bailed out, his framework will, no doubt, receive wider consideration amongst all American corporates.

In any other circumstance, we would think the US is actually Stalinist Russia. Governments deciding executive pay in the US ?? Even one year ago, we would have laughed at it. No more. By its own greed and unbelievable tone deafness, corporate America has brought this upon itself.

Feinberg has an impossible job. It would be humanly impossible to state anything on executive pay without the majority disagreeing. But he comes with an impressive background. He was the guy who decided the compensation for individual 9/11 victims, which was accepted without much noise. What can he do here ?

Public opinion in the US, has turned distinctly socialist. Joe Public would like nothing better than to cut the salaries of every executive to a pittance. After all when you are struggling every day and have lost your job, even a salary of half a million to somebody seems wildly excessive. Understandable, but wrong.

Right through corporate history, including in the US itself, whenever governments have decided corporate compensation, it has never worked.

My recommendation, for what it is worth, is as follows

- Let Boards decide executive pay; not government

- Pay packages for the top 1% of the managers must be voted upon by shareholders and the shareholder vote must be binding

- No severance packages for the top1% of executives

- 50 % of all bonuses must be escrowed for 2 years. If a company enters Chapter 11 within those two years this is forfeited

- In the financial services industry, where the problem is particularly acute, the bonus pool would be treated as an “asset” and reserve requirements would apply on this amount

Governments stay out.

What say you ?

For a detailed , but slightly heavy, review of executive pay by the Economist, click here.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Do you know what goes on in your company ?

Here’s something to provoke you. The more senior you are, the less you know your own company.

You spend a lifetime slogging away to do what ? Reach the corner office. Shut yourself in a huge cabin. Place two pretty secretaries between you and anybody who wants to reach you. Hear what you want to hear. Be told what others think you want to listen to. Do you know your company any more ??

Communication in the work place is one of those funny things – despite all the noise and bustle, it seldom takes place effectively. From the top down , you get those unbelievable newsletters filled with platitudes. Write up on how great we are doing and how we must all tighten our belts to face the future. The odd photos of some employee who has got married or somebody who got some award. Grinning photos of the completely untelegenic CEO. I’m yet to see any company newsletter that’s even remotely readable.

From the bottom up, you get completely slanted news. If it’s a presentation, its about how great a job the presenter is doing, with all figures massaged to that effect. If it’s a report, it’s the same thing, with reams of statistics (remember lies, damned lies and statistics …). If its employee interaction forums, you can bet your last dollar that some boring inane question will be asked; who wants to kill himself saying the truth that the place stinks.

I chanced upon a superb article in the Financial Times, which prompted this post. It narrated the story of Stephen Martin the 43-year-old CEO of the Clugston Group, based in the UK. For two weeks, he changed his name to Martin Walker, grew a beard and went undercover and worked as an ordinary shop floor employee in his own company. None of his fellow workers guessed who he was. And he learnt more about his company in those two weeks than ever before.

It’s a great thought. If you really want to know what’s happening, drop the mask of CEO (or dept head, manager, whatever) and go incognito. Become “one of the boys”. And listen. You’ll get to know a lot about your organization. Same with the consumer or customer. Go incognito to the customer. Or to the place where your products are sold. And listen. Become the telephone operator of your company for a day – I can guarantee that you will know ten things about your company you had no clue about. Become a supplier trying to get a payment from your company – you’ll know helluva lot of stuff about your own accounts dept. Become an ordinary employee and discover the hell that masquerades as HR.

But even on a day to day basis – get out of the corner office. In fact get out of any cubicle, walls, partitions, or whatever that tries to shut you off from everybody around. Fire those pretty ladies. Keep an hour a day when anybody can just come and chat. Walk around a lot. Shed your cloak and become one of the boys. Listen, Listen and Listen. And talk, talk and talk.

You may discover the meaning of the word communication. And discover that your company is a completely different place from what you thought.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Hummer Deal

On a clear day, you won’t see General Motors any more. At least the GM of yore. GM is being cut apart and fed to any meat eater in the vicinity. One titbit, Hummer, is going to an unexpected place.

Hummer, for the auto uninitiated, is a gas guzzling Sport Utility Vehicle, particularly loved by the Americans. It was very popular, but is no longer so – its global sales declined by 62% in Q1. A few days back it was announced that Hummer would be acquired by Sichuan Tengzhong, a Chinese company based in Chengdu.

This is not the most obvious of deals – lets put it that way. Why is an unknown Chinese company doing this acquisition ? The deal looks shaky for a number of reasons.

Firstly Sichuan Tengzhong makes highway and bridge structural components, construction machinery , energy equipment and yes – trucks carrying cement mixers. What has this got to do with American SUVs ? Where is the business fit ?

Secondly, Hummer is a gas guzzler on a steep decline. What will Tengzhong do with it. The CEO of Tengzhong says the deal "will allow Hummer to better meet demand for new products such as more fuel-efficient vehicles in the U.S." Really ? Where’s the strategic fit ?

Thirdly Tengzhong operates in China. Hummer is sold mostly in the US. Where’s the geographical fit ?

And finally, and most important of all, these two companies are literally, and figuratively, a world apart. I am willing to bet that few people in Hummer can point to Chengdu on a map. Equally few people in Tengzhong may be able to point to Detroit on a map. Where is the cultural fit ?

M&A is a difficult business. More acquisitions fail than succeed. This seems a particularly difficult one. Methinks the deal was done because of the “kick” it gave a Chinese company to get a famous American brand and business and because GM will sell anything to anybody provided he/she/it/whatever shows the cash. Difficult to see how this deal will succeed.

For the sake of the brand and the people associated with that business, I hope I am dead wrong.


PS – I am 100 not out today – this is my 100th post. I am a relative baby in blogging terms – having taken to it only a little while ago. To use the cricket analogy, there have been streaky shots galore, edges that have not carried, catches dropped but an occasional elegant cover drive for four. Sometimes rain has threatened to stop play, but somehow the clouds have always cleared . On the way, I have made lovely new friends – Aparna, Rads, Adesh, Zoobie, Le Embrouille Blogueur, Hang, Ajay, Mark, Kanmuri, Reva , Chris, ….. and cemented many old friends – Kiwibloke, Dada, Hassan, Aashish, Preeti ….. and the others who read and ping me but don’t comment. To all of you, a big heart felt Thank You , Xie Xie. I have been touched by your warmth and support. And like a good cricketer, I am taking guard again, head down and waiting to play the next ball.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The moral dimension of the stock market

There’s something immoral about sitting on your butt and making a lot of money as against working your socks off and making less money. I find it difficult to reconcile to this.

The Indian stock market has exploded in the last five months. Its gone up by 50%. Popular perception is that its because of the euphoria of the elections throwing up a stable government, which was unexpected. But as Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar notes in his very well written article in the Times of India, the rise has little to do with the elections. Global money which had retreated shellshocked into US gilts is pouring out again into stock markets. Some $ 20 bn has gone into emerging markets since April. China’s stock market has gone up by 57%, Russia by 63%, Brazil by 60%, Argentina by 45%. India is not alone, by any means. And no wonder, the rupee is strengthening again, if there’s so much dollar inflow.

I think, as a society, we have learnt little from the financial crisis, we are right in the middle of. We are feeding the same boom and bust again – I am sure Madras maamis are sitting in front of CNBC in India and day trading again.

It is quite likely that if you have any decent investments in the stock market, you would have made much more money these 5 months than by working hard at whatever job you are doing. In fact if you have some significant investments in the stock market, its very likely that you made much more money doing nothing with it than in virtually any year of your working life, where you slave unthinkable hours. This just cannot be morally right.

This is the problem with the financial sector. It rewards ridiculously for resting your backside (and calling it risk taking). An honest day’s toil, whatever your job might be, is far less rewarding than sitting idle and gambling. What is true for the individual, is true of corporates as well. An investor who does nothing more tiring than pressing a button to buy a share, can make more money than the company he buys the shares of makes by producing and selling a real product or service. Sure he can lose his shirt as well. But then governments are there to bail him out.

I am not a hard core leftist. On the contrary, I am a rabid fan of capitalism. Financial markets have an incredibly important role to play in raising capital and without these markets, we would be back to stone age. But that doesn’t prevent me from having some moral issues with it.

The reward equation for passive investment, or worse gambling, is completely wonky. What does it say of our society that rewards passive investment many times over productive work.

Can somebody shed light on the morality of all this please.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Done with learnings for India and China

The last ten posts were on things India and China can learn from each other. I had expected a lot more brickbats but was pleasantly surprised by the rather kind words. Of course, some of the brickbats were saved as many of my Chinese friends cannot access Blogspot. But more than differences between the two countries, I am amazed by how much is the same – for after all, we are both Asian cultures and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses.

Sometime later on, I’ll post on "Hindi Chini bhai bhai" – bringing out the many similarities I have observed. For non Indian readers , this was a phrase conjured by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India in 1961 signifying that Indians and Chinese are brothers. For now, I’ll give China and India a break and get back to making CP on business in general. For those of you unfamiliar with the term CP , it refers to “Class Participation” – a concept peculiar to business schools where you get marks based on opening your mouth in the class irrespective of whether you are spouting garbage or sense. You can imagine what that can lead to amongst a group of fairly bright guys and gals who usually love the sound of their own voice - the term blah blah acquired a whole new meaning .

But that’s what I am doing now , through the written word ! Through this blog, I am laying belated claim to the much competed for title of our long passed out batch – “The CP King” !

Friday, 5 June 2009

One last learning for China - 5. Too many laowai is not good

Laowai in Chinese is the same as firanghi in Hindi – a slightly condescending word for a foreigner.

Look around most of the multinationals in China – the CEO is likely to be a laowai. Too many laowais inhabit the senior corridors in companies here. It is well tolerated, and many a time even welcomed, by the Chinese. I think Chinese should be less tolerant of laowais running their companies.

That used to be the situation in India a long while ago – its no longer true. I happened to work for a company that was, before my time, the pioneer in the movement to “Indianisation” of management in the 60s. India gained enormously from that move. Its time China did too.

Why do so many laowais run companies in China. Multinationals bemoan the lack of senior management talent in China. Various reasons are given – including the effects of the cultural revolution on the generation which would be senior managers today. I beg to differ.

There are three reasons why companies don’t find senior management talent in China. Firstly they look for English mastery. You won’t get it in that generation in China. But English mastery is an overemphasized quality. It is truly not required. Secondly foreign companies, expect a Western management style, and are uncomfortable with a Chinese management style. Again an overemphasized requirement. What works in China is more important than what is theorized in text books. Remember Japan ? And thirdly many companies are yet to “trust” Chinese. That’s the worst reason of them all – it just shows lack of cultural inclusiveness. Just because the person is different, as he comes from a different culture, is no reason not to trust him. In my experience, you get the same breadth of Chinese managers – the trustworthy to the untrustworthy – as you find in any other country.

There is a fourth reason. The willingness, sometimes even the groveling, for a laowai head, amongst many Chinese. There is an undercurrent of inferiority feeling amongst many Chinese managers. Just because the laowai speaks fluent English and can be loud and boisterous, it does not make him a better leader. This is the one huge difference I notice between India and China. In India, Indians will only grudgingly accept a firangi CEO. In China, it appears Chinese will only grudgingly accept a Chinese CEO !

There are many brilliant leaders and CEOs in the Chinese management pool. To all these guys – here's a message. Go global. Work abroad and learn about other business environments and cultures. Come back. And puff up your chests. Thump the table a bit. And take over running the businesses in China. One of the lovely things about you, is how welcoming and friendly you are to laowais. Be friendly for sure. But don’t let the laowai run you. Only Zhongguoren can build great businesses in Zhongguo

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Please learn from the rest of the world - Don't block the Internet

Today they blocked Hotmail, Twitter and Flickr. As Thursday draws near (don't ask me what Thursday is - google the date) its getting worse and worse.

The current blocked sites are

1. Hotmail
2. Twitter
3. YouTube
4. Blogspot
5. WordPress
6. Flickr
7. MSN Spaces
8. Bing
9. Most of BBC
10. Most of CNN
11. A few thousand other sites

We can manage without most of the sites, but Hotmail !! Its my main e mail tool, as for many millions of Chinese.

I am a great fan of this country. There's so much here to be admired. I have only good things to say about this place. But on days like this, my affection is sorely tested.

One last learning for India - 5. Agriculture is not holy

In India, agriculture is a “saintly” profession, from a public policy perspective. It is mollycoddled worse than even the French farming industry. Income from agriculture is completely tax exempt. Food and fertilizer subsidy eat an enormous proportion of the government’s budget. Power (when it comes) is free for farmers in most states. Loans are often waived for farmers, especially at election times, which come all too frequently. At least from a government’s perspective, agriculture is the most virtuous of professions. And yet given half a chance, most farmers would give it up and run.

Its easy to see why this conferring of sainthood on agriculture. Most of India is rural. The majority of the population is engaged in agriculture. To the older generation, food shortages are not some distant memory – even in my childhood I have stood in a line to buy rations (and I am not that old !!). So agriculture must be “protected” at all costs.

China has many similar characteristics to India. A large proportion of the population is engaged in agriculture. Famine is not unfamiliar – many living Chinese can remember the hard times when there was not enough to eat. China is even more vulnerable than India on food – only 15% of China’s land is arable . India’s is more than double this number. And yet China has chosen not to erroneously mollycoddle agriculture like India has done.

China has chosen as its objectives – improving the economic condition of the people and food security. India has chosen protecting agriculture as an objective. China’s objective is an objective. India’s objective is a means to an end.

China is agnostic across sectors – whatever improves the economic condition of the people is fine. Be it industry, be it agriculture, be it whatever. It will support whatever brings jobs and prosperity. No special favours to any particular sector. Special favours galore to economic improvement. On food security, China is venturing overseas and relying on trade. Its buying up land in Africa and trading for food. It believes it can achieve its objectives without subsidizing agriculture endlessly.

I think there’s lots in the China model for India to learn. Agriculture is not the holy cow. Economic prosperity is the holy cow.

Monday, 1 June 2009

What China can learn from India - 4. Marketing

China is a producer’s economy. The marketer seems slightly out of place in the factory to the world. This post is completely from my perceptions, with no research and I could be dead wrong. But I think, China could learn marketing from India.

In my local supermarket, their pricing astounds me. An veritable mountain of stock of say white T shirts arrive. Dead cheap today. Tomorrow more expensive. One weak later triple the price. Why ? because the cost of carrying the inventory adds up each day !! I would have thought things get cheaper because they are lying unsold. The opposite. Next week, black T shirts … One week I can get Kellogg’s corn flakes. Next week Nestle. Both on one day – no chance.

Pack sizes of consumer products are mostly “big”. I haven’t seen a single sachet in Guangzhou. This is not America – this is also a poor country. Single unit packs – no way. Why ? Its easier to produce large packs.

The organization of street markets also is revealing. A whole street is a computer market. You’ll get nothing else but computers. Another street is a watch market. Yet another is a lights market. If you want a watch and a mp3 player – you are stuffed. You have either the high end malls or the street markets. Very little in between.

I haven’t seen many new product introductions in the year and a half I have been here. Even a seasonal business like ice creams – a business I have some familiarity with. Same stuff this summer as last year. No new flavour or pack. Same Walls, Nestle, Meiji. No new kid on the block.

Switch on the TV – I can’t really remember a single noteworthy ad. Sure, I don’t understand Chinese, but I should be able to get wowed by an ad even if I can’t understand the words. Can’t remember one. Even during the Olympics when viewership rose to the stratosphere. Not even the Coke ad was great.

Somehow, I get the impression that in China, marketing equals pricing.

India is a marketer’s paradise. Producers are told to sit firmly in the background. Marketing is king. New products come all the time – many die, some succeed. You are assailed with ads – some of these ads are so catchy that irritatingly you can’t get them out of your head. Innovation is constant – you sit still for a year and you are out of the market.

Methinks Philip Kotler ought to relocate to China. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they ask, who’s Philip Kotler !

I am due for a solid bashing from my Chinese friends. Come on fire way and say this is trash. But wait. Blogspot is blocked here – how will they read it ??!!

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