Thursday, 29 April 2010

The law is an ass ? No; don't insult the ass

There’s something very wrong when common sense is completely thrown out of the window. We all know that law can be an ass and lawyers an unbelievable pain in the aforesaid part of the anatomy, but this story takes the cake for the ultimate in nonsense. Only in the United States would something like this be even remotely comprehensible.

Two Sprint employees who worked in their store in Denver were fired. Their crime ?? They were on their lunch break in the mall where their store was, when they saw a shoplifter from the neighbouring store being chased. They lent a hand and caught the shoplifter. This was their crime.

Wait a minute. Would you not expect them to be publicly felicitated for being such being good samaritans ? You would expect a reward to be more appropriate than the sack. But sack is what they got. Why ? They violated company policy that prohibited store employees from chasing shoplifters outside the store. Wow !!

My first and immediate conclusion was that Sprint was an ass. Surely this must be the most stupid policy you can think of. This must be an oddity – some policy writer in Sprint had gone nutters. But wait. No ; Sprint is not an exception. Most retailers have a similar policy.

Double wow. Is there a different brand of common sense amongst retailers in the US as distinct from the rest of the species called homo sapiens ?? Why would companies have such a policy. Companies are not fools. There must be something else to it.

It so happens that there IS something to it. The reason why retailers are having such a policy is that they are being sued by shoplifters !!!! In Texas apparently, a shoplifter who admits to his crime, is suing Walmart because he was tackled by an employee and dislocated his shoulder. Another shoplifter in that state died of a heart attack when he was caught ; the shock of being caught seems to have made his heart stop – the retailer had to settle damages of quarter a million dollars to his family !!! Faced with damages that could be in 6 digit amounts, retailers have instituted the policy that staff can’t chase shoplifters. If you violate that policy you can get sacked. Fantastic.

There is a twist in the tail to this. The media has, of course, gone to town with this story of how wacky things can get. They asked Sprint for its comments. Sprint declined, citing privacy concerns !!

The mind boggles.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Nuke Power Point

If you ever listed the most undesirable inventions in the world, Power Point should feature somewhere at the top of the list. This blogger’s visceral antagonism to Power Point may be well known to long time readers – there’s a series of posts on this here.

It was therefore with unbelieving incredulity that I read of Power Point’s infiltration into the US army in the New York Times’ report here. I had to rub my eyes a couple of times to believe what I was reading. But then on logical reflection, I should not have been surprised. Is there any organisation that the cursed Power Point has not infiltrated. Why should the military be impervious to its seductive powers. Human idiocy has not escaped any particular body of men.

Al Qaeda’s true magic bullet to winning the war in Afghanistan is not the suicide bomber. Its not the Taliban. Its not the weapons smuggled in through Pakistan. Its not the opium that’s grown to finance the war. Its not the Tora Bora caves. Its actually nothing that they have had to do. Their greatest weapon is actually what they don’t have and what they would probably never aspire to have. It’s the virus that has now conclusively spread in the US military. The glorious weapon called Power Point.

The consequences are mind boggling. Before you engage the enemy, you have to Power Point your plans to be approved at a meeting the previous night. When you catch a culprit you have to Power Point his Miranda rights. Before you shoot a suicide bomber, you have to create a slide outlining the disadvantages of embarking on a career in suicide bombing. And to the civilian who has just pushed you away from stepping on a land mine, you show a Power Point slide saying Thank You !

Can you believe the existence of the term “slideware” in business lexicon. Every consulting, outsourcing, IT, whatever company, has its own proprietary “slideware” that is guarded jealously and continuously “developed” by an army of nerds labouring away somewhere. I have some familiarity and admiration with the outsourcing business, but surely the most soul degrading outsourcing business is that of creating Power Point Charts offshore.

I like the epithet quoted in the NY Times article – “hypnotizing chickens”. Its now every clear to me how the US can win in Afghanistan. Launch their most potent nuclear weapon on Power Point. Actually, I have a better idea. Let Power Point seduce Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda is then surely doomed.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Hong Kong or Singapore ?

An old stale subject, but since I happened to read an article in the Financial Times on this, why not add to the zillion words already written on this comparison.

Both are financial centres; both are dynamic and vibrant city states. They are the usual two choices for any company’s Asian headquarters. As a financial centre, after London and New York, Hong Kong is ranked third; Singapore fourth. They are wonderfully connected to the rest of the world. HKIA and Changi frequently trade places as the best airport in the world. They are two of the biggest seaports. Both are ex British colonies and truly international. Great places to live in. At a superficial glance, they seem to be clones of each other.

So what are the differences ?

Hong Kong is obviously numero uno for China. Singapore is a much more comfortable location for India. The standard of English is much better in Singapore than in Hong Kong – there are parts of Hong Kong where you could be totally lost without Cantonese. Hong Kong is much more polluted than Singapore, a consequence of being just a stone’s throw from the Guangdong province in China which is the factory to the world. There are a myriad of such differences obviously, but there are three main differences that might have a bearing on business, I believe.

Firstly the rentals in Hong Kong are three times more expensive than Singapore. Whether residential or office. Tiny cubby holes as homes in Hong Kong are legendary, Property prices in Hong Kong are simply crazy. Not that they are not crazy in Singapore, but in Hong Kong they are crazy crazy. It makes doing business in Hong Kong prohibitively expensive, unless you are Goldman Sachs !

Secondly its much more difficult to get work permits and immigrant visas into Hong Kong than into Singapore. This simple fact makes it much more difficult to get a multinational team into Hong Kong – its much much easier to do so in Singapore. But I love the fact that Indians don't need a visa at all for business travel to Hong Kong.

Surprisingly Hong Kong is a lot freer than Singapore. Despite being a part of China, albeit a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong enjoys a free press and all the trappings of a vigorous democratic society. Singapore is free too, but you just have to read the Straits Times versus the South China Morning Post to understand what I am talking about. Singapore is a nanny state; period. Hong Kong, despite being on the edge of the biggest nanny state of them all, is itself not a nanny – she’s actually a curvaceous Suzy Wong ! And you have to live in a nanny state to appreciate the benefit of escaping from her clutches.

Where would I go ?? Well, I’ve been to both many more times than I would care to count. Actually I would rather not go to either of them. Warts and all, the choice is really between Shanghai and Bangalore. There in lies the dilemma for both Hong Kong and Singapore. They are the past. The future belongs to the dragon and the elephant. If only these two giants would care to put on a little makeup, dress up a bit and perhaps exhibit a few more curves …….

Sunday, 25 April 2010

A worthless post on the nature and cause of spamming - with due apologies to Adam Smith

Every day morning, my one sure chore is this – open Blogger after dodging the net nanny and delete the couple of spam comments that my blog has attracted. Irritation has started to give a little way to intrigue - who are these guys and gals and what are they trying to do ??

These days common email services such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Google have pretty good spamguards; so the number of spam emails can be controlled. Of course the majority of emails in the world are spam – some 60-80% of all emails in the internet is spam ; says something about human nature doesn’t it. But Blogger, for some reason, doesn’t seem to have a spam guard. Presumably it views blogs like mine as virtually indistinguishable from the nonsense that is spam.

One variety of spammers are the scamsters . Nigerians had a dominant market share in this market, but the business is now truly global. I would have thought anybody in this world will now delete messages titled- “Congratulations you have just won the lottery:”, without a second thought, but obviously I am wrong. There must be enough suckers on earth for this sort of spamming to be worth the while for scamsters.

Second are the Viagra proponents. I don’t think any product is as advertised in the spamming world as Viagra. I have no clue why. I know the male species suffers from many inadequacies, but I had not realised that this particular shortcoming was an epidemic of such proportions.

Third, and probably biggest is pure porn. All sorts of varieties of porn. Its another telling commentary on human nature that porn is by far the most successful business model on the internet and the largest topic of search on Google, etc etc. Not a great testimonial to our race.

The fourth category are the oddballs. I consistently get spam that says something like “Thank you for the post that was very valuable in doing my homework”. Another one says “My English is not very good”. Now why on earth would somebody bother spamming a message like that.

Surprisingly I rarely seem to come across political spam. I would have thought Free Jerusalem or Kashmir Independence would be attractive for spammers, but I don’t seem to have ever seen them. Not even Palin for President !!

Maybe I should try spamming a little bit to “experience” the phenomenon, for I cannot even begin to understand it. If you see an Email or a comment in your blog titled “Free movie tickets for night show in Devikala theatre donated by Gils”, you’ll know who it is from !

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The problem with too much cash

Too much cash. An envious position to be in, but there are a few companies in this predicament. What do you do with all that cash ?

Apple is the best example of a company with a massive cash problem. Yesterday they announced results that blew the market away. But they also have a problem. Cash. Lots of it lying idle. Actually $42bn of it. Earning a princely return of 0.75% per annum. And they are likely to generate another $14bn of it this year.

Microsoft is a long time hoarder of cash. At last count they had some $40bn. Google has $25bn, Intel $19bn. Its not all tech companies in this list. Exxon still has $11 bn after returning $26bn to shareholders last year.

So what do you do if you have this problem ?

You can put it in the bank, as most of these companies have done. And earn virtually nothing on it. A significant proportion of the value you generate for shareholders by running your business, is destroyed by the act of digging a hole in your backyard and burying the cash.

Or you can be tempted to try and earn more on it by starting to take risks in investing it in financial markets. That’s a slippery and dangerous slope, but there isn’t a single corporate treasurer who isn’t tempted to do so.

More dangerous alternatives exist. CEOs with cash piles are sorely tempted to spend it. In a nice headline grabbing acquisition. Show me one CEO who doesn’t like to see his photo in the papers. A mega acquisition is guaranteed to get him just that. The cash that’s burning a hole in the pocket tempts you to go out and do something. Especially as hot shot investment bankers are constantly telling you to do so.

Or you can return the money to shareholders. Either as dividends or as share buy backs. Shareholders sometimes love this, but they tend to forget it the next minute. And somehow giving it away is interpreted by the market that you don’t know what to do with it and therefore your future is not bright – so beat down your share price a notch.

Too much cash also can have a dampening effect on companies sometime. When you are struggling for cash and watching the bank balance every day, you value every cent and hoard it. When you have too much, you get lax. Minus the pressure, corporates do get complacent. They also continue to do strange things. Such cash rich companies still ask for 60 days supplier credit even though the cost of borrowing of their supplier (which is included in the price) is much more than the investment returns they are getting.

So what do you do ?? As in life, so in business – too much of even a good thing can be a problem !

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Om namo GDP aya namaha

“This house believes that GDP growth is a poor measure of improving living standards”. That’s the proposition in the live online debate being currently run by The Economist. You can access this debate here. At the time of writing this post 68% of the online voters agree with this proposition.

It seems rather the in thing to agree with the proposition. You can plausibly argue that there’s more to life than GDP. Gross National Happiness, first conceived by Bhutan the world leader in this concept, sounds appealing. Climate Change, Civil society, reduction in inequality – all seem to be nice concepts equally important to “living standards”. You can almost visualize the wrinkling of the nose at GDP, a very base and mercenary measure.

An opinionated blogger, such as this one, has a view, obviously ! And the view is largely based on the marvelous example of China.

The answer in China would be very clear. There is only one measure. GDP. Or rather growth in GDP. Full stop. Nothing else matters. Nothing will come in the way of achieving this. And look at what China has achieved with a single minded devotion to growth – a devotion so profound that it has replaced Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, etc as the predominant religion in China. I am not being flippant – the dominant religion in China is GDP.

There are some big advantages to achieving clarity, simplicity and strength in objectives. Deng Xiao Ping’s great contribution to humanity (not just to China but to the entire world) was this. Go for growth. Go for GDP growth. Go hell for it. Once this was clear, everything else flew from it. Dismantle state controls. Dismantle the awful consequences of the Cultural Revolution. Build Infrastructure. Allow migration of labour. Provide incentives to industry. Focus on exports. Keep costs low. Drive employment. I can go on and on. The ability of China to act and implement in such a breathtaking way is not just because of the political system they have chosen. Its also because they are very clear on what they want.

The end result is there for anyone to see. By any yardstick you want to invent, China will score higher than any other developing country. Some 200-300 million people have been lifted from abject poverty to a standard of living that would be the envy of every country in the developing world. And if you compare any yardstick you want (even ephemeral ones such as “happiness”) in terms of change over the last 20 years, arguably China will beat every country in the world including the US.

Back to the proposition – the proposition does not say "where" ? My response could be different based on which country or region we are talking about. The vast majority of humanity lives in the developing world. Therefore if I interpret the proposition to mean for the world as a whole, then it must be more applicable in a developing country setting.

My opinion is clear and unambiguous. GDP is the best measure for improving living standards. Even more than that, it is the ONLY measure. Its all fuzzy, warm and nice to talk about all sorts of objectives. For many many countries, especially India, they should forget about everything else. Just focus on GDP. That’s the only way to improve the living standards of your people.

PS - For the benefit of non Indian readers of this blog; the title of the post is a take on a Hindu religious chant to imply that GDP should be given an almost religious status !

Monday, 19 April 2010

Why is loyalty a four letter word ?

A very nice piece from Lucy Kellaway in today’s Financial Times touched me. It touched me because it could be me she was writing about. Lucy is a brilliant journalist and her pieces in the FT are something I always read – she brings a down to earth realism, without the spin, that is very refreshing.

This is a topic most readers of this blog will not relate to, for you are young and probably at the start of your careers. Some of you have progressed a bit and a double digit in the experience line is close or already there. Pause and think – is loyalty really an anachronism in today’s world.

I have posted before on this topic here. But Lucy’s column prodded me to muse again on this old fashioned concept.

All relationships in life have a certain degree of long termism to them. The majority of people on earth are loyal to their parents all through their lives. Ditto to their spouse. Ditto to their children. Just because there’s a prettier girl down the street (new exciting opportunity in business parlance), do you just ditch your partner and go running ? No. Just because your child’s classmate is a whiz kid (greater return for investment commercially), do you ditch your child ? No. Equally so with friends. I would look with horror at a friend who only wanted to be a friend because I had some value to offer at that time.

What about material possessions we own. Just walk into any household and we’ll find junk, decades old, which nobody wants to throw out. You own your house for most of your lifetime. You buy a house for “investment” and land up holding it forever. Equally so your TV, your fridge, your music system, whatever, until it dies.

Same applies to thoughts and beliefs and tastes. If you like curd rice and mango pickle, chances are that you’ll hold on to it forever, even if caviar and champagne is on the menu. You watch the same soap for years and years; you support the same sports team even for generations. If you like old movie songs, you’ll continue to like them for a long time (how many times have you said they don’t make movies/songs like the gems of the old anymore). Zeno will continue to be fascinated by Tamannah for ever !

The business world should be no different, at least up to a point. Man is a creature of habit. There’s some comfort in familiarity. Commitment (on both sides) is a virtue and not a vice. Its all very well to jump ship all the time and maybe you’ll get a little more money (that’s to be proven), maybe a grander title, maybe a faster promotion, whatever. But are people who jump around really satisfied ? Do they feel happier ? Do they make relationships that transcend their jobs ? Do they achieve something more than earning the daily bread ? What do you work for ? Not an easy question to answer.

Of course, it’s a two way street. Companies should also be worthy of loyalty and should be equally committed. Unfortunately they are not deserving as this post argues. But the onus is on us too. If we show some commitment we may be pleasantly surprised that it is reciprocated.

Oh; never mind. I know this is an anachronistic ancient view. Don't take too much notice of this nostalgic old foggy blabbering away.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Mad Hatter Tea Party

Last Friday was the deadline for tax submissions in the US. In recent years this has become a media event, thanks to the “Tea Party Movement”. This blog is not a political blog, even on a Sunday, so I will try not to comment on the politics of it. I can’t but resist drawing your attention to the sound intellectual basis for the “Party”, especially considering the towering genius in Sarah Palin who has been adopted/appropriated/self appointed as its mascot. But we shall let that pass lightly.

Instead this post is on the Tea, in the Tea Party movement. I know the political advantages of claiming the legacy of the Boston Tea Party, but I am intrigued as to what kind of tea, if any, is drunk in Tea Party meetings, especially the sort where the N word is frequently used, and the vocabulary is limited to hoarse renderings of baby killer, shoot the pig etc etc.

Anybody who’s been anywhere near the country knows what sort of tea is served and consumed in the bastion of the free world. This blogger, some years ago, had the mortification of this experience. He went to an eating joint and asked for a cup of tea. What size ? Small. He was given a 1 metre tall giant of a glass with enough hot water to keep 3 cows from thirst for a year. And separately, one limp tea bag – yes one limp tea bag. I ask you, fair ladies and gentlemen, is this what that noble drink has come to ?

I hereby declare war on the tea bag. I cannot even imagine to understand how anybody could conceive of the idea of making tea with a tea bag. Unfortunately, I know how, having worked in the company that unleashed this monstrosity on the unsuspecting public. There were armies of wizards with PhDs who were, forever, designing an “improved tea bag”. Imagine the lot of these worthies – when they reached the gates of heaven and St Peter asked them what noble deeds they had done in their lives, they would have to say, I increased the length of the tea bag by 1 cm !! Ouch !!

Back to the US. On enquiry, in my greener days, I was advised that tea in the US meant iced tea – only the whingeing Poms had it black. So I decided to sample this local adaptation of the great drink. Small size again. And what did I get ?? An even taller glass, perhaps 2 metres tall, filled with 74 cubes of ice and some pale liquid trying to find its way through those massive glaciers. After this, the limp tea bag seemed positively inviting.

I simply cannot believe that either of these two alternatives were on the menu at the Tea Parties that happened all over the US last week. Imagine a 700 pound man yelling obscenities at the government while sipping hot water from a glass with a thread dangling from it. Sort of destroys the image, doesn’t it ?? Not even the Beer Party can go with the picture – a six pack of Buds Lite might be better, but does not do justice to a fire breather. Whisky Party, or Rum Party, might be more believable but don’t have the tang.

So therein lies the real problem for the Tea Party movement. Forget the N word. Sort out the T word !

Friday, 16 April 2010

Oh be obese

Should a life insurance company invest in the shares of fast food companies ? They have been accused of “dining” on fast food profits while preaching the gospel of healthy eating to their customers in a paper that was published yesterday by Harvard researchers. Only somebody from Harvard can do research on such a crucial, life critical (pun intended) and urgent issue facing the business world.

Insurance companies are exhorting their customers to have healthy eating habits and not gorge on Big Mac and fries. And then what do they do ?? They invest in shares in McDonald’s. Terrible isn’t it ? Wrong.

Insurance companies invest the moneys they receive from you as premium in the most profitable investment possible. If, McDonald’s is a damned good investment, then surely they must invest in it. Maximising returns from investment should be a key business priority. Right ? Wrong.

Even if you forget the morality of it all, financially it’s a stupid thing to do. For if McDonald’s do well, more and more people will gorge on the Big Mac and Fries. If so, they’ll die earlier. If they die earlier, the insurance company has to pay out more. So financially it’s a dumb idea. Right ? Wrong.

If the insurance company did not buy McDonald’s shares, then somebody else will. Any which way McDonald’s will do well if it’s a well run business and consumers want Big Macs. So all that will happen if the insurance companies do not invest would be that somebody else will be benefiting from McDonald’s performance, while people would continue to die at the same rate . Might as well make the money on McDonald’s shares. Right ? Wrong.

If insurance companies do not invest in McDonald’s it will attract a lot of publicity. Pension funds will be tempted to follow suit. More publicity. Then mutual funds will be forced to offer a “fat free” option. More and more people won’t invest in McDonald’s shares. If they don’t, its share price will fall. If its share price falls, its business will be affected. Less Big Macs. Less people die. Less payouts. Meanwhile insurance companies can invest in Goldman Sachs and make even more money. Right ? Wrong.

That’s really a dumb argument. Actually insurance companies want people to die at a reasonable age rather than at 103. If people die earlier, then that means the average life expectancy is lower. Insurance premiums are determined by life expectancy. The lower the life expectancy, the higher the premium. Then the insurance companies can make more profits. New insurers pay the higher premium while they will die only decades later. Meanwhile report higher profits.

Right ? Wrong !!!

I suspect I can apply for a job as a Harvard researcher !!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Two cheers for Labour's Cadbury law

The Labour party in the UK has announced a “Cadbury Law” as part of its election manifesto. This was motivated by the aftermath of the Kraft takeover of Cadbury. It has many good and some bad features and can potentially be a model for takeover law in many countries.

The broad proposals are as follows

- M&A transactions have to be approved by a two thirds majority and not just a simple majority.
- People (read hedge funds) who buy shares in the target after a bid is announced would be barred from voting
- A “national interest test” is being considered to prevent foreign takeovers in vital industries” – defence, utility, infrastructure being thought of as “vital”

In the red corner in fervent defense of these proposals are the Labour party, obviously, the Confederation of British Industry and Unite – the powerful Trade Union.

In the blue corner, opposed vehemently to this are the Conservative Party, obviously, and the Association of British Insurers. Silent, but presumably in this camp are all the hedge funds, speculators and assorted punters. Silent and sitting neutral are Britain’s Takeover panel (the body that oversees takeovers) and presumably the Liberal party.

I am vigorously in support of the first two proposals and strongly against the third. Hence the two, rather than three cheers.

Firstly I completely support the requirement for two third’s majority. That is a principle that is fundamental in many political democracies. Game changing issues require two third’s majority; simple issues can be passed with a simple majority. Something as fundamental as a takeover, that could potentially extinguish a company should not be taken lightly. It requires a broader support that a simple majority. The argument that such a provision will make takeovers difficult in the UK and that it would protect failing management is humbug. If the case is strong, it will achieve two third’s majority. If its weak, it doesn’t deserve to pass. No consistently failing management can achieve a blocking 34% support.

I defy any rational person to challenge the second proposal. This blogger has railed in the past against the practice of hedge funds buying up huge stakes in targets, clamouring for an increase in the bid and then forcing the target to accept the bid so that they can cash out profits – all under the threat of law suits if they did otherwise. These speculators deserve no sympathy and certainly not voting rights.

Unfortunately Labour has sullied its hand with the spurious “national interest” proposal. This is daft. There is no national interest in roads or power or for that matter BA. This proposal is just a throwback to the days of the public sector, where without competition, Britain’s dinosaurs were just awful. And we have the old problem of defining what is a British fund or a British bidder. This proposal deserves to be trashed into the dustbin.

Notice that an election manifesto contains such well thought out issues, which you may agree or disagree with, but indicates the level of maturity of Britain’s politics. Contrast this with India’s homegrown variety of elephant statues, free colour TV, loan write offs, free power, sacks of cash ….. Or with China’s complete absence of debate on any policy ….

Monday, 12 April 2010

What's your CQ ? Are you Glocal ?

Everybody, who’s anybody, is a management guru. Yours truly included. No wonder airport book shops are filled to the rafters with all sorts of business books. I’ve often wondered who reads all of them. Most of them are boring ego trips, or say the mind blowingly obvious in obscure jargon.

This mini tirade has been triggered by a book review I read. The review introduces two pieces of jargon I had never heard of. Cultural - intelligence quotient , CQ for short (after all any self respecting jargon has to have an abbreviation) . And “glocal” presumably short for “globalised local”.

This is all about how in this globalised world, you need to understand local cultures, know how to much to bow, know where to point your feet, and such stuff.

I have been around a bit; so can’t resist appointing myself as a guru and expounding on this “culture thing”. Methinks, this is grossly over emphasised. Yes local culture is important but its nowhere near as important as its made out to be.

Human beings the world over are the same. They have roughly the same needs and roughly the same expectations in a corporate setting. In most nations, people have become used to dealing with foreigners. And when they deal with a foreigner, they don’t expect her to be a local and adopt exactly the same practices ; they are usually fine if she’s different. Unless you give offence deliberately, you are usually OK.

Take China. Much was made of the “culture” here of drinking. When you take government officials out to dinner, you are supposed to drink yourself to death. Nonsense. I am a teetotaler and I just say politely that I don’t drink and nobody has taken offence to that. Similarly the ritual of exchanging visiting cards – two hands, small bow and all that stuff. Again, nobody has yet taken offence if I have forgotten my card or given it with one hand – they are usually more interested whether we deal professionally and fairly. A lot of these so called practices and symbols are all quite unimportant and it really doesn’t matter if you don’t follow them. Much is written about the Asian need for “saving face” and how a “yes is often a no”. Please tell me if there’s a single culture that thrives on losing face or on public humiliation. Rubbish. People world over have the same needs –nobody likes being told off in public and a direct message delivered with sincerity and kindness is well received everywhere.

What is important is genuine sincerity and respect for the country you live in and its people. Giving the card with both hands and then rubbishing China’s internet policy will give offence. Making the absolute correct bow with the Japanese and then making fun of their camera clicking habits won’t win you friends. Being curious about the country, trying to learn its language, traveling a bit around, being respectful of its strengths, not mentioning its perceived weaknesses, never comparing your own country with it are all sensible things to do anywhere. Being respectful to people and being sincere and kind to colleagues will get you far everywhere. Even if you do culturally the wrong thing, if people perceive that you are sincere and respectful, they usually take no offence.

Its all just common sense, really.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Much ado about nothing

People get very worked up about their job titles. It seems to be a matter of life and death whether you are an Assistant General Vice President or a Deputy Senior Group Executive. On this gloomy Sunday, a typically dreary , foggy, day in Guangzhou, I decided to do a learned treatise on job titles .

Some people lay great store on the words in their job titles. Vice President is a very commonly coveted title. In some banks I know, you join as a fresher with the title Vice President! But then how do you differentiate yourself from the hordes of vice presidents around ? (Its an interesting aside that in politics the least desirable post is that of the Vice President, but in business, it seems to be a coveted title). So you become a Senior Vice President or a Group Vice President or preferably a Group Executive Senior Vice President.

Another fixation is “General”. You want to be a “General Manager”. As opposed to a “specific manager”, I presume. You can have the choice of Deputy, Chief, Senior, etc etc to embellish your being a General Manager. And then you get stupid acronyms such as SDCGM.

Lower down the totem pole, the salivation is over the simple “manager”. People are willing to kill to become a "manager". You have the choice of Executive, Associate, Consultant, etc etc as stepping stones with the usual variants of senior, vice, etc etc. You can also be an Executive Associate Consultant, if you wish.

Some companies try to impose global job titles without regard to how they may be perceived locally, often to much amusement. Many years ago, I was a lowly flunky and I was taking my boss's boss to a very senior official in a bank. Our worthy was designated as “Treasurer”. I was pulled up in no uncertain terms by the bank honcho for bringing a cashier with me for such an important meeting !! More recently we have “Engagement Managers” around. One visa official was so intrigued by this title that he spent the entire visa interview with this person enquiring who she was engaged to !

You know you have gone too far in embellishing job titles when your secretary is “Head of Verbal Communications” , the window cleaner is “Vision Clearance Engineer”, the ticket inspector is “Revenue Protection Officer”, the maid is the “Crockery Cleansing Operative”, and the teacher is “Knowledge Navigator”. No kidding; these are real job titles – I didn’t make them up.

In the new world, some companies have taken to unusual titles. I have met a “Valued Member” of XYZ Inc whose boss was “Most Valued Member”. Without a doubt, in 5 years there will be a Executive Senior General Most Valued Member ! A very famous leader himself adopted the rather unusual title, Gardener. In fashion is becoming a mentor. One nanny country even has a Minister Mentor.

In reality the correct and true designation must be Employee No 12345. That’s exactly how companies treat their employees – as a number. Despite all the pious and hypocritical blah blah of how people are the most valuable resource of a company, the reality is that you are a faceless number. That’s the sad truth of the industrialised world.

Yours truly
Lao Ming Zhi
Employee No 50001.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Ni Hao Great Britain

A crying shame, it is. This blog is not meant to be political in nature and is (usually) not prone to hyperbolic hand wringing. This post does both, unashamedly. I just could not believe that the Digital Economy Bill was “passed”, or rather rushed through the British House of Commons. Actually what took place was the ‘Third reading”, which is not the same thing as passing. But we won’t get into quaint British parliamentary traditions where worthies have to yell “Hear Hear” when they actually are meaning &^%$ @#$. They effectively passed that bill. See the photo in this article to see how vigorously attended this debate was.

I am not a British national; I do not live in the UK and have no business commenting on British policy or laws. But I am a self confessed Anglophile. I hold great fondness for all that is good and great in Her Majesty’s kingdom. That paragon of virtue, fair play and freedom, passes such a thing as the Digital Economy Bill - that is difficult to stomach.

95% of the bill is all good and fine, even though it will never achieve the objective of making the UK an IT power house. You cannot make an IT powerhouse when one third of the population reads The Sun, one third drinks 75 pints a night at the pub and one third’s religion is called Manchester United !!

It’s the 5% that is horrible. It gives the power to the government to block internet sites. Read that again – block internet sites. They can block sites that “is being, or is likely to be used in connection with an activity that infringes copyright”. Read my lips – Blocking any website, whatever be the reason, is just wrong. If you believe a website is violating copyright, go to a court of law ; prosecute the site owners; that’s the correct process. Not blocking their site.

This bill has all sorts of provisions on copyright. They can get ISPs to disconnect people who are supposed to be violating copyright. The bill seems to have been lobbied for hard by the old world news and music dinosaurs. A certain old man with big interests in the UK media comes to mind, but we shall refrain from going in that direction.

These dinosaurs are just flailing around as the internet is destroying their old cosy models on copyright. Remember how the music dinosaurs forced you to buy an expensive CD full of rubbish just to get at the one good song you liked. Remember how the music labels forget that the world is global and restrict stuff to certain countries. Remember that if they sensibly priced it and offered reasonable terms, a la iTunes, people will pay for them. Remember that declining costs and profitability are a factor to be tackled in all industries and there is no God given right to media that they should be exempt from it. Remember that content creators on line do succeed if they have appropriate business models. But then dinosaurs are not adept at adapting, as we all know.

Instead they go and get a law such as the Digital Economy Bill. I would expect such a bill in the country which the title of post alludes to. Not in the land of hope and glory.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

ICICI Bank is a foreign bank !

This blog started life a year and a bit ago with the very first post titled “What is 'American Goods' anyway ?" . Now I return back to the same theme after reading a news item that the Reserve Bank of India has declared both ICICI Bank and HDFC bank to be “foreign banks”.

For those unfamiliar with the Indian banking environment, throughout the socialist days of the 70s and 80s India lived with a nationalized banking environment. Government owned banks were the only choice. While they had their strengths, technology and innovation were not among them. They were forced to give out buffalo loans to “poor farmers” and then write them off (collecting buffalo tails as proof of death).

Two banks changed the landscape in just 5 years – ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank. Both were private banks and they revolutionised banking in India. Sure, they have their faults (many actually), but they were a completely different experience to the government banks. In no time they shot up to be market leaders.

They are listed in the Indian and US stock exchanges. Probably 90%+ of their business is in India. Most of their branches are in India. The management is entirely Indian. They are headquartered in India. But apparently more than 50% of their equity is now held by foreign entities, as they are freely traded on the stock exchanges. Voila – the country’s central bank has declared them to be foreign banks.

This just goes to show the devilish difficulty in trying to decide nationalities of corporations. Many companies today are truly global. Their shareholders are from all over the place. Actually which nationality do you ascribe to ICICI Bank. More than 50% of the shareholding may be in “foreign” hands, but that is many nationalities put together. Almost certainly the single largest shareholder nationality will be Indian. So if ICICI Bank is not “Indian”, then what is it ? Stateless person ??

So what IS the nationality of a company ? Does it indeed have to have a nationality at all ?? Usually in law, the place where the company is registered is deemed to be its nationality. To determine whether its “foreign” or “local”, its usually the % shareholding that is considered. Some countries, most notably Britain and France, value heritage. Cadbury is always a ‘British” company and Danone always a “French” company, no matter what. Some value where its headquarters is – HSBC is a prime example. Its name says Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation. Its listed in Hong Kong and in the UK. Its boss is British, but he recently moved to be based in Hong Kong. What about companies which have split personalities – companies like Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell and Reed Elsevier which have two headquarters, two parent companies, etc ?

Actually it doesn’t matter. Except when you have clauses like ‘Buy American” and “Buy Chinese”. Except when you discriminate “foreign companies” from domestic ones. Companies are the truly global manifestation of the human race. Companies have gone where the species should go – being truly global and one – but where societies and nations will never go.

Here’s an aside. You may recall the post about a company standing in the US elections. Presumably only “US companies” are entitled to stand. But we come back to the old problem – what is an US company ? Imagine Osama bin Laden floating a company with majority holding by his US followers, registered in the state of Delaware and standing for the office of the President of the United States. That would be something !

Monday, 5 April 2010

The wedding photography business

Where there is a human need; there will be a business. Welcome to the highly specialized world of wedding photography.

Not the Indian variety. The Indian wedding has now become a video occasion of the silliest sort. Bright lights are shone at all and sundry, and in the hot Indian clime, it is a virtual torture. Most people are unused to being videoed ; so they put on their most solemn expression and look fairly miserable – a smile is not to be seen within a million miles. I wonder who watches these videos ; I bet certainly not the bride and the groom.

The market leaders, by far, in wedding photography are the Chinese. The whole wedding photography business is a fine art, unlike any other. Firstly wedding photography has been completely separated from the wedding itself – it could take place weeks before. These photos are always shot in fancy places – parks, beaches, gardens, whatever , depending on how much you can afford. Both the bride and groom are dressed in elaborate western costumes ; she in flowing white looking like a princess and he in dapper male finery looking suitably love struck. The shoot can take hours and is exactly like a model shoot. They are clicked in all sorts of poses, carefully choreographed , including the obligatory groom lifting the bride – it helps that most Chinese women are amazingly slim. Hard to imagine that happening in India !!

The capital of the wedding photography business is Taiwan, where its apparently a $200m business. Because they are the best, couples from Hong Kong, Singapore and further afield go there for their wedding shots –the sets, the locales, etc are , I am told, the best there. Average prices are some $10,000. Mainlanders don’t find it easy to travel to China ; so the Taiwanese companies set up shop in mainland China. But now there is fierce competition from the local companies who have learnt the tricks of the business and prices have crashed. The Taiwanese are venturing further abroad – in Europe and in the US, all targeting ethnic Chinese.

Might be an interesting line of business to get into. Its one of the few workspots, I suppose, where you are surrounded by happiness. Not bad for a career choice.

This is a creative field and perhaps not very different from model photography. Creative types may be keen. Now there is one blogger we know whose blog has the most amazing photographs. He had some familiarity with the Chinese diaspora and has recently entered the creative field. Seems to be a good career choice for him !

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Three cheers to the Beeb

This blogger is a complete, total, unabashed , fawning admirer of the British Broadcasting Corporation, affectionately called the Beeb in Her Majesty’s realm. There is simply no media organization in the world that comes anywhere close to the BBC. Period.

Yes, the BBC is the most trusted news organization in the world. Yes, the BBC’s radio and TV programmes are produced with a professionalism that few can even aspire to match. Yes, the BBC is usually amazingly neutral and presents all sides of a picture that to really appreciate this, you only have to watch Fox News or China Television ! Yes the BBC is truly the only global media organization – CNN comes close, but still cannot match the BBC in global reach.

The jewel in the BBC Crown, to my mind, is BBC World Service Radio. Not television, but radio. In the good old days, the crackling short wave transistor radio glued to ear was the only way to listen to it. Now, short wave transmissions, that virtually defined BBC World Service for a 100 years , are being phased out. The Internet is the new medium – you can listen to the World Service (minus the crackles) any time of the day or night, on line.

All too often, media organizations today have become a chronicler of the world’s woes. Tragedies and scandals dominate reporting. Everybody does that, even the BBC. But its only the BBC, that does more. Human interest stories, stories that warm the heart, tales from around the world, that can make you chuckle, that bring a lump to the throat, that makes your eyes swell with tears, that keep ringing in your ears long after you have finished listening.

These days, BBC radio puts out a number of podcasts that you can download and listen to at leisure. They are all uniformly brilliant, but my absolute favourite is From Our Own Correspondent. A recent episode I heard triggered this post. Adam Mynott was covering the boring sounding Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Doha in Qatar. And what a lovely report he presented – click here to go to the podcast and click on Chapter 4 to listen to his piece which is only a 5 minute piece. Here is an extract from the podcast to whet your appetite

“ Countries vote electronically; they press a button to record their votes. To satisfy everybody that the system is working properly and that there are no gremlins in the software, the Chairman tests the system periodically. On Day 9 of the conference, after everybody had been in Doha for some two weeks, he did a simple test. He said to test the system, he was going to ask a simple question and asked delegates to vote yes or no. The question was, Is Doha the capital of Qatar ? To say Yes, press button No 2. The delegates reached forward to vote. After they had finished, there was however a surprising result. Two nations – Croatia and Cameroon had voted no ! And perhaps from force of habit long established from voting at the United Nations and other forums, China abstained. Croatian and Cameroonian delegates did not explain why they had learnt so little about the city where they had been staying for the last 10 days. The Chinese were inscrutable and said nothing. Perhaps they thought it would be giving too much away if they stated unequivocally that Doha was indeed the capital of Qatar".

Wow ! Three cheers to the Beeb, Hip Hip; Hooray . Hip Hip; Hooray. Hip Hip; Hooray !

Friday, 2 April 2010

Now you can't sue me

Well, almost. You can sue me, but your chances of winning have considerably diminished. In a landmark ruling yesterday, the British Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the science writer Simon Singh in the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).

Simon Singh is a British science writer. In a column in The Guardian in April 2008, Simon Singh criticized the BCA making these comments

“You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments”

The BCA objected to this. The Guardian offered them the chance to write a rebuttal. They refused this and instead brought a libel suit against Simon Singh.

To any sane man, this libel suit is strange, at best. However the British libel laws, being what they are, apparently the burden of proof rested with the defendant. If I say that in my opinion you are an ass, then it means that I am implying that factually you are an ass and if you bring a libel suit against me, its up to me to prove that you are indeed an ass. The original court upheld that an opinion Simon Singh expressed, was actually an implied statement of fact . He went on appeal and has now won. But in the process his career as a writer has been ruined and he has been financially compromised - having to spend some ₤200,000 in legal costs, although others have contributed. And the story is not over. The BCA has threatened to appeal against the current ruling.

Apparently hundreds of cases are brought against people expressing opinions that somebody does not like. Faced with ruinous legal costs of defending, they simply capitulate, back down and censor themselves. Somewhat similar to the strong arm tactics employed by a number of gentlemen sharing the surname Thackeray.

A significant angle to the libel laws in the UK is that it promotes “libel tourism”. It does not matter if you live in some other country and publish something there. If it was capable of being read in the UK, you can bring a libel suit in the UK. The community it affects the most are bloggers. If a blog is capable of being downloaded in the UK, then the libel case can be brought in the UK. With such libel laws, the UK has become the capital for libel tourism.

This is actually a strange position. Anybody even remotely familiar with the UK knows that its newspapers hit abysmal lows every day in scandals and sleazy journalism. And yet it seems to have the toughest libel laws around. I simply don’t understand this.

This blogger is notorious for being highly opinionated and expressing them freely, sometimes passing them off as fact. For example, here’s a tip for Gils. A few days ago, this blog featured some comments about his sartorial colour preferences. He has every right to claim to have been libeled. Now this blog is definitely capable of being read in the UK, although nobody really does. However there is at least one reader who has commented here in the past and she lives in the UK – clear proof that what is written can have ramifications in Her Majesty’s land. So the logical course of action for Gils would have been to sue me in a British Court for libel. Unfortunately he is a bit too late – he should have done so last week !!

Bloggers beware !!

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