Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wishing for a Google Writer!

Everyday when I check blog feeds on my Google Reader, I wonder when Google Reader will not just be a 'reader' but become Google Reader cum Writer! Especially, when I have more than 50 blog feeds to read and reflect, the last thing I want to do is go to 50 individual blogs just to share my comments with them.

The idea of Google Reader is great. You have all on one page. But that was great to begin with, now we demand more!

If I can view them all on one page, why can't I write or comment on them as well as I scan across? It is painful to go to individual blogs to comment on them and keep coming back to the Reader. The need to write becomes a necessity in the Web 2.0 world when you are actually trying to collaborate, share, and exchange ideas with fellow bloggers!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What sets apart a great performer from a good one?

(Inspired by Rash’s article on Innovation at Kern)

I often get into discussions with my colleagues about what makes a good performer great. What are the characteristics that set apart one from the other? And, here I’m only referring to the intrinsic qualities and characteristics. I know there are loads of other external factors; but when working in a small high-performing innovation-driven company, the intrinsic factors play a critical role.

To begin with, I believe passion is the single most important thing that drives a great performer. Working without passion is working like a robot – mechanically. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing yet everything! Nothing because if you work like a robot, you deliver what is expected of you – you work optimally. And why everything because you “only” deliver as “expected” you are not motivated to exceed expectations. Since you are not passionate about your work, if any other variable goes wrong in your system, you collapse. If conditions change, you need to be re-programmed to change your orientation – essentially you depend heavily on instructions or external help to make things happen. You are not self-driven.

So why is this a problem? Well, from a philosophical standpoint this is a problem because you are not in charge of your life – you let life control you. From a practical standpoint, if you are not self-motivated, you do not grow. You stagnate. You grow only if a godfather or a guru takes charge of your life. But again, in absence of self-motivation, it’s your godfather or guru who grows by growing you - not you!

Another hallmark of a great performer is the urge to know the big picture. You have a choice. Either you are content just laying bricks as directed or you are curious to know the layout much before you lay the bricks. In case of the former, you do not care whether you are laying bricks for the bedroom, bathroom, apartment, amphitheatre, bridge or a stadium. You just stick to what you are told – lay bricks as per the blue print.

There is nothing wrong with this. You lay bricks day in and day out and master it. You do it for 2 years, 5 years, 10 years… what next? You become a great bricklayer and its perfectly fine if you are happy doing it. But in the bigger scheme of things, you are just a good performer. You cannot become a great performer because your focus is too narrow. You do not have bigger understanding of things. After 3-5 years of bricklaying, you must know what are blueprints, how are they designed, how does bricklaying change with change in the master blueprint. You need to be curious about how your brick laying makes a difference to the final outcome of the project. Only if you know the big picture, will you be motivated to think, dream, innovate, and ultimately be a great performer.

Friday, November 07, 2008

ICICI's Internet Banking - All Pain No Gain

I know there is lot venom spewed about ICICI Bank's services, and I too have sympathized on occasions about the painful process of Internet security. But I realized the degree of pain only after I went through the process myself. I seriously wonder if I would be half as pained if my account was hacked into. :)

1. Suddenly, we receive a mandate that we need to pay taxes only online - no checks accepted (seems like the Internet banking guys have formed a cartel. Have held guns to our heads and want us to file taxes only online.) So here you have a paradoxical situation - we want to pay taxes but can't unless you have your e-banking enabled. So you pay taxes, pay a penalty because payment is delayed while you wait to enable your e-banking account, finally pay online, and pay fees for paying online by using e-banking. Wish we could create such compelling business models for our business!!

2. Now is the trick part. Only one director cannot authorize the online payment. This is because some 400 years back when we opened our a/c with ICICI bank and had small revenues, we had authorized 2 directors to authenticate payouts more than 50K. Now, 400 years later, almost every payout exceeds 50K but we still need to authenticate each and every payout. Well, you'd ask why can’t we change the authentication process? Glad you did not ask, I could punish you by asking an ICICI agent to explain the procedure that begins with submission of residence proof, employment proof (doesn't matter if you are the owner!), PAN, driving license, DOB certificate, you kids' birth certificate, your wife's credit card statement, your maid's salary slip... and all things imaginable! Doesn't matter if you are an old customer, doesn't matter if you have been transacting with them for donkeys years, doesn't matter if they have all conceivable information about you.

3. Now that we are conned into using the e-banking facility, we need to have a password as well. Please note that because ICICI is a "safe" bank, they want us to change the passwords every 15 days. These passwords have to be completely new, should be alphanumeric, and at least 8 digit long. Well, only Shakuntala Devi can remember such passwords!! Naturally, I lost steam after changing my password after the fourth fortnight and gave up! Consequently, my e-banking rights were withdrawn.

4. Ok! Finally, I have to go back to enable my e-bank accounts. After going through the agony of a 30-minute painful verification process over telephone with a robot-like call center executive, I was told that my email id has been verified and I can apply for my e-banking password online. I was told that I'd receive an email confirmation in 2 days. Thankfully, after a week and with serious follows by our office manager, I was told that my email is authenticated.

5. Then begins the most frustrating part. I go to the bank website and select Corporate banking. Then, I go to the option called "reset password". I go through the steps as directed. But nothing happens! Why? Because, Internet security is important, they trust paper communication. So, I need to fax them a signed request to reset the password. Having done that, I receive an email the next day confirming that my password is reset.

(Btw, see the image above, I have to enter a Passcode but there is no information about what this is!)

6. What do you expect when you receive a message that your password is reset? Like all gullible fools I understand that I have a new password now so I can conduct my online transaction. But hold on... that's not to be. The sinister message reads:

Please note that since you have got the transaction access so to get the requested password activated please fax a request for activation mentioning your Corporate ID, user Id, Account No. and the request ID to the fax no (022) 67574557 or email the scanned copy to Request needs to be signed by the user.

I seriously wonder who designed the authentication process! If you have sent me a password, obviously I don't want it to hatch eggs or file them away as FDs. I intend to use it. So, why fax you another written request for this? Anyways, the entire exercise started pre-Diwali and thanks to ICICI's safe banking habits, I'm still struggling to log on to my Internet banking account!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Designing Learning for N-Gen Learners

One of the recent posts on Work Literacy titled Presentation Literacies for the 21st Century (don’t be misled by the title :)) has an interesting article Why Professor Johnny Can't Read. This article focuses on the gap between our generation of “read and write” traditional learners and the new age “scan and share” digital learners. This article set me thinking about how to design and deliver learning differently for the N-Gen learners.

1. Capturing learner’s needs: Currently, understanding learner’s needs through contextual inquiry is a key step in our development process. This step is equally relevant to understand the behavior and learning pattern of N-Gen learners. The outcome of this step will effectively determine the design and mode of delivery of learning. What is critical here is to ensure that the researchers conducting contextual inquiry are well-versed with the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the digital world. Else, chances are that they would fail to observer key behavior patterns.

2. Mode of delivery: Any delivery mode that is non-inclusive may not be an effective way of delivering learning for this segment. We need a mode that ensures limitless access to outside information, collaboration, or facilitates social interaction. However, these modes should be integrated in the learning modules and not plugged in as special features. For example, an eLearning module deployed on an LMS with built-in chat and discussion board does not qualify as a collaborative learning environment. However, an online game that has the option of inviting others to join in or a web-based module that motivates learners to have online discussion or an informal learning environment that challenges learners to work in groups are good candidates for collaborative modes of learning. What is critical here is to integrate collaboration and sharing well within the design and delivery. (There is an interesting research on Informal Learning in Digital Era (Lence Miloseva and Miika Lehtonen)

3. Instructional Designers: Just as researchers need to have a fair knowledge of the digital world, instructional designers too must belong to this era to appreciate learners’ needs better. Since there is a huge shift in the way traditional instructions are designed, instructional designers need to be well-equipped to handle and appreciate the current needs of learners. It is one thing to be aware of the new age learning environment and another to belong to this environment. Therefore, IDs should make an effort to belong to this environment to relate to learners’ needs and behavior better.

4. Learning Design: Since N-Gen learners are highly active in the virtual world than in the real world, self-paced, unidirectional learning may no longer be effective for this breed of information foragers. IDs need to remember that N-Gen learners enjoy the challenge of finding information, linking them, sharing them, analyzing them and flaunting them. They have very little patience with linear unidirectional learning. What is critical is to ensure that the learning environment facilitates all this yet meet its objective of effective learning.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Online Learning Games - Top 20

Larry Ferlazzo has compiled a list of 20 best online learning games. I'm still viewing them and plan to blog about those that I find most interesting. The National Geographic games are fun. They have amazing graphics and lively voice over. Considering the profile of learners these are designed for, they seem fairly effective!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Small Beautiful?

Sometimes I wonder, is small really beautiful? In my everyday interactions with individuals, companies, government departments etc, I increasingly realize that the system around us does not see value in supporting small enterprises.

Recently, Kern formed a joint-venture with HumanCentric, a US-based user research and product design company. We wanted to send a press release to the national dailies and magazines to announce this. Alas! Not a single PR agency (big or small) really came forward to take this up. They kept pushing us "additional services" instead. "Why don't you hold a press conference?""Why don't you commission a story?""Why don't you engage us for the year?" And, all this without making any attempts to either understand our needs or our business.

Similarly, we have been hunting for a decent caterer to supply office lunch. Same sob story! Nobody wants to supply food for 10-15 people. "Sorry, not viable for us!" Well, what about being a little more enterprising and figuring out the needs in other offices in the same complex? "No Sir! Rule says, we provide for minimum 15 people."

The story of how banks trouble SMEs is legendary! "Sorry ma'am no salary accounts for less than 25..." "No relationship officer for small companies." "Why don't you send your person to get a DD done?" But you had promised us that you would provide check pickup and draft creation facilities? "Sorry Sir, no person here right now" and so on. But when it comes to pushing unwanted services - yes they are ever so ready to push their credit cards and insurances to our people. And, all the while making tall claims about enhanced customer experience.

Another sad story is our government's policies and social infrastructure. Land that is available for lease to companies is not meant for SME mortals. They are 100s of acres of land that only the Wipros and Infys of the world can afford. Every time there is a power failure for 3 odd hours, SMEs lose business. Although we have an UPS that provides 8-hr power backup, we still run out of stem during marathon power cuts. Buying a generator for a seasonal power crisis is like domesticating an elephant for the once a year elephant festival!

Ah, not to forget the apathy of cell phone and Internet service providers and hardware providers - read Ripul's blog - toward SMEs.

So, is there any truth in the belief that providing service to an SME is wasting too much effort for too little?

Let me give some reasons why the belief could be faulty:

1) No small business stays "small". Companies begin small but they never remain small. So there is smartness in growing with these companies as they grow.

- When we started in 2004, it hurt to pay Rs 600 per month towards Internet charges, and today we gladly pay Rs 10,000.

- In 2004, we struggled hard to find an affordable 600 sft space. Today, we are in a 1350 sft space and already looking out for a bigger space.

2) No service goes waste. Most SMEs trust word-of-mouth references. Be it the need for a networking guy, a food supplier, a courier vendor, a trainer, an editor, a hardware provider or a financial adviser. Stories of bad services spread very fast. Alternatively, stories of good services are lapped up even faster! We had a great architect whom we recommend to one and all. We have a great Chartered Accountant who has been with us from our pre-formation days. Every time, we need advice, bounce ideas, or support, we know whom to call! It's simple logic for all. "When our clients grow, we grow."

3) Every penny that comes in adds to your revenue end of the year. In 2004, Rs 2000 for a project generated as much excitement as Rs 2,00,000 does today! When we started our business, we adopted a "foot in the door" policy. We did not worry whether the work brought in small revenue or big. We worried whether our work would give us an entry through the door for more work to follow!

So, when banks, caterers, vendors, service providers create a fuss about catering to small businesses, I feel sad at their lack of foresight!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Journalists! Wake up!

Yatin shared an interesting blog today Pen Pricks.

This blog makes entertaining read considering the Nazi spy story most of us read in the morning newspaper the other day! Whoa, it is fun seeing how they pulled the rug from under our watchdog's feet!

Check out the fun here (read the July 2008 entry): NAZI-GATE -- HONOURING THE REAL PRICKS IN THE MEDIA

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Partner or Perish

That's the survival mantra for most companies big and small today. Let's pool our strengths to prosper. Ten years back my boss used to say "why slog alone trying to re-invent the wheel when you can stand on the shoulder of a giant." And this wisdom works wonders today as well. More so for small companies that do not have deep pockets.

Companies like us have niche services, great people, precious clients, and survive comfortably. But to expand our services, expand into newer geographies and expand our client base we need not run looking for VCs. A good partnership can be like a good life partner who can propel each other to greater heights. Some points to remember about partnerships:

Before you get into one!

1. If you want a partnership in the same region, look for companies that offer complementary skills. This strengthens both without worrying about the dark clouds of competition. Helps pool marketing resources, pool network, and basically emerge stronger.

2. For partnerships across geographies, look for companies that have similar philosophies and work culture. Also, watch out for their history of growth, types of clients, and skill level of people. The key here is to work together for a while and load test each other's idiosyncrasies!

3. For partnerships with support companies, check out the team size, team skills, and their commitment levels. If you have to depend on the support team for client deliveries, it is critical for them to appreciate quality and deadline as much and you do.

After you are one!

4. Set clear communication channels between the partnering companies. There is nothing worse than a relationship going sour due to miscommunication or no communication. Talk, talk , and talk. Believe me, I've learned the hard way! Eliminate all barriers in communication, remove complex channels, pick up phones or take a flight, but never let the threads of communication to fray ever.

5. Mutual respect - There is no place for egos in a partnership. And believe me most entrepreneurs are so used to making their own decisions that they have a tough time listening to another entrepreneur about how to run his business. But, leave your ballooning egos behind. Remember, its not just your business, its our business now. Respect each others' skills, expertise, opinions, and ideas. Honor each others' clients and client commitments. Share responsibilities.

6. Be it joint ventures, partnerships, or collaborations - all relationships need to be nurtured. They cannot mature overnight, so give it time, patience, thought, and attention. Offer as much support as you can. Understand the quirks, appreciate the differences, and celebrate the togetherness. Yes, I may sound like a marriage counselor :) but I believe all relationships (more for a company-company relationship) need to be handled with care and sensitivity!

In the fast and furious era of change where your business vision gets redefined every 4 months, it is impossible to grow in an island. So, all you entrepreneurs, Partner or Perish!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Subsidies are like steroids - they may look attractive in the short run but they cripple you in the long run!

These days fuel price hike is making headlines. There are debates about how much to increase, whether to increase the price of diesel and LPG as well and how will this impact the price of consumables.

This situation was bound to happen. And, every time this issue arises, it sends political parties in a frenzy of activity that only a Bofors or a Tehelka can! The faulty economic policies have ensured that our economy depend on the crutches of subsidies and licences. Subsidies are like steroids; they can give you a sudden burst of energy in the short term but they are certain to cripple you in the long run. Politicians in India have always been more interested in the short term benefits, getting voters, wooing populations with sops and subsidies, artificially protecting the economy from competition and consequently incapacitating the people and the economy in the long run.

Let's consider farm subsidies. Farm subsidies have ensured that our farmers remain poor and unproductive always. The subsidized seeds, fertilizers, manure are so inferior in quality that the resulting farm produce is also of poor quality and quantity. These poor subsidies lead to poor yields which, in turn, lead to poverty. This leaves the farmers with no choice but to depend on subsidies for the next season as well. Thus we have ensured that our farmers are always trapped in the vicious circle of poverty with farm subsidies. Many farmers want to buy good quality seeds, fertilizers etc but the infrastructure around them prohibits that. They can get bank loans only for the poor quality government-approved subsidized products. This leaves the farmers with no choice but to borrow money at “very” high interests from moneylenders. The interest rates are so high that they are anyways bonded for life just paying back the interest! So does the subsidy favour them at all? It has instead crippled our farmers.

Similar is the case with our (public distribution system) PDS. Ask any sensible person and he will tell you that the PDS is a farce. Who reaps the benefits? Middlemen, traders, all, but those below the poverty line! So whom does the subsidy favor?

Take the case of LPG. It is highly subsidized. It enjoys a subsidy of around Rs 110 per cylinder. If there were no subsidies, the cost would be aorund Rs 415 per cylinder. So who are the LPG consumers? They are the better-off households and commercial users such as hotels, tiffin centers, laundries, abattoirs etc. The rural and semi-urban consumers still rely on kerosene, firewood, and coal for their regular fuel needs.

What has subsidy on LPG managed to do? It has made people ignore its worth and encouraged them to use LPG indiscriminately. Why else would people boil huge quantities of water both for dirinking and bathing on their gas stoves? If the price of LPG was at par with the global rates, at least the usage would be more discrete. There would be a demand for alternative fuels like bio gas, solar energy etc. Sadly, our policy makers have always had populist policies. Their over enthusiasm to protect the weak has only made the weak weaker. There has never been any foresight about how we can empower the weak to take on world competition. Also there's no foresight about how to prolong the life of our natural resources.

Now, we face the same crisis with petrol and diesel. Today, the global oil prices have forced governments to hike rates, and the repercussions are felt by all! From airlines to trucks, the hike in oil prices will spiral off a hike in the rates of all commodities and services. This situation could have been well avoided because the subsidy did not benefit the BPL, it benefited the huge car-driving middle class, who could anyways afford the “real” market rates. Nowhere in the world is there a difference in petrol and diesel prices. So what does that translate to? Diesel cars are much cheaper and they clog our roads! Do you see whom the subsidy has actually favoured? There is a brilliant article by Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar in Swaminomics which will give you goose bumps when you find out that every year the country looses a staggering Rs 200,000 crore just on just oil subsidies! Can you see where your hard earned money goes?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

East Smiling, West Frowning!

I read an interesting article in the editorial page of TOI yesterday about how the "Western mind is confused at Asia’s rise". I don't want to sound xenophobic or racist but it's a fact that for very long US and Europe have maintained an economic domination that has been consciously monopolistic. Whether it is domination through trade or through the UN, the West has prospered without empowering the Eastern and African nations. This article struck me because very recently we experienced this while attending an international professional conference.

The face of the world is changing and it is changing fast. One of the facts of this changing world is the emergence of Asia as the new superpower. And as expected, the Western countries are having a tough time coming to terms with this fact.

They would still like to believe Asia as a low cost, low skills, dumping ground where they can get their "manual and not-so intellectual" work done. However, the reality is giving them sleepless nights. Not only is the economy of the East growing fast, the markets are moving here. The brains that left for the West are either coming back or staying rooted to their roots. The biggest sets of consumers are emerging in these geographies. So, if they have to market their stuff, it's no longer enough to have a “Made in US” stamp on it. They have to ensure that the products are designed specifically for the Asian markets. Therefore, effectively, companies are allocating huge R&D budgets to woo the Eastern consumers. This sets off a competition among the Western companies to know the Asian markets well enough to market their products.

The smart companies in the West see virtue in joining hands with the Asian companies. They believe in pooling resources, expertise, familiarity, and capitalizing on the boom. They are willing to shed their inhibitions, whether it is their stiff upper-lip or their cynical nature, and even go to the extent of learning Mandarin, Hindi, or Korean. Asian companies too have to stop being amazed at anything "foreign" and start appreciating their own skills and expertise. Individually, Asians need to be more confident of their achievements, without constantly seeking approvals and appreciation outside. Collectively, Asians need to work more professionally, respect competition, shed herd mentality, and flex muscles only if backed by the brains. And more importantly, Asians should NOT bend over backwards seeing the green dollar! Remember folks, the big bucks are moving East!