Monthly Archives: December 2011

Pinky Aunty and Collaborative Consumption

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I was reading a blog post on collaborative consumption with considerable amusement. Couched in typical management terms, the post talked about an economic model based on sharing, bartering, pooling and finally optimizing resources. The post said the collaborative consumption revolution could become as big as the industrial revolution. Help conserve the scarce resources on Earth. At this point I decided to give Pinky Aunty a call. If they were stealing her ideas she should atleast know. Pinky Aunty in her inimitable style asked me – So will they be sharing table salt too? You know that’s the kind of stuff that typically runs out. I was not sure if the systematic collaboration revolution comes down to such granularity , but salt is an apt symbol of the collaboration that has defined our mohollas for a long time. Where you opened the door to a worried Pinky aunty asking if she can borrow some salt. Or sugar. Or your axe. Or bicycle. In return she offered spicy achar, her imported sewing needles or a formidable pair of scissors. No wonder when collaborative consumption is being voted by Time in the top ten ideas that will change the world, we are a mildly irritated by the hullabaloo. We have always been doing this. We have been taught to do this. Share. Give. Receive. And grow together.

The Indian padosh or mohollas are the best examples of cooperative communities and local networks. Think of the row houses sharing a common courtyard. Or the apartments arranged so close to each other you can actually jump on to your neighbour’s balcony. Our indigenously Indian upbringing have meant we have coped quite well in these communities. Resisted the nosy aunt or the bossy uncle. Or the upstart boy who insisted on playing music at top volume. And made the most of the collective good. We have pooled together resources and skills. Spontaneously. Or driven by rudimentary forms of co-operative societies. I grew up in a small steel township. While the fathers were busy at work, the mothers led by a staunch Pinky Aunty formed a WVS – Women Voluntary Service. They baked cakes, made delectable Achar, procured magnificent fabric or handicrafts from their native places and then went on to trade these stuff at optimum prices. Looking back, they never really made much profit because the stuff mostly got exchanged between the ladies running the community. Or given away to the local orphanage. However the community thrived by leveraging the combined strengths of these extraordinary women. As kids we emulated our mothers. We pooled our books together and created a local library. We rented our bicycles in exchange of a Michael Jackson record. A little bit of humanity. Some amount of economic sense. And we together seemed to have everything we needed to be happy.

Ofcourse as I have grown I have contrasted the eastern style of community living with western individualism. As an individualistic person myself, I have often argued in favour of individualism. Sow your own seeds. Reap your own fruits. The obvious fallacy of this approach is man is not self-sufficient. As a disjointed individual, I do not have all the survival tools in my kit. That is where I have to buy services. Or goods. And this is where wastage starts. Driving to office in a big car that can seat 5. Throwing away food available in those big saver packs because my family of two cannot finish it. Reducing my bargaining power because I buy in small portions enough to sustain me. Tilting the market in favour of sellers. When with 7 billion people it should have been tilting towards the buyer. And then Pinky Aunty starts making a lot of sense. Pool your car and reduce your carbon footprint. Form buyers’ co-operatives and shop in bulk. Rent out rooms. Barter goods. Trade skills. Create a local network which can support and canvass for the common cause. Strength lies in numbers.

Having said all this, collaborative consumption atleast in the human society will largely remain unstructured and driven by good will than by business sense. Human societies are complex, organic communities and putting rules or business models around shared consumption may not seamlessly work. What will work though is a deeper appreciation for inclusive thinking which has always defined our societies. Which the rest of the world is now learning. And rebranding as a disruptive technique. Meanwhile I have run out of coffee. Wonder which of my neighbour’doors can I knock on?

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When Lerds meet Nerds

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“The Arts and Science divide,” explained one of my professors at college where I was studying Mathematics, “is like the hearts-mind divide. Arts banks on the fickle heart and science on the sound mind”. An overtly simplistic division I thought. I had the same thought when I read Chetan Bhagat’s article(1) on lerds vs nerds published about a month back. Liberal Arts folks or lerds were stereotyped by Bhagat as argumentative philosophers who wallowed in a kind of fuzzy world while the nerds burnt their midnight oil looking for solutions. “Lerds unlike nerds,”stated Chetan somehat pompously standing on the firm ground of science, “hate definitive solutions”. For a moment, he had probably forgotten about fuzzy logic, probability fields, relativity theories and uncertainty principles. Wherein Science acknowledged that deterministic solutions contradicted with an inherently fuzzy Cosmos lacking an absolute frame of reference. Nullifying thus one of the sharpest lines of division between the disciplines. Fuzzy Arts and well-defined Science. Less like it.

The best personification of the Arts-Science dichotomy can be found in the Apple story. Infact the dichotomy starts with the name – a firm which made hitech computers named for Jobs’ escapades to an orchard farm along with a group of bohemian friends experimenting with religion, mysticism, philosophy, hedonism, minimalism. The dichotomy continues with the partnership that launched Apple. Wozniak, Job’s friend and Apple’s co-founder was the better engineer, the type of person who the scientific community proudly claim as their own. Wozniak infact was the brain behind most of Apple’s earlier engineering marvels – the sophisticated circuit and the complex software. However the products though brilliant would have probably remained in the realms of hackers and geeks if not for the eccentric Jobs who sat at a bizarre Science-Arts-Religion-Commerce crossroads. His emphasis on design, aesthetics, intuition made the Apple products some of the most beautiful computers. Which sat comfortably atop a writer’s desktop or an artist’s easel. Years later holding an iPhone in hand one feels a comparable euphoria. Here’s a product made by Science. Here’s a product designed by Arts. Did you say there is a divide?

As we scour over the domains of modern Science and technology, you see more of the ‘jugalbandi’. Products, be it the music-player or mobile phones invest heavily in aesthetics incorporating in them almost a poetic fluidity.Social media borrow the metaphors from humanities to build virtual equivalents of the human community.. Gamification and story-fication seek to unify practices sitting within the realms of the literary or visual Arts with technology. Engineers talk increasingly in a Liberal Arts language peperred with terms such as immersion, experiential learning, intuition, beauty. Science draws inspiration from the ancient scriptures. Zen and Yoga find place in science journals. Noetic science pushes the boundaries of logic by talking about transmigration of souls and reality distortion fields. Time travel and parallel worlds, prophecies and after-death experiences. Science and philosophy cling together as they traverse these fuzzy domains. The well-lit corridors of Science and the flirtatious shadows of Arts seem to find their quaint junction. where the nerds and lerds sit together to argue, complement and disagree. On a less than binary world. While the computer and Santa coexist in the living room. Sorry, Chetan!

1.Chetan Bhagat’s column Save us from lerds:http://www.chetanbhagat.com/columns/save-us-from-lerds/

The Akash store – Siridevi’s Army

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Akash is a game-changer. A 45$ tablet used right should revolutionize among other things education, panchayats, the kirana stores and even your local doodhwallas. Before I talk about Akash as a disrupter and while I wait for the next-gen Ubislate 7 to appear, a democratically compiled wishlist of what should the Akash store contain:

Doodh ka doodh Pani ka Pani purity sensor: The Lokpal of an app. A sensor which tells you how much water the milkman is mixing and gives you enough evidence to catch him red-handed. Why just the milkman- Akash’s purity sensor will sniff out unscrupulous grocers, hooch sellers etc by detecting mix-ups. Complicated but Akash is the limit.

Pot-hole beeper: An up to date map of all potholes anywhere in India. And an alarm system that gives a loud beep every time you approach one. Saves you from a jittery drive. Even if it leaves you slightly deaf.

Pallu Draper: An app that gives you a 3-D animated step by step guide on how to drape the nine yards. A life-saver everytime you have to impress the mother-in-law.

Flog Alert: Given the fatwa against drinking, Akash should tell you if it is safe to hit the pub in an area depending on the probability of certain elements being in the neighbourhood. And save you from the prospect of an embarrassing flog.

Queue Scanner: When you have to decide which of the equally daunting queues you should append to, the Akash will come to rescue. After a quick scan of the queues, it can tell you based on the number of people and rate of displacement, which queue is the most optimum. Queuing will be fun.

Antakshari champ: Tired of the computers which do nothing but play bridge. I will like Akash to chip in as an Antakshari player. God-send for all the lonely souls spending evenings indoors.

Kolaveri Kooler: A thanda lassi drinking app in lieu of iPhone’s beer drinker. Accompanied by soothing music. To cool down the most murderous of rages.

Match – maker: In a country where the marriage market runs into a few billion dollars, a tablet without a match-maker makes little sense. This app can take mobile match-making to a new height. The app should be able to quickly scan and match horoscopes, body types even emotional quotients based on how you have answered some questions. If this does not find you a girl, nothing will

Ghost – Buster: Moving into a new house? Worried about the Vastu and the spirits that may be residing in the place. With a ready recknoer of all evil spirits and vastu principles and a super-sensitive sensor, Akash can act as your Vastu consultant. Tell you whether the spirits residing in your home are good or evil. Go have a good night’s sleep – Akash is watching over you.

Siri Devi: And finally unveiling the mother of all assistants – Siri Devi. Know-all. Nosey. Smart. And fun. Comes in all accents – Tam or bong and everything in between. She has an answer for every question – from which is the best season for kaddu? To what should Bay-B be named? The only thing where she may fail is help you find the right girl. But there you have match-maker. Siridevi and her army of apps should help you tide even some of the less good days in the life of India. And together make sky a crossable limit.

PS: If your dream app is not on the list, drop me a note. We will put it in.

Honey – she sold on Facebook

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I am rather fond of my cook. She is poor, illiterate, feisty and cooks exceedingly well. And she has not heard of Facebook. So when I helped her sell her honey using this most pervasive and inexpensive medium I know, we had together ‘discovered’ a new side of social. A social medium which is largely the prerogative of the English speaking population and therefore very little to do with most of the Indian community had been used as a tool to help an illiterate rural woman make money. This was not social media marketing. This was social bridging. A micro form of social business conducted through the most democratic, accessible and social of all media- a community-stic product coming from the outrightly capitalist America. Or is it?

Pardoxically social media leaves out the largest section of the communities in developing countries: the non-elistist and non-urbanised. The web 2.0 and its many spin-offs is yet to get its head around the large mass concentrated at the bottom of the pyramid. People who can use it the most. People who need it the most. It looses the opportunity of doing what it can do best – become a connector between the subterranean Morlocks and the ‘Eloistic’ upper classes and maximize the flow of what I will call the social value. And in doing so it risks becoming yet another advertisement-sponsored, moderated voice of the relatively elite. Not truly social. Definitely not inclusive.

Yet social media has an immense transformational potential as far as the wider community is concerned. Think of the many avatars of the platform as a broadcaster, a listener, a connector as a marketer. It can potentially address a myriad set of socio-economic issues- lack of platform for the poor to air their grievance, lack of direct market channels to indigenous producers, the lack of awareness or information – a neo digital-untouchability. Social media can become a tenuous connector between the two strata of society. The next question would then be How? How can a medium that pre-selects the socially savvy class be leveraged by a community which let alone English skills are mostly challenged in the nuances of communication/ social skills. Well it is a many-step process. Awareness, knowledge, training can to an extent equip these communities with the expertise to maneuver the social web. However I do not think the skills required to leverage the web as a transactional, promotional medium or even a provider of complex information can be acquired through a handful of training classes. It is a long drawn-out process. This is where not for profit organizations working in social business consulting can step in as facilitators of ‘intermediaries’ helping the uninitiated cross the digital divide. They can help create for example strong web communities of handcraft workers, build innovative promotions that help them connect potential buyers across the globe and the capability to conduct business on the web. The social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter themselves need to step in to facilitate the use of their platforms as essentially social platforms helping communities flourish. Google’s internet bus which toured rural India with the aim of spreading the awareness about internet was an example of a small step in the direction. In return the platforms benefit from heightened social interaction, an expansion of their network and the creation of new community markets existing outside urban boundaries. For a business preceded by the word social- an inclusive community is not just a survival strategy but a raison d’être.

Insecure web – the new Page 3

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As someone who leads an active social life both in the virtual and real world I have friends spanning a range of age-groups. One such friend, let’s call him Z, who at 10 years my junior, had me rather worried recently. His posts on a social networking site had become more and more fantastic and so had been the photographs he uploaded there. Since I also knew him personally as I knew his parents, I ofcourse found hard to believe the timeline which spoke of an adrenalin-charged life. His images showing a well-toned body or a bevy of girls hanging on to him were clearly photoshopped. Though it felt awkward, I decided to talk to him. And he confessed. He had been chatting up women online and he wanted to project a larger-than-life image. Z being a generally intelligent person ofcourse knew the futility but went on with the charade none the same. I told him he is a great guy and he does not need to manipulate his life or his image to suit the FB world. Z’s photoshopped images are still there but his posts have started toning down. I hope he will soon be taking down the images as well.

Welcome to the darker alleys of social media inhabited by insecure men and women counting their worth in number of friends, posts, followers and so on. Who have somehow surrendered their life to the web in a way that the real and the virtual have increasingly become blurred in their minds. Are we surprised? Ofcourse not. Websites such as Facebook by their very design encourage you to preen in public, to show off your brightest plumes in short indulge your vanity. Which is not a problem as long as you are mature enough to handle it. If you are not the vanity feeds insecurity. The similar type of insecurity which haunts celebrities fighting to stay visible and relevant on Page 3. Which now haunts a wider set of people who want to remain relevant on Facebook and Twitter and so on. The fact that Facebook is so hugely accessible compounds the issue. 16 year olds and even some 12 year olds masquerading 16 year olds use Facebook as a means to live their fantasy, to brag about a lifestyle far behind their reach, to boast several hundred connections on their friend list. The desire to stay on top of the News feed. The desire to be popular- in terms of numbers of connections, comments received, status update density and so on. A competition to have a higher social media quotient than peers – competition with deeper ramifications in the real world. Continuing this debate further, social media also exposes gullible young people to a host of online dangers – pedophiles, sex offenders, fraudsters and so on. I will however like to limit my discussion to individual psychological impacts of exposure to web 2.0. Infact the impacts are not limited to impressionable adolescents alone. Adults are also susceptible to what I call as Facebook vanity. Bored housewives look upon the web as a means of escape. Straitjacketed office-goers use the web to create more colourful second lives.. The innocuous web transforms into a matrix where the virtual world truly takes over and man becomes the slave of his own fantasy. Posts and images take on a super-man/ rocking girl touch. And your real lives run, a desperate mad dash of a run to keep pace with your super-paced rockstar Avtar. I would be surprised if a considerable number of people are not already being treated for Facebook depression. Falling into the void between their first and second lives.

Ofcourse as any rational individual would point out, every invention carries a disclaimer with it, a warning that it be used with prudence. It tries to build in safeguards which minimizes its abuse. So does the social web. However the onus to use it judiciously and with maturity lies with us. Let the web remain a tool we can use not a matrix of deceit and insecurity which takes charge of our life. Happy Facebooking!

Community censorship – The web has a guard

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The 18th and 19th century revolts were trigerred by pens.. The 21st century revolutions are triggered by tweets and posts. The Arab Spring was almost totally mobilized over the internet. So has been ‘Occupy Wall Street’. So has been the jasmine movement running largely underground in China. Well so was the London riot. You do not have to think hard to figure out why governments dislike the internet. You can buy off media houses. You can censor the press. Internet which represents the voice of billion plus people is hard to regulate or control. I will rephrase the statement. It is impossible to regulate or control. That does not keep the government from trying though. Governments around the world have given themselves enormous power to monitor emails. To censor websites. To regulate access. There are internet Nazis all around the world scouring the web for ‘objectionable’ content. The Arab Spring happens nonetheless.

The reasons are simple. Every individual with access to the web is a virtual publisher. That makes a billion plus channels to filter and screen. The internet is a highly fluid medium where identies, national boundaries, jurisdictions of the state get blurred As governments tighten their snooping on the net, netizens respond with vengeance masking IP’s, altering egos, inventing virtually unhackable websites, dummy emails. Technology keeps a step ahead of government. As do the people. The more you control, the more ballistic the virtual world gets. The internet which connects billion plus people on the globe into one big, chaotic family is the ultimate celebration of free speech. Incidents such as the state army shooting at an unarmed youth are captured and reported as they occur without the intervention of the editing scissors. Secrets are exposed, opinions are aired, images are ruined, governments are toppled, virtually at the speed of thought. The internet vests the ordinary citizen with an extraordinary power.

However the power by no means can be construed as absolute. Because there have been umpteen abuses of the people power. The net, like the real world, is also full of all sorts of people from pedophiles to religious bigots to terrorists. Who use the internet to distribute disturbing images of persecution. To incite people. To spread terror. To rally mobs who threaten the very things the net stands for – personal freedom and dignity. To undermine the vibrant, diverse and powerful internet community. Which all triggers the uncomfortable debate – Does this power need to be regulated. Yes it does. A very different form of regulation though – community censorship.

Since the community bears the brunt of the actions of the web-maniacs, the censorship or regulation has to come within it. What would you do if a neighbor is abusing his 5 year old. Or if you know certain people are inciting communal tension. You would obviously take some form of action to stop the crimes. Well, do the same on the net. Your net footprint should mirror your good citizen values. The community has to react sharply to instances of abuse on the internet. The regulatory mechanism will come from within us. We need to see more instances of netizens reacting swiftly to abuses and slanders, instigation and defamation to keep the internet a generally nice place. Report content that so grossly undermines the pillars civic society is based on. Canvas against sites that for example spread communal tension. React to bad behavior as you would react to it in real life. And stick to your personal code of ethics despite the anonymity net offers. At the heart of the internet is the community. And it is the community which can rally to keep it a good place. Not necessarily agreeable to the state. But not detrimental to the fundamental tenets of the human society either.

India’s outsourcing industry – From jugad to strategy

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2011 – 20 years of the economic reforms. 20 years of the India story. A story scripted to a large extent by the booming service industry. India became the IT, ITES, BPO outsourcing hub of the world. Low costs, a huge talent pool contributed to make India the darling of the sector. The sector has generally ridden over issues such as language barriers, attrition rates, service complaints and scams such as the 2005 BPO scam involving Citibank accounts. To stay in a position of supremacy. Until recently when Phillipines pipped India to be the number one BPO destination. Greater China threatens to pip India’s KPO supremacy. The Indian IT players have been hit by global recession and a tightening of outsourcing rules in the largest markets: Europe and North America. India in general is struggling with the ghosts of corruption, red-tapism and a general policy paralysis. Factors such as low cost and a surplus of human resource are not working anymore. A failing global economy and rising competition from Latin America, East Europe and the Asian counterparts mean there are more players now competing for a slice of a smaller pie. And the Indian companies are forced back to the drawing boards to devise counter strategies. And jugad is not one of them.

Indian IT and BPO industry has consistently been a volume play. Leveraging the strengths of low costs and surplus of human resources. A closer look at the resource pool however does not present such a rosy picture. A high percentage of graduates passing out of colleges are still not employable. Nasscom puts the employability figure at a meager 25%. The huge diversity in India and the lack of uniformity in education policies have undermined a consistent profiling of resources. Inflation, consumerism and attrition have all pushed up salaries, operational costs. The factory shop-floor kind of approach which powered the IT juggernaut has started showing its clinks. The emphasis had traditionally not been on differentiation. The strength factors were cost and volume. Not insignificant factors. But when there are countries like China competing on volume and Latin America/ East Europe competing on cost plus the advantage of less distance(near-shore) and more cultural congruity; cost and volume will not be our tipping factors. The juggernaut has to change gears. The emphasis has to shift to quality of service, differentiated offerings, positioning up the value chain. Offer what no one else can offer. At competitive costs. Offer for example umbrella offerings covering every aspect of a process chain for a given sector. Concentrate on the value of the outsourcing deal brings to your clients. As the west grapples with unemployment and recession, outsourcing will be a carefully thought out decision. India has to go beyond being a low cost destination. It has to start with a comprehensive structural change from bottom up. Invest in skills by partnering with educational institutes. Lobby for educational reforms. Invest in new ideas and products/offerings. Move from a ‘I will do it anyhow’ to a ‘What is the most effective way to do it’ approach. Example you may want to create platform based solutions which will accelerate the process and reduce the probability of human errors. Move up the value chain by positioning yourself as a strategy partner. Your customer then opens up a larger part of the pie to you. Tighten operations and quality control – stiffer competition means the leeway for error is almost zero.

For all this to happen, the change has to be driven not just top-down but bottom-up as well. The leadership now has to be shown at the middle management level whose targets need to move from mere volume to emphasise quality, sustainability and innovation. Middle management has been the weakest link in the service outsourcing industry as it has struggled to bridge the gap between upper management vision and the operations on ground. This has to change. The vision and mission statements have to come down from the walls to water-cooler conversations. The change I am talking about is not a change in the boardroom policies alone. It is a collective, conscious and shared change to overhaul the perception. From a cheap provider of services. To a cost-effective provider of value.

Ofcourse as the emphasis shifts to moving up the value chain, margins will reduce. Niches will be carved out. Volumes will be hit. However let me tell you all this is already happening due to the global realities. Taking initial cuts and making strategic investments to tide this storm is now a survival decision. The choice hinges on whether we will be beaten at the own game by players who are better prepared than we thought. Or change the game by reinventing ourself as a more strategic player?