This is Manish from Udaipur

This is about life and life in Udaipur. About me and about me in Udaipur.

From Efficiency to Advantage

From efficiency to advantage. This is the story of technology, and with some lag, story of IT services industry. Doing the same thing cheaper, faster or better is no longer sufficient.

Information Technology has been a great driver of speed and efficiency. Technology ROI has traditionally been seen as a function of efficiencies and the costs. This equation drove adoption of technology by industry globally, squeezing more efficiencies as technologies improved, and reducing costs by outsourcing, consolidating, and standardizing.

The twin vectors of efficiency and costs–building and feeding on themselves–have, since a few years, landed into a new territory. The quest to squeeze more efficiencies has paled against allure of creating sustained and unique advantage for the business made possible by digital innovation. Similarly, functional cost reductions via optimizing on how activities are performed have reached limits and the specter of wholesale outsourcing via cloud, for example, disrupts the traditional cost calculus. These have become universally available and easily accessible, thus no longer are source of advantage.

This is new, and strikes at the basis of the traditional IT industry business models. Interest has waned for IT services’ pitches of providing the commoditized capabilities at a reduced cost or a more optimized setup. Businesses have a reached a point where such efficiencies have become a norm and do not provide sustained competitive advantage. They surmise that the daunting task of transforming themselves cannot be helped by mechanistic, efficiency-minded tech services companies.

There are two key frictions at play here. One is past v present, and another is present v future. And their domain is bigger than the IT services or tech outsourcing. It is impacting all areas of tech industry.

Firstly, what is valuable today is different from what was yesterday. While there is some value in getting something done in a particular way, again and again, it does not confer ‘advantage’. As technology forces a rethink of their businesses, companies try to find “advantage”, even in the supposedly mundane tasks where, till some time ago, it was all about just getting those done. That means, it is no longer relevant to assess value in terms of effort. The worth of a job must be thought in terms of “advantage” that it can garner. That’s more complicated than costs per hour, much more intimate and ephemeral. Impact of innovative technology adoption–let’s say of cloud or machine learning–cannot be assessed with frameworks of current practices. So, management techniques and business models based on selling (or saving) effort at some sort of time rate are breaking down.

Secondly, the impact of the new capabilities of technology on technology industry itself is more pronounced and profound than it has ever been. While not there yet, the asymptotic nature of technology work is starting to become visible. Algorithms are not just replacing non-tech workers, but also techies. Today’s good programmers are taking away jobs from tomorrow’s. The power shift is multi-directional with the middle getting squeezed away. This poses an existential imperative for the industry and its constituents. As it gets automated or becomes available in smart user accessible chunks, merely delivering technology would cease to be a business or a job. Instead, those who deliver ‘advantage’, via technology or otherwise, would thrive.

Moments

Happiness, and pain and despair are fleeting, but powerful feelings. In those short moments they are remarkably convincing of their permanence, their relevance and their significance. Momentary episodes as they are–they seem to aggregate up to what our lives are. The aggregate which is bigger than a mere sum of its parts, with all the complexity emerging as these simple moments come together.

Or, is it? Perhaps, these moments are significant only as individuals. These fleeting moments which assert their profoundness to the aggregate are perhaps like minions guarding the gates of their masters. The despair that so boldly convinces us of its reason and permanence can fade just as a tiny another moment happens.

Or, maybe, these moments are important and significant just by themselves–having little bearing on anything bigger, and anything else having little bearing on them. Then, wouldn’t pain and despair lose their sting, and happiness need no reason?

Elections 2013 and NOTA

Yes, it has been five years. I wrote then about anti-incumbency being a powerful force, and so has been the case again in this assembly election in Rajasthan. BJP won unprecedentedly and so on. What did not find its justified mention in all the consequent hoopla was NOTA.

NOTA or ‘none-of-the-above’ option was exercised by more than half a million voters in Rajasthan. That these many people made the effort of walking to the polling booths, standing in a long queue, and having a finger nail shabbily painted, to not select anybody, does say a lot. Interestingly, in Delhi, the NOTA voters were much fewer, possibly because AAP did cover the NOTA sentiment.

However, AAP’s significant victory in terms of number of seats won betray a subtle fallacy. Fallacy, that elections are merely to elect a government. AAP signifies a body of belief, support to that was expressed by people. Just as a significant statement was made by people selecting NOTA. We vote to express our opinion. Even if does not lead to a win, it is relevant. The opinion so expressed would reverberate and strengthen many feedback loops within the system.

NOTA was the fourth largest voted option. In many instances the number of NOTA votes was more than the winning margin. That there is this large segment of voters ready to support a candidate or a party which addresses them properly, is a fact that polity cannot ignore.

Yes, good things ahead!

Enabling Platform

The complex set of technologies enabling today’s business need not be complicated. (See http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_berlow_how_complexity_leads_to_simplicity.html for a perspective on complex v complicated.)

Our observations of enterprise technology implementations reveal a preference for a rather simplistic approach of finding the best available technology solution for any specific problem area. Somehow these blinkered views of the problem space are expected to aggregate into a superior and enabling infrastructure for running a business. But mostly, this is a recipe for a fragmented and fractured collection of technology knick-knacks barely supporting the business processes at quite a cost.

For a business, there’s rarely one primary technology piece, but the technology initiatives are often run as if the current is the killer one. Case in point is ERP. ERP as an infrastructure for handling the business transactions is, of course, a key and a critical element for business enablement – but we have always asked more from technology and to achieve the competitive advantages or higher business efficiencies many more elements need to be orchestrated. Also, it is convenient (and misguided) to think of information systems as one other piece in the business’ jig-saw, a view that completely ignores the all-permeating nature of IT and end-less dependencies that information systems have.

This is complicated, nay, complex. This quagmire is compounded by presence of immense and ever-evolving technology options and the fact that parts of business may not fathom technology impact on business as a whole. Information technology is increasingly business critical and, of course, technology is a business decision. That, business process architecture is a key success factor, cannot be ignored.

Embracing complexity is the first step leading to emergence of simple solutions. One needs to step back (and, not dive deeper) and and take an overall view. The Platform Vision model allows us to do that being a method to discern, comprehensively, the business and technology architecture components. The knowledge about various industry verticals, major technology and services vendors and the value parameters for business impact can be, thus, used to ascertainment of best mix of business process and technology components.

This can lead to a roadmap for an enabling technology platform for business as the considerations of best fit and value along with technical and business dependencies, interoperability concerns and technology futures can be adequately addressed.

For Your Information

Didn’t you know: Emperor Nero received this email “Rome is burning, this is fyi.”

We watch news, read papers and listen to radio while driving and, do nothing more than participating in an adrenalin heavy – but largely inane – discussion on ‘current affairs’ at the friendly neighborhood paanwala (or equivalent, say, office water cooler or blogosphere). That’s how we handle fyi’s.  Be it global warming or spectrum allocation scam. Be it litter-on-road or office politics.

The corporate versions of fyi include ‘reports’. Typically thousands of them. As I learnt recently, a company identified some 5000 (and still counting) different reports being produced and circulated (communicated or consumed would not have been correct words) in their corporate head-quarters, and, on review, only 40 were deemed useful, that is ‘marked’ as useful by at-least one person. The fyi malaise is eminent when one looks into corporate emails.

Let’s say you receive some fyi email. It can only mean one of the following:

  • I am not sure what can be done about this
  • its not my job, maybe its one of the 17,000 recipients on this email
  • my job is to inform you, I don’t care otherwise (the journalist)
  • don’t bother doing anything about it
  • aw, hot potato
  • just wanted to ensure that I can save my ass using the shield of collective responsibility, or you are now partner-in-crime
  • not sure, what can you do about this, uhh, wait a second, what do you do here?

There are variants of ‘fyi’, having the same import as above, like, “for necessary action” (what action, for what purpose) or, amazingly vague, “for needful” (I don’t have a freaking clue about this, so let me use this Raj-relic on you.) or “review and comment” (on the thousand page attachment).

The fyi-person has little inclination to think through or figure out. He has no intention to solve the problem, and so is loathe to articulate and argue. He is happy un-named and un-attached. He is content with cheap pleasures of cribbing and bitching. He is wary of pain of creation and is afraid of scrutiny.

A person with mission does not need fyi’s. He will figure out what’s needed and get it (maybe use RTI or Google or WikiLeaks or a fanciful business intelligence tool or not-so-fancy Excel). He will not bombard people around with vague requests (“needful”) or unsolicited updates (he will have results to show). He will ask specific person for specific help with a specific request. If he is unclear, he will build candidate clarifications and ask specifically if they stand scrutiny. (Aha, the scientific method!). He will differentiate between facts and opinions, and will have his own opinions. He will be his own beacon (atma deepo bhav – as a Sanskrit blessing goes.)

He gets (in an active sense) informed and he acts.

The bigotry of passive consumption of information is spreading, permeating and enveloping us all. I have little doubt that this is cause and symptom of institutional limbo.

How to Change the World

Two simple steps:
     1.  Be the change
     2.  Be proud of it

The first step is actually self evident. Mahatma Gandhi famously said: Be the change you wish to see in the world. Of course, easier said than done. The hard part is not ‘being’ the change but to project the change we want in the world to ourselves. Its difficult because its easier to find fault with others, blame some ‘them’, and, as I learnt sometime back, we are hard wired for ‘agentism’. So there’s always somebody else (not us) who needs to change to make our world happier, better place.

It tolls for thee. Our predisposition to suspect this somebody as source of problems leads us to find solution there. So we take ourselves out of the change equation and, send for whom the bell tolls!

The second part is really a corollary. It asks us to revolt against the tyranny of common sense. (Thanks Sir Ken Robinson for this phrase.) I believe that we fundamentally are what we desire to be. We get trained, conditioned and constrained to be something else. These constraints, conditioning, and training form the norms, the status quo. These cause us to be apologetic as we attempt to do right (whatever we think to be right, that is). And, these make us to fool ourself into rationalizing our compliant activities. Maybe we loathe to change because it would be construed as stupid. But maybe there’s a larger constituency waiting to be converts, waiting for one to change and be proud of it.

So Who Do I Blame For This

We all are wired in some quirky ways. The wiring works well in a range of situations, but the complex dynamics of modern life throw a lot of situations where our such learnt reactions are not just non-optimal, they are damaging. The research suggest a negative agency bias—negative events are more often attributed to the influence of external agents than similarly positive and neutral events, independent of their subjective probability. (Morewedge, 2009) People generally appear to suspect that the causal origin of events is a prime mover—an intentional agent that initiates the first event in a causal chain of events (Rosset, 2008; Vinokur & Ajzen, 1982).

It is important to realize that we all are victims of this bias. Maybe this awareness can lead us to question the rationality and reasonability of our reactions – which mind so passionately insists to be so. Yes, our lives aren’t perfect, but we do not have to always find somebody to blame. But, we do and when we do the little accountant in our head increments the counter. Unknown to the person being blamed, the count just gets bigger and bigger. There are situations and there are reactions. Reactions which are function not of the situation but of the count. The little accountant has a viral way of keeping itself employed and grow its clan – the reaction triggers many more counters.

Hmm… so is this why the life is how it is? Or maybe the conspiracy theorists are right.

These Eventful Five Years

We recently completed (on July 1) five years of operations as Advaiya. As we celebrated this milestone for the organization and for the team members who have travelled along this journey, we did look back through these years with nostalgia and pride. During these years, the organization has indeed seen growth, and successes and failures, but most importantly we have matured into a community of passionate professionals, working with whom is rewarding, stimulating, and fun.

The Email Quagmire

Yes, email is great. Its the most important invention after the wheel. But what happens when fools don’t stop and wont know how to put a full-stop.

Exasperated, as I am, I really cannot codify what (in my very humble opinion) are the email usage rules. Its like any other medium of expression: using email is an art and artists are rare.

While shabbily composed, heavily acronym’d emails can be considered a minor irritant, what would you say when such emails have been marked to seventeen and copied to seventeen thousand people. Would one even be able to say anything when someone does a ‘reply-all’ to this email. Loopy. Loony.

I can still think of two rules:

  • Avoid sending emails. (Use phone, IM, blog or, even better,  just walk up to that person.) I believe use of email can only be justified if what you write makes an original contribution to the wellbeing of the mankind!
  • If you have to hit ‘send’, send it to as few people as possible.

Email is not work. Sending an email does not mean completing a task. If an email has crossed your outbox, it doesn’t mean that responsibility has now been transferred to the seventeen thousands and seventeen other souls. And, if you measure your importance by number of emails you receive – you are certainly not important.

Gamzatov’s Daghestan

How can this not resonate with me? Rasul Gamzatov in his book, My Daghestan writes about his village, Tsada.

Tsada! Seventy warm hearths. Blue smoke rising from seventy chimneys into the clear mountain sky. White saklias standing-on black soil. Flat green fields facing the aul and the white cottages. Beyond the village rise the mountains. Grey cliffs overhang our aul like so many children who have gathered on a flat roof to get a view of the wedding in the courtyard.

When I arrived at Tsada, I recollected a letter Father wrote home on his first visit to Moscow. It was always hard to say when Father was joking and when he was in earnest. Moscow was a surprise to Father.

"It looks as though here in Moscow people do not light fires on their hearths to do their cooking, since I do not see any women kneading kiziak on the walls of their dwellings, or smoke rising above the roofs, like Abutalib’s shaggy fur hat. Neither do I see the stone rollers we use to tamp down the earth on our roofs. I do not see people here drying hay on their roofs. But if they do not dry hay, what do they give their cows for fodder? I haven’t seen a single woman making her way with a faggot or a load of grass. I have not heard the strains of the surna or the sounds of the tambourine. One might think people did not get married here or celebrate weddings. No matter how long I have walked the streets of this strange city, I have not seen a single sheep. Now the question is: what do Moscow people slaughter when a guest crosses the threshold? How, if not with a slaughtered sheep, do they greet the arrival of a valued friend? No, I do not envy this way of life. I want to be back home at Tsada where I can eat khinkali to my heart’s content, after telling my wife to use plenty of garlic…."

Father found many other faults with Moscow when he compared it with his native aul. He was, of course, joking when he expressed surprise at seeing no kiziak drying on Moscow walls, but he was not joking when he said he preferred his little aul to the great city. He loved his Tsada and would not exchange it for all the capitals on our planet.

My beloved Tsada! I have returned to you from that vast world Father found so many "faults" with. I have travelled all over that world and seen much to marvel at. My sight has been" dazzled by an abundance of beauty, unable to settle on any one object. My glance has passed on from one splendid temple to another, one fair face to another, but I have known that, no matter how lovely what I now see is, I shall see something lovelier tomorrow…. The world, don’t you see, is boundless.

I crave forgiveness of the pagodas of India, the pyramids of Egypt, and the basilicas of Italy; I also crave that forgiveness of the motorways of America, the boulevards of Paris, the parks of Britain, and the mountains of Switzerland, as well as of the women of Poland, Japan and Rome. I have admired you all, but my heartbeat has remained steady; if my pulse has become a little faster it has not done so sufficiently for a feeling of dryness in my mouth or for a sense of momentary dizziness.

So why is it that the sight of seventy saklias hugging the foot of the rocks can make my heart throb so that my ribs ache, my eyes grow misty, and my head dizzy as though I were ill or drunk?

Can it be that a little village in Daghestan is fairer than Venice, Cairo or Calcutta? Is the Avar woman I see treading a footpath with a load of faggots more comely than a tall fair-haired Scandinavian woman?

Tsada! I wander in your fields and the cool morning dew bathes my tired feet. I lave my face, not even in mountain rivulets but in the waters of springs. They say that if you are thirsty, drink from a spring that wells up from the earth. It is also said-and Father said the same-that only in two cases should a man fall to this knees-to drink from a spring and to pluck a flower. Tsada, you are my spring. I fall to my knees and drink deep draughts of you.

I see a stone, and seem to make out a shadowy figure on it-myself as I was thirty years ago. I am sitting on the stone, watching a flock of sheep. There is a shaggy fur hat on my head, a long staff in my hands, and dust on my feet.

I see a path and see the same shadowy figure on it-myself as I was thirty years ago. I am making my way to a neighbouring aul, probably on an errand for Father.

At every step I meet myself, my childhood years, with their spring seasons, their rains, flowers, and the falling leaves of autumn.

I strip and stand under a sparkling waterfall. As it falls from a rock, the stream breaks into eight cascades to gather together again and again until it crashes on to my shoulders, arms and head. Compared with my cool waterfall, the shower-bath at the Palais Royal Hotel in Paris is a plastic toy.

Among the boulders a pool has been formed by a side-trickle from a mountain rivulet, and warms up during the day. The bluish bath-tub at the Metropole Hotel in London is merely a hand-basin compared with my mountain bathing-place.

Indeed, I am fond of strolling about big cities, but after five or six long walks, a city becomes familiar, and all desire to continue with my walks is dulled.

But here I was walking along the little streets of my aul for the thousandth time but there was no sense of satiation, no loss of desire to tread them.

Beautiful!

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