Tuesday 17 November 2009

Maybe we can teach them a few things

Most Western nations have small immigrant from third-world countries, often their former colonies. In quite a few cases, the immigrants are highly qualified. More often though, they are not.

Sometimes, it gets very messy with second and third generation immigrants - racially different, economically backward, politically weak and educationally unemployable in all but the worst paying jobs.

Yet, these immigrants form far smaller fractions of the Western nation’s populations than refugees did in India’s and Pakistan right after Partition.

1 in 6 Pakistani was a refugee, and 1 in 72 Indians was one.

The latter number is somewhat misleading, because those who came to India weren’t uniformly spread. Most came from from what had become East Pakistan and West Punjab, and came to West Bengal, East Punjab, Delhi and Bombay.

Anyway, as the West stood aside and licked its Second World War wounds, the two new and extremely poor nations had to deal with gigantic refugee populations besides all their other problems.

Neither covered itself with glory; neither could have. Yet, when compared to what the West has done, with a much smaller number of immigrants, coming over a far longer time, and with infinitely more resources at its disposal, India and Pakistan’s efforts are most creditworthy.

Perhaps instead of giving us uninvited advise all the time, the West can seek a lesson or two there.

How racism burst the dotcom bubble

In the pre-Internet era, ‘market’ meant ‘The West’. The S-curve counted only Westerners when calculating market penetration.

Somewhere the percentages became absolute numbers in analysts’ minds. Instead of asking ‘How long did it take this technology to reach x% of its potential market?’ they started to ask, ‘How long has it taken this technology to reach 50 million users?’

On that count, the Internet went mass with unprecedented rapidity. Unfortunately, in terms of the global population the penetration was – and continues to be - pathetically low.

And therein lay – and continues to lie - the problem.

As long as industry (and Net, but industry first) don’t reach the interiors of Africa and Asia, the Net does no more than tell people what they already knew. That wasn’t enough to justify the money that poured into it. And it isn’t enough to justify the hopes people have from it.

(My course textbook probably means exactly the same thing when it says that for most users the Net was a sustaining innovation, not a disruptive one.)

Let’s say an American business wants to know where he can buy widget XYZ. His Internet search leads him to 20 companies. Of these, two are already major suppliers of his; he has had some dealings with another two; another half dozen he’s heard of, but never bought from; and the rest are new names to him.

So, thanks to the Net, he knows something more than he did before he hit the ‘Search’ button.

Not quite.

The 10 companies he just found out about are probably very similar to the 10 he already knew. That is, they are Western companies selling the same thing at the same price.

In one or two cases, he may have got names and addresses of Chinese or Korean companies: The Net merely added specificity to what has long been common knowledge.

In short, he has some new (mostly useless) data but no new (useful) information.

Had the Net introduced him to a factory in Madhya Pradesh that supplied widgets at 50% of the others’ price, he’d have learnt something new. But he didn’t, because there aren’t any factories in MP.

But where does racism come into this?

Well, that’s a little complicated. “Your competitor is only a click away,” was a cliché from the early days of the Net. What this cliché did not say was, “…and he, and by extension the Net, won’t make any difference unless he’s also a continent away, trapped in poverty and, hence, able to offer a rock bottom price.”

For the analysts such people – we – did not exist. Consequently, we never entered the denominator when he calculated penetration. By underestimating the market the Net needed to reach, they (analysts) hugely overestimated the Net’s penetration, led investors awry, and burnt billions of dollars.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Global village

It goes somewhat like this. There is the old zamindar family. Actually, it’s not that old a family as zamindar families goes. Before they became zamindars they didn’t amount to much, but they immigrated, they worked hard, and were absolutely ruthless. So they did very well for themselves, more so after they got into industry after two centuries of farming.

But of late the shine seems to be waning. There is still plenty left though, and it’d take at least a couple of generations before there’s any serious damage. Anyway, they rule the roost. Besides, they have the henchmen, and might is right. Much might is absolutely right.

Then there are the traders. Actually, they were traders for most of their history, which is very long. In the middle, they fell in bad days, when their headman went cuckoo. However, of late they have taken over the industries that the zamindars consider it beneath themselves to run, and have prospered again. That they have no compunctions at all helps immensely.

They’ve also gotten into usury, lending mainly to the zamindars, primarily so that they can sell the produce from their factories to those zaminders. The zamindars gamble insanely too, a sure sign of irreversible decadence and decline. The end is as far as others think, hope the tradesmen-turned-industrialists. They’ve started to flex their muscles.

Finally, there are the poor Brahmins. Once they weren’t so badly off, but they fought incessantly between themselves and were reduced to slavery and penury.

When their old masters fell in bad times and abandoned them to their fate, they became hangers-on in the court of a nearby zamindar. That fellow was more a thug than anything else, and after some time he too softened and popped off.

The Brahmins had no choice but to try and live by their wits again. To their delight, they discovered that disuse hadn’t completely killed the little grey cells. They are still poor, but no longer so hopeless.

The main source of their hope is the employment they’ve got from the zamindars. The latter, as loath to use with their heads as they are to work with their hands, are only too happy to hand over the more mundane tasks to these newfound clerks.

In fact, they have discovered some of the Brahmins are quite smart, in their own way. To these, the zamindars offer a quick ticket out of poverty: “Break off from your people and live with us in our palace.”

Now, the traders want to figure out how far they can go, but without getting into trouble directly with the zamindar. Therefore, they’re pushing around the Brahmins, needlessly insulting them, and demanding various pieces of their land. The actual aim is to see how far they can go before the zamindars read out the riot act.

So far, the zamindars have looked the other way. Apparently, their debts have sealed their lips. Or so the traders hope.

The Brahmins, on the other hand, hope otherwise. “The zamindar is the traders’ biggest customer,” they say, “and if the traders have lent money, it’s only to keep their many factories running. Besides, the zaminders still have enormous muscle power. If they decide not to repay, there’s nothing those traders can do. Besides, if there’s any pushing around to be done around here, surely the zamindars would want a monopoly of that.”

And so we have a rather interesting situation. Nothing much is happening, though there’s a good deal of huffing and puffing. Let’s see how it goes.

PS: We are poor. We may have some dream, but not much to lose really. The US have a lot to lose - symbolically, for now; actually, later. And if we should remember 1962, the Chinese will do well to remember the Opium Wars.

Thursday 5 November 2009

No hats, no queers, no whores

At one time, everyone in the West wore hats, at least that’s what movies and photographs of that age tell us. Now, nobody does. Why?

I haven’t seen any same-gender PDA here. Does French homosexuality stay as much in the cupboard as the Indian variety does? Why?

I haven’t seen any prostitutes either, though plenty of beggars. (But then I’ve hardly ventured out after sundown.)

Is France actually a conservative country?

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Fighting friends

Tomorrow I have to make a short presentation on as my assignment for the Leadership course. Here is what it’ll be:

I read this story when I was eleven or twelve. I have tried to live its essence ever since.

Once, Akio Morita, founder of Sony and ‘serial disrupter’ had a roaring argument with his chairman, who was also a great opera singer. Their differences went to such an extent that the chairman said, “Mr Morita, it seems we cannot agree at all. I should resign.”

Morita’s reply represents the essence of leadership to me. “Mr Chairman,” he said, “That we disagree is why neither of us should resign. Had we agreed, the company would be paying one salary too many. One of us should then leave.”

An egomaniac can take decisions; a strong man can make others follow; a cold-blooded bean counter with a little bit of luck can please the stock market.

But it takes a true leader to create the culture where team members disagree without disrespect, defer without resentment, cooperate without agreement, and dissect without blaming.

A true leader makes friends unafraid to fight, because regardless of who loses, the team wins. And perhaps nothing spurs creativity – the fusing of two existing ideas to crate a new one – as the clash of ideas.

If we live in the Knowledge Age, then creativity is the key. The team who’ll win now is the team that’s the most creative, that is, the team of fighting friends.

(The details may be slightly wrong; I haven’t reread the piece in two and a half decades. Also, I have never led, nor will I. I have, however, always argued.)