Friday, June 19, 2015


You can earn unlimited money.
You know, theoretically.
If you sell, sell, sell
This thing that we make.

You have signed up
because you know you are greedy
And we know it too.
Yes, yes, aiming for a better life -
Whatever makes you feel better.

We can give you instances of how
That guy got rich. Humble background
Little education. But he worked hard.
And worked customers. And dealers.
And now look where he is.

What do we make?
We make everything that makes human lives better.
Fertilizers. Medicines. Guns. Carbonated drinks.
Computers too. All excellent quality stuff, we assure you.
It makes life worth living.

But, here's the rub: It just doesn't sell enough without you-
young, keen to prove yourself, untiring.
And here's the bigger rub: You will need to prove that you are young
as you keep getting older.
Untiring, as you keep getting tired.

You have kids? Excellent! Do it for them!
Sell our goods. They need to be ready.
Have you seen the competition outside?
You can never be prepared enough.

Just out of college?
Here’s the best opportunity to prove your mettle, young man!
This job will change your life –a stable job and lots of money
Which girl’s father can resist that?

It’s an exciting life!
Conference calls will happen
Where your Regional Manager will rip you apart
And everyone else on the call.
And you’ll accept it as part of the job.

Every SKU that you sell
Will have a free gift inside –
Shards of your self-esteem
Remnants of con-calls.

But you will toughen up.
The system will recreate your ego and self esteem.
And you will feel a glow of pride when you tell others
How you are the best salesman in the Upper-North-Central territory
And how your Regional Manager
Once congratulated you
On selling a few more pieces than others.

We need dynamism, we need verve
We create clear paths, like an exceedingly simple snakes-and-ladders game
Because even you should understand it.
Manage your distributor, manage your credit period.

Glory awaits!
Oversell fertilizers, get your trip to Thailand
(Just the place for a hot-blooded young man like you! I’ll tell you where to go, too!)
Don’t worry about the runoff into the water table
Our Liaison Officer in the Capital will handle it

Sell carbonated drinks
Make the most of this summer
Water table? Again?
Can’t you think of anything else?
Think of your numbers, young man!
And the infinite money you can theoretically make...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rescuing Talent Management from War and Drought

Talent. Savour the word. It's a word that straightens backs in HR and gets business excited. And gets both worried that they don't have enough of it. 

It all started with 'The War for Talent', a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey and made famous in a book by the same name, written by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod. 

So, what do they really mean by talent? Well, now we go in murky waters. The book does not explicitly define talent. At one point, the book uses a 'definition' which was famously used to define obscenity. "you  know it when you see it." Later, talent is defined as a combination of things which tick all the right boxes for an organization - strategic mind, 'leadership ability' (which itself is vague), ability to attract other talented people (which compounds the problem by adding a new layer of vagueness) and so on...

Saved by the Billing Machines

Some things are too good to be left to pass away unnoticed. Enthusiastic support by consultants led to a multiplicity of definitions, some talking about the power of the top performers to transform the organization while some taking a workforce-based approach, defining all employees as talent pool, thereby converting HR into Talent Management. Today, the field is deliciously open, where both definitions coexist. Talent, depending on the context, therefore, may be the top 5% of your employees in terms of potential and/or performance, your leaders (hopefully, there is a huge overlap in the two categories mentioned) or your universal set of employees. You just have to know which witch is which.

Have we lost to jargon?

Given this illustrious background, it would be easy to assume that talent management is another term we shall hopefully grow out of. But TM has had a positive impact on organizations in three ways:

1. Going beyond KRAs, KPIs and numbers:
Before TM entered the scene, it was not easy to have a conversation with CEOs about creating systems to identify and nurture leaders, primarily because such discussions were drowned out in the din of sales and performance numbers. While there were many techniques available to groom leaders, it was TM that gave a framework on which a generally accepted understanding of the importance of leadership was created. 

2. Sheep which follow v/s goats which need to be led:
TM helped, admittedly to a small extent, to push forth the realization that people bring a dimension of their personalities to work and more importantly, this dimension can have a big impact on the organization. Before TM, the context of organization-employee relations was defined more by welfare, fair wages and remuneration, hierarchy-led growth and 'human capital'. TM talked of the disproportionate impact that star employees can create for the organization. Using systems which force-fitted them in the context of seniority and equality rather than equity was seen to be dangerous.

3. Talent is fungible and loyal to itself:
TM helped created a vital link between the external situation and internal requirements. It brought home the clear message that people who are capable of changing the fortunes of an organization are in short supply and worryingly for organizations, are not bound by industry, country or job loyalty. Talent does what it must.

Great. So we are sorted.

Not really. There are still some issues that TM needs to confront. Here are three:

1.The metaphor that isn't:
I argue that the framing of TM issues still leaves a lot to be desired. Let us look at three terms: 'War' for talent. 'Drought' of talent. Talent 'acquisition'.
In my opinion, these terms tend to frame the concept of talent in a biased way. Talent is seen to be an asset that needs to be captured, because it is scarce. Like oil, perhaps. This is a linear view and can be quite incorrect. Human beings have a capacity to learn, unlearn and adapt. To give an accounting analogy, the current view of talent is that talent is an asset comparable to machinery or Capital Goods, that tend to depreciate over time (or have a clearly calculable and linear initial book value, rate of depreciation and 'scrap value'). People tend to behave differently, especially in situations where they are nurtured. They tend to be like Goodwill, an asset which tends to appreciate over time and whose increase in value cannot be determined through a linear formula, but can vary due to a variety of forces.

2. The lag that doesn't go:
Most TM systems tend to sit beside, or on top of, conventional HR systems of performance appraisal, role-based compensation and near-linear career paths. Very few HR Departments are able to take bold decisions and re-imagine HR systems from the ground up, which put the appreciation of abilities of the individuals as the core of their design. For example, coaching and mentoring can be a non-negotiable part of performance management. Career paths can be customised and supported for individual employees. Today, there are tools available that enable HR and line managers to manage such systems. But it takes a brave HR department, and a wise Top Management, to appreciate and create this.

3. The end result that isn't:
Most TM practitioners (yes, they are a thing. Yes, I am one of them) will admit to a feeling of disappointment at the end of a TM assignment. Quite often, the benefits of TM are not at all visible. When the mandate is to recognize top talent, TM practitioners end up giving a list of top talent based on various assessments. When TM systems, such as talent 'acquisition', need to be set up, TM practitioners integrate competencies into the recruitment process (that is what talent acquisition means) and present a competency-based hiring solution to the top management. I argue that that isn't the end result: end-to-end talent based systems tend to only exist on delicious-looking Powerpoint slides and are rarely implemented. this could be due to a variety of reasons, but in the end, the failure is seen to be that of HR and the TM practitioner. A painfully frank talk is required, before getting into a TM solution.Can the organization afford a TM approach, given the attention it requires? I am not even talking of things like sensitization of managers here. Does the organization have the basic time and willingness to make TM a vital component of their organizational process? What benefits does the organization see from the TM process? What are the reasons to go for TM? :  Is it driven by a desire to keep up with the latest buzzword (even though TM is not exactly new)? Is there an investor who needs to be impressed? These are the wrong sort of reasons to go in for a TM initiative and it tends to show in the final outcome of the initiative. Also, and very few consultants will tell you this, there are perfectly good ways in which organizations can succeed with conventional HR systems as well.

In sum, talent management has evolved its own set of definitions and today is accepted as an important part of the new organization. However, Talent Management needs a rescue act from itself, as it exists today. A clear boundary of what it can and cannot do and what it should and shouldn't do, is critical before embarking upon Talent Management interventions.

Monday, May 19, 2014

We are all not Dooned!

People of a certain vintage, like me, remember Mani Shankar Aiyar (MSA) for his cringe-inducing sycophancy, when, in 2004, Sonia Gandhi boldly refused to anoint herself as the Prime Minister, choosing the mild-mannered Clark Kent/Superman Dr. Manmohan Singh instead. While almost everybody respected Dr. Singh, whose Kryptonite was unknown then, many would have felt a huge drop in respect for MSA. His pathetic pleading to Sonia Gandhi, which seemed more out of a hastily scripted amateur drama by Doon students than a real outpouring of dismayed surprise of the elected representatives of the world’s largest democracy, was a shining example of grovelling to the Dynasty. MSA laid low for a long time after that, or perhaps people ignored him and moved on. 
MSA may have many faults, but lack of hubris is not one of them. Neither is the lack of ability to generate a congress of foot and mouth. Generations will remember him for the graciousness with which he deigned to give permission to Narendra Modi to sell tea at the AICC meet. And while lesser mortals would have known when to stop, he decided to charge into angel-less areas by writing a paean of subtlety in the Indian Express (17th May 2014). Modestly titled as ‘The Dying Light of Freedom’, the article gravely proclaims that the verdict (BJP’s ascension to power) is ‘the deepest challenge to the idea of India since Jinnah’s two-nation theory'. 
The amateur drama script streak continues after all these years. I quote the first two sentences of the article: ‘Darkness descends. The idea of India gutters’. Rational people should have thought twice about reading on. But one could not resist. How can one remain rational when someone claims that your country’s existence is at stake? 

So, moving on…Godwin’s Law states that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. But apparently, if you have a Doon + St. Stephen’s  + Oxbridge + Indian Foreign Service background, you get to refer to Nazis and Hitler unilaterally! In the fourth paragraph of this excellent article, MSA warns us that the new Government awaits its ‘Godhra opportunity’ and invokes the fire-loving Communist with learning difficulties, Marinus Van Der Lubbe. MVDL set the Reichstag building on fire and gave the Nazis a reason to attack communists. Now, it needs an enlightened (literally!) imagination to conflate these two incidents, which seem to have nothing in common except arson. To fight the good fight before it begins, MSA comes up with a solution which is called, I kid you not, Sadbhavna Sena (the Good Faith/Good Intentions Army). Yes, an army to deal with an elected, but yet-to-be formed Government’s nefarious ulterior agenda, which is crystal clear to MSA. But don’t worry; the army will act in Good Faith. Because it will be an Army of “secular forces”, which, as we all know, always act in Good Faith. 
The target for MSA’s next attack is the ‘unashamed crony capitalism’ that is seen in the ‘so-called’ Gujarat model. A subordinate attack is launched in the next sentence on the thousands of crores of Rupees that flowed into the BJP campaign. All these are legitimate issues that need to be taken up. Especially by a party that presided over Commonwealth Scam, 2G Scam, Coal-gate and other sundry scams. And all ‘donations’ to the Congress Party in the past 150 odd years have been totally accounted for. It’s just that, like the Adarsh files, the books have probably gone missing. MSA also slides in another Hitler reference here, a nuanced sledgehammer to go with the earlier subtle Battering Ram. The next sentence is an even more interesting one. MSA compares his party and other ‘socialists’ to Lilliputians and big business to Gullivers (both plural). This is perhaps one sentence one partly agrees with – the first part, to be exact. 
If your gag reflex has still not kicked in, MSA has just the thing for you. The next sentence is stupendous in itself:
“Parliamentary institutions have been severely mauled in the BJP’s clambering to power.”
Read that again. MSA, a representative of UPA II, complains that institutions have been weakened. The mind boggles and everything goes black, just like the pots and kettles in that delightful phrase. 
MSA does not disappoint in the remainder of this genteel piece. He talks about ‘catastrophe worse than two World Wars’ unfolding, in case the yet-to-take power Government gives in to ‘immediate popularity’.  After around five minutes, I stopped running around in circles, shouting, “Save me as you always have, my dear Congress! I love you!”  and collected my breath and wits (I use the term loosely, after thinking about the gargantuan intellect of MSA) and tried to think of what that meant. It probably meant nuclear holocaust on the Indian subcontinent. But I remembered MSA, in an article written many moons ago, calling nuclear devices ‘patakas’ (this was in 1998, when the then AB Vajpayee Govt. Carried out nuclear testing). Surely, that isn’t something to worry about? Why, there are more explosions in Pakistan when Pakistan wins a One-Day against India! 
All in all, MSA wants to tell us a few important things. One, a majority of adult Indians are idiots or simpletons, who really should have voted better and allowed the absolutely topping noblesse oblige clique to continue helping those pore Indians. Can you imagine a chaiwallah, who must have sold that milky sweet Indian tea (not Darjeeling, dahling!) to those sweaty, smelly, dirty train passengers, sitting with us in good old Parliament?
Two, NDA equals the death-knell of plural thought, because we are one Godhra away from Chaos. Because of the idiot voters, who chose plebeian things such as food, water and jobs over the really important things like Congress-flavored secularism, all ‘socialists’ will have to be extra alert to find issues, both real and imagined. 
Three, there can be no doubt that Modi is an incarnation of Hitler, who sees non-Hindus as worthy of ‘reducing to sufferance’. Muslims, especially, who seem to have voted for BJP and Modi (e.g., in Delhi) have not seen his true colours.
Four, Congress must bear the Wheatish Man’s burden and ensure that those pore Muslims and Christians are protected. This time from themselves, since a few have voted for BJP.

Noblesse must oblige.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Right to Convenient Information Act

On 12th October 2012, The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, made a speech to the annual Convention of Information Commissioners. The speech had the usual platitudes expected from the Prime Minister of the largest creakily functioning democracy in the world. What made people get up from the somnolence brought about by these type of speeches was an ominous part which, interestingly, had words like frivolous and vexatious in it. Reproduced below:
There are some obvious areas of concerns about the way the Right to Information Act is being used presently, and I had flagged a few of them when I addressed this Convention last year. There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose. Sometimes information covering a long time-span or a large number of cases is sought in an omnibus manner with the objective of discovering an inconsistency or mistake which can be criticized. Such queries besides serving little productive social purpose are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man-hours that could be put to better use. Such requests for information have in fact come in for adverse criticism by the Supreme Court as well as the Central Information Commission.
 There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that it needs to be analyzed in detail. The worrying part is that the things wrong with the paragraph are wrong in principle.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Battleground Office Suite

Software has always been an arena, with its sands bloodied with the invincible behemoths of the past, one set of Goliaths usurped by new Davids who become Goliaths themselves as their popularity and ubiquity increases. However,  there are some wars which have continued for what can be called ages in software years: the browser wars  (Remember Netscape and Lynx?) or recently, the mobile OS wars. Microsoft vs. Apple are locked in eternal struggles for users'  screen real-estate, irrespective of the dimensions of the screen.
But there is one software that is almost as necessary as the Operating System itself: the office suite. It is in the cloud, like Google Docs or MS Office Live (or whatever it is called); or on your Mac or Windows desktop or laptop, like MS Office. On your handheld device be it an Apple, Blackberry or Android. Or, if you are like me, on your Linux desktop as well.

But there are hardly any suites which are open source. And none, repeat none, that are good and open source. Libre Office, a fork of Open office, another open source office suite (which apparently took 20 years to make and ended up looking like the disfigured twin of Office 97) was supposed to fill in this gap. Not to put too fine a point on it, it sucks. Currently, at least. As my friend/sister, an avid Ubuntu user herself said, "I used MS Office after a long time...I didn't want to do it, but it felt so right!" I could very well relate to it. MS Office, despite its memory hogging, buggy experience, just works. It is as intuitive as it can be. There are thoughtful touches, tremendous resources available online for help, attractive colour combinations and themes built in...the works.

And what do we have in the Red corner? Ghastly colours, unintuitive, Socialist-era layout and GUI (Hey, it can't be open source if it doesn't make you sweat. How else will you feel good about yourself and self-validate your choices?). The latest version of Libre Office Impress (the equivalent of MS Powerpoint) on Ubuntu 12.04 repeatedly crashed while opening a Powerpoint presentation, which had no animations, slide transitions or any other bells and whistles. This is in 2012.

Why? Is it not obvious that a cross-platform Office Suite which works the same way whether it is on your Android Device or you IPad, is simple to use and offers great choices for creating documents, presentations and spreadsheets is humanity's requirement? Much more than the browser ever was? Imagine a powerful spreadsheet open source software that allows kids in Somalia the same type of tools to do their math and essays as the executive in Manhattan - or even better, allows the executive in Manhattan to redefine her tools (hey, it's open source) as easily as the primary school teacher in Somalia. The first one exists, it is called MS Office. The second is still a gleam in some people's eyes.

Are there people out there who are willing to redesign the whole Office Suite experience? Who can bring the power of MS Excel on low powered tablets? Designers who write magical code which can allow PhD students to create complex mathematical models and B-School students to ace their presentations or better still, create a new form of presentation beyond the confines of Powerpoint? Can an MS Visio comparable allow Engineering students to draw complicated process flows or better still, convert those process diagrams into CAD by itself? There is a lot of promise (and fame) to create this open source paradigm. Who will rethink the Office Suite?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Law of Inspiration

Human psychology interests me. That is one of the reasons why I am in this profession. The need for humans to write, narrate and be inspired by stories, both fantasy and reality, is a continuing source of fascination for me. And the interaction of these narratives, especially the magnum opuses, with human beings' lives is even more interesting.

What accounts for football fan riots? Why did more than 70000 people in Australia declare their religion was Jedi? (Link). Why are people ready to kill others inspired by the rousing lines and episodes in their holy books?

The answer, I have found, is quite simple. It can be read to the cadence of Arthur C Clarke's third Law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The Law of Inspiration simply states:

Any sufficiently broad narrative can be used as a guide for making life decisions. 
The Corollary to the Law of Inspiration is:

The sufficiently broad narrative chosen as a guide for making life decisions will be applied completely out of context for self-serving ends.
There are more corollaries here, but I leave it to you, dear reader, to come up with them. In your free time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Long Overdue Movie Review: Deool (the Temple) Marathi

Go for it. If you are the type who wants an 'executive summary' before reading a review and believe stars look better in the sky than in movie reviews, then I suggest you watch Deool. It has a  rap song, a garish temple, a car with a number plate (4131) which is stylized to read as 'Bhau' (elder brother, or Don), a God-finding cow, lots of politics and superb cinematography. And lots more. 

Deool, which is a corrupted/colloquial form of the word Devalay (abode of God), means temple in Marathi. The movie tackles the issue of temple towns and how and why they grow...and prosper, especially in rural Maharashtra. And by extension, the rest of India. At a deeper level, it is an interesting commentary about belief, scepticism and how rural development can (and is) shaped by these thoughts. 

Deool pans into the breathtaking desolateness of the village of Mangruul, a sleepy, boring and electricity-deprived hamlet where nothing much really seems to happen. Yes, there are ruins of an ancient civilization discovered in the village, but that is not really very exciting for the village folk. The hamlet does not even have a proper S.T. (State Transport) bus stop. 

Keshya, a cowherd, is a simpleton charged with tending to the local politician's (Nana Patekar) cow. The cow, Kardi (Kardi comes from the colour Karda - greyish brown - a little like naming the cow Browny), is one of the two-three most important things in Keshya's life. Keshya, while once chasing the perpetually moving cow, finds her under a Banyan tree. As the heat saps his energy, he falls in a dazed slumber. And a strange dream envelopes him. He sees Lord Dattatreya (Dutta) in it. Shaken by this vision, he runs into the village to share this astounding incident. People knowing Keshya don't immediately take him seriously. Only his mother, after her initial indifference abates, believes him. The headman's wife, once she hears of this story, starts believing this as well. Soon, the meme is developed and people start talking about it, with a mix of mirth and mock-seriousness.  The senior wise man of the village, Anna (played by Dilip Prabhavalkar), one of the first persons with whom Keshya shares his vision, advises him to keep it to himself, since belief is a personal thing.
But such a thing cannot remain under wraps. Bhau's nephew and his band of wastrels are keen to latch on to something which can propel them into the big league. They get this news into a local newspaper (called 'Mahasangraam' - the great war) by paying the local reporter. Bhau is initially against this idea and in favour of building a hospital in the village. Anna creates the blue print and the plans and there seems to be an implicit agreement to get the project funded by Bhau. But in a coup of sorts, Bhau's political leader does a turnaround and asks Bhau to support the Dutta phenomenon.

And then, it begins. A temple town comes up in front of our eyes. The temple, the centre-piece of the sleepy village, is constructed. Earlier wastrels become dedicated volunteers, using 'moral suasion' in the way only religiously motivated volunteers can - getting donations from students, making people pay up by getting them to commemorate tiles in the temple in the names of their dear departed and asking businessmen to include Lord Dutta as a business partner - for luck and profits.

Anna can only watch in dismay as private belief - and fear - is exploited and commercialized in a superstructure which feeds itself. New stories of the Lord's miracles are created, devotional songs to the tune of Bollywood Blockbusters are sold on CDs and flowers and coconut plates (which are meant as offerings to the deity) are sold - and resold - to the believers by the 'simple' townsfolk.

Bhau, who by now has re-established his position as the most important and influential person in the village, realizes that Anna is dismayed enough to leave the village. He goes to meet Anna and then follows a dialogue which defines the core of the movie. I will not describe it here, it is better to watch it. One exchange, which I will mention though, is this:

Anna: Blatantly illegal things are happening in the name of development. One day, the Law will catch up with you, Bhau!
Bhau: Anna, on this side we stand, on the other side stands the Law...and between us, flows the endless stream of devotees. To reach us, Law will have to cross this stream and in doing so, it will hurt the sentiments of those devotees...(then, in a reassuring tone) everything will happen legally, don't worry.
Anna eventually leaves. But he is not the only one who is bothered by this unstoppable 'progress'. Keshya, the simpleton, cannot make sense of his surroundings. He cannot fathom why his mother doesn't go to the temple everyday to pray , but is perfectly happy to sit outside and sell flowers. Her response that if all villagers keep going to the temple, outsiders will never be able to see the Lord only angers him. After a fistfight with Bhau's nephew and the unbearable shock of seeing Kardi pass away, he takes a bold decision. 

You need to see the rest.

You need to see it, because, really (and pardon my pun), the Deool is in the details.

The brilliant performance by almost all actors, be it the way Sonali Kulkarni (Bhau's wife) walks and talks, with the easy confident air of being the First Lady of the village, Keshya's discomfort when his wife-to-be hugs him (she's still his wife-to-be, after all!), Bhau's ability to quickly turn on a dime, the weak and venal female Sarpanch, who cannot take any decision unless authorized by Bhau (or her mother-in-law), the wastrel gang who suddenly turn into powerful and honourable citizens - all turn in performances that flow effortlessly. 

The other level of detail is the keen observation of modern village life that never fails to evoke surprise and laughter - the old lady who keeps watching Saas bahu serials wearing her post-cataract dark goggles, the fantastic number plate on Bhau's SUV, the simple bhajan (devotional songs) singer in the village who sings touching, uncomplicated songs, but struggles to reproduce them to Bollywood tunes - and which is done very easily by Bhau, Bhau's larger than life poster, which is in the inimitable style of village politicians (in a walking position, talking on the cell phone)...all add up to a fantastic, funny mix.

This movie is thoroughly deserving of the National Award for the Best Film and Best Actor (Girish Kulkarni - Keshya)