Degrees of customer centricity in today’s business world

Born in the 70’s, “Customer is King” was the business mantra I grew up listening to. But it no longer seems to be the case. While the advent of Internet has been the biggest disruptive force to hit the world of business, there is a lot more behind the journey of the business world to where it is now.

There are two factors to be clearly understood and even wary about when driving a business enterprise to it’s success – acceptance and adoption. In the brick and mortar model of business, it is extremely difficult to foresee changing customer preferences or what factors would drive customers to change their preferences. A simple example is the Indian film industry. A commercially successful movie was supposed to have a certain number of action sequences, songs, dance scenes, emotional scenes and comedy. It was the blueprint for success in Bollywood (and still is in some regional film industries) until a first time director (Farhan Akhtar) shattered the stereotype in 2001. It was the fear of acceptance that had kept Bollywood from evolving out of the rut it got stuck in. Same was the case with the world of business as well. The same fear of acceptance kept Kodak from disrupting it’s own business model by embracing the digital camera before it was too late.

The increased adoption of technology in business made collection of data from business easier and software applications made it possible to collate data from different business segments, analyze them and understand what factors are driving businesses up and down. Adoption of the internet and the advent of eCommerce finally broke the fear of acceptance and adoption as online stores does not even cost a fraction of the brick and mortar ones.

One fear gave way to a new one – customer support and satisfaction. As customers started adopting to technology and accepting new and radical products, it became imperative to measure and understand how satisfied the customers are. Back in 2004, my life was meandering through regular IT support jobs when I was hired for the project of a European client, at a time when I had no idea that IT support services were getting outsourced. One incident changed my professional life and helped me understand my way ahead. One of the client’s software applications had stopped working and it was reported to the support team I was part of. We worked on the issue as per the priority on which the issue was reported. When we informed the client that the issue was resolved, we got the feedback that what we worked on was an invoicing application and in the time we took to resolve the issue, they had lost a number of orders. The problems associated with it were manifold. Poor understanding of client’s business applications, wrong prioritization of their issues, all of these stemmed from the lack of understanding of client’s business environment and their requirements which led to the support team working on an issue with no understanding of its business impact.

In my next job, I worked on a product in a client’s environment for more than 2 years and was able to create a new system design for the product’s upgrade in a few hours, not merely because of my knowledge of the product but because of my understanding of the client’s business environment and the needs of its different business units. When I was sent to a client’s premise in the UK as the leader of a team for a large transition program, what was important to me was to understand the client’s business environment and what technical issues were currently affecting the client’s business. As the client’s entire IT activities were getting outsourced to the company I was working for, it was just commonsense for me to understand and resolve existing issues before owning the responsibility of the environment.

That was back in 2010 and technology has come a long way from that time. This is the age of AI and Analytics and putting them together has resulted in predictive analytics which is helping businesses to take informed decisions and make successful plans for their future. But how much of all of these have filtered down into the traditional brick and mortar stores? At home, we buy groceries on a monthly basis from a grocer we have been customer of for 15 years. For daily purchases, we go to a nearby supermarket store. There is a particular pattern to the items we buy from the supermarket store, like milk, eggs, bread, etc but more importantly there is a pattern to the items we do not buy, like cooking oils, pulses, rice, wheat, soap, etc. No one in the store has asked us yet where we buy these items from. To be successful in business in these times, companies have to be at the top of their game and continuously keep looking for opportunities to be innovative to not only attract new customers but to retain them as well.

I received a call from an aspiring startup’s co-founder some time back for advise. They were planning to create an online platform from where anyone could place an order for any item and they would deliver it. The word anyone was a concern for me. There is a very good reason why India will never be a completely digital market – people’s purchasing power or the lack of it. A big chunk of its population of people make their daily purchases on debt. The local grocers keep accounts of these purchases and people keep paying as and when they have money with them. Even the local restaurants in many places especially the smaller eateries do the same. This is a business model supermarket stores can never replicate and hence they can never erode the relevance of local grocers and small time traders.

This is an important reason why the India government’s decision to demonetize its currency notes has destroyed India’s economy as it has further weakened people’s buying ability. When I mentioned these aspects to the startup’s co-founder and asked him how he was going to tackle them in his business model, he had no answer. Borrowing or getting inspired by a business model in another country is fine, but there can be no excuse to not knowing about their own country’s business nuances.

As products and companies of all sizes throng the online market and jostle for space to find their feet, nothing is more valuable in business now than customer loyalty and repeat customers. One look at Amazon’s fulfillment center (https://gadgets.ndtv.com/videos/behind-the-scenes-at-an-amazon-fulfillment-centre-521443) is enough to understand the complexity of its customer-centric business model. More than the number of its business segments, what is mind boggling is the fact that an individual could be its customer in multiple business segments and would expect the same level of customer service across all business segments. Multiply this by the probability of doing business with a few thousands or a million such concurrent customers and maintaining the highest quality of service across business segments is beyond comprehension.

Is customer still the King or has business become the Emperor of the King?

Advertisements

India’s yearly budgets are a major driver for unbridled corruption from it’s grass root level

The Indian government has released its Union budget plan for the FY 2019-2020. The country’s economy has been in doldrums since demonetization delivered a knockout punch to it in 2016. Back at the helm of governance for a second term after general elections, all eyes are on the BJP government to see if and how it is going to pull up its straps and get the economy back on track.

Before doing an evaluation of the budget, it is important to understand what the budget is. In the scope of work of the government that gets elected in democracies or what we call as governance, there are a slew of areas that need development and maintenance, such as agriculture, defense, infrastructure development, etc. This is the reason why governments are empowered to levy taxes, control prices and manage money. Budgets help to create wealth and to allocate it to different sectors from where development schemes deliver the benefits to the people. This is the ideal situation but is a Utopian world for us.

A high level perspective of the budget reveals something important. Majority of the scope of the budget is intended to generate more wealth for the government. More national highways means more toll booths and consequently more toll charges. Increase in fuel prices means travel is going to get more expensive, not just for vehicle owners but for people in general. So the government is essentially acting like a financial institution which is lending out money with the objective of bringing in more money. In such a case, it becomes imperative that governments adhere to certain best practices followed in the corporate world.

First one is the Balanced Scorecard which looks at the 4 key aspects of financial performance, customer satisfaction, internal process and organizational growth. This can be easily translated into 1) how effectively the government is using the resources (wealth) at its disposal 2) Satisfaction levels of people (who are the government’s customers) 3) how the government’s internal process can be improved and 4) how the infrastructure and culture of government bodies can be improved. There is a very important model used across industries to help deliver better results from projects and it is known as the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) model. In the corporate, business strategies when executed as projects are what creates wealth. In governance, budgets are the government’s business strategies and when they are executed through development schemes and taxes generates wealth for the government. Projects are executed using the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time bound) model and development schemes need to be executed using the same model.

But the most important of all is accountability. Where is the report card of last year’s budget with the details of the government’s performance in executing its development schemes and how much money was spent on them? How much money has been gained from taxes and other means? A high level report does not suffice when the country has been segmented into states, cities, corporations, municipalities and panchayats. From the level of panchayats, report cards need to be generated to understand what development schemes were implemented, how much money was spent and how successful are they. Such report cards have to be generated for every aspect of governance. Corporate uses what is called as metrics to measure success using parameters for measurements known as CSFs (Critical Success Factors). Metrics when measured for evaluating performance are known as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and when measured for understanding risk are known as KRIs (Key Risk Indicators). Insights from data obtained by using these parameters for one FY should be used to create the next FY’s budget.

And what do we have in our country? This FY, there is budgetary allocation of Rs. 65,837 crore and outlay for capital expenditure of Rs. 1.60 lakh crore for railways. Where exactly is all this money going to be used? The trains are still of the same old design, maintained just enough for them to run the intended distances and poor and unhygienic food services (vessels get washed inside train toilets which are themselves stinking dirty). I have heard several cases of people in states like UP, MP, Bihar etc where people muscle their way into A/c compartments, travel without tickets and even ticket examiners (TTs) getting thrown out of moving trains for trying to get such people out. During every year’s budget, a certain amount of money gets allocated to railways and on the ground almost everything remains the same which means governments simply want to keep running the shows with zero interest in improvements.

Stable fuel prices is a critical parameter for stable prices of commodities and maintaining lower inflation levels. We have continuously fluctuating fuel prices which is resulting in higher cost of commodities and higher inflation. Rs. 70,000 crore capital for PSU banks without a clear plan for recovering high value corporate loans that have defaulted to NPAs (Non-Performing Accounts) and stopping black money from getting hoarded continuously out of the country is insensible. In education, there are no schemes to improve government schools across the country and make education equally accessible to all sections of the society. As I have always known, equal education to all would be fatal to vote bank politics on which all political parties are thriving. What worries me is, there is not a word about nature conservation and sustainability which in turn gives corporate a free hand to use and destroy natural resources at their whims and fancies. No mention on air pollution, water conservation (wanton destruction of drinking water resources) and improving quality of living conditions. What value does governance have if it does not help in improving people’s lives?

Budgets without accountability is the chief contributor of corruption in our country. Only 20% of the allotted money for development schemes create value for people and the whopping 80% gets fed into bureaucratic red tape to get the 20% work done. A one nation one transport card has been proposed in the budget but it remains to be seen how long it will take to see the light of the day and we won’t even know how much money is going to get spent on it. We all know how the Aadhaar fiasco unraveled. Any tax breaks or incentives is only meant to cajole people into putting more of their money into the market or borrow more money from the market which in turn will create more wealth for the government. With burgeoning population, omnipresent corruption and very little of the resources getting used for development, it is no surprise that no one gets any benefits out of paying taxes and the entire country is in perpetual struggle for sustenance. Unless the entire system of governance is overhauled, yearly budgets have little effect on people’s lives except the ones who are licking their lips and waiting for their piece of the pie. What is growing is the demand for public sector jobs and career in politics and we all know why.

The corporate hiring process has deteriorated and needs urgent makeover

The noise over the current hiring practices in corporate companies is growing louder with each passing day, especially on LinkedIn. More people are complaining about the lost value of humanity in Human Resources and are batting to return the “Human” to HR. They are citing many examples from their professional careers to highlight the deteriorating HR practices. At least a thousand of my job applications have been rejected in the last 7 years since I completed my MBA.

At its forefront is the Application Tracking System (ATS) which matches resumes of candidates to job requirements. From software applications, technology has grown in sophistication and matching is now done by software bots. Resumes are basically professional autobiographies written by humans to highlight their career progression, achievements and aspirations and is meant to be read by fellow humans. But they are now being analyzed by the so called intelligent bots whose intelligence is limited to the data humans have fed them. Candidates are now required to format their resumes to fit the comprehension of these bots and fill them with keywords that would match them better to the jobs they are applying for. What is ironic is, if there are software available for filtering resumes, why are there no software that are ATS compliant and can be used to write resumes by simply inputting keywords?

Standard resume sizes vary from 1 page for freshers to 4 pages for top executives. I have to limit my resume to 2 pages and it should contain a professional summary, core competencies, experience, project details and information about academic and contact details. So much in so less space means just selecting keywords that best suit my professional background and connect them with English words. This is what resume writing has been reduced to.

What we write as experience in our resumes with the companies we have worked for is limited very specifically to the role we were hired for. But we may be doing a lot more work than that. For example, when one of my previous employers decided to shift its premise to a new building, I was assigned the task of coordinating with the shifting of employees on one floor of the present building, get their computers and phone connections moved to the new building and ensure that they got network and phone access to get back to work with minimum loss of time. I was the “buddy” for new employees joining different projects in my department. I was their contact person to get desk spaces, computers and phone lines assigned to them and ensure that they had all the software applications and network access to start working in their projects. The head of my department used to take my help in drafting responses to escalation emails from clients. There were so many other tasks which I have performed over the years that were beyond my job profile. Where do I write all of these in a 2 page resume and what’s the point anyways? None of these would matter to the bots. I can showcase all my experiences in interviews when I am able to speak to humans but if the bots keep filtering out my resume each time, there isn’t much that I can do.

Even more bewildering are the interviews where some of the standard questions asked are plain mindless.

1) Where do you expect to see yourself in the next 5 years?

I wish I had the vision to see that far. Life on earth has always been uncertain, for humans as well as for all animals. No living being can claim in certainty that it will see the sunrise the next day. I have heard of ridiculous responses like the candidate wanted to be the CEO of the company or to be in the chair of the interviewer. Though people may be working together in an office in a project, they would most probably have different skills. Some may move out of the company and some may identify and learn new skills and move within or outside the company in 5 years. We can always be ambitious and we can speak about them but I believe those should be more on the lines of activities outside our current role, such as learning and developing new skills, adding value to business and working more at the organizational level and not with respect to a position or role in the company. Rather than looking for position and fame, our focus should always be on learning more and adding more value to our current role. Recognition and growth always follows hard work.

2) What is your expected salary?

This is linked to the question “What is your current salary?”. Every department head or manager will have a budget for each role in his/her team & there will be a minimum & a maximum value which will be conveyed to the HR when the hiring request is sent. The HR will try to negotiate closer to the minimum value with the candidates but has the liberty to go up to the maximum value. When a candidate’s expectation crosses the maximum value, the HR will revert to the hiring manager & check if he/she can exceed the budget which is usually based on how the candidate has performed in the interview and the hiring manager feels the particular candidate is the best fit for the role. Asking for current CTC is the HR’s way of knowing where the candidate’s current salary is with respect to the budget range for the role so as to do better negotiation with the candidate. Prospective employers should offer a package based on interview results, industry standards & other parameters which they are aware of for every role they are hiring for rather than making it compulsory for candidates to reveal their current CTC. A candidate could be working for a low paying job or a low paying employer and he/she could have taken up the job for many reasons, but it doesn’t mean he/she will want to continue working in a new job at a lower salary.

3) What is your biggest weakness?

The question could be asked to fresh graduates to test their self awareness and self assessment but it doesn’t make any sense to ask it to experienced people and especially managers. A manager who admits to having a weakness is demonstrating lack of continuous self management and self improvement and it implies that he/she cannot be a manager of other people. I believe a good way to respond to it would be to talk about a weakness in the past and how it was overcome or how the present company culture is fostering a certain weakness in the candidate or a larger group of its employees and use that as the reason or one of the reasons why the candidate is looking for a new employer.

4) How do you explain the employment gap in your resume?

Unless a candidate had a specific reason for opting out from working for a period of time, the candidate’s profile is out there on job sites and on LinkedIn. It should ideally be just the matter of time before being found by interested employers. Applying for jobs through job sites and LinkedIn is like putting matter into a black hole. These avenues do not even guarantee that resumes of candidates will be looked at by the HR teams. HR consultants also go on full silence after taking resumes of candidates for opportunities and do not even consider it necessary to inform the outcome to the candidates. Only if companies call candidates directly is there hope of at least landing an interview. In most countries, labor laws have been tightened and companies are no longer interested in hiring candidates from other countries. India is facing an unprecedented slump in employment after its government’s currency devaluation fiasco in 2016. But what would matter is what the candidates were doing during the period of job search. Looking for jobs is not a full day activity so what employers would look for are skill development and personal growth of the individuals.

5) Why are you looking for a job change (why did you quit your last job)?

The question has always me wonder whether employers are happy that they are able to find candidates that fit their requirements or if they are looking for reasons to reject candidates. People may quit jobs or look for new jobs for a variety of reasons such as better monetary benefits, bad managers, better roles and location. Why do potential employers have issues if a candidate has or had issues with managers in their current or previous jobs? This is life and bad things too happen. If an employee is leaving a company because of issues with the management, the company HR will not write a positive review about the employee in their records and in all probability is not going to give a glowing review about the employee during future background checks. Then what’s the point in the employee not talking about why he/she is leaving his/her current employment or had quit previous jobs? No company is perfect so there are no perfect jobs or managers. Then why are employees expected to have blot free employment records? It is commonly known that one of the biggest reasons for employee turnover in companies is bad management. Then why are employees expected to be positive and talk nicely about their previous employers? Such unwritten rules and expectations are what makes corporate employment corporate slavery.

6) How soon can you join?

This one pops out inadvertently from the HR after asking the candidates about their notice periods with their present companies. All companies have to serve notice periods with their current employers when they quit and the big companies mostly have 3 months. This is how they dissuade their employees from changing jobs and discourage competitors from poaching their best employees. Buying of notice period was in vogue for some time but it has been stopped by all companies. The same employer who is hiring the candidate will make a hue and cry when the same candidate moves to another company after a few years and requests to be relieved before the entire notice period with the company is served. I had faced this issue with a previous employer during hiring process and had to shut down the HR and hiring manager by asking them whether they will let me go early when I quit the company in the future.

Age is a big factor when it comes to rejection of candidates. I came across a comment that companies are looking for 30 year old candidates with 20 years of experience. This is how ridiculous hiring has become. My parents keep telling me that companies won’t consider me for jobs with advancing age. Unless I start my own company, senior roles in companies always require people with experience and maturity and both come with age through professional skill enhancement and personality development. This is why I chose to take up a professional MBA program after working for 10 years. When my job search faltered after MBA, I used the time on blogging and wildlife observation and photography. Blogging has led me to writing articles on a variety of topics for an online content publishing platform and writing and wildlife photography have led me to author my first book. If a company puts my age above my skills and experience I would be grateful for not having to be part of its journey.

The only factor that matters and will always be relevant is a candidate’s continuous evolution through skill enhancement and self improvement. I used to be a thorough IT professional and could have had continued to build my IT skills, but I have always known that to become either a senior executive in a company or an independent professional, skills other than technology are of far greater relevance. This was why I grabbed the opportunity to work as a part time business correspondent and caption writer with an advertising firm when I was doing my engineering under graduation. The skills I developed from that time were what helped me draft those emails for my department head and created the platform for me to become an accomplished writer. The key is to keep building skills while continuing to look for opportunities with patience and perseverance.

How Agile methodology has redefined the understanding of business in Indian IT industry

While it is commonly accepted that a business degree is not required for project management, those times have quietly gone by a long time back. What has caused this dramatic change is the concept of outsourcing. To get to the bottom of this, it is imperative to understand what project management is.

Every organization can be broadly split into business and management verticals. Based on the amount of business it is doing in the current year, the organization sets revenue and profit targets for the next year. Everything that happens in an organization in a financial year is the mad rush to meet or exceed those targets, which is the responsibility of the CEO of the organization. Business strategies are created to meet the targets which in turn creates objectives and goals that cascades down the organization’s hierarchy. It is essential to understand here that companies create profits in two ways, one through generation of revenue and the other through savings on its expenses. Execution of business strategies which leads to profit creation is done through projects. So essentially project management is for creating revenue and saving expenses for the company.

I was freshly minted into IT outsourcing way back in 2004 and was working on an IT support and service delivery project for a European client which had 400 odd software applications running in the virtual environment. One day, one of the applications stopped working and the ticket raised to report the issue was of medium priority. I was in the technical team at that time and we took our own sweet time to resolve the issue. When we reported back that the application was working again, the client’s employee told us that it was an invoicing application and they couldn’t take new orders for half a day. The situation was a little complicated. The client had outsourced their IT services and support for the first time. The priority matrix for the applications was not defined clearly because of which the client’s employee did not raise the ticket with the correct priority. But most importantly it was the lack of awareness of the technical team working on the issue about the purpose of the application. It was the first time I realized two facts about outsourcing : 1) It has separated business objectives from IT implementations and this is why 2) IT has become an industry in itself in India.

Fast forward to 2010 and I was working for an IT giant and had taken a team to a client’s premise for knowledge acquisition and was back in India to set up part of their support and service delivery team. Even this client was outsourcing its entire IT environment for the first time. I had looked back at all the mistakes I had come across through the years and had ensured that I understood the client’s business environment and objectives as much as I can. When I communicated to my management team in India that to provide better support the technical team needs to understand the client’s business environment I was ridiculed and threatened with pulling the project from me. All they wanted from me was to make my team work harder without knowing what they were doing. I resigned immediately, completed all the tasks required to set up of the team much before expected time and left. There was no way I was going to tolerate and live with a short sighted and overbearing management team.

Those 6 years were extremely insightful times for me. I was sent on an onsite assignment to the Netherlands in 2008. I was in a team full of Dutch people and I had a Dutch team leader. They do not normally speak a lot about work and the team leader would give me a task and not even ask for a status update. I realized quickly that people were assigned tasks according to their experience and abilities so the onus was on me to estimate the time I need, finish the task and report back to him. But he would answer any number of questions I had about the task. I understood that it was up to the person working on the task to understand as much as he/she could about the different aspects of the task. This behavior becomes more enhanced in the Scandinavian countries. Those people hardly ask anything and they open their mouths only to answer questions.

With all these experiences in mind, I went to do a one year MBA program to increase my skills and knowledge to have better understanding of the business environments of companies. In those intervening 2-3 years the IT environment underwent momentous changes. Fundamental to it were two aspects. Emergence of the Cloud and Agile methodology as the preferred way of project management. Agile has in fact helped to plug the vast distance between business requirements and IT implementations in India. Agile works essentially on two aspects: 1) the idea to market strategy and 2) the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. When there is a new idea, the objective is to get it out to the market asap as a product because it is foolish to assume that no one else will have the same idea. Fundamental to this is the strategy to create the product with the features that would most likely to be in demand in the market and can quickly gain traction. This is where the concept of MVP comes in. It is because of these two factors that Agile has become the backbone of all startup initiatives.

Agile is used in the software industry primarily to create software applications. Rewind upwards and companies need IT applications either to generate revenue or save costs. For both, Agile works best but only if the objectives are clearly defined in the business case document. If the objective is creating revenue, the business case should clearly define which features of the application would result in maximum generation of revenue. Then the Product Owner can create a product backlog correspondingly and ensure that those features are developed first so that the product can be quickly released into the market. Even in the case of the objective being to save on expenses, the same rule applies. Develop those features of the application that would create maximum savings and integrate the application into the environment quickly.

Agile also defines a role called Scrum Master whose primary objective is to manage the sprint backlog and the sprint sessions. The role also has the responsibility of keeping all management overheads away from the development team so that they are not distracted and can fully focus on developing the product. This is exactly what I did with my team back in 2010. I filtered all the noise away from my team, took the heat from all meetings and management overheads, managed their work loads and allowed them to work freely. This did help significantly to finish the tasks required to complete setting up of the team.

I didn’t know any project management methodologies back then but I worked based on my experiences and commonsense. These methodologies were created long after people started trying out different ways to manage projects and it has never been the other way around. Agile has created the situation where understanding business requirements for all stakeholders is on a very high priority now and novices or less experienced people cannot be team members because of the extremely short and intense time spans of sprint sessions unless they are skilled and nimble enough. Both these aspects could be at loggerheads with the traditional IT industry environment in India which focuses more on technical than business aspects and makes use of less experienced people in projects to save their own costs.

All of this vindicates my decision and reasons to take up the MBA program at that time. Companies abroad have chosen to not sponsor work permits for me, Indian companies and the IT industry in particular have ignored and disowned me and I am having a tough time establishing myself as a freelance consultant. But having vision and pursuing it always creates short term pain and long term gains.

The MeToo hashtags can become the pivots of women empowerment & societal change

In certain jokes floating through the social media I have seen the phrase “That escalated quickly”. Given the situations it gets used, I find it hilarious. The same happened with the MeToo and MeTooIndia hashtags on Twitter but in extremely serious way. They started trending slowly but then hit the high notes so loud that mere hashtags are on the brink of creating a social movement.

It all started with the details of one powerful man floating around. But no one was ready to take out his name. Then someone did. Women journalists pounced on it and his name became a raging wildfire. M J Akbar, a lion in journalism and now a cabinet minister in the central government. Turns out he was a predatory lion, using his mammoth stature in the journalism industry to sexually abuse young women journalists and use his cape of fear of power and influence to devour their self respect and dignity. Then came Alok Nath’s name out. The epitome of culture, decency and manhood. Turns out he is a good old rapist. The burning embers had caught fire. Names of corporate honchos and familiar names from the movie industries followed. Social media has lit up. Journalists and common people alike are baying for the blood of sexual predators.

I got into a row with popular South Indian singer Chinmayi on Twitter. She had called out the name of Vairamuthu, a song writer of almost legendary status who has collaborated on many of the Tamil songs of A R Rehman. Many aspiring singers and artists who had been abused by him were reaching out to her and taking her help in disclosing their experiences anonymously. My problem was two fold. How did the situation deteriorate to the level where so many women in the case of M J Akbar are reporting their abuse sagas and some of them happened 2 decades back? They kept quiet. So I wrote to Chinmayi requesting her to reveal the names of the victims as keeping quiet for so long and hiding behind anonymity are the reasons why sexual abuse has become a daily affair and common practice in the corporate world. She replied saying they have their career to worry about which is why they cannot call out their abusers. Exactly. Abusers are feeding on this fear to continue abusing. If Chinmayi had spoken out about her experiences long back, many younger singers may have escaped being preyed on by Vairamuthu. This is just one aspect of the situation. Victims are compromising on their self respect and dignity by choosing to suffer the indignity in silence. What is more, all men have become potential predators in the eyes of women. It is scary how women see men trying to engage with them in lighthearted conversations as flirting.

Women are also complicit in helping create such a toxic work environment. They have waded into a male bastion demanding equality in work and social status. This is not a Utopian world where men would step aside and let women take over the reins of power from them. What would men seek from women in return other than sexual favours? The ones who agreed laid the foundation stones of the system. From then on, everyone who went on to enter the system were conditioned to live in the system. From bedrooms sex became an accepted practice inside boardrooms. Women who couldn’t digest and come around to accepting all of this were scarred mentally with abuse. The heritage of the system has been handed down to the next generations of men who have only grown on to become more brazen in their actions.

What is astounding now is, other than a few murmurs in the movie industry and corporate offices, there is almost a deathly silence. It is improbable that the world of glitz, glamour, fashion and wealth could be a perfect world. Rather, it almost seems like everyone has taken shelter for the storm to pass. Shobhaa De the acclaimed writer and journalist was on TV to talk about sexual abuse in Bollywood and she said the ones who have been caught in the net are the expendables and small flies. The big and the mighty ones are hiding in plain sight. She was right on the money. Women have had to go through hell and back especially in the movie, aviation (airline) and healthcare (nursing) industries to even hold on to their jobs. But not a single mouth is opening to complain. Goes to show the heights of male dominance which in turn shows how low women have allowed themselves to be buried in the mire of sex, abuse and oppression.

Every individual’s responsibility in the society is to make it better for the next generations. It is not enough that we only try to make our children’s lives better. A life with self respect and dignity should get priority over everything else in society. All urban men who become influencers in the society are raised up in similar environments. Then how do some go on to become such wily predators? It is upon every individual to introspect and ask do we want to continue living inside such a slimy system where we have to keep worrying about our women’s safety and well being all the time. MeToo and MeTooIndia is a desperate call for change. They are the atomic bombs of the urban society. Their explosions have been triggered. What the abusers and predators fear is the mushroom cloud that emanates from it and envelops one and all. This may be the only chance for women to go up in arms against their tormentors. This has to become a movement, cleanse the urban world and it’s fire should then spread into rural heartlands. Women have always called out for equality and empowerment. Their time to take centerstage seems to have finally arrived.

Sexual harassment thrives only on the fear and complacency of women

Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta seems to have opened up a massive cupboard of skeletons of sexual harassment. So many women in the corporate world are taking to Twitter to narrate their tales of similar sordid experiences at the hands of men and vent their anger. The hashtag Metoo is trending like fire on Twitter. Though I am glad that this discussion is finally happening, sadly, women are opening up with their stories years after their ordeal. Why? Because they were forced to hush up for the sake of their careers and lives. Why again? They were more fearful of the backlash and repercussions from the society. They simply had nowhere to go so they had to gulp down the venom and stay quiet.

Before getting into sexual harassment we need to understand what sex is. The answers are in the very foundations of our existence. We share many common traits with animals and one of them is procreation. Why do male species of animals exist? Essentially to reproduce. Their purpose is to pass on their sperms to the females. Male butterflies and males of some species of animals engage in a frantic race without even having food to deposit their sperms inside the ovaries of as many females as they could before they die. There are many more bizarre cases of reproduction process in nature. In many species including ours, males have evolved into taking care of their families. Human males have never been monogamous which is why society was created and marriage as a concept was enforced upon us. Marriage to me was actually a desperate measure to control the reproductive urge of men. When this was not enough, prostitution was created. This is why the Devdasi concept was introduced in ancient Indian society. Upper caste males were allowed to prey on girls and women from the lower castes and satisfy their sexual needs so that they would stay away from girls and women of their own castes. The term sex in itself exist only in our world and is not part of the animal world. Intercourse is just one aspect of the entire process of procreation among animals. But we have made it complex and convoluted. From discovering and understanding foreplay to creating contraceptives to writing an entire book on sex positions, we have actually wasted a humongous amount of our time and energy on something that was actually meant to be a clear and simple process.

Now where does sexual harassment come from? Males of all species in nature are supposed to woo females before mating with them. They engage in fierce battles to win over the right to mate with females. Male birds dance before the females, bring food, build nests and do an array of other things as part of the wooing process. This is why males of all animal species are beautiful and brightly colored. Only among us are women required to color themselves up and look good which for me is one more example to illustrate how male chauvinism dominates human society. What we call as flirting is actually the wooing process in nature. Thousands of years of societal rules have ensured that men don’t ask for sex the moment they like women. But there are men who do it nevertheless. One category consists of the ones with prominence in the society who misuse the value bestowed upon them by people and who knows how to use their influence to clamp down mouths and keep their dirty secrets in the dark. The other category consists of people from the lower strata of people without enough education and without proper nurturing who grew up seeing women getting treated with contempt and without value. The raging debate currently is about the first category. But there is only a thin line that separates the two categories. In both cases, men begin with flirting and move towards seeking sex. When both doesn’t work, men of first category resort to sexual harassment and men of second category indulge in rape. Why? The only difference is, men of the first category have too much at stake to lose if they resort to rape.

But why does all of this happen? Because women blame fellow women for their ordeals. Why? Because there is a huge gap in the mental makeup of women from older and current generations. Women from older generations used to suffer immensely and surrender to the whim and fancies of men to keep the relationships from breaking apart. But this goes a lot deeper. Men with power and influence in the past used to try and hook up with women they fancied. Some women in turn used men’s lust for sex to satisfy their own societal needs. This is very much in relevance and vogue even now. This is the origin for the need of complicity. This is why men expect all women to comply and give in to their needs which is why men often say when another man’s wife doesn’t have a problem doing something why are their wives complaining about it. So the burden of blame falls squarely on the shoulders of women who do not want to comply. This is why women cannot go to other women and open up about their ordeals because of the fear and apprehension that older generations could put the blame on them and use it as an opportunity to make them give up their careers for a domesticated life and their more naive friends and peers could possibly advise them to give into the wishes of men and keep quiet about it to save their careers.

Women of modern times have hardly reasons to complain though. Here is the amazing and heart wrenching saga of Nangeli (https://www.speakingtree.in/allslides/did-you-know-19th-centurys-breast-tax-in-kerala-is-the-darkest-spot-on-humanity-ever/401758). In the erstwhile Travancore kingdom in Kerala about 300 years back, women from the lower castes were forced to walk around without covering their breasts and had to pay taxes based on the size of their breasts. Nangeli chose to defy the demented rule and all the ensuing odds by covering her breasts. When authorities came to collect taxes, she chopped off her breasts, gave them as tax and bled to death. Her act of unimaginable courage was enough to stop this horrendous practice forever. When the entire society was complacent, all it took was one woman’s sacrifice to bring about the change.

Its a pity that educated women still fear backlashes from men and society, suffer the ignominy of sexual harassment and choose to speak about it much later. They need to look for inspiration from history, from the lives of heroic women like Nangeli who chose to not bow and lay down their self respect and integrity at the feet of men and societal diktats. Sexual harassment and sexual predation continues to exist because women in the past have shied away from opening up their torturous lives to the world. Speak up and force the society to change now. That is the only way to make the lives of the future generations of girls and women better and safer. Nangeli, Joan of Arc, Rani Laxmi bhai and countless more brave heart women must be looking down and smirking at the pathetic state women have put themselves in.

Business lessons from the life and times of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits

Its a curious case about Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler. People who know them would die for their music. People who don’t know them don’t know them at all. When I tell the younger generation about them and make them listen to their music, they find it weird and boring. But when I go on the internet I see kids swearing by their music. The disparity is so vividly glaring. This is the legacy Mark Knopfler has created for himself and for Dire Straits.
The name of their band in itself defines their music. They were asked to give a name to their band during their struggling years and what came first to their mind was that they were broke and had no money with them. Dire straits actually reflected their situation at that time and was not put as a funky name like other music bands at that time. This honesty has always reflected in their music. Mark Knopfler has been in many ways the Steve Jobs of the English music world. As music evolved from jazz and rock and roll from the 1960s to fixed categories of rock, pop, blues, etc. towards the late 1970s, Dire Straits was inspired by all the different categories. Their music had everything going on together. In those times when heavy synthesizers, guitars, drums, long hair and crazy outfits came to be considered necessary to be successful as a music band, Mark Knopfler refused to throw in the towel and give up his dream of making music he wanted to in exchange for fame and money. This is essentially why they were initially in dire straits. For quite some time, Apple did not make computers for everyone to use. Steve Jobs waited for his computers to evolve in the market and its demand to build up. Microsoft makes Windows for everyone to use which is in fact the hardest business model to follow. It is simply not possible to have something for everyone which is reflected in the numerous updates Windows versions needs and the different Windows versions themselves. In the similar vein to that of Apple, Dire Straits made the music they wanted to make and let people evolve into their music. Commercially this is a huge risk to take. But thankfully, in the world of art and music, creative satisfaction always takes precedence over commercial success. What this translates into is how we should position ourselves and/or our products in the market. If what we have is genuine and can truly cause disruption and create it’s own space in the market, put it out there, keep working on making it better and be patient. Success will eventually catch up.

The second and the more important aspect is evolution. From the late 70s when they started off their music evolved as more and better musical instruments were added. Mark’s lyrical and singing skills became more silken with each album. Their popularity peaked in 1985 with the release of their “Brothers in Arms” album. After being on the road for almost 2 years on shows across most of the world, Mark seems to have realized that they were moving away from making music for themselves to playing music for the people. It might have sounded ludicrous to many at that time, but when the passion goes out, so does the creativity. He could not let fame and fortune take control over his passion for making music which was possibly why he disbanded Dire Straits. This is a massive lesson for the business world. No matter how successful a company or a product becomes, to continue to be successful it has to keep evolving and to evolve the passion for it has to remain intact. This is probably why Bose Corp. has never been on the stock market. They do not seem to want business and commercial success to take precedence over their need for creative excellence.
Dire Straits did come back together to make one more album “On Every Street” in 1991 but that experience also taught them an important lesson. It is a superb album by all means but unfortunately ended up being compared with Brothers in Arms which should have never happened. They were like two different products from the same company and should have been seen and evaluated as such. If Dire Straits fans are longing for their reunion which Mark is staunchly refusing to go back into, it is because people themselves killed the confidence he had on them. Mark disbanded Dire Straits forever and started collaborating with other great artists such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Phil Collins among many others and eventually started to make music under his own name.
Here is the most critical lesson to learn. Be it with someone’s life or academics or jobs or business or products, the growth graph will hit a high sometime. But it won’t stay there for long. What goes up has to eventually come down. Many musicians and music bands shot through the roof initially and then disappeared without a trace. This keeps happening all the time. There are two aspects to consider here. The lessons we learn from our experiences as our graph grows up and realizing that our graph has hit the high. Mark seems to have realized this when On Every Street got compared to Brothers in Arms. Dire Straits had hit their peak with Brothers in Arms. Unless they created something better than Brothers in Arms, every album they released in the future would have had been subject to comparison with Brothers in Arms. That was a phenomenal expectation and disappointment to live with. Their evolution was complete with Brothers in Arms. The option was to either continue to exist in that painful situation or let it all go and mature as a musician by himself and give everyone else in the band the opportunity to figure out their life ahead on their own.
When businesses grow and hit their highs their evolution gets complete at that point. Then they need to settle down and mature. True fans of Dire Straits know what a gifted and amazing songwriter and guitarist Mark is. He has wisely and craftily used the reputation of Dire Straits to build his own brand name. Steve Jobs has always used this strategy with Apple products. Apple has a core consumer segment that will buy anything Apple sells. After establishing that segment they released a dazzling array of products to bring more customers into that group. Now they are in the maturing phase and are focused on improving their products.
Mark Knopfler still makes music and does world tours but at his own pace. His music has always been what his passion for music has brought out from him. We need to tread the same path, be it in our professional or personal lives. True passion will eventually bring in fame and fortune but the key is to hold on to that passion at all times. Fame and fortune will wither away with time. But everything we do and create with passion will have the hallmark of fine quality and it is the quality that always stands the test of time.

The intricacies of resume writing and job search in an automated corporate world

Writing a resume has been the biggest bane of job seekers and sometimes it would seem to be much worse than not getting a job itself. We pore over 100s of different formats available through contacts and on the internet, but we are never sure if our resumes are good enough to land us our desired jobs. This apprehension increases exponentially every time our job applications get rejected by companies when we believe we have applied for the jobs that are the best fits for us. I have gone through all of it and I have learned very important lessons as well.

Now what is the challenge to writing a resume? There are three aspects to a resume. One that represents who we are, the second that positions us in the job market and the third that satisfies job requirements. Then they say resumes cannot be more than two pages long. Freshers and people with less than 3 years experience usually struggle to make their resumes to 2 pages. For people with more than 8 years of experience, the pain is to keep it down to 2 pages. Now bringing together these three aspects into 2 pages does seem like a humongous task, but it really is not.

Most companies now use automated systems to screen resumes which means technology rather than humanity is scanning rather than reading our resumes. Now technology is not intelligent so it is taught to look for keywords. We are traditionally used to writing sentences to describe ourselves so suddenly articulation is not in vogue anymore. We are being made to run helter-skelter in search of keywords. Even job sites are using keywords to filter out and show us jobs that match our profiles. I am wondering how long before keywords get replaced by hashtags.

Keywords represent only industry standard definitions and requirements and has got nothing to do with a person’s skills, abilities and most importantly experience. The primary problem with a resume is that it only allows us to list our activities in our previous and current employment. There is no way to speak out about our experiences through our resumes unless we are called for interviews. A business analyst may have far greater experiences with understanding of different business environments in day to day activities than what is required for a particular job profile but because he/she is not able to express it through the resume, a person assessing the resume will never get to “feel” the way the candidate feels about a job profile. Keywords have only compounded this problem and killed off the human aspect completely.

Now, there is no perfect format for a resume. Standard formats vary across jobs and domains. But what we need to do is to create a relevant resume that clearly highlights our current status, past experiences and our aspirations. Everything starts seeming important- what we have done before, what we are doing now and what we want to do in our next job and all we have is 2 pages. What I do is to write down everything that comes to my mind and let it go to 4 or 5 pages. Then I start thinking about what jobs do I want to apply for. I cannot position myself to be a candidate for 10 different types of jobs or roles. Spreading myself that far and thin will only result in my profile losing relevance in the market. I have to narrow it down to mostly 3. Find 2 job profiles I am aspiring to work on and keep the 3rd one as the continuation of my current or previous job as contingency plan if in case I do not get the jobs I am aspiring for. Then start searching for open vacancies corresponding to these job profiles on company websites and read through the job descriptions. This I believe is the best way to understand the expectations of companies regarding job profiles and also find relevant keywords.

The tricky and interesting part is yet to come. The challenge is to use these keywords and job descriptions to tailor our present and past experiences to make our resume a good fit for the job and worthy enough to be noticed. We are not required to list out all our experiences in our resumes. Only what is relevant for a particular job is required. Our experiences with older companies should get lesser in the number of words and more streamlined towards what we are aspiring for in our next job. For example, client engagement plays a major role in consulting gigs. So if someone is aspiring for consulting jobs and has extensive experience in client engagement through a variety of jobs, highlight client engagement and the ability to handle clients and leave out what is not relevant. This way the 4-5 page resume will get streamlined into a 2 page one. We do not have to actually worry much about all of this now. The challenge was before the time of LinkedIn. Now we can write whatever we want on our LinkedIn profiles, use it’s condensed version as our resumes and put the links to our LinkedIn profiles in our resumes. The automated resume scanning system works somewhat similarly to website SEOs. SEOs scan websites for keywords. The search ranking of the website becomes better when more keywords are detected. The resume scanning system must also be ranking resumes based on keywords so the strategy should be to show these keywords in our resumes to the scanning system.

Indian job market has always been notoriously inconsiderate to the aspirations of job seekers. An ex-colleague  in the Netherlands was completely into medical research when suddenly he developed the affinity for computers. He studied computers for a bit and eventually moved into a IT support job. It was a jaw dropping experience for me. In India, not even in my wildest dreams in a million years would this be possible. In the early years of my career, I was interviewed by someone who opted to hire me on contract. What I didn’t know was that the HR person wasn’t convinced about his decision to hire me and she had a strong intuition that I would get another offer very soon which was exactly what happened. What this translates into is that if we are not getting the jobs we are aspiring for and if we apply for jobs that do not require the academic qualifications and the experience we have, we will get rejected even if we are open to working on a lower pay. The perspective is that the job would be a stop gap arrangement for us and we will move out as soon as we get the job what we are looking for.

There are no perfect jobs so there are no perfect resumes. Stuffing up our resumes with keywords is no validator to our relevance in the job market. Candidates for senior roles are all being searched and dug out from LinkedIn now. Well written resumes and completed LinkedIn profiles shows how much time people have invested on themselves which in turn indicates how much they value their work experiences. Job search has become a maze of complex uncertainty and resumes are just one aspect of it. If a resume is being scanned for 30 or 60 seconds before a decision is made, then what we need to do is to first see if there are any lucky stars beaming at us before applying for jobs.

Companies and products don’t die they become irrelevant and fade away

I have heard from many people that the startup initiative in India has been a failure but no one said why. Below is a list I obtained from a social network about the top reasons why startups fail.

 

Interestingly, a startup company had contacted me few months back asking me if I could be their mentor. Their product is on the lines of Askme.com and they were trying to market it in Kerala, my state in India. The key problem was the people of Kerala are not even fully used to the shopping mall culture yet. We still prefer buying from local grocers, medical shops etc. So searching about products on the internet is still a long way away. My question to the company was, do you know if there is a need for your product in the market you are targeting? They had no clue. This is the top reason on the above list. Lack of proper due diligence. What they wanted from me was to understand how to market their product. I told them that you need to go back to your drawing board and figure out something crucial. Simply putting your product out there is of no use. You cannot force people to use your product. So what can you offer them for using your product? You need a better product strategy before you get on to business strategy and that is where marketing strategy comes in. I haven’t heard from them after that.

Even worse is not understanding when the product is ready to be in the market. Mature companies too have new products and services in their pipeline but what makes and keeps them successful is their ability to time their launches precisely. The extreme of this is Apple launching their products whenever they want to because they have a phenomenal market following. But that’s Apple. There is a concept called Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which can help understand when to stop working on the product and launch it. How do we know this? Work on creating those aspects of the product which could create market disruption or get noticed in the market quickly. When this is successful then it becomes easy. People will take over from there. All we need is to take feedback from customers. Customer expectations will tell us which features of the product are more relevant and need to be out there in the market quickly.

There are two phases of every lifespan be it that of the Universe itself and everything within it. Evolving and maturing. Business also follows the same pattern. A friend is learning to be a professional cake maker and my advice to her was simple. If she is going to bake cakes like everyone else is, she is not going to get far. Evolving stage is the experimenting stage where she needs to mix and match and see what unique she can create. So how will she know she has matured? When customers start calling her for her cakes.

My dad has always loved cooking non-vegetarian food. He looks up on a lot of recipes on the internet but then finds his own niche way of cooking. He has been asking me to help him find a market for his food. He cannot compromise on the quality of the products he uses for cooking which essentially means he cannot target the lower and the lower middle strata of the market. If he tries to sell at those levels, he will have to lower his price thereby lowering his profit margin considerably and moreover there will be very less appreciation among those customers for what they are getting. All of this means the key is in the positioning of the products. Positioning will determine the pricing and marketing strategies.

I believe products and companies become irrelevant and fade away rather than fail. Nokia and Kodak are great examples. Nokia phones became irrelevant when their Symbian OS was run over by Android and iOS. With Kodak, the most fundamental mistake happened. They matured and stopped evolving and got run over by technology. Evolving to maturity shows the growth trajectory of the company or the product. Sustaining and staying relevant in the market demands continuous evolution of another kind. This is where the sheer genius of Steve Jobs shines brightly. In the middle of iMacs and Macbooks and iOS and iPods and iPhones and iTunes, he still found the time and space to figure out that there could be demand for a device that could bridge the gap between the Macbook and the iPhone, thus creating the iPad. I have wondered how tuned his mind was into the world of business and how he used to keep his ears to the ground. He seems to have understood the threat of stagnation and becoming irrelevant which should be the reason why he created such a huge product catalogue and a possibly unknown product pipeline on which he was supposedly working till the time of his demise.

There are great companies and greater leaders to look up to. But ultimately success depends on the course we charter and when we are able to muster the strength, wile and guile and navigate ourselves through the choppy waters of the business world.

The relationship and disconnect between business and projects

In an interview a few years back for a project management role, the interviewer asked me what project management was. I was taken aback a bit. First of all that’s too generic a question to ask an experienced candidate. Second, project management is such a vast area that it is not possible to explain in a minute or so what it is unless I were to record and playback what is known as industry standard definitions. So I replied that project management is the management of execution of business strategies. The interviewer looked lost for a moment and for a very good reason.

The evolution of the IT industry has created mayhem and consternation in the understanding of business and projects. The mid section of the IT industry has swelled up with managers and is bursting at it’s seams. The hierarchy and designations are complicated and ridiculous. Even more confusing are designations that are total mismatches to the roles. I have worked with the designation of Senior Consultant and the role had got absolutely nothing to do with consulting. Then there are companies with Project Manager designation but the role would be as an individual contributor. What would make sense is that a project would have a team and the manager of the project would also manage the team. The designation of Business Analyst is even more bewildering. Fundamental requirements are to have in-depth knowledge of some software applications.

In one of the case studies during my MBA program I had read about a company whose founder and CEO had approached a venture capitalist (VC) for investment. After due diligence, one of the conditions put forward by the VC was to appoint a new CEO for the company. The founder refused and walked away. Six months later, he came back to the VC and agreed. The VC had wanted him to focus on the products and services his company was offering and let someone else handle the business and financial aspects. So every company has a top management team that walks, talks and breathes only business and money.  It is here that business strategies get created with the objective of better financial outcomes.

I use a simple analogy when talking about business strategies. If I get stamped on my foot, my foot doesn’t cry. The sound comes from my mouth. Similarly if there is a problem in business the red bulb may not necessarily be flashing from the problem area. This is why understanding the business problem is so crucial. Business problem could also be a new venture for the company without proper understanding of moving ahead. Digging deeper into the business problem has direct impact on the quality of business strategy development. But having the best business strategy amounts to nothing without taking action on it and execution of business strategy is a different beast altogether.

One critical aspect of having different functions inside organizations comes into focus during execution of business strategies. The business strategy could have a strategy for the sales team which in turn could result in a strategy for the finance team and so on. Once strategies for different functions are established, then comes their execution. It could be as minimal as a small change without any consequences. But where there are financial outcomes then there would be accompanying risks as well. This is where the whole premise of project kicks in. So projects are essentially execution of business strategies with the objective to create positive financial outcomes. The execution of a business strategy can be broadly visualized as a change management program with several projects managed and executed within its boundaries.

Every project is intended to create a positive financial outcome so I visualize every project manager as having a small cloud of money over his/her head. A senior manager who manages several project managers would then be having an accumulated bigger money cloud over his/her head. Scale this up and the CEO will have the biggest money cloud over his/her head. The divide between creation and execution of business strategies has given rise to the concept of outsourcing. MNCs develop the entire premise of projects before shipping out to their factories and back offices where the projects are executed to create products and services.

Better understanding of business strategies and organizational requirements has a direct bearing on project management. But project managers usually do not get their sights that far and are not expected to stretch their understanding beyond the boundaries of their projects. This is why I believe projects either fail or project outcomes do not result in positive business outcomes. Outsourcing has only complicated and compromised the purpose of projects. A project manager in another corner of the world may not have any idea about the intended outcomes of the business strategies which has given rise to the project he/she is managing. Early in my career I had to resolve a problem with an IT application of a client and according to the SLA with the client I had 3 hours, so I worked on other more important issues. When I finally reported the resolution, the client’s staff lamented about how their work was stuck and the amount of business they lost in those 3 hours. Poor understanding of client’s business environment and requirements coupled with poorer understanding and communication were the reasons.

The relevance and importance of projects and project managers should never be undervalued. In India business degrees are not required to manage and execute projects. This in itself shows the disconnect between business strategies and projects. This is why the growth of project managers gets restricted to the project and program management levels and very few get to break into the top management. This can be observed from how companies hire for executive level positions from other companies rather than their own employees growing through the ranks into those positions.