Saturday, May 29, 2010

Office-Office: Tolerance

The next time you see some one behaving like a nincompoop, don’t blame them. Blame the organization they work for.
Tolerance (to B.S.) is a virtue (at least you are made to believe so) that is taught extensively throughout corporate life. So grueling is the training that lessons often trickle into personal life. How else do you explain my SMS to husband dearest saying “Request if you can kindly pay the internet bill”? He promptly called up to clarify if my phone was still with me or had it been hacked/ acquired a brain of its own. I responded with: “Deepest Apologies. Regret the message. Kindly do the needful.”

As with most things corporate, tolerance too has multiple shades. The above example reflects Brain-Dead tolerance, an extreme condition where the person, eager to please (mainly out of desperation), adopts extreme politeness in his/her communications. The consequences of this are deteriorating self worth and a performance review that says “Meets expectations”.

This is preceded by the beginner’s tolerance. An example is the Butterfly asking the Wide Eyed Wonder to “be more soft” in her communication with “senior people”. And you thought much experienced people did not care for niceties? Certainly not if an email has 3 “request,” 7 “kindly” and 5 “please” in it, as the wide eyed wonder learnt. For those who cannot comply or comprehend, here is a useful template:
Dear

Request if you can kindly . Attached here is the document for your kind perusal.
Request you to please look at the document at your kind convenience.
Request if you can kindly share your esteemed thoughts on this. Will be grateful to hear your kind feedback.

Note how it scientifically follows the basic principle of public speaking: Tell, Tell and Tell yet, again. It is selfless too (notice the lack of “I” s and the abundance of “you”s). Use this template for 1 month and be assured of an “Exceeds Expectations” appraisal remark. The primary side effect of beginner’s tolerance is the stares and whispers from colleagues that often sound like “dumb” & “ass-licking” as you pass them by. But look at the positives – at least you are being talked about!

The last distinguishable variety of tolerance is the Mock tolerance. It advisable you have an IQ of over 110 to even read further. Good, now that we understand each other, Mock tolerance is the only defence of the truly enlightened in the corporate world. It follows a pattern that is based on the simple principle of “give the customer what he wants to see”. If the Super Boss likes it soft, go soft. If the ageing superstar likes it spicy, then cut the saccharine in the email and add some lines of gossip instead. As for the manager, send him an intolerant email. He/ She will be enraged and ask you to tone down the message and make it soft. Immediately comply with a diabetes inducing email on how considerate he/ she has been to your faults, ending with a thank you. Expect a raise and a promotion, not to mention “the far exceeds expectations” remark.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Wanderer: Munnar - God’s own or godforsaken?

Last weekend my husband and I visited Asia's second best (according to Tripadvisor.com) tourist destination – Munnar in Kerala.

We drove from Bangalore, a nearly 500 km journey, of which only the last 80 km or so was hilly terrain. We were enamored by the vistas – tea plantations, wild shrubbery, flowering trees, once thick forest vegetation now reduced to wispy browns due to the weather and streams and rivulets every few km. After much Ooohing, Aaaahing, photo clicking and deep breathing we arrived at Munnar.

Our itinerary for the next 3 days involved everything from trekking, tea tasting, boating, eating king size British meals (fresh butter on toast is what I am mainly talking about), shopping and posing for photographs during break time. After an eventful check-in at our heritage hotel (see previous post), we retired to our room – too tired for dinner. I dreamt of Enid Blyton inspired vegetarian meals.

Next morning I was greeted with idlis, sambhar and chutney. Maida bread, melted butter and Kissan Jam (all of which seemed like they had been scavenged) were other items available. Every Enid B dream is followed by the Munshi Premchand reality. I gobbled down the idli-sambhar-chutney, imagining it to be some exotic Indian version of the Enid B "hearty" breakfast.

First stop – Tea Museum. Munnar has two tea museums. The highly recommended one is the Tata Tea Museum at Nallathanni Estate. Contrary to public opinion we discovered that it did not have a tea tasting area nor allowed any photography. So we went to the Kannan Devan Hill Plantations Tea Museum in Munnar town. A visit to the model factory, a documentary film about the place, tea-tasting (30 varieties of tea) and then shopping on the premises completed the tour. Though photography was prohibited inside the factory, we enjoyed the visit.

We asked officials at the museum to suggest a few tea plantations we could visit to understand how tea is grown. Their answer: Plantation visits are banned because visitors litter about. Surprised? Me too. Friends told us not to miss the plantation visit in Munnar as this is a unique experience. Is this how you "miss" it?

Next stop - Indo-Swiss farm in Mattupetty. We were told "No visitors allowed," even as two cars loaded with visitors (of the human variety) zipped past the gates. Do we need prior permits? Pay fees? Bribe? – all questions were resolutely answered by finger pointing to the "No visitors allowed" sign. (Private security agencies can look at this talent pool for future recruitment). How different can a buffalo look? Hybrid or otherwise? Tchah!!, I said to myself and moved on.

Mattupetty Dam nearby officially closes at 5:30 p.m. As we approached the gates at 2:30 pm, the guard said "Boating is full for the day" and turns us away. About 10 tourist buses and several other vans loaded with passengers passed us into the parking lot. "Try explaining that to them" – I was tempted to tell the guard. But by this time I was fed up.

We tried to salvage the trip by inquiring about the trek inside Eravikulam National Park that claims to offer glimpses of the Nilgiri Tahr. One can also climb Anaimudi, South India's highest peak, located inside the national park. Needless to say, the trek was cancelled because of a "herd attack." I am tempted to think it was our lot that turned itself upon the rest of the brethren. (Some thing on the lines of "All Mallus are lazy" and "All Tamilians are black" being enough to start a fist fight). As for the Anaimudi trek, it was apparently cancelled 12 years ago. Wonder how the some junta have climbed it as recently as last month?

Though I increasingly felt god had long forsaken this place, there are still some ways in which you can salvage this trip.

Make your trip Jhakaas by:

  1. Keeping expectations low: Once you have seen the first plantation 35 km from Munnar, your trip is effectively over. What you do in Munnar should not be confused with "sightseeing".
  2. Carrying your own food: A hamper containing a loaf of bread, jam, cheese slices and juice will taste better in Munnar than it ever did back home. If you are vegetarian, your choices are reduced to the claustrophobic Saravana Bhavan and a few other places whose names I can't recall.
  3. Experimenting with photography: It's a wonder how so much of one color - green - can inspire at least 10 shots of the same scene.
  4. Noticing the other color in the hill station: RED. The color of passion, sweat, blood and violence can mean laziness only in Munnar. The workers may be Tamil, but the govt is clearly commie.
  5. Going on a package tour: Self driving and exploration is for the poor, especially if you drive a humble Wagon-R. Fix yourself up with a tour operator. He most probably has the necessary skills to get you into all the places mentioned above. If not, you can always visit the next town/city as part of the package.

How not to lose your way:

Stay away from Google Maps. You will not spot Jattihalli at 80 kmph, leave alone SH 86. Pick up a state map from the book store and circle all the towns marked on the NH. Ask directions sequentially if in Karnataka, such as "How to go to Hosur." (Anything further will confuse). Once you enter Tamil Nadu, ask them for "How to go to Munnar". Follow those instructions to the T. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Wanderer: High Range Club, Munnar

All that glitters is not gold. All that is old is not heritage. Nestled on a hill, the 101-year-old High Range Club, Munnar has a proud legacy of many firsts to its credit. However, this club is far from heritage. Here are four reasons why you should avoid it and some tips to watch out for any tourist dwellings that may masquerade as heritage:

1. Back to basics:

The Indian Hotels Association classifies a heritage property as dating back to 1935 or earlier with a minimum of 10 rooms with basic amenities. How basic is basic? The day hubby and I arrived, the phone line in our room not working. The reason: "Lightning struck last night and since then all lines are down." So we called the reception from our cell phones. I thought in the good ole' days one used a bell to call their domestic help. I didn't find any buzzers in our room.

Later that evening, for about 2 hours, the telephone operators kept testing our lines (imagine trring trring trring, every 2 minutes) and eventually replaced the handset. We had advance booked the room a month before and had driven down 500 kms earlier that day. Given our mental health, we did not dare to check if the phone was working. Did I mention we did not have a fan in the room?

2. D├ęcor – rating:

"Exquisitely designed and decorated; meticulously preserved" is how a journal describes heritage properties should be. I am not sure that includes tackily fixed-erstwhile-broken down furniture. Single cots that didn't align at the centre, drawers and windows that needed a Herculean effort to open and close and sub zero size tables– all this and much more welcomed us. Guess the British took the furniture back with them.

3. Service (the lack of it):

The waiter who attended to us bonded so well with us that he started sniggering at the property manager's capabilities (amnesia for starters), the bad food served here (he also suggested that we should eat outside) and why no one comes to stay here (poor service). Needless to say, his own sense of duty was found wanting by us several times. Our room was not stocked with fresh towels, mosquito mat and machine (a common fixture in hill stations) and drinking water when we checked in. The room was not serviced the next day. The waiter's excuse: You did not give me the room key. How did the burra sahibs deal with such statements?

4. Authenticity missing:

Heritage properties usually welcome guests graciously, give them a tour of the property and their room in particular, help them settle and then entertain them with the best of local cuisine, arts and crafts. All of that was missing here. The common rooms were left open to us without anyone taking the trouble to give us an introduction. Food was mediocre and no hard drinks are allowed on the premises (A teetotaler Englishman? Beats me). No activities were arranged by the club such as tea tasting sessions, tea plantation visits, local folk arts, and sale of local crafts. Worse still, the manager and the reception were not of much help with local sightseeing either.

My mother once said "any place that is frightfully old is inhospitable." In this case I would agree with her. Unless you can be satisfied with Analog TV watching, mosquito swatting and mountain gazing, don't bother with this place.
PS: The club has a 9-hole golf course, squash and tennis courts and a billiards table- all of which you can access for a steep fee. We didn't check any of this out. Perhaps there are more tales there.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Office-Office: Guesstimate



(Picture Source: www.dilbert.com)


One hears about informed guesses all the time (dubiously know as guesstimates), but all of us know (or can guess) how truly informed (read ill-formed) they can be.

Last fortnight saw a flurry of guesstimates being used in the office to give strategic direction to future plans. Super Boss was in town after an overseas meeting with big bosses from other geographies. Much Earl Grey drinking must have happened, for the man seemed content and before leaving for his holy seat in the capitol, said "We must do something in the chemicals industry."

The non-conformist immediately starts mapping the chemical industry trends with the company's services and draws up a plan. While being reviewed by the Ageing superstar, (don't tell me you expected Super Boss to listen to others voices?)  it is struck down with one red slash of his pen (without reading it of course). The reason: "Super boss has lost touch with reality. He has no idea that there is no scope for any of these services in this country." So who has the idea?

While one can guesstimate that Super Boss was guesstimating, can you make out that the Ageing Superstar was "super guesstimating"? (meaning: making a guesstimate of an existing guesstimate). This is a common value add offered by senior team members. Identify it by looking at the amount and extent of grey matter on the person's scalp. In case of women look at the amount of jewellery and make up; Less of either of these coupled with prominent use of white indicates a high probability of super guesstimating.

Taking a cue the non-conformist soon applies this guesstimate theory on a hospitality project and sends the "findings" to the Ageing Super star. His verdict: "There are no hospitality companies in this city. So any marketing activity here is pointless." Pointless to inform him that the management has identified hospitality as a "key" sector this year and that a flurry of activity is already underway including a mammoth collateral kit.

This is a classic case of guesstimate beyond reason (GBR) attributed mainly to complacency and seat warming. GBRs often come from those who are next in line to win the super boss title. GBRs are usually close-ended statements and the only way to open the discussion is by sharing facts such as "I read this report on the blooming hospitality sector in the city. We can have a first mover advantage if you spearhead this." A response to a GBR will never be followed by another GBR. If anything you might find yourself without work.

A week later the non-conformist, still at her job, gets called by the Ageing Superstar. He says "Hey! I saw your email. You know these hospitality chaps are b%^&*$#@. Pardon my language. But they are b!@#$%^&. I think it is pointless to market anything here."

This is the guesstimate by experience (GBE), a complex maneuver that only the experienced can deliver. Lack of patience, a strong opinion and reputation as a names dropper are usually the pre-requisites for a GBE specialist. If you think a GBE comes close to sounding like an opinion, do not be surprised, for it is an opinion. When you are subjected to a GBE, it is time to archive all related communications in that folder (read "put the past behind" and "start afresh"). 

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Insider Reports: IPL-Gate – How not to do follow up reporting

This piece was my response to the coverage swimming around me in the last 1 month. I buy 3 newspapers and read at least 5 more online. I was aghast at how most of them were covering the IPL scam, giving little consideration to the ethics of journalism.

 

I am grateful to the Hoot for finding this worthy of publishing. The link to the piece is as follows:

 

 

For those who cannot open it for whatever reason, please find the piece below:

IPL-Gate --how not to do follow up reporting
 
Questions are not asked, news angles ignored. There has been a media witch hunt rather than responsible follow up reporting, says ARCHANA VENKAT
 
Posted Tuesday, Apr 27 22:38:16, 2010
 
The last few weeks have seen a witch hunt by the media to dissect any and every aspect of the Indian Premier League (IPL). So much so that even after the core issue of the IPL has been unearthed and is under investigation ' source of funding for the proposed Kochi IPL team and subsequently all other teams—journalists continue the trial by media by reporting bits and pieces of information that have no real relevance to the core issue.

In what can perhaps be termed as the worst possible example of "follow up" reporting, the media now runs the risk of being called irresponsible.

The primary aim of a follow up news report is to explore and answer questions raised in the first report. New information that broadens the perspective of the first report is secondary, unless it is of greater importance than the findings in the first report.  While following up on a story gives a journalist credibility and helps her/him and the reader/viewer get a holistic picture of the issue, it is important to pick, pursue and publish leads that may strengthen or weaken the case.

Unfortunately, with the IPL probe reportage, these principles seem to have been forgotten in the quest to break news.

A chartered flight between Delhi and Coimbatore, used by an IPL team, was in the news, allegedly because Poorna Patel, Aviation Minister Praful Patel's daughter and hospitality manager for the IPL, had used her father's clout to do so, leaving other passengers inconvenienced.  Air India CMD Arvind Jhadhav disagreed stating that the flight in question had taken all necessary permits, informed passengers much ahead of time and made arrangements for them with other flights. The aim of should have been to unearth if the IPL had flouted any norms. While that in itself may not have lent much support to the ongoing probe,

it certainly might have proved fodder to investigate who else's palms were greased by the IPL machinery. The journalist could have checked any previous instances of IPL teams having diverted flights for their use and unearthed a pattern for further investigation. A well investigated story with facts and figures could have had more impact than the current report that seemed like a cut-paste job of two opinions.

Another attempt to catch the IPL flouting norms was made by asking how and why the Maharashtra State government could permit the IPL go on post the 10 p.m Supreme Court ruling. The report quotes the IPL CEO Sundar Rajan stating he had written to the "ministers concerned," however, a slew of ministers quoted later do not seem to have any such recollection. Ideally, the journalist could have gone back to Rajan asking for a copy of the letter or at least the Ministers to whom it was addressed. With this information, one can check with the appropriate government department on the status of such a permit. Had such information been added in the story, readers would have derived greater value.

While Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar have been hounded as outcasts, no efforts were made by any media to seek opinion from either parties. Only Tehelka took the efforts to speak to Sunanda Pushkar and published an interview that might prove almost all reports about her as amounting to libel. Whatever happened to the Barkha Dutts and Karan Thapars of the newsroom?

A most amusing discussion on the future of the IPL was aired by a leading news channel with socialite-author Shobhaa De and populist fiction writer Chetan Bhagat as panelists. True to their professions, both suggested rather colorful scenarios to the IPL's future. Pray, was it so difficult for the channel to find a credible panel, considering the abundant supply of

"sports analysts" who share their opinion after every IPL match?

The most interesting of all reports was the one on how Lalit Modi grabbed government land in Rajasthan in 2007 (courtesy his closeness to then CM Vasundhara Raje) at "throwaway prices". While this may indicate that Modi was an astute business man, it fails to establish any meaningful relationship with his current predicament? A possible investigative angles to this story could have been whether any of the IPL teams stayed at these properties (a couple of heritage havelis converted into resorts) and if so, why? Were these properties the hospitality partners for IPL? Was there a fair process to decide that?

On several occasions one does not get suitable angles to a story. In such a case it is best to go online and read the kind of comments readers leave to similar news reports. Not only does it give a journalist an indication of public opinion, it also reveals what kind of stories the readers feel would be enriching.

The fact that Shashi Tharoor's Twitter following has not diminished or that most youth still think of Modi as an icon must indicate something to a journalist. It is worrying that all reports on the IPL have so far been prejudiced against both these people. The aim of any reporting is to attempt to present both sides of an issue as objectively as possible.

The IPL management is being accused of betting and match fixing ' a malpractice that sports journalists are familiar with, thanks to the match fixing scandal that ended careers of popular sportsmen barely a decade ago.  Few have aimed at revisiting past coverage and attempting to draw similarities with the current scenario.  Lastly, no one has attempted to ask any of the franchise owners on details of the IPL clauses and whether there are any clauses specific to corporate

governance and anti-money laundering. Such information would directly add value to the reporting on the probe itself.

Either we have short memories or we simply do not want to kick up sweat in producing meaningful follow up reports.

The Insider Reports: The beginning

When I moved from journalism to Marketing, I felt queasy being referred to as a "former journalist". Are doctors who don't practice called "former doctors"? Are teachers who retire called former Professors? Are lawyers ever called "Former Advocates"? And will my next door neighbor in Chennai (also a distant relative), the 85 year-old Colonel Ramswamy ever become Ramu Thatha (grandpa)? Definitely not.

 

Activists do not take shelter in the "former". They find new causes to back. I started this blog with the intention that one day I would also write about issues that truly concern us. (Yes, spending Rs 500 watching a movie that I recommended might also be a true concern.) But this series of posts will be more in the realm of ethics, good practices, inflation, home loan rates, government policies, current affairs, state of the economy and a whole bunch of serious talk which, de-jargonized, can be quite helpful and bust frustration.

 

"The Insider Reports" is my effort in keeping the journalist in me alive. I will be happiest if any of this content moves beyond these screens into discussion. That way all of us can become activists and keep the fires inside us burning.

The Wanderer: Grover Vineyards, Doddaballapur, Near Bangalore

If you are thinking grape crushing, dancing, eating, drinking and general leisurely pursuits forget it. This is India and we love Indianizing everything, particularly if we don't understand it.

Our guide for this visit was a French lady who felt much at home. (We were told later by some friends that she grew up in her father's vineyard in France and had come to India for an educational tour to get exposure into the wine brewing business here.) As she laboriously explained the history of the vineyard, types of grapes used for cultivation and when to pick them, I wore a resigned look. When a very beautiful lady animatedly tries to speak English with a French accent, I have to give up since I don't know where to look – at her mascara (Must be fake eyelashes), blush (God! When will they understand that you can only tan in India), outfit (how do they get to be so thin on a diet of chocolate and wine?), or just roll my eyes to heaven requesting god to make her more understandable.

Just as I realized the waste potential of this visit, eureka struck. I jumped into action asking my husband to click some half a dozen pictures of me in various poses near the grapes, touching the vines, standing resignedly in a side profile…..

The factory smelt of sour grapes (I am not sure why I assumed it would be otherwise). There were vats of all shapes, sizes and material inside. In another barely lit room there were barrels full of the wine left for fermenting. As we moved towards the bottling section, it struck me that we were doing a reverse tour of the factory.

We ended at the entrance of the factory where freshly plucked grapes were being loaded into a crushing machine. Yes. That explained the lack of leisurely enthusiasm among the inmates. When a machine replaces a wide bucket of ripe grapes waiting to be crushed, you can forget about barefoot dancing and merrymaking. What you get is "Business as usual" with people in uniforms, shower caps and gloves carefully loading every bunch of fruit. And so with a heavy heart, I moved to the wine sampling session.

6 glasses set beside each seat. This, I felt, was set up to put me to shame. For starters I am no wine connoisseur (in fact, I don't even drink the stuff). Further the French lady consoled me suggesting I smell the stuff instead of tasting it. Big Insult, considering my sense of smell is only marginally better than an earthworm's. The result – Husband happily drank my share of wine, posed a zillion times and got tongue tied trying to pronounce the French names. Thankfully, a child in our group rescued me by bawling his lungs out on being refused to sample wine. That definitely marked the end of the wine tasting and our visit to the vineyard.

Make your trip Jhakaas by:

  1. Speaking to the workers on the vineyard. They will give you a de-glamourized version of everything starting with the owner of the place to the plants in the English you will understand. In case you don't, they also speak Hindi, Kannada and Telugu.
  2. Once the tour of the factory is over, turn around and repeat the route – this way you will understand all the processes in sequence. Watch out for grapes/ grape juice on the floor.
  3. Reading up on the company online. It has many firsts to its credit.
  4. Some wine enthusiasts also conduct this tour and the verdict is that they do a better job.

How not to lose your way:

Head North on the way to Bangalore International Airport. At Jakkur Airfield, take the left fork of the road. Cross Angsana Spa and travel about 10 km further until encountering railway line. Take a right from the second railway line. When in doubt, ask the locals for "Grover Wine Factory".

Cost: Rs 500 per head. Includes cost of vineyard visit, factory tour and wine sampling.

Disappointments:

You cannot purchase wine at the factory.  You cannot order for single bottles to be home delivered. The minimum order is for 6 bottles. So, approach the wine tasting session with a motive.

The Wanderer: The Beginning

Did you know that the Indo-Islamic marble sculptures in Amer fort can be cleverly interpreted in 10 ways? Or that it costs only Rs 12 Lakhs to own several acres of coffee plantation in Coorg?

 

I like noticing quirky things about places. A surprise feature, a lesser known piece of information, local tall tales, in short, everything that contributes to turning a mundane trip into a king-sized adventure.

 

'The Wanderer' will feature a series of posts on travel and adventure. The tone of this post will be conversational (read non-boring), until I see and feel some thing of great value which absolutely needs to be publicized for the better of mankind. In such a case, I will test people's patience by getting into details, developing a conscience and going objective. For your own good, you shall pray that does not happen.