Monday, July 25, 2011

Earful! : Diesel - Fuelling dreams in all sizes

 Size and cost have always mattered to Indians. Ask any uncle who retired from a government job and owns a Maruti 800 as old as his service. He will wistfully eye that "big" car, every time it passes by the house and know he will never buy it.


My dad is no different. For the last 3 years he has been wanting to dispose off our 10 year old Wagon R to fulfill his desire to buy a "big" car. What is stopping him, you ask? The cost of buying and running such a car. A litre of petrol will soon cost more than three square meals. If you are a pensioner just thinking about it could give you heart burn.


"Big" cars are big fuel guzzlers.  Many uncles spend most of their time in the mechanic shop trying to figure out how to get their midget sized cars on diet.  Try uttering the D (D for diesel) word and you will have woken the analyst in them. "Noisy" ,"Jerky", "Parts will get worn out", "tough to drive" and as an afterthought "ladies don't like," are some of the justifications given to conclude that a diesel vehicle is not a family car (unless your family includes poultry).  The truth of course is the reverse. They would all love to drive a diesel vehicle provided someone took care of the servicing.


A family friend recently offered my parents a lift in their brand new sedan. The 30-minute drive was "very nice" by my father's admission. And how was the diesel engine behaving, I asked. "DIESEL?", shrieked my dad, half out of fear and the other half out of shock. The man had not realized he was sitting in a diesel vehicle.  Many phone calls and an internet check revealed he had indeed traveled Diesel class.  What's more the family friend told him it needed no more services than a petrol vehicle and the power steering was gentle enough to respond to his wife's driving. What is more, you could stand away from the bleary eyed truck drivers and ask proudly for HSD (High Speed Diesel).


That was the turning point.


My dad has ever since found his poison. He talks about the "big" car with vigor, sans the zillion creases on his forehead. Not to be left behind, my uncle's 5 year old grandson talks of driving only buses, trucks and trains – all on HSD (or so he thinks). Not to be out done, Gen-X (or is it Y?) is buying diesel sedans by the dozen.  Our apartment complex alone must have half the diesel sedans made in Bangalore.  Even as you read, the Nissan Micra Diesel and Chevy Beat Diesel are being launched. I won't be surprised to see Tata Nano Diesel one day.


Diesel has arrived.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Insider Reports: News of the World scandal and why the media should consider getting corporatized

First it was the Niira Radia tapes where journalists did more than seek news. Then came the phone tapping scandal where News of the World reporters aimed at bettering the quality of their scoops by illegally tapping into the voice mail systems of a quite a few people - celebrities and otherwise. Is there no other way journalists can improve their craft?

My latest article in the Hoot outlines why it is time for the media to look at adapting some aspects of corporate culture inorder to gain the public's respect and evolve as professionals.

The story can be read at

In case the link above does not open, please see the gist of the story below:

Early this month, the News of the World, a British tabloid famed for exposing celebrity scandals closed down, ironically after being involved in a scandal. The Rupert Murdoch owned entity and some key journalists were charged with illicitly hacking into the voicemail messages of prominfent people in a quest to find exclusive stories. (Updates on the case can be read at )

The episode bears resemblance to the Niira Radia tapes controversy that led to the 2G spectrum scam. The only critical difference being that none of the journalists associated with the Radia tapes were convicted, nor did they step down from their positions. The Indian courts chose not to scrutinize any stories reported by these journalists during the time period that these tapes were recorded, thus saving them from any charges.

The Radia tapes and the News of the World incidents saw questions raised on ethics in journalism, the nexus between politicians and journalists, and possible repercussions on the business of news. Sadly, no discussion focused on how these concerns could be practically addressed. Predictably, there has been little or no “repercussions”. Few media organizations issued apologies, even fewer journalists defended themselves. And business went on as usual.

To prevent such incidents becoming common place, it is essential that news (and views) organizations consider imbibing certain elements of corporate culture in their operations. The following are my suggestions to help build trust in our news.

1) Institutionalize an induction program – In my five years of exposure to leading English language print and television organizations, none have a formal induction program that takes recruits (freshers and experienced candidates alike) through topics such as the culture of the organization, best practices to be followed during news gathering, ways to collaborate with colleagues on stories, recommended sources for news gathering, ethics and media laws that can impact their careers. This should be followed with a test of their knowledge and understanding. Candidates failing to pass should not be allowed to work on any stories.

Currently, the onus of educating candidates is left to educational institutions, where some of these topics are dealt with to purely satisfy academic requirements. This ensures that future journalism professionals are not fully aware of the liabilities they can face. In one instance, my friend’s opinion piece published in a leading business daily was plagiarized by a 21-year old journalist (incidentally working for another leading daily) who changed a few words and published the piece under his name with no reference whatsoever to the original piece. When confronted, the piece was removed without any formal apology to the original author.

In comparison, organizations such as Infosys, Wipro and Accenture have induction programs lasting between 2 days to 15 days. Organizations working in high risk sectors or highly regulated industries such as financial services or healthcare usually conclude their induction programs with a series of tests so as to assess the readiness of the candidates to be put on the job. The widely publicized Infosys induction programme for freshers lasts between 2 months and 6 months and candidates are routinely assessed and eliminated based on their performance in these evaluations.

2) Considering ethics as part of the performance appraisal process – Performance appraisal remains a fairly unstructured process in many media organizations, with the final decision making in the hands of few senior journalists. While the number and quality of stories done by a journalist is a reasonable estimate of his/her capabilities, it is important to also include an element of ethics in the analysis. What are the sources considered by the journalist? Are any of these sources copyrighted? Has the journalist been open and honest with an individual he is intending to use as a source? Has the journalist sought permission from such individuals to quote them? Is he/she comfortable involving a colleague to add value to the story?

Although this seems like a tedious task, editors and chiefs of bureaux can make a start by randomly picking one story per journalist and analyzing such details. Any discrepancies can be noted and mentioned in the appraisal report.

The objective of such an exercise would be to demonstrate zero tolerance to unethical practices. Many news organizations, perhaps unknowingly, follow a similar process when it comes to investigative stories. Developing a robust approach to analyse all stories is therefore not undoable. Consequently, journalists would start seeking and saving tangible proof (emails, paperwork, recorded conversations etc) to back their stories.

Leading global firms operating in countries where the risk of corruption is high, have a stringent policy on ethics. Consulting firms are at the forefront of such activity. Recently, the global conglomerate Siemens started a programme whereby they would share ethical practices and warn other firms (including competitors) about the perils of doing business the wrong way (such as prosecution and loss of reputation). Additionally, all Siemens employees are periodically briefed about the program. Those facing the highest risk of being involved in unethical practices such as those in sales, procurement and other external facing roles are specifically evaluated based on their conduct.

3) Develop guidelines for seeking news - The only piece of advice I received to improve my reporting was a blog post shared by my boss. Written by John Heylar, then senior writer for ESPN, it was titled “Six Rules for the business writer’s craft” and listed some guidelines to source news so as to make your copy more interesting. Over the years I have honed my writing (and reporting) skills by reading many such gems of wisdom from blogs. Regrettably, none of the organizations I worked for had any such information in their archives.

For cub reporters the lack of such guidelines means going about the job in a haphazard manner and at best copying the way in which the boss writes/ reports. For seasoned journalists, this means limiting the scope of the story to familiar territory. In either case, the journalist’s evolution is stymied and eventually the quality of the organisation’s content is affected.

How can organizations develop such guidelines? Unfortunately there is no equivalent of a stylebook/ style guide to adopt. Organisations need to develop their own guidelines by talking to employees, fellow journalists and doing research. It can start as a series of short notes on topics such as what sources to avoid contacting, tips for better recording of interviews, how to use the internet for research and how to ask probing questions. Over time, these notes can be consolidated and compiled.

In stark contrast, many corporate firms in India have a knowledge management portal (part of the Intranet) that details aspects such as how to approach a client (database of client relationships), best practices in report writing, customised templates to make presentations and data sharing avenues (internal blogs focused on a problem area or a new solution, white papers, virtual discussions etc).

4) Rotation of journalists – The current industry norm is to align journalists to a beat. At best, most areas covered by the journalist would fall into one or two broad categories. For example, a journalist covering Financial Services would cover banking, insurance, NBFCs, personal finance, investment banks, mutual funds, etc. He would very rarely cover an area such as healthcare. Similarly another covering the municipality would rarely volunteer to cover a political rally or report on crime. This results in a journalist getting extremely comfortable with one beat, cultivating and using the same set of contacts for each story and eventually unwilling to collaborate with colleagues on larger stories. This comfort zone can make journalists extremely territorial and unwilling to question their modus operandi.

This can be avoided if a journalist is assigned two or more very different beats. This means for every beat there would be more than one person with varying levels of experience. When two or more people work on a similar beat, it becomes difficult to follow unethical practices to seek and close a story.

If assigning multiple beats per person is not feasible, then journalists must be rotated every 2-3 years to take on a different beat and transition the existing beat to their colleagues. This way the journalist remains keen to learn about new areas and puts in efforts to seek synergies/ linkages between various areas. (Eg: A former political beat reporter now reporting on economic issues can draw linkages say between inflation and political agenda, to make the story relatively more comprehensive).

The Tata Group follows this approach by rotating employees at least every 2 years to other divisions or sister companies. IBM does this every 18 months, while GE and the Mahindra Group have leadership development programmes where good performers are made to work in every major function for 6 months before deciding on where they would like to settle. Little wonder then that the rate of attrition at these companies is relatively low.

5) Acting on reader comments –  Corporations are built to make profits. To do this, they constantly engage with clients and seek feedback. The learning from every project/ client is captured internally (in a de-briefing report) and applied to other projects wherever relevant and useful. The global consulting industry and the Indian IT industry have been able to build efficiencies solely through this model. Private banks use this principle to figure out which customers are more likely to buy new services.

There is no reason why media firms cannot adapt this model, especially when revenues are dropping. Newspapers and TV news organizations not only filter reader/ viewer comments for publishing, they also seldom choose to act on any of them. Organisations mostly defend their stand, some publish corrigendum, few issue apology notes. Beyond that there is no process to incorporate reader suggestions into improving the quality of content.

For starters, journalists must be informed of the comments to their story. Any adverse comments questioning the veracity of the story should be discussed between the reporter and the Chief of Bureau to understand why such a question was raised and what can the reporter do to prevent such a scenario in future. (In many cases it is lack of clarity in the language used by the reporter that gives rise to such a comment.).

The number of times a story has been talked about by readers/ viewers (through their blog, tweets, visits to the story’s page etc) can be used as another input to a journalist’s appraisal process.

As social media gains prominence, journalists have begun quoting views (in some cases generating entire stories) for their stories from the public at large. While media firms are discouraging this trend, journalists can make use of these public posts/ comments in another way – to gauge response to a particular topic and picking leads for developing/ investigating into stories.

Will following these guidelines see a new and improved world of Indian media? Perhaps not immediately. But it will certainly help organisations differentiate from competition, attract superior talent, build a positive reputation and prevent unethical practices.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Insider Reports: Management Lessons from Harry Potter

The first time I laid hands on Harry Potter (the book, of course) was in 2002 near the Pune Railway station. A man was selling pirated copies of the first 3 books for Rs 120. With nothing better to do, I bought it. The set of books came with me to Chennai , remained locked in my bookshelf for 2 years and then followed me back to Pune (where I went for post graduate studies). I read the three books in quick succession and soon after bought all successive books legitimately from the bookstore.
Now, after 10 years, I continue to re-read the series, discovering a new perspective each time.  This time my husband Vikram pipped me to the idea. We have jointly written an article on Management lessons from Harry Potter and Silicon India, a management and technology site, has published it.
In case the link does not work, please see below the article.
Harry Potter is one of the best loved books by children and many adults alike. Some attribute it to J.K Rowling's vivid imagination, unraveling mysteries more complex in every progressing book. Others say it was good marketing fuelled by the reach of the online medium. For me the most compelling reason for being a Harry Potter fan is discovering something new every time I re-read the series. This time it is the parallels I can draw between the worlds of Death Eaters & Charms and business management.
Imagine Order of the Phoenix (OoP) to be a company. It would be one where the visionary (Dumbledore himself) sets clear goals and like minded employees are inspired to join. Irrespective of age, race or skill levels, recruits are hired by their commitment to the vision (in this case – a world in which wizards\witches and Muggles (Non magic people) live in harmony) and trained to become capable for doing their job.
The competitor to the Order of the Phoenix is Deatheaters Inc, led by Lord Voldemort. Employees are coerced to join and are afraid to leave. Predictably most are picked based on their race (or blood status) and are more or less of the same age with similar skills. Not very different from the real world, where companies often prefer to choose candidates from pedigreed backgrounds (IITs, IIMs, Ivy league universities or prominent family backgrounds) having more or less the same kind of skills and interests ("standards" is the word used by most recruiters).  Consequently there is little emphasis on training and skills up gradation and most of the work that matters is done by the owner, Voldemort, himself. In most promoter driven firms in India, this is the case.
While Deatheater's Inc works as a centralized business unit to ensure that all decisions are ultimately take by Voldemort, OoP believes in delegation and empowerment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the last book where Ron and Hermione destroy a horcrux (and so does Neville) when Harry is otherwise expected to do the job. The element of surprise catches Voldemort unawares. The OoP also incubates a smaller organization consisting mostly of students from Hogwarts called Dumbledore's Army (DA). It is DA that acts as a game changer when push comes to shove towards the end.
When Molly Weasley, a house wife rarely projected as having a taste for violence, disarms and kills the powerful Bellatrix Lestrange, it shows how an empowered individual is more committed than a merely talented one. Another classic example of is the time after Harry's birth when Voldemort had to go into hiding. Deatheaters Inc totally collapsed and was operating in shadows and was revived only by the resurgence of Lord Voldemort, while OoP remained active and helped protect Harry till he comes of age and helping him defeat Lord Voldemort.
From the marketing perspective, OoP again did a far better job than DI. Their communication was crisp and concise. Their articulation of the vision that OoP saw for the world was simplified and all inclusive. They used Harry Potter as a brand ambassador and this helped them gain followers among the younger witches and wizards. DI on the other hand projected such an image of exclusivity that favoured older wizards and witches of pure blood status who in many ways had lost touch with reality. The inclusion of Muggle born magicians in OoP also helped in extending cooperation with the real world, whereas DI could not take advantage of such an association.
Even when the OoP was on the back foot after the death of Dumbledore they operated through other marketing channels like the underground radio station and 'The Quibber'. In other words OoP recognized the need that the prospects had to feel safe in a post Dumbledore world and they were able to find channels to articulate this vision.
Finally, it was a coaching nature of the CEO Dumbledore that really helped OoP achieves its aims. Everybody knew their part and was empowered to do their jobs. So long as the final goals were achieved, it did not matter who was responsible for the victories. DI's vision was to kill Harry Potter. However, Voldemort complicated this vision by ensuring that only he was to kill Harry. This resulted in wastage of time as Harry, though often caught by many death eaters at different times, could still not be killed by them.
An example in the corporate world is the leadership style of JRD Tata, who got the most competent people to run his companies. These managers were empowered to do what was best to fulfill the Tatas' vision for India.
 Many would argue that in the fictional world things are perfect. Good has to triumph over evil. Whereas in the real world, people like Voldemort do succeed. Is that so? No. A look at the history of business around the world will show, how overly centralized companies or those heavily dependent on one person for execution (promoter, CEO) have largely failed (or are failing). Little wonder then that most people prefer to join companies such as TATA's Google, Facebook, 3M, GE, Intel and Asian Paints which have remained on the Top 10 employer listings.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Office-Office: Succession Planning

It is one of those scenarios where the "Hurray! Yipee!!  At least someone is leaving this hell hole!" sentiment can soon give way to "Jeez, we have a new pain the ass to deal with." And if it is your boss that is being replaced, even god cannot help you.
A good succession plan in the past involved the ex-boss spoon-feeding the new boss until the new boss was suitably brain dead.  That way the one could continue work without any disruption and maintain standards (whatever they may be). That however, is now crudely achieved (cost cutting should I think?). 
You come in one morning and realize the super-boss is particularly grumpy. Investigations reveal that the your boss has vamoosed - bag, baggage, insider information and all.  You are seen as a free bird.  Jealous looks are exchanged. Whispers and the occasional stifled sob saying "why is she the lucky one?" echo off the sound-proof cubicle walls.
Feeling lucky? Momentarily. No more blood pressure raising emails wanting everything yet to be discovered "right now!". No more brain malfunctions on reading the emails. No scathing feedback either. FREEDOM!, Wait a second, why is your mail box refusing to open?  IT Support tells you it has crashed. A recovery shows 157 emails from Super-boss in the past hour. You sigh and get to work.
Two months later, you have a series of emails from an unknown entity. Just as you are about to report it as spam, you notice the sender's designation.  Your new boss has entered the system and is asking for pretty much everything stored in your laptop. "I have to tell him how to work?! Why is he my boss then?"..The rage builds up. Over several video conferences next week, you spoon-feed the new boss until you can cause significant brain damage. Super-boss, miffed with the ex-boss, refuses to test his share of brain damaging potion on the new boss. Eager to impress, the new boss insists you help him on weekends to "better understand" the system and calls you "dearie".
That night, bleary eyed, you decide to float your resume in the market aiming to do what your ex-boss did.  As for succession planning, that is for your subordinate to worry about.