Thursday, June 16, 2011

India and her traits

At the personal level , traits determine human behavior . In an organizational context these are conditioned by work culture , location of the organization , its people and the environment . Traits are about mindsets , they are not goals, capabilities ,processes or requirements (Benko ,Macfarlan). Traits , are characterized by unique qualities or practices which can be identified with certain groups , organizations or even nations .  They are long term in nature and have been developed  in the context  of the local culture and would vary with the geographical location  . As examples we can observe the culture of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley  which is not commonly found elsewhere or is different from even well known research institutions like Harvard , Oxford or Cambridge . For the very same reasons we have the Germans who are known for manufacturing products with precision , the Japanese for their excellence in quality , the Chinese for low cost manufacturing and the Indians for crisis management .
Can traits be developed ? Fortunately , yes ! But, they could take a long time since behavioral changes are required. An example where traits were learned from others and developed is the philosophy of prevention as compared to inspection or emphasis on quality during production rather than after the product is manufactured  .This trait is commonplace in many organizations today whereas once this was followed only by the Japanese .
What traits do Indians exhibit ? What are they  good at ? And where do they need to improve ? Traits can contribute to a positive outcome ,could have a negative connotation or they could be both . Let us look at each one of them in some detail .(Positive or Negative factors indicated as a prefix against each trait) .
(+) Diversity
Accepting and managing diversity is a buzz word today , more so in the western world  . For instance, in the US , being a nation of immigrants , it is now well accepted that one needs to accommodate different cultures to ensure effectiveness and efficiency in the workplace . This concept is promoted proactively within organizations by accommodating the aspirations of different groups . In India such measures are hardly necessary . For many years people here have lived and grown with diversity . The pluralistic nature of society is probably unlike anywhere else in the world with  different religions  , languages ,customs etc .The spread of food habits ,fashion,  (particularly female) television and movies (Bollywood) in last few decades has only improved the cohesiveness among Indians and has enhanced the feeling of ‘Indian-ness’.
The ability of Indians to adjust easily with other cultures is also one reason for Indian diaspora to inhabit practically all parts of the world whether it be Africa ,the Middle East, Europe, Caribbean , Australia or America.
(+ -) Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurs are there everywhere and in all parts of the world . What distinguishes an Indian entrepreneur from others ? or in other words what positive traits do they show and where do they need to improve ?
The unique and special qualities that we can see in Indian entrepreneurship today can be traced to historical antecedents .Originating primarily from traders who have learnt to excel in the short term , take risks and capitalize on opportunities . These have been dominated predominantly  by business families like Marwaris , Parsis , Gujarathis in the north and Chettiars and Nadars in the south . Industralization came in much later and became a natural progression for these business families . Only recently have  professionals or those who been traditionally salaried employees have taken the risk and jumped into the fray as entrepreneurs .
When India moved towards industrialization in the 50s and 60s and towards globalization  in the 80s and 90s business families contributed in setting up manufacturing  units .They were adept in providing goods at low cost with necessary adaptations and  developments . This is not to say that their success was also a result of the ability to exploit the era of shortages and the licensing system of the government to the maximum , since competition of free market type was not prevalent .Later on came the services sector . The growth here was contributed not by the traditional business families but from the new found ability of professional and the salaried class of erstwhile employees to get into entrepreneurship . Fuelled by some support from the government , they had a low threshold limit for entry .Unlike manufacturing which was dependent on infrastructure , The IT sector did not need infrastructure and were able to exploit opportunities very well giving rise to the well known success of services sector in India .
Looking at history , it makes us wonder that in 1 AD , India ‘s  proportion of GDP was the highest in the world .( Sabharwal)  America, which entered the fray later caught up and by 2001 became the top runner surpassing Europe . A significant trait exhibited by the Americans was the importance given to innovation by their business community and organizational support system for it from the government . Where does India stand here ? Initially as a trading community and later on as part of a controlled and mixed economy there was hardly any incentive to nurture long term innovation . The government also far from helping in the matter had till recently , a suspicious attitude towards business and industry.

Over the last five decades  whatever successes India has made in innovative products or services  has been more in developing adaptations rather than in breakthrough innovation . Here the manufacturing sector is ahead of the services where some expertise is visible in the consumer or industrial markets. The Indian IT industry -successful and so well accepted globally  , has  not made any  headway in product development. In contrast , Indian industry in other sectors say consumer , defence ,space research , automobiles ,pharmaceuticals and chemicals have shown successes though the scale is much lower than of other industrialized countries  . How do we explain this ? One explanation can be that be that while manufacturing industries owned and managed by traditional business families successfully migrated to a long term perspective , professionals in services sector were yet to understand and embrace product development ,marketing and risk taking . They had not yet graduated from being employees or providing services to managing more complex business initiatives which involved greater investment and higher risk .
What particular qualities or traits do Indian businessman or entrepreneurs have which make them successful not only in India but in the other parts of the world ? The key characteristics are adaptation, low cost consciousness ,staying power and family support .The last two are an outcome of a mindset of typical small businessman or trader and have been set over the years by family oriented businesses . This is in sharp contrast to the current lot of entrepreneurs who are coming in from the salaried class . It is not surprising that they are taking time to move from an employee to a business mindset .
 (+)Family orientation
India is a family oriented country . Personal lifestyle , social patterns , the work place and even politics are influenced by it . Historically and traditionally the family has been the unit of social structure. So at work , it not uncommon to find the extended family or friends being used for networking for getting things done rather than follow  formal channels . Very much like the chinese trait of guangxi ,relationships have more importance and usually becomes the first step in getting any issue or problem resolved . This is very unlike the west , where rules ,procedures and processes are given prominence .
A family orientation has many advantages . It becomes an anchor point in times of crisis and helps draw emotional sustenance . It develops the attitude of ‘give and take‘  and making  adjustments. This has contributed to the trait of adaptability . At times the family could be of help in collective decision making though traditionally it has been hierarchical .
However, surprisingly , the orientation of strong family ties have not percolated or permeated to the community . So often ,one finds excellence within a family or at home but scant consideration for the community . As examples , one can find spotlessly clean households but unclean sorroundings on the roads and apathy  towards community issues . This trait by Indians has also been seen as seen as their inability to look beyond their immediate needs or disregard community hardships at the cost of their own self interest .
One reason given for the lack of natural community orientation is because Hindu religious thought accepts a multitude of gods and and goddesses with any number of variations and options when it comes to praying or understanding or practicing .This ranges from devout followers of rituals and practices to agnostics or atheists . For Hindus ,religion has been a personal and individualistic affair and unlike Christianity or Islam , Hindu religious functions and rituals have largely done at home and not at the community level . However many religious Hindu or neo-Hindu institutions has come up in the last century which has helped drawing out religious and spiritual thought towards community well-being .Prominent examples at the pan india level  are the Satya Sai Institutions ,and Ramakrishna Mission The strong family orientation sans community orientation seen in India is in sharp contrast to the west where strong individualistic traits are given prominence with commensurate attention to the community , while family orientation takes a back seat .
Since Indians do not have a natural inclination towards community orientation  it has to be brought about by external means or by some champion who spearheads the entire initiative .In Gujarat ,though a predominantly business community , it still needed an external agent like Dr Kurien ( a malayalee) to get them together and create Operation Flood and the milk revolution . During the freedom movement Lokmanya Tilak started the practice of ‘Ganapati Visarjan “ or immersing the idol of ganapati in a river or sea as community practice , only to rally people together . The argument that I am making here is that similar to the way the West is working towards helping diversity in the work place , Indians needs to work towards creating community based practices and institutions and this is has to be done proactively as it does not come naturally to them .

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Order from Chaos ?

See this popular video on driving in India
Looks chaotic - no signals , no traffic policeman or even a roundabout - but yet the movement is multi directional and goes on . Wonder how it happens ?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Facade of Jugaad

'Jugaad' has become a buzzword to indicate an Indian way of providing solutions .Management academics, the media and journalists now use it often with the Economist publishing an article on it .

For those new to it ,Jugaad (a Hindi word) simply means an improvised quick fix arising from ingenuity, just-in-time solutions , typically in a resource-starved situation and sometimes by bending rules or breaking the law . Essentially they are solutions for the short term and does not solve the problem permanently.

Innumerable articles and comments have been come out both in favour and against this 'Indian' trait . Some endorse it wholeheartedly as a method which is producing results while others have not taken it seriously treating it as the next new fad or as a hype .

How have Indians acquired this trait ?

Jugaad looks at quick fix solutions . First , Indians have become habituated to work in the short term and taking short cuts . This is often at the expense of other people or a permanent solution. This means that the problem could re-occur in which case you use the same Jugaad to re-fix the solution rather than looking for the root cause and solving it . One reason why people take to it is that a short term solution is easier to implement keeping in mind resource requirement , planning and getting approvals from higher-ups.

In general , Indians have been used to results , products or services which probably do not meet the expected quality. Often ,one is expected to adjust to these imperfections and get along . Of course , there are exceptions but these are fewer when compared to the majority .

Bureaucracy, complicated / impractical rules and an slow or unworkable legal system have only legitimized taking short cuts and it is little wonder that Jugaad thrived in it .Those who knew how to apply it were very successful and others emulated them .

The Jugaad mindset

Though 'Jugaad ' has a negative connotation can such a mindset be useful ? It can be - particularly in crisis situations . But we must understand that the outputs may not be of the best quality and the solution may not be sustainable in the long run .

The problem is that often 'jugaad' is being misinterpreted as a substitute for a systems approach and planning . Just because it ends up producing novel products or results it is confused with organized innovation .

Jugaad and Innovation

Jugaad is sometimes being used as term to denote the process for low-cost innovation or 'out of the box 'solutions . Consider these examples

General Electric - a hand held ECG which has reduced the cost to less than $1 per patient.
Tata Chemicals - a water filter based on rice husk - initial investment $24

There are many other examples quoted in the Economist including Tata's Nano car . These comparisons with Jugaad are misplaced and to do so will be belittling the planned effort that gone into these ventures . Some in India and also the west have simply found it convenient to romanticize the method and christening as then next new find from India .

From a manager's viewpoint , Jugaad can be considered a kind of 'workaround' . A workaround denotes the methods followed when events occur which has not been planned for - because of improper planning or are difficult to do so because outcomes are uncertain . Jugaad can never be a substitute for planning.

It is time to call a spade a spade . Let us relegate Jugaad to the rightful place where it belongs and not treat it as a panacea for all management problems . Surely , the Jugaad mindset is useful - in crisis management , during execution to take corrective action and in workarounds to solve problems . But , to equate it to organized innovation ,systems approach or planning will be a gross mistake .

Notes :

1 . First break all the rules- The charms of frugal innovation Apr 15th 2010 From The Economist print edition
Why praise jugaad? It's bleeding us by Swapan Dasgupta 29 Aug 2010


Saturday, October 16, 2010

India Circa 1 AD

Are you surprised to know that India was the largest contributor to the GDP of the world in the year 1 AD ? - At least I was when I first read about it in an article. Not only that , upto about another 500 years , the subcontinent was at its zenith with regard to science ,technology , art and literature .

Let us go through a bit of history to understand the context . According to the calculations by Angus Maddison, from the beginning of the common era until the early 19th century, China and India accounted for around half of the global GDP. Starting from 4th and 3rd centuries BCE almost all of the subcontinent was part of the Maurya Empire . Much later northern and central India was united in the 4th century CE, and remained so for two centuries under the Gupta Empire which is called the Golden Age of India . During the same time, and for several centuries afterwards, southern India, under the rule of the Chalukyas, Cholas, Pallavas, and Pandyas, experienced its own golden age.

The high points of this period In India were considerable cultural creativity with magnificent architectures, sculptures and paintings. The Gupta period produced scholars such as Kalidasa, Aryabhata and Vatsyayana .Science and political administration reached new heights .Strong trade ties also made the region an important cultural center and set the region up as a base that would influence nearby kingdoms and regions in Burma, Sri Lanka, Malay Archipelago and Indochina. The earliest available Puranas are also thought to have been written around this period.

For much of this period, China and India were independent countries and technological leaders.Until around 1450, China and India were technologically more innovative and advanced than Europe. Both the countries were very well knit with the rest of the globe .

So what went wrong ? Why did both economies go downhill between the early 18th century and the late 20th century ? Firstly , western technology was a factor . Once the industrial revolution came along, followed by the information revolution, mere size mattered less. First the Europeans, then the Americans leveraged technology to blow out GDP on a per capita basis. Steam engine, internal combustion engine, silicon made up for size. is the rise of Western technology at about the same time. It was for the same reason till about 200 years ago India and China could leverage their huge population and numbers determined output .

Secondly , both India and China were victims of colonialism? After 200 years of foreign rule, Indians were so afraid of neo-colonialism, that they kept their country closed to foreign trade for another four decades. However, it is to be remembered Western technology could only flourish because colonies provided cheap raw materials and labour and huge free markets (that were controlled by the West's millitary-industrial complex) Same for China, who kept China closed for three decades (since the end of Japanese occupation)