Sunday, November 28, 2010

Crystal Ball Report Card 2010

As I look back on the year that has almost passed, I tend to revisit the thoughts I have been regurgitating and inflicting on everyone over the server-space of blogspot. It is a quaint way indeed to see not only how thought process tends to flow, hit the harsh rocks of stark reality and readjust itself into a different stream. The magic of the weblog is to ensure that thoughts not only flow on their own, but also get stirred, diverted, dammed and unclogged by others whose streams of consciousness cross ours on the connected path of the world wide web.

As I meander about the currents of thought I stumble on to a new found surface of realisation. The trend of reaching a conclusion and then being forced to modify the earlier analysis is the way of not only the bloggers and other amateur thinkers of the world. This is also the modus operandi of the so called trend watchers and analysts who make a living out of reaching learned conclusions about the events of the world.

In an earlier post, which is now a part of the novel The Best Seller, I had pointed out that prediction is not really a pastime or profession we are good at as human beings. Especially where factors of people interaction get into the equation, we miserably fail to foresee what will happen in the immediate future, let alone the distant days.

Most corporations continue to live in the fool’s paradise of a deterministic universe. Data collection has never been so rigorous or so ridiculous as in these days of electronic footprint, something that my cyber psychiatrist friend continues to remind me of. However, can all this data, even with super number crunching computes give us a glimpse of the future?

Two years back, when the economies tottered, and the account manager of Axiom Consulting in HMH, Amsterdam, Ajay Yadav, was publicising his new patch-worked model of Defect Prediction to compensate for his lack of a vertebral column, I heard these immortal words from my buddy. It is the ancient fascination of man to look for the signs of the future in the present. It started with tea leaves, constellation and palms, and now find their modern manifestation in Economic Predictions and Defect Prediction Models.

Although my friend is often dismissed as cynical, I did present my theory that when the human element comes into the picture, there are too many parameters involved to perfectly predict the outcomes. 

However, at the end of 2010, let me try to provide some real results – going beyond pure theoretical analysis.
I am currently looking at some of the predictions made by one of my favourite political magazines at the beginning of this year. As they say, now the scores are in and let me see how the forecasters of the famed publication have fared.

Before proceeding, let me put forth the disclaimer that the magazine continues to be my favourite and whatever evidence I state are the results not of their incompetence, but of the pure perils of prediction. It is the profession of journalism that makes itself vulnerable to pitfalls. Normal reporting is the first draft of history while columns that look ahead attempt a first draft at the future. That is just not easy.

My favourite magazine did an excellent job in predicting the changes in Britain’s political landscape.  They foretold the call for the British general elections by Gordon Brown, and his subsequent loss to the new David Cameron government. They even foresaw that there would be a Miliband as a leader of the Labour party. However, they failed to foresee the Tory coalition with Liberal Democrats.

In the United States, they did predict (as who did not?) a tough year for Barrack Obama. They also did a good job in anticipating the healthcare reform situation and the continuing issues in Afghanistan. However, when it came to factoring in the popular reaction, they – may I say, predictably – failed to predict the rise of anger on the right wing, the tea party movement et al.

Moving on to the world economy, the relatively safe prediction of a slow, gradual, and backbreaking struggle to get back towards recovery in most of the rich countries did come off pretty well.  China was a pretty safe bet as it surged ahead of Japan to become the second largest economy of the world. So were the predictable performances of the other BRIC nations. However, as with most other modern day economic soothsayers, they missed the struggle of the euro regions, missing out completely on the toppling of Greece and the resulting perils of Angela Merkel .

On the other global domains, they did raise some warning flags about the controversy over online privacy, but my friend Dr. Suprakash Roy did the same in quieter, but more convinced manner. They also did manage to foresee FaceBook’s face off with Google, the rise of Kindle, Sony, iPad and other eReaders.

However, there were plenty that were plain unpredictable. The debacle of Kevin Rudd, Australia’s foreign minister, was unexpected and therefore even the best political forecasters did not bet on it. Thailand’s political violence was another major miss in the game of telling the fortune of foreign affairs.

Most importantly, there were other black swan events, which underline the absolute frailty of the human species at playing god while poring over data and trend charts, sporting honourable diplomas and degrees.  We still cannot predict the calamities and disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the volcanic eruption in Iceland with long-lasting effect on the aviation industry or the plane crash that killed Lech Kaczynski, the president of Poland.

There is absolutely no way that one can get round to predicting the events of the last paragraph, at least not yet. And as it often is, these are the occurrences that stamp their presence most indelibly on the history of the future of mankind.

We continue to make unparalleled leaps, accelerating to a level of scientific and technological sophistication that may prompt us into the false sense of security that we are in absolute control of a connected universe, where all that matters is known, deterministic and predictable, or just a click away. But, as we face the coldest winter in 1000 years it may be handy to remember that in the face of some of the most random events of the world, we are nothing but a bunch helpless creatures sitting with an illusion of power on a frail pale blue dot of a world.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lessons amidst Red Alert

Last week I learnt of the passing away of Professor P. Lal, the lyrical poet based in Kolkata, transcreator of the Indian epics, the one man publishing force behind Writers Workshop India that unearthed writers like Vikram Seth, Asif Currimbhoy and numerous others.

I received the painful news from Shruti, whose usual infectious animation was subdued, almost absent. The Professor had meant a lot to her and my buddy. Also, the limited number of times the noble path had brushed mine had left a healthy residue of erudition and respect.

 My first encounter with him had been when Shruti had ingeniously hooked him up with her cell phone from a dingy Amsterdam coffee shop. It was that evening when she, my buddy, the shrink and I had been trying to figure out a plausible antidote for the financial crisis, our collective thoughts aided by the fumes of cannabis. That day, even our dope fuddled senses had been dazzled by his lucid commentary that cut across spiritual materialism and transcendental smoke.

I had not been able to travel to India to attend the celebration marking the fifty years of Writers Workshop, although I did receive an invitation letter etched in exquisite calligraphy – with the scholar's own hand – delivered at my Utrecht residence. However, I did hear the details of the fascinating evening from both Shruti and my buddy.

When I did make it to India early this year, during my self imposed year long banishment from the corporate world, I did visit the Workshop at 162/92 Lake Gardens.

Professor Lal by then was very sick and I was informed that he would be unable to meet me. I had to make do with an afternoon among the great man's labour of love in the cramped, dusty kiosk – the bibliophilic equivalent of diamonds amidst coal. I did return that day with an armful of newly acquired precious possessions, hardbacked volumes with covers stitched with saree cloth, the names in brilliant gold zaried calligraphy. The books themselves were works of art … and how could one even hope to Kindle sufficient electronic spark to hold candle to such products?

However, a delightful surprise waited for me when I reached my guest house in the evening. Professor had called up himself and left a message saying that he would be at home and ready to receive me if I was free the next morning. "It's difficult to keep oneself dammed up from one who has travelled all the way from behind the dykes," his missive said.

The meeting was brief. "The doctor has decreed that I cannot meet anyone for more than half an hour," he greeted me from his chair in his much written about study. Books peeped out of every nook and cranny and the learned man sat in white traditional cotton clothes on a chair while Yeats, Tagore and Frost looked on from portraits. "Like in the battle field of Kurukshetra, we must end our verbal jousting the moment the thirty minute sun sets on us. And there are trusted generals in my wife and my grand-daughter to enforce the rules and regulations."

I told him that I was wandering around the country, visiting places that took possession of my fancy. He nodded, smiling. "Oh, to be young and carefree. I am carefree too, but only my mind remains young. However, India cannot be discovered through the guidebooks written for the West. One needs not only the atlas and map for navigating through the immense space, but also similar devices to understand the glorious journey through time. Otherwise, all you see is an inept superficial caricature of the Western world."

I spoke to him about his autobiographical Lessons which I had picked up from the store. A year ago I had seen my buddy peering over it along with the autobiography of Neville Cardus. He laughed.

"You know what my name means in English? Lal literally means red. So, if I had chosen, I could have called it 'My Name is Red' and then Orhan Pamuk would have had to search for another title. So, I just decided to talk about others. Anyway, I was not too keen to be the miniaturist for myself."

I told him that it was precisely what struck me as unusual in his memoirs. It seemed a sum total of lives that had somehow intersected his own.

"Ah, but what is man but a sum total of all the deep connections he makes with the people in the world. In 1989, I was what I was because of the experiences with others that had shaped my life. In 2010 I have evolved. I now communicate through email, am called upon to join conference calls from Amsterdam's coffee shops, have a miraculous website of my workshop. I am an aggregate of all these excellent things that have happened to me, but could it have been possible if I had not come across the wonderful people who have shown me how to walk these new fangled paths of the global village?" He smiled. "Where would I have been in the electronic world if my grand daughter had not painstakingly typed in every email that I have sent in my life?"

I wondered whether connections really mattered all that much in the modern world. Nowadays men connect more than they communicate by virtue of the Web 2.0 phenomenon of social networks.

"Law of 10%," he smiled as he answered. "Something that I have learnt from my more than half a century of teaching. There will always be the select 10% that will make it meaningful. It applies to every mass endeavour. However, I am too fascinated by the marvels of technology. Internet reshapes the world in a way that I had never thought of as possible. The workshop has been there for over fifty years and the web site was set up only in 2004. And since then there have been orders from all around the world."

He paused and looked at me.

"Simon van der Wiel. You have strong Dutch roots if your name is anything to go by. No doubt you have read Herman. Williem Frederik Herman?"

I said that I had. Since we did not have too many great authors in our heritage we had to read at least Herman and Mulisch.

He shook his head, "Never say that, Simon. You never know. The Dutch are very protective of their privacy. Self propaganda is something that is out of necessity limited by their nature. With the publishing world being the racket that it is, who knows how many Hermans lie unread, unnoticed, even unpublished behind the dykes, in some box in the quaint brown, red and chocolate brick buildings? But, I am diverted, absent minded professor that I am. Herman. In Beyond Sleep he says something striking about photography. In the portrait age, people were defined by the artist's rendering of themselves in one single pose and posture. One solitary moment of time that brought out their qualities and virtues. Come the discovery of the camera, human beings woke up to realise that every moment they present a different face to the world. Features change with mood and medium. Man is not uniquely characterised by his static features, but by the dynamic sum total of expressions across time. Internet probably brings on a new dimension with un-thought of technological enhancement. Never in the history were connections more important in the life of an individual – something that characterises him, shapes his very existence."

He paused, and I wondered how much sense his words made in the day of Facebook.

We talked on for well beyond half an hour till his ageing yet charming wife, Shyamasree Devi, looked in to declare that it was time for him to rest.

"The ladies of our lives," the Professor sighed. "Ever since the days of Mahabharata they bind you with pledges."

Before I left, I promised to link him up during our next Cannabis Conference and, if possible, visit him again during my next Indian trip.

Well, we did speak again in a couple of Cannabis Conferences, and I guess Shruti or my buddy will want to tell the tale in full sometime down the line. With their superior writing skills they can do fuller justice to the nuggets of wisdom shared by the great man in his final few interactions with us. However, I did not manage to visit him again. The next time I looked at him, he was younger, peering into a book from a page of The Economist, inside a well researched and restrained obituary of his noble life.

I got on the web and tried looking up some of the local Indian dailies for a more detailed tribute, some welcome beam of light into hitherto unknown facets of his life. It was a disappointment.

All I came up with were three articles – two in dailies from Kolkata and one from Delhi – brief, apologetic attempts at journalism, lousily researched, callously misstating facts. One of them claimed that Professor had finished the trans-creation of the Mahabharata three decades earlier, whereas he had been at work even on the day I had visited him. Others were more or less trumpet blowers for the writers of the pieces in their pathetic attempts to rise that extra foot in the eyes of the world by stepping on the great man's departed soul.

When I contacted my buddy he laughed through the voice that wavered uncharacteristically.

"You are trying to find greatness under limelight? Things don't happen that way, my friend. Especially in India. We are too busy trying to remodel ourselves to fit the Western templates, to jump on the wagon to earn in the strong foreign currencies … we have no time to look inward and discover the treasures that lie in our backyard. The only people you will find under the glare of spotlight are the showmen acting their part since all the world is now their stage, their vast play-field due to the boon of globalisation. They can do no better than mouth words scripted by others, flickering shadows on a  screen that is as blank as nothingness."

I wondered how people could actually digest this pulp as the truth.

"The truth has changed form, Simon. It gradually metamorphosed itself to dollars and now with its ethereal presence in the electronic form, it is the unseen deity, the ever present God that can grant all your wishes.You have philosophised in the same vein, my friend. George Soros and Donald Trump are the philosophers of the day, the seekers of the truth. In India we had a term called satsang. Literally it means company of the highest truth – an internal glow that you feel after spending an hour with people who have reached the pinnacle of their spiritual being…"

I said that I knew what he was talking about. In my interactions with Professor Lal, as in my other encounters with people like Sifu Oelschalager and Sifu Subramanium, I have felt something within me which is very like the glow he mentioned.

"But look around you, Simon. The phenomenon of sat-sang has been redefined. People nowadays equate it with power lunches. The way a few chosen ones are given the privilege to sit around the table discussing ways and means to make more and more money with the One Seeker who has made the most. Money is truth. Professor's philosophy is relegated to a relic, and his death is manipulated into yet another stepping stone for many to utilise in their drive for power and plenty. But, let me not go into the ranting mode, my friend. Let us not soil the noble life."

I close my eyes and see people firing off mails, memos, circulars, news items –to the high and mighty in office, to the publicity sections of the newspapers, in the television channels – painting their words in red to highlight their contribution and hence worth. Sound and fury is the way of the world, flickering loud images on the backdrop of nothing.

And to think that the one who could have literally scripted an autobiography called My Name is Red chose to limit himself to Lessons.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pizza Corporosa - Over the Topping

How would a corporate organisation go about cutting pizza?

There is a new catering service recently hired for our office canteen. They seem to be a  very professional, experienced and elaborate unit from the way they go about their work. And while they make a uniform hash of every item of their La Place style Asian Wok, their Pizzas are definitely some of the best in town. In Amsterdam that is quite a certificate.

I know that some Pizza outlets and their burger siblings, especially those belonging to the large chains, are right up there when it comes to waste minimization and the application of process maturity principles of Lean and Supply Chain. It makes sense too, the results of their endeavours are generally immediate, sometimes affecting their bottom line that very lunch hour. There is a lot of readily available material on this and I don’t really want to go into all that theory.

However, a lot of my buddy’s irreverence and curious lateral views on life have rubbed off on me, and I can’t help thinking in terms of parallels in the cubicle infested corporate world. A rather striking thought hit me when I was waiting in line, absent midedly following the action of one of the sharp, shining Norpo Pizza cutters that they use. The rolling piece of steel cuts through the delicious baked dough with a simple grace that is fascinating, not just because it happens to be the last preparation step before the  hot crusty preparation becomes yours to hold and to have, but also because of the sheer efficiency with which it performs its function.

And as I watched the metal in motion, my buddy's recent influence made me indulge in a thought experiment. How would such a tool pan out in the corporate environment, in the project management office? What if we thought of the excel spreadsheets and management dashboards in terms of pizza cutters?

In the cubicle colonies, simplicity needs to be avoided like the most pernicious plague. Simple solutions generally end up in meeting expectations and that is a proverbial dread of every corporate drudge. It is the blueprint for the stamp of mediocrity in performance appraisals. The onus is on delighters, the extra step, that particular piece of innovation that would make one shine and bask in the glory of appreciation from the upper echelons of the organisation. The ones that would echo off the reverberating walls of the meeting rooms and would leap out of laudatory notices. It is a different matter that on the way to becoming such value added delighters, it is not unusual for the solutions to stop some way short of actually being solutions. The extra step does not just take you further, it often becomes the step.

Mathew Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Toman point out in their recent article on Harvard Business Review, customers actually look for basic services that cater to their explicit requirements rather than over the top delighters. Value added products seldom manage to retain or grow customer base unless we are talking of some specific industries like hospitality. But nevertheless, delighting the customers is the fad of the day, linked to performance appraisals, management presentations at all levels of pecking order, selling pitch and business conferences.

So, when I think of a pizza cutting parallel in the Corporate world, I find myself afflicted with daytime nightmares involving crack technical team, futuristic deviants of Swiss Army Knives – touted to have far flung features as diverse as being able to perform basic limb amputation, removing specks of dust from in-growing nails, trimming the smallest asymmetry in a handlebar moustaches and prying open seventeenth century caskets retrieved from pirate shipwrecks under the sea. When I roll it over a Pizza in my mind's eye, however, it brings all the physical characteristics of mincemeat into the fare, reducing the circular sensory delight into a mangled, mutilated mess with one clumsy movement of its blade – after taking several aeons to come out of the packet in the first place, all the while sounding like a Harley Davidson engine powered lawn mower. An enmeshed mass of cheese, meat and flour closely resembling the Italian Pizzeria version of the primordial swamp. And then I see the crack technical team receiving an award for innovation, a kind of conceptually mangled mass of deception in itself, a Pulitzer, Oscar and Nobel rolled into one, the holy grail of the cubicular microcosm.

Corporate tools have this uncanny ability to suck at what they are supposed to do. And the mystique goes much further. If the purchase of the knife amounts to a substantial number of negotiations, big names and figures in the bottom line, it will be touted as an epoch making innovation. Soon the entire organisation will be eating the mutilated mass, sharing accolades and blogging about it – with Pizza pandering evangelists spreading the word that this is the very way the Italian gods had intended pizza to be had.
Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands