Saturday, January 29, 2011

Corporate Family Value System

My day had got off to a start that I can best describe as ridiculous. Switching on my computer at office, I was greeted by a mail from a manager from India. Apparently a female member of our offshore team was scheduled to have celebrated her daughter’s first birthday with the usual amount of fun filled festivities. She had made all the preparations and had sent out invitations to friends and family. And suddenly a ‘very important’ client audit had come up and this unfortunate lady had volunteered to cancel the ceremony and stay on in office. Daughter’s first birthday was cancelled because of pressing demands at workplace. And the manager’s mail was a flowery, glittering appreciation of her efforts and sacrifice of personal life.

My senses were not affronted just by the mail – which according to me missed the boundaries of professional etiquette by a good many miles. I was also perplexed by the variety of reactions from my Indian colleagues. While some of the more diplomatic clicked their tongues and made a show of sympathy for the poor girl who had to forego such an important landmark of her daughter’s life, there were others who were downright spiteful.  Showcasing commitment by highlighting such domestic sacrifice was not exactly to their liking. As one of the more caustic remarked, “The next mail will be appreciating someone who lent his wife to a horny client for the sake of business relationship.”

Well, I am quite accustomed to the way the normal Indian office goer reacts when appreciation is showered on their peers. Much of it has to do with there being hardly any other identity in a life that revolves around cubicle space. And, in case this remark is interpreted as culturally insensitive, let me add that I am also aware that back in India there is a lot of competition for daily livelihood and the social situation largely regulates the importance individuals attach to their jobs. At first meetings, I rarely get to know of someone’s hobby, preferences in music or books, but almost always am informed of his or her sphere of professional competence, and sometimes the different financial investments they subscribe to. But, even if I accepted the reactions, the mail itself dragged me quite some distance off my orbit. A couple of Dutch clients seating near us who had been copied on the communication winked amongst themselves and muttered something under their breath which can be loosely translated into English by the phrase – ‘Get a life’.

A daughter will have her first birthday just once, and I can hardly think of any of the clerical work that we generally carry out to come close to the importance of that auspicious event. In any case, comparing the two is more than the clichéd apples and oranges – it is more like moon and sixpence. And if anyone exerts her personal choice and prefers the few hours of professional nothingness to the cherished moments of family life, I do not see any reason to glorify it and splash it across unsuspecting mailboxes of almost everyone but the Prime Minister. A responsible management, according to me, has to be aware that any glorification of efforts is a benchmark that the company sets for all the employees. And if neglecting family interests become one of the preferred paths to walk on, it is vulnerable to a lot of risks. One is creating a severely damaging image of the company in the market. Another is pissing people off, which I noticed immediately at first hand. The long term effect is pissing off the families, when zealous employees embark on a cutthroat competition to neglect them. And finally, a lot of employees will be eager to manufacture fictitious birthdays, anniversaries, deaths, funerals, engagements and weddings that they can gleefully and publicly avoid to fill a spreadsheet or browse on the office internet.

Personally, I would not trust someone who put her job above her daughter’s birthday as far as I can throw a Dutch cow. If she can abandon her baby daughter for something as flimsy as the work we do, she can sell me down the river to upgrade her Windows.

I was actually relieved that I had the regular pub evening with Dr. Suprakash Roy today. A talk with the curious psychiatrist always works wonders for my mood. He was already there in De Pilsvogel, and raised his hand to beckon me as I entered.

“It may be an odd question coming from a psychiatrist, but is there something on your mind?” he asked as I dropped on the plush chair, having ordered my beer. He looked calm and expressionless, as he is always wont to be when people are on the verge of unloading their troubles to his experience ears. However, as he listened, he chuckled.

“Simon, how far has your education progressed in the most essential cultural dimension of modern day India? And by that of course I mean Bollywood.”

I was puzzled and replied that I had seen my share of them. I was not a diehard fan, especially given the loud mindless melodrama and stereotypical cliché associated with many, but thanks to some of the more thoughtful colleagues, I had watched some good ones too. I knew some of the actors ...

“Ah, then you do know someone called Amitabh Bachchan ?”

I said that I did. He was a veteran actor in his sixties with a grey beard.

“Sacrilege, Simon,” he exclaimed with widened eyes. “Nowadays, yes, he is as you describe him. But once upon a time he was young and a genuine superstar. In fact, he is known as the Angry Young Man.”

I remarked that I had not seen Mr. Bachchan in his younger days, even in movies.

He closed his eyes. “I was laughing because I remembered a movie called Shakti. Our Mr. Bachchan was then a young man of about ... well  forty ... but that does not matter. He played the son of a tough, upright police officer who was in turn played by another superstar of yesteryears – Dilip Kumar. It is one of the better Bollywood movies, I would recommend it.”

Happy as I was with this continuing Bollywood education, I failed to see how Amitabh Bachhan or Dilip Kumar fitted into our conversation.

“The mind numbing pathos associated with the Indian workplace has temporarily made you impatient. I understand that. Well, in the movie, Amitabh as a child is kidnapped by a smuggler. The villain calls the honest policeman and tells him that he would kill his son if he did not stop trying to put him behind bars. And Dilip Kumar responds that he can do whatever he likes, but nothing can make him compromise his duty.”

I said that even if this was the accepted folklore dished out by the educational medium of Bollywood, policework and the software industry were not exactly comparable. In my book, missing a daughter’s first birthday for work could not be condoned. And glorifying the crime was almost barbaric.

Dr. Roy smiled. “That’s not the point. In the movie, the little Amitabh overhears the telephonic conversation. And even when he is rescued later on and comes back to his mom and dad, he grows up hating his father, and becomes a walking six feet store of psychological problems, ultimately becoming a smuggler himself ... Well, I was just wondering if something similar can happen to this little girl in question. How will she deal with the negligence of childhood once she comes to know of it?”

He laughed. “Through some weird cognitive map, this particular movie popped up in my mind. However, that is not to trivialise the issue. Depending on when and how she comes to know of this abandonment, there can be various reactions. But, although I am quite good at it, I will refrain from long distance judgement. I understand what offended you more was the mail communication that followed in the wake of the lady’s monumental sacrifice.”

I said that he was right.

“And it makes sense. Let me use the example generally given by Dan Ariely of the Duke University. Let us suppose you are invited to a fabulous feast in one of the homes of your Indian colleagues. You eat your fill of delicious slices of mutton that melts in your mouth, with saffron flavoured Biryani that sticks to the ribs. Followed by those syrupy sweets from Bengal ... imagine all this while sitting in a land where one has to eat bread, bread and more bread ...”

I asked the doctor not to torture me since I had already had a bad day.

“And at the end of it all, you belch – believe me one cannot help belching after such a meal. And then you get up and take out your wallet, peeling off two fifty euro bills as a payment for the excellent dinner ...”

“Are you crazy? That’s an insult ...”

The good doctor smiled. “Why? The hosts did spend a lot of money for this and you can equate it with a hundred euro. So why not pay them for the troubles? I will tell you why. There are two norms that generally run in the society that are parallel to each other. Social and financial. If you mix the two, the result is always a disaster.”

He paused.

“You mean, this manager has done the same mistake ...?”

“If you go on a date with one of those beautiful Dutch girls, many of whom incidentally are unfurling themselves in the pub, and I don’t know how long my analysis will continue before bowing to the dictates of Freud. You have a great dinner, laced with lovely champagne and whispered nothings. And finally as you leave, you indicate that you would not mind a nightcap and more, especially since it has cost you a hundred and twenty euro for the meal and that’s a great deal of money ...”

I said that I would not dream of making that mistake. All the gorgeous Dutch girls have played field hockey at some juncture of their exhilarating youth, and immediate access to a hockey stick as an instrument of inflicting injury could not be ruled out.

Suprakash smiled. “So you see how atrocious it is to mix the social and financial norms. And although the boundary is very slim in an Indian work environment, there are certain unwritten lines that cannot be overstepped. Putting a price on a one year old baby is truly obnoxious. However, companies do try to promote themselves as a big happy family. Especially modern day multinationals. It is an effort to make employees feel at home, while the underlying objective is to ensure that the extra effort needed, the extra hours to be worked, can be elicited without paying huge quantities of additional bonus. It is all one big happy family after all, and no family member would demand extra pay for going the extra mile for brothers, sisters and cousins.”

I said that it made a lot of sense. Every management talk ended with the corporate crap of it being a big, happy family.

“Companies understand the underlying appeal to the social senses of the employee. Or rather there are industry wide organisational studies and theories that set the template. There are paid employees who are in charge of ensuring that the workplace is fun and gives a family feeling. This ensures that it goes beyond a nine to five and pay-check relationship. The factory whistle no longer signals the end of the day. Projects are won or lost based on the extra effort at the same price. And to ensure this, a family feeling is very important. And thanks to some of the strategies, the social norms have been established with employees. I am not referring to the ridiculous mail, but some employees do feel a certain pride in staying beyond their forty hours. But, companies do go wrong in a very elementary way. Tell me Simon, if a member of the family is sick, you will run to the doctor at night, right?”

I replied that I would, provided he was not a cruel but rich uncle and I was his only heir.

“Now, in case you fall sick, what would you expect from the same family member? And this is where the social norms are flagrantly abused by the company. Any social relationship is a reciprocal one. However pause a moment and think of any Indian guy at this foreign location. What happens if he becomes non-billable?”

I nodded. Non-billability at onsite is fatal as far as company policy goes. One is given fifteen days to find a new assignment which earns money for the company, or else is asked to pack his bags and depart for the shores of the homeland.

“I get it,” I said. “It is one-way traffic as far as social norms are concerned. The family member is kicked out the moment he cannot earn. It's worse. With short term goals, draconian cost cutting measures, and this cribbing about mounting costs while coming up with official communications of billion dollar profits – these are really at loggerheads with the happy family concept. No wonder corporate loyalty is as good as an oxymoron. Companies can’t really expect to have it both ways.”

The good doctor looked long and reflectively at one more of the Dutch damsels who had flocked in to this comfortable watering hole.

“You see Simon, the mistake that these organisations make is that they fail to consider the hidden implied costs that social norms bring into the picture. Let me give you a Freudian analogy. Look how suggestively first part of the literary word crops up – maybe because we are discussing the corporate world. Let us say that you want to screw. If you go to De Wallen you can have a fairly good twenty minutes for fifty euro. If you want more, go to one of the more posh places – private houses, Amsterdam Prive, Asmara, Club Bianca or whatever...”

“Doctor, your knowledge of the city amazes me.”

“For still better service, hire escorts. However, if you want something totally free by dating a girl, then it involves costs, maintenance costs – regular dinners and dates, wine and champagne, gifts and flowers. As Woody Allen said, the most expensive sex is free sex.”

I said that it was a marvellous analogy. Woody Allen’s influence was all over the corporate world.

“Hence, the more an organisation roots for a family feeling without budgeting for the costs of standing by the employee during a bad time, the more it is prone to breed pissed workforce who will jump ship at the first opportunity. All these Indian corporate families – can you tell me how many have crèches? Depressingly few. Will the company host a birthday party for the daughter? No, not unless the mother in question is a Vice President ... and by then, well, let’s say an year old daughter is next to a menopausal miracle ...”

I reflected on his words even as he stopped speaking to focus on the growing number of beautiful blondes. The analysis and the beer had by now washed the bitter taste of the mail, and the screechy tracks of the rat race were by now muffled by the music that grew louder. I sat back and relaxed. At least I could forget work after the normal hours.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Statistician Explains Escalations and Best Practices

NH Musica in Amstelveen has a name that evokes melody, something soft that combines with its being a hotel to bring up images of peaceful slumber.

However, even though the corporate class being conducted in its spacious conference room had the most forbidding of names –‘Statistics for Six Sigma Management’ – sleep was not the prevalent occupation in spite of the lulling allure of the name, comfortable plush chairs and excellent air conditioning. The man who was conducting the class, Aniruddha Sensharma, proved to be an engaging speaker. Not least because he had the ability to engage some of the audience in open combat. And to make it easy on our tongues as our minds struggled with the concepts, he asked us to call him Sen.

A tall, athletic man in his late thirties, he assured me that his presentation skills had not always been this good. “Well, there was a period of a previous life when I could hardly make myself heard on the first attempt …,” he disclosed over post class coffee. “On my first onsite trip to New York, I was – well – tongue tied, especially when the audience included pretty women ... blonde ones...”

Well, he had not only managed to make himself heard, he had proved to be a voice that was sure to reverberate in everyone’s conscience. And what could a statistician possibly say that would have such far reaching echoes? Well, the man talked with numbers and explained some phenomenons of corpocracy.

The attendees were from different echelons of our organisation. Some introduced themselves as Black Belts and Green Belts following the weird expertise ranking system followed by Six Sigma borrowed from the martial arts. When I confessed that I was not anything like that – and tai chi, the only martial art I trained in, did not offer coloured belts, he patted me on the shoulder and whispered softly, “Simon, you are better off than most. Given your martial arts background, let me use a Zen cliché. Your cup is empty.”

He proceeded to pose a problem for the group.

“Suppose you have the data of the number of days it takes for the support team to respond to very similar problems reported,” he began. “From the data collected honestly over the last one year, you have certain information. You now have a new project in which the client wants to set a Service Level Agreement on 4 days. From the past, you know the solution takes 0 to 8 days. What would you do?”
 A Senior Manager from the side smirked. “We cannot say no to the client, can we? And I hear several of these issues solved within 4 days or less. So, certainly we are capable of doing this.”

A smile touched the instructor’s lips. “So, if we manage to solve one of the issues within 4 days, we are capable of doing that?”

“Obviously,” the senior manager answered. “We have demonstrated our capability. We just have to follow whatever we did to solve that issue. You did mention the problems were similar, didn’t you?”

“Well, if Brian Lara scores 400 in one match, does that mean he can go on scoring 400 in every game?”

The Manager looked confused. “He definitely proves that he is capable of doing so.”

Sen shook his head.

“We are very susceptible to this mistake of confusing ability with the statistical definition of capability.”

The Senior Manager was one who had risen to his position by making his point stick. He did not yield.

“Sen, I don’t know about statistics, but I do know about business. I see no such thing as a marathon 400 to be reached. I see a lot of those numbers to be well within 4 days, and it is more like scoring a 30 or a 40 for a decent batsman.”

Sen looked at me and smiled.

“Simon, I apologise for the number of references to cricket.”

I laughed and informed him that I had worked long enough for Indian companies to have developed an idea of the game.

“Now, I will make it easy for you. What you say is right. 70% of these figures actually are less than or equal to 4.”

The Senior Manager shrugged.

“If we can do it 70% of the times, I’d say we can do it all the time if we made sure that the guys knew that their asses would be on the line if they slipped. I mean 70% is a damn good probability. I understand all the issues may not be solved within 4 days and some may slip the deadline, but again, speaking from a business point of view, what is required is a good first impression. If there are 10 issues that come in the first month and the team solves everyone of them within the SLA, I’d say they could relax after that. With 70% chances of keeping to the SLAs, with some commitment and accountability, we can do it.”

He laughed, and a lot of people laughed with him. Sen joined in. A lady among the Six Sigma Black Belts, however, differed in opinion.

“Well, I would approach it differently,” said the expert. “I would compute the mean and standard deviation of the numbers ...”

Sen responded readily.

“We have a mean of 3 and a standard deviation of 1.2,” he said.

The Black Belt Lady computed furiously in her mind. “That means probability of less 4 is than is the corresponding probability value of 4 minus 3.2 by 12. The z-score is .67 and we can convert into the probability value from the normal table ...”

Sen smiled at us. “Let me tell you the probability value of the z-score the lady has so efficiently computed. It is nearly .75.”

The Senior Manager clapped his hands. “There. You see, The Statistics vindicates whatever I said in layman’s terms. The probability of us meeting the SLA is even more than what I had anticipated. It is three fourths. I would definitely not stand for any screw up there. As I said. For the first ten issues, I would ask the team to deliver. Go beyond themselves if necessary.”

“Or else?” Sen asked.

“Or else? I would escalate the pants off them. Business has to go on. And what I found and the lady verified with her Black Belt expertise, the probability is as good as certainty.”

I spoke now, probing a little, implying that there was something unsaid in Sen’s reasoning. Why did he give me the sneaking feeling that he had a surprise up his sleeve?

Sen laughed.

“Well, my calculations are somewhat different, but let me tell you, it is hardly surprising to me. I have been around. I have been in the industry for around 13 years now, minus a two year forced break following the slow down after 9/11. And going by my experience, this is how business indeed operates.”

The Senior Manager nodded. “We have no choice.”

Sen smiled and moved to the board.

“Okay. So your assumption is that it is within the capability of the team to deliver the resolutions of the first ten issues within SLA.  Otherwise it is Escalation ...”

“Look, Sen. There are so many instances of meeting the SLA. Surely if we go deep into them there are a whole lot of best practices we can unravel ... I mean, I understand they are figures and can be translated into statistics, but it is business too ...”

A change came over our soft spoken instructor. His complaint tone made way for brisk, confident explanations.

“Okay. We will come back to you. First let me talk about the lady’s comments about the probability through a Z-score. The way the mean and variance were computed to get to the z-score and thereby the probability of solving an issue within 4 days was indeed correct but for a very basic error. The data of the days we have out here are integers. All between 0 and 8. They are essentially a set of discrete data points whereas you have gone ahead assuming it to be normally distributed. Forget that normality implies continuous data. Before applying the z-score, it is essential to perform a normality test.”

He paused. There were confounded faces across the room as people struggled with the concepts. Not too many understood the terms, but the situation was one of confrontation and some very axiomatic ideas were being challenged.

“Now, let us forget the z-scores and the normal approximation. We will go ahead with the first information that I derived from this data. 70% of the issues are solved within the given SLA. Now, our Senior Manager would provide motivational and escalation driven carrot and stick method to ensure that the first ten issues are solved within the SLA time frame. And since the probability of meeting the SLA is a high 70%, it seems well within capability. Now let us find out how feasible this actually is.”

He looked at us.

“Every time an issue arrives, we define success as solving it within 4 days. Historically, the probability of success is 0.7. Our Senior Manager friend got that much correct with his considerable intelligence. Technically, each issue is a Bernoulli Trial with probability of success 0.7.

“Now comes the second part. Our friend here wants the first ten solved within SLA. What it means statistically is 10 successes in 10 independent Bernoulli trials. Or 10 successes in a Binomial distribution with 10 samples with probability 0.7.  Whichever way you choose to look, it amounts to the same thing. However we try to compute it, the formula being 10 Choose 10 multiplied by 0.7 to the power 10 for the Binomial distribution, the probability of 10 successes in 10 trials turns out to be 0.028 which is less than  3%. So there is just about 3% chance given the current capability that the first 10 issues will be solved within SLAs and no escalation results from the efforts. In fact, there is just a 60% probability that we will get more than 7 issues resolved within SLAs.”

Sen stopped, eyeing the audience. The Senior Manager glared at the board. The Black Belt Lady looked chastened.

“It just can’t be true,” the former said. “I know it can’t. We can’t run a business that way. I know we can lie with statistics ...”

Sen smiled.  “In the supplied booklets, you will find brief write ups about Bernoulli trials, Binomial Distributions and Normal Distributions.  If whatever I said still surprises you after you have gone through them, I can offer you some help. But, believe me ... the human mind is not really tuned to understand probability by intuition. And this is why we have an industry that more or less runs on escalations. Because people forget to realise that the law of nature says that some things will go wrong. Sometimes even a Brian Lara can get out for a duck, although he has the ability to score 400.”

Now, as I sat with him in the cafeteria after class, he confessed something.

“Six Sigma is a sham, Simon. Human beings have used numbers to study a situation and figure out answers ever since they started to count. It is only a fancy term and a lot of propaganda. Oldest wine in sparklingly polished bottles. And unless a black belt has proper grounding of statistics, he is like a first aid trained social worker who tries to cure cancer.”

When I pointed out that he was a Six Sigma black belt himself, he sighed.

“I had applied for a job which had advertised for a process champion with a preferred black belt in Six Sigma. Till then I had had a day’s training in Six Sigma concepts and a Black Belt in Shotokan Karate. Both were documented in my CV. A search algorithm found me as a suitable candidate by matching strings. And time pressure and immediate assignment ensured that I was hired. So, although I already had a post graduate in Statistics, when my employers found out that I did not have a Six Sigma certification, they coaxed me to get one – almost at gun point. It’s such a wonder. Chance plays such a big role in shaping destiny.”

After initial doubts, I realised that he was not kidding. I mentioned that as a probability expert he should know the working of chance in this world. Particularly his explanation of rampant escalations that left many a manager red faced.  He became more animated than he had allowed himself to be in the class.

“Trust me, Simon. That is how the world operates. You did see that this sort of SLAs, which an ambitious decision maker will not think twice before agreeing to, is prone to bring in failures by lots. And with these black belts growing like mushrooms with five day crash courses in statistics, they will advised by flamboyantly ignorant men. This extraordinary lack of true understanding of reality makes the industry so prone to escalations.”

He paused for a while and winked.

“The funny part is, the chance factor will be ignored totally, and the successes that resulted in meeting SLAs in the first place may be analysed to limits for nonexistent best practices. Since it was chance all the way, for success and failure, there will be best practice reports written up on the fly, which is more removed from reality than reading tea leaves.

“Besides Simon. Escalations themselves. They always seem to improve performance. But does anyone analyse to see whether it has anything to do with the heat turned on?”

I asked him what he meant.

“Simon, escalations take place when outliers occur. When SLA is breached or something worse happens. That is a rare enough event. That happening twice in succession is even rarer. So, irrespective of whether or not the senior manager decides to deliver his tongue lashing, by the law of probability, the tendency will be to move to the better zone. It has nothing to do with the dressing down. The senior managers would be far better served to busy themselves learning some basics of probability than thinking up biting remarks and delivering them. But, they get touted as great motivators. Unknowingly leveraging on probabilistic laws.”

I said that the statistical insights were eye openers.

“It goes beyond this industry, Simon. It is everywhere. You see, there was this 3% chance of all the 10 issues meeting SLAs. So 3 of every hundred stupid managers will be success stories by sheer chance. And they will be the celebrated model managers. Most of the business gambles are the same. There can be analogous ventures in the business world with a probability of success something like .01 per cent. By sheer law of probabilistic chance, 1 of 10000 imbecile CEOS who take this gamble will come out winners. And then they will be worshipped as world leading Innovators, as superstar CEOs, appearing on Forbes. There will be books analysing their backgrounds, parentage, links to holocaust, seven habits, movement of cheese and all such nonsense. They will author books too – telling the world how to do business, how to invest, how to take decisions straight from different parts of their anatomy ...”

I laughed. “Now you sound very much like someone I know ... who, in fact, ghosted one such book for a Superstar CEO ... ghosted blogs too ...”

“I would like to meet your friend very much,” Sen smiled. “You know, this entire statistically ignorant caper is like watching a 1000 monkeys typing away on type writers. Sooner or later, one of them is probabilistically bound to come up with a line by Shakespeare. And when that happens everyone starts analysing the type of banana he eats, the trees he swings from, the monkey friends who groom him and so on.”

I was laughing very loudly by now.  There were odd looks from the other tables. Two of the managers were staring at me with a frown.

“Oh well, since you have left a couple of managers more than a little embarrassed, I ought not be laughing out loud at your comments. It might become an attitude problem and my annual appraisal may go for a toss ...”

He winced.

“Ah... the dear old bell curve. Don’t even get me started on that.”

Aniruddha Sensharma, aka Sen, is the hero of  Big Apple 2 Bites by Arunabha Sengupta.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blow (Up) Job

My buddy – as now famously documented in The Best Seller – had once shown an excerpt of Woody Allen’s Everything you wanted to Know about Sex and Were Afraid to Ask during a corporate presentation. The specific fragment of the movie he showed dealt with whatever goes on in the body during an orgasm, depicted with Woody’s signature humour, the body transformed into a science fiction set with the different organs and systems taking up roles of different characters. Woody himself played a sperm, going into the unknown, not sure whether he would be splattered against the ceiling through masturbation or end up against rubber walls as heard from trusted sources.

When I spoke to him about it in one of our many discussions later on, he dismissed it by saying that it was not really the result of inspiration.
“Simon, my friend, whenever I look at the pathetic playing fields of the corporate world, I find parallels in two genres of moviemaking. One which are the classics that encompass  symbolism, and the other suited to the blue hued multiple x rated productions which are cruder, but depict the common employee in stark reels. This Woody Allen classic sort of brings the two genres into one package.”

Needless to say, I almost choked on the Chinese food I had been eating at that point of our conversation, and we had been forced by my endangered oesophagus to abandon this fascinating line of dialogue.

However, these conversations came doubling back the memory lane as I ended my day with my weary feet on the coffee table, my plasma TV set screening the romping depiction of London in the '60s by Michelangelo  Antonioni in Blow Up.

It had been a fatiguing day ending with another of those ritual dances that are called Senior Management meetings - which is more or less enough to test the sanity of a normal person. Additionally, I had been busy all day, preparing presentations with manufactured figures – fictitious inventions which I am quite proud of by now – that showcased to the management our highly matured process of using historical data.

I had been assigned two guys to help me come up with this high maturity presentation – whenever I gave them a data set, ostensibly of the past projects that we had carried out, created on the fly by my trusted random number generating spreadsheet application, they industriously put it through complicated, forbidding sounding tests – Anderson-Darling, Mann Whitney, Kruskal-Wallis .. The inferences they drew, after sufficient number of massage sessions, found their way into the final deck.

In fact, we managed to do such a magnificent job of this data deceit, my manager ended up puffing out his chest with undisguised pride and the hallowed vice president who had come in to go through the choreographed motions of the senior management meeting actually reeled off some of the excellent work that the company had done by CMMi Level 5 compliant highly mature handling of data from the past, and added that this would be one of the major selling points in future business. My two collaborators beamed with gratification as they saw their important tests with the figures had conjured up a fanciful case study for the organisation. Was it only I who remembered that the historical data was generated on the fly by my trusted spreadsheet program?

Obviously, the talk was not limited to just these numbing numbers, but all the other regular figures came into play. The million dollar earnings of the different lines of business, the hundred and fifty or so new clients killing each other to get their projects out of the proverbial pipeline and shoot the profit meter screeching  to the limit.... And of course, there were questions – time tested politically correct questions, asked by the same souls, with the same answers and everyone parting with contented smiles in metronomic manner.

So, late at night, I was sitting with the beer bottle in my hand, watching David Hemmings shoot the glamorous models and then get embroiled in an awful lot of complication. My semi stoned mind, deadened by the day’s stupidity, struggled with the underlying message of the masterpiece. I could just about make out the surgical precision with which the superficiality of the society of those days was exposed with each reel, the telling tale echoing off the fabric of the current world as loudly.
It was the last five minutes of high symbolism that reminded me of that statement of my buddy.

David Hemmings, the photographer without a name in the movie, watches a group of mime artists engage in a tennis match –without rackets and ball. Two of the artists go through the motions and the other mime artists follow the apparent flight of the ball by moving their heads. Soon, the camera starts following the imaginary ball. Hemmings, who finds the whole show amusing, also starts moving his eyes after the supposed ball after a short while.

And then comes the moment of superlative storytelling. One of the mimed shots go wide and high and out of the tennis court into the field. One of the players approaches Hemmings and asks him to retrieve the ball. Hemmings hesitates at first, but then runs towards the spot where the ball has apparently landed, picks it up and throws it back. His own camera dangles in his hand, with the capacity to capture reality, while he conforms to the imagined truth of many. The game goes on and he continues to watch it, moving his eyes to follow the ball.

I drift off as he merges into the grass in the background and I take his place. My eyes follow the match and I suddenly see the two data masseurs in the court, playing out a rally while our Senior Manager is in the press box, vividly reporting the game. The rest of the organisation watches on, moving their head from side to side to follow the imaginary ball.

Did I really drift off? Have I already returned the ball when asked to throw it back? How long will it take for me to walk forward and join the rest of the crowd watching the game?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Parallel Universe of Corpocracy

(Adapted extract from The Best Seller)
My continuation in the  role as the official buddy, of a fellow employee who has just had his short term assignment converted to a lengthy one, has been dubbed LESSON – Logical Extension of SeamlesS ON-boarding. When you scratch the surface of this pompous piece of rhetoric, it actually means continuing to point out bars and shopping malls of the city to the new member. The maniacal euro pursuing corporate organisations not only try to manufacture a common soul by propagating brand values. They also develop their own poetic version of the mundane for that soul to be uplifted.

However, critical as I am, this microcosmic world has its uses. Concocted philosophy in form of brand values, laboured poetry in the garb of elaborate euphemisms, pseudo science in the guise of innovations, petty politics in the cloak of relentless back biting, ersatz society under the mask of people living virtually in each other’s homes long after office hours, frequent musical soirees with the inbuilt sham of philanthropy through small change associations with NGOs masquerading as an apology of culture – all these have their utility.

What if some shifty eyed account manager, for example, had not reacted with jerky gestures at every sneeze of the client? What if some senior manager had not sung her cheery greetings and made her domineering presence felt across the length and breadth of the client organisation, threatening all and sundry with the next instalment of family stories? What if everyone had been free spirits like me? 

Would then a bunch of largely mediocre people have found a satisfactory life abroad? A life that many of their friends and family are proud and envious of. The truth is that every business has to run in accordance to its own rules. If the more sensitive and intelligent of the lot get disillusioned at the contrivance, they have the choice of playing along, getting out of there or becoming an entrepreneur-visionary and trying to create their own royal game.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ritual Dance of Meetings

Dr. Suprakash Roy was leaning in his familiar languid way, the perpetual patience tinged with a hint of amusement on his face. The Cafe by the Herengracht was bustling with clientele as I shut the door on the snow-kissed wind and hastened to join him thirty seven after the agreed hour.

“I have heard that the children of this country receive their first diary in school. The buitenlanders complain about the horrors of the Dutch man living by his appointment book.”

I smiled sheepishly and informed him that the Dutchman in question had been held up by some of the good doctor’s own countrymen. Quickly getting rid of the waitress with an order for cappuccino, I placed a weary head on the backrest of the chair.

“Perils of working for an Indian company?” he asked with a smile. “Time stretched across personal boundaries?”

I laughed. “Normally I am spared the elastic hours that bind others,” I observed, hinting at the peculiar privileges I enjoyed as a firangee (a term I have picked up from my recent Indian adventures). However, today the Vice President himself had dropped in for his monthly visit, and the conference room had been a temporary concentration camp for everyone till all the pent up important words had been communicated to eager and not so eager ears.

The doctor’s eyes shone with that particular gleam of interest I recognise so readily nowadays.
“Ah ... but, Simon, tell me something. In an industry that swears by cutting edge technology, why does your Vice President travel around visiting locations? Can one not communicate whatever there is to be communicated through the various forms of networking media?”

I thought about it. For a period of initial frenzy, podcasts did spare us the monthly misery. But as the novelty wore off, the grand footfalls resumed gracing our cubicular existence. I told the psychiatrist as much and added, “I have often wondered about the same. Sometimes these guys shuttle about Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and London. A video conference is way cheaper. I guess one of the reasons that they don’t use communication media is that there is seldom too much to communicate.”

The doctor raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

I explained the rigmarole of a stereotypical senior management address in a corporate environment.
“Well, there is hardly anything new said in any meeting. It is more of a repetition of the company being a one big family to live with and grow with theme that keeps recurring – sometimes with a dash of the difficult market and successful expansion thrown in. And there is always a peculiar pitch about the vision and mission which confuses everyone, I guess that includes the man himself. It is a kind of ritual, with him visiting, our assembling and then his delivering the talk. And ultimately, the meeting always gets prolonged because of some members of the team – always the same people – having more or less the same sort of questions every time.”

A smile lit up the psychiatrist’s face as I sipped my coffee.
“It’s very interesting, Simon.”

“I assure you that’s not exactly the right adjective.”

Suprakash laughed.
“The problem is something about the parallel world of networks that always bother me. No networking tool, social or corporate has as yet replicated body language. You see Simon, historically, a great percentage of communication between individuals have taken place through gestures, relative body positions, looks, glances and so on. Even in a video conference, that sort of communication is difficult to achieve.”

I looked at him quizzically and wondered why body language should be important in senior management messages.

“Ah,” the doctor closed his eyes and began speaking. I could tell from experience that he was stepping into the pedagogical mode. “You say there is hardly anything to communicate. So, why these meetings? You hit it on the head when you used the word ‘ritual’. It is a primordial characteristic of society. All animals use body language to establish social pecking order. From the mighty lions to the lobsters. The dominant and the submissive are demarcated by their posture and behaviour. Don’t you see the same thing in the deferential smiles, in the apologetic cough, the tentative rise of the hand in order to ask a question on one hand, and the patronising smile, the busy super important air at the other end? From animal huddles to tribal dances ... this is played out everywhere. In fact, this is a requirement for the ancient human genes to assure themselves both ways – for the leader to feel his acceptance and power, and for the subordinates to ...”

I interrupted even as he spoke.

“For a moment I thought you would classify us as bipeds rather than humans – a la Schopenhauer.”

Dr. Roy smiled apologetically. “Don’t get me wrong. Unlike our mutual friend, I am not overly cynical. I just observe. And here I find fascinating primitive rituals being played out in modern day board rooms. And the other stuff you said about incomprehensible mission statements ... Is it not like the cryptic chant one associates with rituals?”

I laughed, but then the thought hit home.
“Actually, you can say so.”

“I do say so. If you consider the ancient Spartans, they had an annual festival in which the entire populace chanted the Laws – set to music. Through this chant, even difficult decrees were memorised. A shared ritual leading to mutual understanding ...”

I interrupted again.
“But, there is hardly any mutual understanding here, Sup. Mutual confusion is more like it. And I cannot really place this obnoxious orang-utan – to copy shamelessly from my official buddy – at par with the ancient Spartan Strategic Planner. His myopic vision will need a colossal telescope to stretch to such levels of scheming manipulation of our combined minds into remembering...”

“Ah, but, my friend. You forget that I don’t credit him with coming up with the whole thing. This is followed through the dictates of the human genes. Every senior management meeting a ritualistic dance where people keep the rhythm and are pulled up for having ‘attitude problem’ every time they step out of the defined line or step on sensitive toes.”

As the pretty waitress appeared and I rewarded her for the lovely smile with another order of coffee, I closed my eyes and mentally played back meeting after meeting, metronomic monthly ordeals ... pressing the mental mute button to cut off the painful chant.

And I almost saw the steps of this strange dance being performed to the music of time. The big boss flashing a smile, the shimmer of complying laughter at the lamest of opening jokes, the rhythmic nods at the shared thoughts that would sink into oblivion without a trace, there the combined burst of laughter, the same earmarked virtuoso dancers getting into step, raising their hands, mouthing their stereotypical questions – and then the final words, the smiles in unison, the synchronised rise from the seats, the shake of important and privileged hands – I myself taking part in an orchestrated tango, being the local hire who merits a couple of questions from the very important person ... and then the departure followed by harmonious relaxation of postures.

The ritual dance of the tribe of homo cubiculum.

The doctor sat back and enjoyed his latte, but with this new insight, I was hungry for more, and the discussion stretched into the night over approximately half a gallon of coffee.

So watch this space for further analysis of our bizarre commonplace world.
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

About Simon

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Amsterdam, Netherlands