Sunday, June 3, 2012

Butterfly Effect in the Chaotic Corporate World

The derived game of Indian whisper? Or was it seriously sucking snowball? Finally I zeroed down on the chaotic ground reality of the global delivery model and called it the Corporate Butterfly Effect.

Maarten Klassen, Process Management Lead of HMH Bank IT, stopped me as I was on my way to my eight hours of cubicular cerebral sloth. “Simon, you remember we had talked about the Basics of Ethics training? The web based course one had to click one’s way to completion?”

I thought hard, across gigabytes of such ridiculous and redundant compliance trainings. “You mean the one you wanted to share with the offshore vendors some – what – eight months back?”

Maarten smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, eight or nine months back, at that moment it was supposed to be ASAP. Now people have forgotten why it was so important, but it still sits on my todo list. You see, I went on vacation, and when I returned the content designer went on vacation, and when she returned  half the developers were reassigned to the top priority portal, and one of them went to get married ...  you know how it works. But, now it’s finally complete and available online, and so could you dash it off to your company folks in Bangalore and ask whoever is working on the HMH account to complete it within, say, a couple of months or may be a quarter or, may be, six months ...?”

Chaos and the game of Indian Whisper

That’s how it started. You can perhaps say that working in Axiom Consulting for a couple of years, I should have been prepared and mentally armed to my teeth to withstand what followed, but then, as our company promises, it continues to innovate and surprise.

After a quick mail to Prakash at Bangalore providing the link to the training and the approximate date for completion, I was blissfully tinkering with a spreadsheet with some associated alt-tabs to get the latest on the Euro Cup, when a mail brandishing the red exclamation mark of importance thudded into my Inbox. It is quite revealing that importance has to be denoted by exclamation marks in this industry.

Prakash had responded with a deluge of questions, “Simon, what is this all about? What sort of reports do we need to provide?  What is the SLA – two months or a quarter or six months? How are we to ensure that people complete the training? Could we get into a call?”

Having  somehow managed to read the substance between the interrogation marks, I wrote back, “Relax. 
Not that important. Pass the links and ask the folks to complete within two months. Leave the rest to them, on trust. After all, trust and openness is all that we hear in corporate updates nowadays. Delay of a few days won’t really matter, trust me.”

Within half an hour, Prakash was stuttering in an edgy tone on the telephone, my handset almost vibrating with his nervous twitches.

“Ramya, the Project Lead, wanted to know how we are to ensure that the people complete the compliance trainings.”

“Did you tell her about trusting people?”

“She says no one will complete unless we follow up and chase them.”

I sighed. “Then go ahead and chase them, but believe me, it’s not that serious.”

“Is there a tool that tells us how many have completed?”

“Er, not that I know of ...”

“Then can we ask the client for specifications and database details so that we can create an in-house tool? Ramya and her co-manager Srini want to know.”

“There you go. Does one need to look further for in-house tools?”

He called back after another half an hour.

“Ramya asks if you can get into a conference call.”

“Why on earth?”

“She wants to understand the requirements – what we need to send to the client.”

“There is nothing you need to send to the client. You need to complete the training and that’s all there is to it. There are about 20 slides. Everyone needs to click their way to the end, to the point where there is a pop up saying ‘Congratulations. You have completed the Basic Ethics course.’ It will take five minutes for each, at most.”

Prakash’s voice still crudely crisscrossed my eardrum with its edgy tension. “Ramya says if people don’t do it, and the client asks for completion figures, we can get into trouble, and the buck will come back to me.”

“Why you?”

“Because you told me to ensure that it is done, and she doesn’t want to take ownership.”

“Jesus ...”

“She wants to know what sort of reports of completion you want.”

“I just want to be left in peace.”

“Weekly percentage figures  ... or a dashboard showing projections of next week ...”

“Prakash, this is almost an afterthought on the part of the client, and they may or may not even be interested to know whether ...”

“Simon, Ramya has already talked to her boss, Narayanan, the Senior Manager, and the two of them want a breakfast meeting with me tomorrow. It seems they are taking it seriously. Tell me, is there any way that I can generate the completion figures...”

“Erm ... Prakash, did I mention mountains and molehills?”


“ Believe me, it is not high priority. And there is no way that I am getting into a call over this.”

The next call was from Ramya herself. It was quite a surprise, since I was about to leave office in Amsterdam while she seemed very much working her way to the middle of a busy day at Bangalore.

“Simon, good afternoon. I had a question.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“Can we get into a call now?”

“I am confused. What exactly are we into now?”

“I mean Narayanan wanted to join, and as the local SME I would keep Prakash in the call as well.”

“SME? Are you still talking about the compliance training?”

“Yes, and Prakash is the only one who seems to know the specs.”

“Specs? We are not talking about a project here, for God’s sake.”

“We have opened a new sub project in the Project Management System and allocated Prakash as the lead. It is non-billable, but Narayanan wants a status report every week – and it has to be shared with the client to show our weekly progress. As partners, we need to project ourselves as sensitive to the client’s requirements”

“Sensitive? You are already more sensitive than an exposed dental nerve ...”

 “I am connecting Narayanan and Prakash as well.”

As several beeps announced the arrival of the waiting team members on the company sponsored conference bridge, I put my fingers on the bridge of my own nose and squeezed hard, “Ramya, this is not even a serious initiative. There is only one guy in the entire client organisation who is interested in this because he has suddenly discovered this on his to-do list, possibly from an archived action item list and he will go on vacation again soon and  everything will be forgotten.”

Narayanan’s important disembodied voice floated in, out-decibling my protests. “In that case you need to position yourself as the deputy to ensure this is completed – you can be the onsite lead of us, the partner organisation.”

“Huh ...”

“As partners, we need to take up whatever the customer thinks is important – even if they don’t think of it as important, we need to coach them into seeing the value-adds. That is the way we can build trust.”

“Trust? That’s rich. A while back we were unable to trust our own people to complete the training by themselves and now ... “

There was an uncomfortable silence, before the Senior Manager demonstrated his exemplary thought-leadership.

“It is not that we don’t trust them. We wanted to track the completions so that we can publish lists of members as an appreciation of those who worked hard and completed the course. And also, we can prepare dashboards to share the completion statistics with the client and have these weekly calls in which we can discuss any issues and risks and mitigation actions necessary. In the meantime, Prakash, with Simon’s guidance you can prepare a comprehensive presentation of the initiative, with client situation, requirement, our solution, differentiators, learnings, innovations and all that ... I think it would be a very good case study for our Best Practice event. It can be the Assignment of the Annum.”

There was silence as the important words echoed along the transcontinental cables. I thought I heard a couple of muted exclamations from Prakash, the entrapped professional in him – an offshore vendor at that – trying to voice his insignificant logical arguments in a vain effort to invoke rationality in a world where the threat of rationalisation rules in a reign of terror. Soon, however, all such minor noises of reason were drowned in the steady hum of action plans.

The only thing left for me to do was to use my privilege of being Dutch and excuse myself for the day, as life called from beyond the cubicles – a call that is also muted in the distant shores of a mysterious land.

Corporate Butterfly Effect

I spent the evening at the De Duif, where an ensemble of art forms influenced by Chaos Theory was on display.   The write-up in the introductory leaflet spoke of the classical questions asked by Chaos, “If a butterfly flaps its wings in China will it result in a Tornado in San Francisco?”

As I was looking at some exquisite paintings and computer images celebrating the vision of Benoit Mandelbrot, it dawned on me. The day had just demonstrated to me the Chaotic world of Corporate Circus of the modern day.

A customer clearing his throat in Amsterdam does result in a tornado of managerial brain farts in Bangalore.  
And the truckload of resulting crap is splattered across numerous charts, graphs and reports.
Finally, in a country where bullshit is traditionally considered sacred, these packaged excrements are often revisited, rejoiced, revered and rewarded.

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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