How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

Name:
Location: India

Sunday, October 30, 2005

'Competition in Markets'

This was the topic on which a talk was delivered by Mr. Amitabh Kumar, Director-General of the Competition Commission of India. This talk was as part of the event called IBLC organized by the Innovision committee. Following Mr. Pradip Baijal's talk some time ago, this was the second government regulator/monitoring authority we were getting to interact with in a short time. And this interaction was also as good as the first one.

For the students of the strategy course called ATSC, this was actually like a guest lecture for the course. Mr. Kumar opened wittily by saying that he was going to prepare a speech for this occasion, but keeping in mind the teaching methods in B-schools, he had decided to make a
PowerPoint presentation. And the presentation was beautifully structured, each slide to the point and maintaining flow.

The aspects covered included the things that competition regimes (including Acts and monitoring mechanisms) across the world normally monitored: prohibiting anti-competitive agreements; prohibiting abuse of dominant position; regulation of combinations ('merger control'); and advocating competition. Each aspect was defined and the considerations involved in determining whether a party or parties had undermined competition under each, was discussed. Some of these considerations were: defining 'market power' and the whether a party
had used it unfairly; defining 'dominant position' and its determinants; defining 'relevant market' for each case. Some details of the Indian Competition Act, 2002, were discussed. All of the above was discussed using several examples from around the world in a range of industries, from shipping and railroads to software to bananas. The questions posed by the audience were also answered more than adequately, with more examples.

Mr. Kumar is obviously very well read and has wonderful knowledge in his area of work (including minute details of famous cases and judgments involving competition-related issues). It is always a joy to listen to and interact with a person who knows his job very well. Two hours very well spent today.

What's in a game?

Four of us took part in a game called 'minDunes' yesterday. This was a sub-event of an event called IBLC conducted by the Innovision committee here. Our team had not qualified for the entire event, for which an elimination round had been held earlier. But competition for 3 IIML teams was thrown open for this particular sub-event, the teams to be chosen by a short quiz. We made it to the event through this route.

Besides 4 teams from IIML, the event had teams from IIMs A, B & I, and XLRI - a total of 10 teams. The game consisted of devising a growth strategy for an Indian telecom firm, each team being given a different company. Through three rounds, we had to react to regulatory and competitive developments in devising our strategy. Besides, we had to make a decision on whether to acquire four different firms which were up for sale. Our team had got a very weak player, whose fundamentals were going nowhere - making losses and having a negative net worth, even after 5-6 years of operation. So we decided that the most suitable strategy for us would be to find an interested strategic investor or a fellow Indian telecom firm and get acquired.

Finally, all teams had to present their strategy to the judges. While some of the teams had reasoned quite well in building their strategies, some were without focus, and even plain wrong. The telecom industry is not an easy one to understand, considering the vast array of services that are included, and the technologies and regulatory constraints present. So some terminology was used incorrectly. Our presentation was by far the simplest. We did not find any use for acquisitions, and instead declared that we were up for sale ourselves. We did make an elementary accounting mistake, but it did not have any impact on our strategy. We also answered the questions posed fairly adequately. However, the judges apparently didn't think so, for we ended up at or near the bottom of the pile. I don't think our performance was that bad, but then, what's in a game? (No actually, there's a lot in a game, but the above statement was just an attempt at self-consolation :) ).

Friday, October 28, 2005

Talk by Mr. Raman Roy

As part of an event called 'Nirvaan', we had the 'father of the Indian BPO industry', Mr. Raman Roy, speak to us on 'Entrepreneurial opportunities in the BPO/KPO sector' today. It was a great opportunity to listen to the man who is on to his next venture in this sector called Access Intellect.

Mr. Roy chose to talk, not of specific emerging opportunities in the BPO/KPO sector, but of his own experience as an entrepreneur who not only created a company (Spectramind), but founded an industry when he was with American Express; and also of the immense & continuing potential of the BPO sector, as well as some of its challenges. His passion and wit were both great to watch and listen to. After outlining certain characteristics of an 'entrepreneur' (self-belief and belief in the business idea, execution capability, risk appetite, customer-centricity, 'creating a workable environment for delivering what the customer wants'), he defined the three main things that an entrepreneur in the BPO industry had to manage: infrastructure; technology; people.

On infrastructure, he commented on India's groaning infrastructure and how international customers feel the software & BPO firms have created an 'oasis in a desert' in their campuses. Over the years, they have had to struggle with infrastructure, creating their own wherever possible. Technology had to be adequate, but not necessarily the best or the latest. People management is the real tough problem. This is where an entrepreneur has to 'make everyone else believe in his dream, and together with them, make the dream bigger'. He said he was proud of an employee who, on being asked in a one-on-one with a customer representative on a due-diligence visit about what made Spectramind different, said: 'yahaan par gadhe se bhii ghoDe kii tarah kaam karavaayaa jaataa hai'!

He dwelled on India's minuscule share (1.6%) in the global BPO market, and that this itself showed the vast opportunities still inherent in the case, even though the media has started trashing the BPO sector as essentially dead. Add to this the fact that the definitions of an enterprise's core and non-core business activities are changing (what is core today becomes non-core and outsource-able tomorrow). But, he said, in moving from a simple cost-arbitrage business model to a model where the quality and skill content of work became order winners, 'this industry needs professional help'. So, roles for management professionals are becoming clearer in the industry.

The talk was delivered with style and self-belief, and it was certainly an excellent opportunity to listen to him. In the end, the correspondents of a couple of warring newspapers were brushed off disdainfully (perhaps because of the same old questions on handling attrition, etc.). He did answer the question on attrition by saying that the attrition rate from the industry was 20%, which is fine. At the company level, it may be 3 or 4 times that, and that just reflected a supply shortage situation, where a higher salary would definitely wean employees away from one firm to another. As demand and supply of workforce become more equal, this attrition rate will come down. Till then, firms just had to manage.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Mid-terminated

The last mid-term exams of the course (there won't be a mid-term exam in the last term) ended today. It may be that all's well that ends well. But what if all goes well except the end? That's what happened to me as I wrote the first 6 exams quite well, but was checkmated in the last one - Financial Derivatives.

But then, everyone else was stumped as well. The subject is highly quantitative, and requires extensive use of calculations. But this paper did not require the help of a calculator. It required the abilities of Shakuntala Devi in order to do well (i.e. complete the paper in 2 hours). One of the questions required so much calculation that I spent 5-10 minutes just wondering if there was a trick or a shortcut to the answer. The paper did not require conceptual strength much at all, so I wonder what the point of it all was. I feel bad about this because I really like this subject, and I think I am quite sound conceptually.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Bulldozed

My friend Samrat got a taste of the wild environs here yesterday evening while he was on a jog. He came nearly face-to-face with a blue bull (nilgai, as we call it; and which is not a 'bull', but belongs to the antelope family). Now these nilgai-s are infamous around here for attacking people, even vehicles. (This was strange to me, because I knew nilgai-s as troublesome - particularly to farmers around Vadodara - but not menacing animals.) Samrat nearly managed to excite the animal's attention and caused some tense moments. How and whence this Big Bull came inside the campus is a mystery.

Lately, we have seen a few snakes, jackals and a small tortoise on our walks here, besides the usual peacocks and other birds.

'Seven Samurai'

It's been some time since I wrote two exam papers without making some major mistake. And so the mid-terms are going well so far. I just found time to write about this acclaimed Akira Kurosawa film which I saw over the last few days (in 4 sessions, since the film stretches to 3.25 hours).

Having watched Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' before, I had high expectations from this film. And besides, I had read so much about it. It has inspired the spaghetti Western genre in Hollywood and samurai movies in Japan, besides our very own 'Sholay' (to some extent) and 'China Gate'. This film remains one of a kind though, and I really enjoyed watching it.

This is not art-house cinema, though it can be viewed from the point of view of analyzing Kurosawa's cinematic devices, technique and expertise. It performs best as a story well told - the story of a Japanese village of the 16th century harassed no end by bandits who come down from the hills every now and then; the story of 7 brave, duty-bound and unemployed samurai who decide to defend the village and destroy the bandits, while taking as compensation only three meals a day and no monetary reward.

The story is developed at a leisurely pace - consider the fact that the first bandit encounter with the assembled samurai team does not occur until we are 2 hours into the film. But that doesn't make the film uninteresting. The abject poverty of the villagers, and yet the small treasures they have hidden away; the assembling of the samurai team, each one of a different disposition and having complementary skills; the tenuous relationship between the farmers and the samurai because of the farmers' earlier experiences with samurai; and other things give the viewer a glimpse into Japanese culture, values and social norms like no reference book can provide.

And then there are the fight scenes. Even in black-and-white, the scenes inspire awe (at the expertise with which they have been shot), a bit of revulsion (at the brutality with which the villagers kill isolated bandits), sadness (at the killing of a villager or a samurai). The final fight scene is especially brilliant, shot in pouring rain, with people fighting and running all over the place in mud and slush. The final dialogues between two of the three surviving samurai give another glimpse into Japanese culture: the villagers don't seem to want these heroes to remain in their village, as they get back to their work; and the leader of the samurai says: 'Again we're beaten. The real winners are those farmers, not us.' Duty-bound, the samurai must have walked away, as before.

The acting performances are brilliant, especially from the wise and battle-worn Takashi Shimura - the samurai leader, and the loud, bumbling and over-energetic Toshiro Mifune. It wouldn't be right to leave off writing about this film here, but I don't think I can comment meaningfully beyond this, so I'll stop here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Strategic intrigue

Though many subjects have interested me quite a lot during my time here, the subject on the theories of business strategy has actually intrigued me. It is fascinating to read about the various ways of thinking about what really determines the competitive advantage of a firm. One of the views is called the resource-based view (RBV), in which the internal 'strategic assets' (intangible assets like knowhow, intellectual property, managerial competencies) distinguish one firm from another and lead to creation of competitive advantage. Prahalad and Hamel's famous 'core competence' paper falls into this category of theories.

One of the subsets of the RBV is the knowledge-based view (KBV), which identifies knowledge (both explicit as well as tacit) as a major strategic asset that drives competitive advantage. This has been particularly so in recent times, and even staid 'old economy' firms are starting to realize this. One interesting thing that a paper mentioned was that this was an age defined by two things which existed to a much lesser degree in the past: 1. a globalized world, consisting of much freer trade than in the past several centuries, and 2. increasing returns to strategic assets (as opposed to the traditional view of diminishing returns to factor inputs), whereby if a market leader and a challenger both deploy similar levels of strategic assets in business, the leader will reap greater returns than the challenger. In other words, the leader will increase his lead, while the challenger finds himself in a worse position. The question this raises is: is it inherent in globalization and free trade, in this knowledge-driven world, to cause wider and wider disparity in the incomes of countries and peoples? I have yet to read anything substantial on globalization (like the book 'Globalization and its Discontents' by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, for example), so I can't comment on it further. But this is an important question worth exploring.

Marks-ism and some developments

My posting frequency has decreased because of the relative uneventfulness that has characterized this term. A few developments have happened however, which I would like to note, if only for the sake of record.

The corrected papers of all Term-IV subjects, save one, have been shown. I am lagging far behind my relative position in all other terms, and so expect the worst term GPA among those that I have got so far. There are many marks-ists here, believers in marks as a kind of Holy Grail to be pursued with all your might. How trivial this pursuit seems when put in the perspective of an entire life or career! In this respect, at least, two appropriate lines by Sahir need to be heeded:
jo mil gayaa usiiko muqaddar samajh liyaa
jo kho gayaa, main usako bhulaataa chalaa gayaa

The last mid-terms of this course are approaching. However, there is still relatively little to read up. Concept-wise, this term has been fairly rich so far, but thankfully, that hasn't translated into commensurate academic requirements.

Chill has set in, particularly in the evenings, at night and early in the morning. It is also slightly hazy at night (light mist) and the ground is wet in the morning with dew. Another chilling Lucknow winter approaches...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Festival break

It is rare to get two holidays in a row in the middle of a term here. But Durga Pooja yesterday and Dashera today ensured that we got them this term. It is a welcome break, although academic activity has not reached demanding proportions yet. Entries to a few competitions are over and done with, although I must say I haven't done very well in those. Some activity is happening on campus to generate some festive spirit, like a faculty-students cricket match, dinner, some informal events, etc. However, many people have left for hill-stations - Naini Tal, Almora and Rushikesh being the most popular - for the holidays, so aggregate activity is less.

Added later:
As part of the Dashera celebrations, some of our professors sang a few songs (though not quite related to the festival). I liked the rendition of 'man re, tuu kaahe na dhiir dhare' - the Rafi-Roshan-Sahir classic. There was also supposed to be a Ravan-dahan after a long time at IIML (I couldn't stay to watch). For the highly politicized state that is UP, however, burning of effigies of political Ravan-s is not uncommon. We must note that this comparison is unfair, because the Ravan of the Ramayan was quite a learned person.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

'Sehar'

I watched this recently released film on the computer yesterday, and was really impressed with it. Debutant director Kabeer Kaushik has really made a hard-hitting film on the UP mafia raj (in itself a refreshing subject after so many movies on the Mumbai underworld). This is a timely film, for the state of UP is going to the dogs, given the horrific law and order situation.

The film's timeframe is 1997-98, and is about newly appointed SSP, Lucknow, Ajay Kumar (played brilliantly by Arshad Warsi), who gets to know the sheer ruthlessness of rival UP mafias. Internal mafia politics, aided and abetted by politicians, mean that the star of Gajraj Singh, alias Gajju Bhaiya, (played superbly by Sushant Singh) is rising. He breaks the old order of clearly demarcated boundaries of various gangs with respect to region, target activities, etc., by killing off rival gang leaders and establishing his varchasva (an effectively used word in the film) over the crime world. Realizing the enormity of the challenge, Ajay convinces his superior and also the CM of establishing a Special Task Force for cracking down on organized crime. Systematic attack on Gajraj's and other gangs shakes their foundations, but they fight back and several valiant STF officers lay down their lives. The film culminates in a gunfight on a train where Gajraj and Ajay are both killed.

Kabeer Kaushik shows the rot in the political, administrative, and law enforcement setup in the state very realistically. The scene in the beginning where Ajay first meets his superior is excellent. The ADG tells him the Lucknow that was by referring to a shop called Avadh Thandai which said on its name-board: 'zaraa muskuraaiye kyonki aap Lakhnau men hain'. At that moment, he receives a call from the secretary to the CM, and is forced to break the meeting. Looking meaningfully at Ajay, he says: 'Welcome to Lucknow'. The hell that is Lucknow University at election time (and otherwise) is shown, as is recruiting done by the mafia from the students' ranks. The shots of Lucknow town and various familiar places, very nicely shot, make it particularly interesting for us here at IIML. Overall, the (almost) no-nonsense and realistic character of the film makes an impact.

The performances are superb; not only from Arshad Warsi (he should really stop playing sidey to people like Salman Khan), Sushant Singh (he displays the required ruthlessness and wilfulness excellently) and Pankaj Kapur (as an old academic who becomes part of the STF because of his ability of tracking the newly introduced cell phones), but also from the supporting cast (Warsi's mother, the ADG, the STF members, the sidekick of politician Mishra, etc.). It was a pleasure to see old TV veterans like Rajendra Singh and Ravi Jhankal after a long time. The romantic diversion with Mahima Chaudhary is quite unnecessary. Ajay's personal life is shown adequately in his reminiscences of the past (his father had committed suicide after a court martial in the Army), and in his interactions with his mother. The dialogues are also very well-written, the old and sweet tongue (of Warsi's mother) and the new, rough, dehaatii tongue (of the gangsters) used appropriately. Overall, a film worth watching as congratulation to a commendable first act of the director.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The End

Life can end suddenly, in a flash; irrespective of circumstances, place, time; irrespective of its effect on the people left behind. The knowledge that death is certain is no help. There is so much uncertainty about when and how the blow might fall. The best-laid plans of men, then, are rendered meaningless. Jim Morrison's words ring true (except that there may be plenty of surprise):

'This is the end, beautiful friend...
Of our elaborate plans, the end;
Of everything that stands, the end;
No safety or surprise, the end'

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Super Series

It would be interesting to watch how the Super Series - Australia vs. ICC World XI - goes. Although quite hyped, I daresay it has lost some of its sheen of being a 'best vs. the rest' kind of encounter, as the aura around Australia has been well and truly dispelled by England. At the same time, I would say that Australia start favourites, mostly because this is an unequal contest. The World XI team looks formidable on paper, but it is true (cliched, but true nevertheless) that 11 good players may not necessarily make a good team. And these are players from various countries, who have so far been used to playing against each other, rather than with each other. If in spite of this, they manage to win matches (or ideally, both the series), it would be a tribute to their teaming skills (or to Australia's decline :) ). Let's hope that such a thing does indeed happen.

Post-match update:

So I assumed right. At least in the first match, things came unstuck for the World XI. The captain, Shaun Pollock, has said that 'the guys are hurting' and that their pride has been dented. But I think that is more rhetoric than anything else. I find it difficult to imagine where the players will get the motivation to play for a nebulous World team. Examples of past series, notably the ones in the '70s are cited as counter-arguments, where matches were very competitive and players like Barry Richards felt highly motivated. But that was then, and this is now. With so much cricket being played, do two or three bad matches really dent the reputation of these players? And the upside (adulation) will also be more when performing for the national side than for a motley World side. So, unequal contest it is.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Beyond the obvious

I am a voracious reader and sometimes can be quite undiscriminating about what I read. Certainly, not everything that I read gives me the same feeling of pleasure that the best reading does. I have found that any written piece - whether a book, an article, a technical paper, or whatever - that goes beyond the obvious, or distinguishes the unseen distinctly from the seen, gives me the greatest pleasure. For instance, I was reading an absolutely superb paper by two well-known academics in the Operations area - Hopp & Spearman - on what is the essence of 'pull production' and 'lean production'. This article brings out, in 16 pages, how these concepts have been widely misunderstood and misapplied over the last two decades, and consequently have fallen far short of expectations. It points to that essence of both 'pull' and 'lean' which really drives the potential benefits from their adoption. I was awestruck by the clarity of thought displayed. Perhaps that is why I like reading philosophy so much, its job is to go beyond the obvious. A certain poetry flows from such writing.

I also find that cultivation of a mindset of going beyond the obvious is also very important in practical, day-to-day life. As just one example, one can cite that of assessing the true nature of a person who we have to work with. A deeper assessment of the true nature of people will help a person become a better people manager. Many people have the experience of being misunderstood because of such superficial assessment by others. Take the example of Kishore Kumar. This man, from outward behaviour, seemed a wacky, crazy person who had little respect for any established system and loved money for the sake of it. It takes deeper probing to reveal the humanity in the man, which only people who interacted closely with him (S. D. Burman, R. D. Burman, Leena Chandavarkar, etc.) knew about. (Caveat: some people may be correctly judged even in a superficial assessment. Here the example of Mohammed Rafi is appropriate. From outward behaviour alone, one would have gauged this man to be good, in every sense of the word. And it turns out to be the right assessment.)

Saturday, October 01, 2005

We can shape our destiny

As I have said earlier, one of the topics in our Business Environment course is to trace the influence of deeper determinants of economic growth of a country. These have been put into three broad categories: institutions, integration into world trade, and geography. By institutions is meant not only the legal and government policy infrastructure, but also social peculiarities. Two authors, Gregory Clark and Susan Wolcott did a country study of India to find out why India did not show spectacular growth (until change arrived starting from the early '80s).

Their finding is striking. They say that India did not lack in diffusion of technology, but in efficient employment of technology, i.e. the same technology as that in developed countries has been employed much less profitably in India. They blame this largely on the Indian attitude of only putting in as much effort at work as justified by financial incentives or supervision. This is unlike most developed countries, where workers put in much more effort at work. In telling jargon, they say: 'India is characterized by a mutual-shirking equilibrium rather than a mutual gift-giving equilibrium. In this view, India's poverty is largely unconnected to government policy or public institutions.' Pretty damning.

Thus, one way out for India could be skill development, so that we can make more efficient use of our infrastructure and equipment. However, a change in the noted 'crab mentality' of Indians - the tendency to pull each other down - might be something that would have greater impact than skills upgradation. This is where the Japanese have been so good. In the words of Sam Pitroda: 'One Indian is equivalent to ten Japanese. But, ten Indians are equivalent to only one Japanese'. We do hold the key to our own future as a country.