Saturday, March 15, 2014

Memories of a European winter

This past year end, we took a holiday in Europe, with a stop-over in Dubai. For posterity's sake, here is a brief jot-down of our memories.

The place which impressed us the most in our entire itinerary was Dubai. It is impressive to see a city as advanced as the west in infrastructure and services, while providing all the cultural benefits of the east.

We spent a night wandering around the 'Global Village', a cornucopia of shops showcasing wares from multiple countries. The Turkish pavilion was particularly impressive with its shops of colorful lamps and sweet baklavas. The Turkish baked potato - a large stuffed potato dish with a variety of vegetables and spices - was a particularly memorable eat. Yemeni spices were another interesting find. Despite the venue receiving millions of visitors, the spot clean surroundings (and spic and span loos!) were a welcome difference after landing from India.

The Palm Jumeirah area and the Atlantis hotel were pretty interesting to wander around, the underwater aquarium being a worthy watch. The Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa were great to window-shop the wealth of luxury items being showcased from around the world. The climb up to the viewing gallery of the world's tallest building and the view from the top was breathtaking, as were the singing fountains.

Frankfurt was cold, and quite close to the freezing point when we landed. As we got off the Westbahnoff station, what caught our eye was the Saravana Bhavan right up front. Hungry as we were from the long flight, we quickly gulped a dosa and an idly before starting our wandering around town.

Frankfurt's Maine river has an nice walkway around it and we spent some time walking around. It was freezing Christmas eve, and a gulp of mulled wine helped warm us up. The Frankfurt Christmas market (supposedly one of the oldest around) was in flow as we were around, and we had a great time sampling the
chocolates, crepes, pretzels and wines. Another day, we took a walk down towards the University area and sampled some of the quaint markets around.

We took the train to Prague, leaving Frankfurt in the middle of the night. Running around the station in the middle of the freezing night, across empty platforms to catch a train that stopped for a few minutes, and fumbling with confusing German labeling to find our coach, will always be a memory.

We stayed at the cozy Aparthotel City 5, with its charming and warm hostess, Kristina. Recommend anyone visiting Prague to try out the place - we for sure will.

Prague for us was the most memorable European city from the trip. Its cobbled, medieval streets with baroque architectural buildings. Its exotic castles and churches. Its incredibly thick hot chocolates, hot wines, crepes and sweet tredelnik. Its beautiful paintings. Its town square with the unbelievably beautiful Christmas market. Wow.

Another reason that we liked Prague so much was its affordability. Items in some of the supermarkets were cheaper than India!

Vienna seemed refined and business-like, after Prague. We liked the Schonbrunn Palace the best. The tour of the palace is amongst the best organized walks I have ever seen. Wonder why we can't replicate these in India.

Our first impression of the city was unfortunately formed by the Termini railway station where we landed up first. The station reminded us of Mumbai's Dadar station at it's peak hours - not only for the crowds, but also in its rather dirty upkeep. Sad.

We had come to Rome with the intention of gorging on the best of Italian pizzas and pastas. It was after our first meal that we realized how different true Italian food is against we are used to in India. The lack of spice (and the look a waiter gave us when we asked for additional oregano and chilli flakes), made us realize how different was the reality. The only Italian food item which we really enjoyed was gelato.

Now the positives.

The Vatican and the Sistine chapel (despite having waiting lines like Tirupati back home), were mind-blowing in their grandeur and beauty. The Colloseum, the Capitol hill, the Palantine hill and the Pantheon are incredible visits - the experience of seeing the history of thousands of years in such grandeur - few things can match the experience.

Overall, Rome requires at least a week of time, a lot of energy and a large budget to do justice to.

Highlights of the city:
- The Eiffel when it shines at night
- The Notre Dame cathedral and its environs
- The Collections of the Louvre: the tablet with the Hammurabi code, the sculptures and paintings of the masters, the digital Nintendo-enabled walkthrough
- The Sienne river

People often have grandiose views of this city. To us, however, Prague was probably more romantic and prettier. Maybe we didn't spend enough time to sample all it had to offer. Maybe we didn't visit the right places. Maybe it was just the tiny hotel room that cost a bomb. Whatever the reason, it just didn't cut it.

This was a trip we had planned for many years. Ultimately, while we always wanted to do a summer visit, we ended up with a winter trip. Our experiences were influenced by the icy weather and the Christmas and New Year celebrations at various places. We didn't realize we would find Prague so impressive, and find ourselves so let down by Paris. Dubai's development was eye-opening. All said, this trip will remain one of our most memorable getaways ever.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Interesting things about Norway

1. Its expensive ! A half litre water bottle costs the equivalent of $10.

2. There are almost no English newspapers, but people speak English everywhere .

3. Architecture and design have a huge presence. Some of Oslo's new buildings are quite funky.

4. Doors have no consistent opening style. Some open inwards, some outwards, and some automatically so. One can never tell till one is nearby though.

5. People are quite humble in general. Jante's law is culturally valued. Though people can get quite aggressive in meetings.

6. There are surprisingly few Asians around. The least I have seen in any country so far.

7. People don't seem to greet strangers or make eye contact normally. Very different from the US.

8. People are very physically active. Everyone is jogging, cycling or hiking around.

9. Most taxis in Oslo are Mercs. Beats Singapore in their number.

10. None of the big hotel chains - The Hilton's, Sheraton's or Marriott's have a visible presence here. But there are quite a few good Nordic ones - Thon, Nordic choice, Scandic.

From Oslo to Bergen - a travelogue.

This is the travelogue of a journey from Oslo to Bergen. Supposedly one of the more beautiful train routes in Europe.

September 14 2013.

8.05 hrs - Start: Trains look like the Shatabdi trains back home, from the outside. Push a little green button to open doors. First stop is Lysaker. 

Had brought a heavy jacket, but the train seems to have controlled air conditioning. Neat 15 degrees.

Train seems to be running underground quite a bit, as it leaves Oslo. But hoping to see the scenery ahead too. If you order the ticket online, the ticket inspector delivers the ticket at your seat. Nice service must say.

Tickets seem to vary a lot in price. I paid 400 NOK but the lady nearby seems to have only paid 250. Hmm.

They seem to have a cafeteria on board with a good selection of hot and cold drinks and food. Also have beer and wine it seems.

Quite a few interesting people on the train. Retired lady from London on vacation, Disney comic book writer, Canadian origin students from Madrid, a music band performing in Bergen.

8.54: Has started raining. Dark coniferous forests around. Beautiful lakes too.

9.35: The train tracks here are banked at curves. Which means that the train tilts around quite a bit - can't walk around as easily as in India. 

The cafeteria was pretty neat. Got a hot chocolate. Bit pricey, but has enough food. Miles of farmland around. Pretty wooden houses and boats.

10.45: Pretty Swiss-like village on the banks of a lake. Beneath conifer covered mountains.

11.30: After Al. Climbing the mountains. Fog cover is heavy. 10 degrees. 

12.15: Finse station. Lake beneath a snow covered peak. Raining. 7 degrees.

Ears being pressurized like in flight. Train emerges out of a long tunnel through the mountains. 6 degrees.

12.40: Myrdal. Where people get down to change for the flam rail route, for the Norway in a nutshell route. Raining.

Trains are very quiet here. Rarely do you hear the click-clock of train track changes that you hear in India.
A large time of this journey is covered in tunnels underground.

2.45pm: Train reaches Bergen.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Is digital a product-oriented shift for enterprise IT?

Traditionally, enterprise IT has largely organized itself to deliver services to business units. While consumer interfaces did exist, particularly in terms of portals etc., there was limited focus in making these truly engaging consumer channels.
What is changing in the digital world is the primacy of digital channels and their growing share in customer interactions. This deep exposure to the consumer requires a substantial shift up in the capabilities of enterprise IT.
In the new world, IT has a substantive responsibility in consumer engagement: attracting new customers, managing existing relationships and providing relevant/ targeted offerings. This requires a focus towards understanding digital consumer preferences, effectively managing their engagement (how many corporate portals today manage UX effectively?), creating digital brands that ensure consumer mind-share, and over time managing the portfolio and life-cycle of digital consumer interactions.
From being a support function that focused on ensuring service levels to business processes at an optimal cost structure, this shift towards consumer and revenue-centricity requires a shift in enterprise IT's organization. In the old world, it was enough to have business relationship managers and SLAs to manage interactions with business units. In the new digital world, where millions of end-consumers with varying preferences need to be engaged, these are ineffective constructs.
Therefore, I would argue that a shift towards greater product orientation is an imperative for any enterprise IT team planning to make strides in the digital world. Digital product managers are a requirement in the new world, to work closely with their traditional business brethren in designing, defining, launching and managing digitally-aligned offerings. It also implies a focus on digital branding and other visual communication elements that address consumer engagement. And it also implies a focus on the continuous management of digital product portfolios, much like traditional non-digital ones.
This does not mean that traditional paradigm of service orientation goes away. In fact, service orientation is essential to ensure effective product outcomes. But that service structures need to be aligned to deliver to digital product constructs.
But this change is not easy. Traditional enterprise IT folks often have a mindset that draws boundaries between IT and business responsibilities. Often one hears viewpoints such as "Oh, that is business. They need to bother about consumers and business processes. I am just technology guy.". This needs to change. In the digital world, the boundaries between the roles and responsibilities of business and IT have blurred. IT needs to understand business functions and consumers deeply, and vice-versa. I believe that this change in mindset will be the biggest barrier in moving organizations to a digitally-centric world.
In the digital world, it is not enough for IT to align with business imperatives, as it did in the past. IT needs to increasingly define and drive business imperatives. And product orientation is an essential construct that enterprise IT needs to realign towards.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Tinkering with operational efficiency

This may sound like incoherent theoretical rambling. For that is exactly what it is. Read at your own peril.

There are a couple of levers to improve the efficiency of any operational setup.

Scale effects and learning effects are two of these. Scale effects are fairly well understood: as more and more scale is added to a process, the cost of delivering that process reduces, largely due to an increase in utilization of resources delivering on the process.

Learning effects are a little more complex.

One reason for learning effects is a reduction in information search times and costs. The first time you had to fix that broken chair, the time that it took to find the carpenter, tools and supplies was the longest. The next time, you likely knew the carpenter and tools required.

Another reason for learning effects is a reduction in decision times. In general the decision making framework involves a set of inputs, deciding actor(s), and the process or rules for making decisions. When an operating process is first set up, there is often limited clarity on the inputs required, multiple deciding actor(s) playing interdependent roles and even issues exist around the process of decision making. Over time, inputs get standardized, the deciding actors get unified, and decision making rules get clearly determined. This reduces the time for decision making.

In addition, there are different types of decisions that often need to be made:
a. Decisions of choice between multiple paths, or even simply a choice between a go and a no-go.
b. Decisions of timing of effort, investment etc.
c. Decisions of allocations of scarce resources between multiple conflicting priorities.

Decisions particularly take time when they have to be made in the face of incomplete information, a common reality. In initial stages of such a situation, decision makers have to rely on a certain 'leap of faith' in making the decision. As they receive feedback on their decision over time, they tend to become faster and better at making such decisions.

It is interesting to see how the availability of information plays such a key role in learning effects.

So how do you design operational processes so that learning effects can be accelerated?

For one, design to minimize search. Provide as much targeted and relevant information as possible to resources, when they need it. Create a knowledge repository of information that people can contribute their early learning to. Search, collaboration and knowledge management tools are such a big hit these days for this reason.

Second, design to standardize inputs for each decision early. Even simple checklists work well to do this. Simplification of input factors is a big contributor.

Third, reduce the number of decision making actors. Today's governmental processes are a great indicator of how things can go wrong here. Requiring five people to make simple decision is a sheer sign of bureaucracy.

The best way is to to codify roles and automating them to the extent possible. Rules, decision engines and straight through processing are a growing reality in the operational improvement field.

Finally, one needs to create that feedback loop for decision makers to learn from their leaps of faith. This is a commonly missed out factor in most operations. But feedback loops are essential to ensure learning and to improve decision making speeds and quality. Creating good feedback loops requires a few elements - a metric for measuring the quality of process outputs and decisions, a system for communicating this back to decision makers, and aligned incentives. Though I am yet to see a standardized way of doing this well.