Sunday, December 07, 2008

Delhi international arts fest

The Delhi International Arts Festival is on, this month of December in NCR, and they seem to be putting up some brilliant performances. As part of the series, they had a Bharatnatyam (by Geeta Chandran & Co) and a Kathak performance (by Prerna Shrimali) at the Epicenter here in Gurgaon - both were great.

This is the first time time I've seen light used to such effect in a Bharatnatyam performance. The most innovative bit was one titled 'seasons', based on Kalidasa's Ritusamhara and set to music by Tchaikovsky! - was seriously brilliant. This was my first look at a full Kathak performance as well and I came away quite impressed.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Strategy through hard times

The quarterly has a nice article on strategy during hard economic times as these - Strategy in a 'structural break', authored by Richard Rumelt:

"A structural break is the very best time to be a strategist, for at the moment of change old sources of competitive advantage weaken and new sources appear. Afterward, upstarts can leap ahead of seemingly entrenched players..."

"So during structural breaks in hard times, cutting costs isn’t enough. Things have to be done differently, and on two levels: reducing the complexity of corporate structures and transforming business models. At the corporate level, the first commandment is to simplify and simplify again. Since companies must become more modular and diverse, eliminate coordinating committees, review boards, and other mechanisms connecting businesses, products, or geographies...."

"Then start reforming individual businesses....In general terms, the first task is to understand how a business has survived, competed, and made money in the past. Don’t settle for PowerPoint bar charts and graphs. If the business is too complex to comprehend, break it into comprehensible parts. Once you gain this critical understanding, you can start the work of reshaping. There is no magic formula. Reforming a business always takes insight and imagination."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Is there nothing sacrosanct any more?

... Nothing, going by the state of the US financial markets.

There was a time, not so long ago in the past, that names like Bear Stearns and Lehman were to be uttered in hallowed terms. Brands that were meant to be looked up to, and trusted - particularly in an industry where trust is everything and everything is trust.

When BS went down, seemingly overnight to outsiders, I bet quite a few were shaken. Then rumors floated to an imminent Citi collapse, which it seems to have weathered. Now Lehman seems to be heading down that path: Bankers say Lehman approaching rivals for lifeline.

On a broader perspective - brand names are supposed to 'stand' for something, an indication of a set of role-model behavior, in some sense repositories of societal trust. After such news, what really is sacrosanct trust?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

hearing familiar tongues...

So, its Toronto airport and we eagerly await the Jet Airways boarding announcement. Suddenly, the english and french static from the speaker changes into pure Hindi, announcing the departure. A spontaneous smile bursts on everyone's face... what a pleasure it is to hear one's tongue in a distant land after a long time...

(just recording the moment)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

It's a blue jay in Toronto

Toronto has quite a Chicago-esque feel to it - with tall skyscrapers and stone paved roads, it even has a nice waterfront without as much wind-chill.

In all, the place feels so much like the US, yet seems much more multi-cultural in practice. For one, I've never found so much and varied vegetarian food anywhere in the US and seen so many people of Asian origin milling around (but then, I haven't been to NY).

Downtown Toronto is quite pretty, with its Victorian style buildings blending into skyscraper-covered modernity. The Royal Ontario Museum is certainly huge and its coverage of Europe and Africa (and I must mention, the dinosaurs) is certainly the most comprehensive I've ever seen in a museum. Yet, it has so much to cover, that it would do well to learn some didactic skills from the Fields Museum. The Bata shoe museum, is yet another interesting place to visit and showcases the origin of shoes and shoe types from all over the world - quite a learning experience.

The Niagara falls is quite close, a 2 hour drive away. It's certainly the most awesome falls I've ever seen - when you're down its base in the ferry and you look up at the millions of gallons of water pouring down from such heights, its just awesome.

The CN Tower is yet another interesting place - one of the world's tallest structures and has a revolving restaurant atop. Now, the lift in Express Towers in Mumbai used to block my ears as it went up 20 odd floors; in the CN lift I could hardly feel anything and would not have known I'd gone up a few thousand feet had I not had glass around. The view atop, if course, magnificient.

And the weather, for now, is pretty much great in summer. The winter though, I hear is only for the locals.

(Blue Jays is the local baseball team)

Collecting mana in manali

Manali is a 14-16 hour drive from Delhi. The route is picturesque; in particular, the segment between Kullu and Manali that runs parallel to a meandering river covered on either side by lush green tall mountains - just heavenly.

Manali is a small town and could probably be covered in a day's walkaround. Old Manali has some interesting spots - Manu's temple being one - and was packed with foreign tourists (for some reason a majority being Israelis) when I landed up. There were even some signboards in Hebrew!

The ride up from Manali to Rohtang freaked me out initially, I caught a 4 am bus that wound its way in the darkness and fog along a precipitous narrow road up the mountains; but the sun came out as we crossed the pass and the snow covered peaks presented an awesome sight. The road was in quite a pathetic state with a gazillion bumps and much credit must be given to the driver of the HPSRTC bus (and the bus itself) that navigated such roads. Rohtang was all melted - I've seen photos of the pass covered in snow - but when I landed in mid July, it was just wet foggy land.

The bus crossed the pass to enter the Lahaul and Spiti valley. The ride downwards from the pass into the valley zigzags, covered with lush green meadows - at the background were the snow covered tall peaks, dotted with small houses and monasteries at the base. This is, by far, the most beautiful mountainous landscape I've ever seen - and is quite a sight to behold.

After reaching the valley, the road followed the Chenab river, bordered by dry barren mountains, passing the location of formation of the Chenab by the merger of the Chandra and the Bhaga rivers.

Keylong is a small town on the route, often considered a night rest spot for people who continue on to Leh and for trekkers to the nearby mountains. Per se, the town has little to offer; yet its location amidst tall mountains with snow peaks in sight makes it a beautiful resting spot. What surprised me was that so remote is town had impeccable broadband connectivity and TV access showing every channel out there. And, the town even has a non-stop bus service into Delhi.

I had to turn back from my explorations at Keylong, given insufficient time at hand. Keylong is considered as a sort of a base camp for trekkers to the glaciers nearby and into the Leh/Ladakh region. June-September, when the passes melt, is the season to get here. A good trekking trip is estimated to last a week or two at least, and I am resolved to come back to the region some day to try it out.

I started back at 4 am (what's it with me and these 4 am bus rides, I wonder), got chased by a couple of dogs along deserted roads (its interesting how these make memorable experiences), and finally repeated the 6 odd hour bus ride back into Manali. This time, I could experience travel back from the pass into Manali in daylight and it was a beautiful experience - coniferous trees and green meadows at the end (with the pot-holes of course).

In sum, to Manali one must go to see tourist tumult; beyond Rohtang, one must go to experience solitude.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Can firms grow too fast?

Notwithstanding our volatile and depressed equity markets...

One of the good things about working in growing economies like India is the sort of interesting things you get to hear about managing growth - things unspoken in mature markets. Instead of grappling with growth challenges, here one gets to ask questions such as in the title line.

But this is an interesting question: Can a firm grow 'too' fast for its own good? Over the past few months, I've been fortunate to be exposed to industries and firms which are witnessing explosive growth; and I've heard people talk terms such as 'sustainable growth' and 'manageable growth'- terms which you'd typically hear only in the context of national economics.

But after all, firms resemble nation states, in a sense. Just as countries can overheat if fiscal and monetary economics are not managed to suit growth (these days, they can overheat otherwise as well, as we've learnt to our chagrin) firms too can overheat their operating models when faced with huge unprecedented growth.

Ultimately, a firm's operating and financial structures are designed for a certain range of volumes. And if these structures are not modified in time to support a much higher range, it is likely that they'll strain; just as short-term mismatches can drive up national inflation, such strains can drive up internal cost to serve, destroying firm value.

Another issue with growth is the change in the nature of the firm in relation to its size. A small firm is quite different from a medium-sized firm, which is quite different from a large sized firm: in its operating structures, in its human capital and policies, in its customer relationships, in its ambitions. As firms rapidly make the transition from one-stage to another, the sheer nature of the firm changes. People used to the informality and flexibility of the startup suddenly get saddled with policies and formal mechanisms. Internal divisions suddenly grow into the size of small firms ...

Of course, nobody wants to give up on growth (I doubt if any nation state would either) - after all, who knows how long it would last. But is it sometimes detrimental to grow too fast? Economies like China and India have been caught at the raw end these days from unmanageable growth. Statements have been made on sacrificing growth to rein in overheating. Should growing firms also 'manage' their pace of growth? Of course, firms dread being left behind in the marketplace, but would slowing down sometimes make you a 'better' firm?

The below is from the Ram Charan chronicles :

"We were driving to the airport in Charleston, W.Va., and he said to me, 'Why are you trying to grow this thing so fast?' I was sort of shocked by the question. Three weeks later my financial guy came to me and said, 'We don't have money to meet payroll.' Charan realized we were growing too fast, that's why he asked me that question."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

World's top tech companies

The Businessweek Infotech 100: the world's top tech firms, ranked by shareholder return, return on equity, total revenues, and revenue growth.

Telecom firms with a presence in emerging markets rank high, dominating traditional tech players. Bharati, for example, the highest ranked firm from India, comes in at #21, higher than Microsoft and Oracle. In shareholder return terms, Redington India comes ranks at #3.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Unlearning to drive

It is often required to unlearn old habits, before learning new ones. Driving, is clearly one such area.

The last generation largely grew up driving on narrow one lane roads, sometimes unpaved. Four wheelers were for a fortunate few, and that too in the last decade. We, in this generation, are indeed blessed to be driving more comfortable transport on wider roads. However what we seem to retain, are vestiges of driving skills from an earlier era.

We seem to have been thrust into an era of laned roads, without being taught the associated rules. To look at rear view mirrors, to use indicators while changing lanes, to suit lanes to speed, to wait at signals, to honk with reason... are some traits we've never learnt.

We continue to view four laned roads as a wide one laner with markers that never matter, zigzag as if we drove two wheelers and honk our way to glory, as if we were clinking those cycle bells.

None of this is more apparent anywhere in India than in NCR, a region endowed with awesome infrastructure... and with drivers with archaic driving etiquettes.

Now, I don't blame our forebearers (and us). Its just that change has been so rapid, that some of what we learnt (at times by observation), is now a liability. We have so much to unlearn, and so much to learn.

PS: The above is a hypothesis, based on just three data points, seeking to explain the mystery behind abysmal driving skills in the area where I live

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Of golden temples and snow covered summer peaks

and ... I must add, jingoism, rickety bus rides and eternal peace.

Amritsar: A dusty little town with an old world charm, its crowded streets lined with age old buildings, its colorful markets that seem to have stood still in a byegone era, the mouth-watering food; The Golden Temple - so peaceful, so quiet, so beautiful; Wagah border - a interesting display of well orchestrated jingoism, a spectacle of marches and crowd chants, from both sides.

Dharamsala: A rickety eight hour bus ride away from Amritsar, along broken meandering roads in a suspensionless bus; the first view of the snow-capped peaks blowing away all fatigue, the twisting roads of Mcleodganj; the Tibetan monks, their temples and protests; yet a place of all pervading peace; Triund - a worthy 2-3 hr trek up the hills, a hailstorm covering the land with white, a meadow out of the sound of music, all beneath the beautiful peaks.

Memoirs of my travel through two interesting towns, just the essence.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On the future of media - What's the wheat? What's the chaff?

Knowledge@Wharton presents its perspectives on the emerging media landscape: the tussle between user-generated content and 'professional' content in The Experts vs. the Amateurs: A Tug of War over the Future of Media

Whitehouse distinguishes professional content on the basis of its editorial process. "Carefully checked sources and consistent editorial guidelines are key differences between most professional and amateur content," he suggests, while noting that, "Both bring value. The latter brings quickness and a personal viewpoint and the former provides analysis and consistent quality. The world I want to live in includes healthy doses of both categories."

"Where the distinction between amateur and professional content matters is in business models," says Werbach. "For certain kinds of quality content, no blog can match The New York Times, but producing the Times is far more expensive than a blog. If users aren't willing to pay to support the kind of professional journalism the Times provides, something significant will be lost. And that's increasingly happening, because traditional business models for newspapers and TV rely on unrelated advertising revenues to fund quality content. The Internet is disintermediating those dollars."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Friday, March 07, 2008

What is an 'emerging market'?

Not many question commonly used terms in our lexicon. When one does, it does present some useful perspectives. Knowledge@Wharton examines the use of the term 'emerging markets' in When Are Emerging Markets No Longer 'Emerging'?

Antoine W. van Agtmael was deputy director of the capital markets department of the World Bank's International Finance Corp. (IFC) when he coined the phrase "emerging markets" during an investor conference in Thailand in 1981.

Initially, the phrase applied to fast-growing economies in Asia and was used in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As global interest in market-driven economies grew, investors began to look toward Latin America for emerging markets and eventually at countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, China, India and Russia

Emerging economies, he adds, are in places that are changing from a system based on informal relationships to a more formal system with rules that are transparent and apply equally to all participants in the market.

At the same time, some countries seem to have gotten solidly stuck in the emerging markets category. Guillen points to South Korea...

As Shakespeare wrote, "What's in a name?..."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Millennial generation: Not just corporate careers

Portfolio.com has an interesting article: Escape from Corporate America highlighting the changing priorities of the so-called "Millennial generation" - people in the workforce born after 1980.

Six-figure jobs on Wall Street and elsewhere just aren’t enough for “Millennial” workers, who want their work to have “meaning” too.

...“Stock picking, in a lot of ways, was extremely gratifying, but had its drawbacks. What did we really change in the world, or what did we really contribute?”

Unlike their parents, experts say, this generation is less likely to become “corporate slaves” focused on earning a paycheck and achieving middle-class status.

“I don’t think they loathe their jobs. I think they loathe the demands the job puts on them.” A 2004 Northwestern Mutual survey of 1,700 recent college grads found that 73 percent said how they spend their time on the job is more important than how much money they make, while 70 percent said money is not the best measure of success.

Ah, the quest for fulfillment...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One doesn't always learn by experience?

An interesting article from Insead: the experience trap, where the authors argue that in complex project environments, managers do not necessarily learn from experience. They postulate that insufficient feedback and the inability of managers to make out causal relations in their work makes them repeat mistakes.

Though one does wonder, if this affect would be observed only in the kind of complex multi-project environments they highlight and whether such lack of experiential learning would sustain over time.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sauntering around Surajkund

The Surajkund Mela is an annual handicrafts and arts fair, organized by Haryana Tourism at the town of Surajkund, a short distance from South Delhi. It spans the first fortnight of February and showcases work of artists from all over India and some overseas.

Taking advantage of a beautiful wintry Sunday afternoon, I landed up at the place. Seemed well organized and with lots of parking space - enough considering there were so many people around to make it look as if all of Delhi had checked in.

The fair presents an impressive collection of crafts and arts from all over India - ranging from Rajasthani paintings to Manipoori bamboo art and from Tanjore paintings to Kashimri Pashima shawls. The whole place wore a carnival atmosphere with performances of ethnic dances at every corner. What added to the fun was that visitors seemed so eager to participate in doing a jig along with the traditional folk.

There was also a food court that doled out culinary mish-mash from all over the country - perfect for a chilly Sunday afternoon meal. Surprisingly, it was so neat that I did not find a single piece of garbage around.

In sum, its a worthy visit. Perfect if you want to pickup assorted handicraft from all over the country at a decent price (it certainly wasn't as pricy as some of those handicraft emporiums at CP). More than anything else, the carnival atmosphere and ethnic dances performances make it worthy of a wintry weekend afternoon.

To get there: Surajkund is located at a short distance, south of the Tughlakhabad fort. One needs to turn off the Mehrauli-Badarpur road, immediately at the fort or at the next and head for a few kilometres along a meandering hilly road to hit the town. There are signboards everywhere leading to the fair. Badapur, which is usually a crowded and dusty industrial area, was surprisingly clear this Sunday - the weekend seems a good time to visit.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

To be fooled by randomness

One of the 'stud'est books I've ever read. period.

Fooled by Randomness. Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The wet and the dry of the States

Golden Gate bridgeMy travel to/in the US this time provided a different perspective of the country. I landed in the so called 'sunshine golden state' of the US, only to be drenched by a winter storm. I also got a nice view of the dry mid-west of the country.

I landed up in California hoping to escape the cold winter that plagues most of the US at this time, but that was not to be. A storm hit San Francisco exactly one day after I landed there. Apart from hindering a 'sunshine' view of the environs, it also thwarted ski plans in the Sierra up north. So we headed southwards towards LA. Driving via a scenic route, that skirted the Mojave, we reached the Big bear ski resort somewhere near Pasadena.

Skiing turned out to be a much tougher sport than I anticipated. It seems akin to cycling, with balance being the key controller. And I seem chronically unbalanced (oops..). All I could manage was to stand for a few minutes before falling into the snow. I must admit though, that the instructor did put up a brave fight to get me to learn, without much progress. Still, it was awesome to skid around in the snow, even if most of it was on my back.

With the weather deteriorating into stormy conditions, we headed back to the city of Los Angeles for the night. The storm had by that time worked its way downward to LA as well and flooded it nicely. In any case, the next day was bright. LA seems like a nice city. Though, somehow the Hollywood walk of fame and the Kodak theatre didn't seem as 'picturesque' as they were hyped out to be (maybe it was just the storm).

Back in San Francisco after the passing storm, we hit the city on foot and managed to walk our way from the Ferry Harbor to the Fisherman's wharf and then onto the Marina, before catching a glimpse of the Golden gate bridge. The bridge is truly huge in size and impressive in location. It requires quite a brisk walk to reach it from the Marina and a walk on the bridge is truly impressive.

The whole marina area in SF seems to be from a different era, with victorian style colorful and picture-perfect townhouses. Catching the tram and working one's way along the twisting and hilly streets is certainly great fun.

I then headed to Dallas (with a stop-over in Denver which was at sub-zero brrr..). Dallas was a contrast to SF, with its sunny warm weather and dry spread out plains and grasslands. It seems to be a city filled with just expressways everywhere.

The Dallas aquarium downtown which is certainly one of the coolest I've seen anywhere. With a natural atmosphere to view the species on exhibit and a really wide range at that - it even has an shy big octupus and some smelly penguins - certainly a worthy visit.

We headed home late one night, well post mid-night only to catch an Indian taxi driver, who tuned to 'dard-e-disco' playing on the local fm channel ! (while sighing at the degrading standards of modern youth for not appreciating Lata as much)

A Haiku in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the prettiest places I have ever been to. I had but a few hours to tour the city, but I came back impressed and would definitely want to explore it sometime at greater leisure.

There are two standard modes of entry into the city from the airport - the Airport Express which whizzes one straight to Hong Kong Island and the more leisurely Airbus which takes one all over Kowloon and HK. I chose the latter and landed up in right in the middle of a crowded large road called the Nathan road, with everything in sight written in Chinese. Just as I was thinking that I was lost and started wandering in circles, I asked around to realize that almost everyone spoke English well. (Nathan road, I later discovered, is one of the most prominent shopping destinations in HK and sort of longitudinally bisects Kowloon.)

The Metro connects almost every part of Kowloon and the HK Island and is probably the fastest way to travel around. Its very similar to brethren in other parts of the world (Singapore, Delhi, London etc.) but for that its signboards are slight hard to sight amongst the omnipresent crowded Chinese signboards.

Hong Kong Island has a breathtakingly beautiful skyline, filled with skyscrapers (dominated by the WTC and other bank buildings). Viewed from atop Victoria peak, one gets a spectacular sight of buildings spread over a harbor front and the facing Kowloon island. The ride up the Peak on the tram is particularly noteworthy with a steep 45 degree climb at places and great views.

The best way to check out the HK Island seems to be on the ubiquitous trams. Surprisingly faster than Indian ones and cheap as well, they help navigate the crowded streets.

Lan Kwai Fong is one of the most interest night places on the island (has quite a few Indian restaurants too), adjoining which is a meandering elevator that takes one from the mid to the top levels of the island - considered to be the world's longest escalator, and its certainly an interesting experience. HK also has a central district called the Times Square (named like the one in NY).

Across the island onto Kowloon, is the Avenue of stars - a promenade with great views of the harbor and the island. Little further in is the traditionally touristy district of Tsim Tsa Tsui. This area is a veritable shopper's paradise, with everything from cheap Chinese goods and electronics to designer labels of every name. What was interesting is that I found prices to be cheaper than that in India and variety greater than that in Singapore. With milling crowds of every nationality, this place is an awesome cultural experience.

Bruce Lee seems to be HK's most prominent mascot, with his replicas everywhere from the Madame Tussaud's, the promenade to the souvenir t-shirts.

The only downside in HK is that in certain areas, the crowds make you feel claustrophobic. This I say even after seeing Mumbai's crowds - HK in some areas is 3-4 times as crowded as Dadar station.

In sum, HK is an awesome place that needs well over 3/4 days to do justice to. A friend of mine in HK also recommended that a couple of treks and a visit to Macau should be included on a leisurely itinerary.

A Singaporean Safari

Singapore MerlionI landed in Singapore on New years' eve with a little more than 2 days at hand. Singapore is clearly the model of efficiency in every aspect - from its stunningly clean environs, a well connected public transport system, perfectly managed tourist attractions, and its impressive airport (easily the best airport I've seen in interior deco and traveler service).

Sentosa is, of course, Singapore's most famous tourist destination. A nice cable car, with great views of the harbor, takes one down to the island resort. With attractions ranging from a museum-like tour on the history of the island nation, a captivating glass walkway across shark-filled waters to beautiful man-made beaches, Sentosa seems to be a fully-contained getaway destination.

Singapore's zoo might not be the largest I have seen, but certainly one with the widest range and one of the neatest. The orangutans, the meerkats and the elephants are certainly a must watch. The night presents the Night safari - 'safari-type' view of the animals in their night time surroundings. Very innovative, but extremely crowded and dominated by Indians on organized tours.

Orchard road is Singapore's central shopping destination. Filled with designer showrooms and roadside shops selling everything under the sun, it’s a total shopper's delight (if only for those fat on the wallet). Down the road lies the Hilton hotel. On that day 11 cars were parked at the entrance of the hotel. One was a Bentley, 5 were Lamborghinis and 5 were Ferraris. Some wealth, this city has.

The Singapore riverfront is certainly one of the most beautiful places in the city. From Robertsons/Clarke quay, all the way till esplanade - it’s a calming and beautiful setting. On new year's eve they had lit up the entire esplanade area with colorful floating balls in the river. Though incredibly beautiful, it was also well crowded with almost the entire city landing up to watch.

Singapore has quite a bit of Indian (primarily Tamil?) influence. Apart from the Tamil name-boards everywhere and Little India, Indian temples lie spread across. I managed to catch the main aarthi at the Srimariamman temple (which lies in Chinatown, a short walk from the riverside), right on new year's eve - so cool. The Saravana bhavan in Little India serves a great dinner palate (maybe even slightly better than their outlet in Delhi).

Given the time I had, I couldn't cover as much as I would have ideally liked. However, I was impressed by whatever I saw. In sum, Singapore is the probably the neatest (and most efficient) city / country I've seen till date - truly a place where the east (with its cultural richness) meets the (efficiency of the) west.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

How elephants dance

From the Jan 2008 HBR article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter: "Transforming Giants":

What I have seen in recent years is a model different from what has prevailed in the past. In the most influential corporations today, a foundation of values and standards provides a well-understood, widely communicated guidance system that ensures effective operations while enabling people to make decisions appropriate to local situations. This, rather than any traditional control system, is what enables IBM or CEMEX to operate as one enterprise in projects that span many countries and to share a culture that makes people inside and external partners connect as an extended family.

When large groups of people are subject to management by values, aspirations, and open boundaries instead of management by traditional controls, their energies and passions are engaged...If these vanguard companies lead others to adopt their way of working, then we will see a new, and I think more promising, kind of capitalism. And if it flourishes, not only will that be good for business, it will also be good for the world.