Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bali, serene Bali

If there is one thing that can must be pointed of Bali, it is its serenity. The feeling of peace and calmness that one experiences on the island matches the most laid-back areas of Goa. Time seems to run at a slower pace. The beauty, the tradition and the calm demeanor of people around makes one slow down and take a breather.

We landed in Bali after a hectic and tiring series of days. The flight from Chennai was rather uneventful, except for a sleepy break at the KL Airport where we struggled to find vegetarian food and had to finally settle for pizza and popcorns. The Ngurah Rai International Airport at Denpasar, Bali seemed a bit dated, and under renovation (mildly reminiscent of the Ninoy Aquino Airport at Manila, in the same brick mold). 
While the queues were long, the airport staff seemed efficient and quickly passed us through. 

The cab-driver seemed glad to see us, saying that Bali was the last Hindu area in Indonesia and it was great to find Indians with whom they had a shared culture. Enroute to the hotel was also a massive statue depicting the war scene between Ghatotkacha and Karna during the Mahabharatha, bigger than we had seen anywhere in India.

Bali Mahabharatha scene (source: Vivek Pandit)
Nusa Dua was our first port of call. Nusa Dua is a clustered set of resorts in the southern end of Bali which usually holds conventions and conference. The area may seem a bit plasticky to those seeking culture, but we were glad to check into a comfortable bed after a strenuous trip. 

The Nusa Dua hotel and convention center (yes, named after the area), is a beautifully decorated, yet slightly dated hotel in the center of Nusa Dua. The rooms are large and beautiful, and look onto beautiful gardens and pools that face the sea. The weather was a bit balmy and reminded us of Goa. The hotel has a beautiful white sandy beach, with waters that are sometimes green-blue, and often crystal clear. All hotels in Nusa Dua share a walking path that runs along the beach, and one can quickly hop between hotels to sample the best of restaurants around. Bali also has amongst the widest range of fruits I have seen in any country (baring the Philippines, of course). 

We had got an international drivers permit to drive around the island, and on the very first day managed to hire a car. In retrospect, it was one of the best moves we ever made. Petrol on the island is cheap, the roads are well laid, and traffic is relatively coherent and sparse (relative to India, of course. Westerners have a different notion altogether). In addition, cars are a right-hand drive, quite like India.

Further North of the airport is the big backpacker hangout of Kuta, a bustling market-place that is very alike Kathmandu's Thamel or Bangkok's Khao San. Shops sell items from every part of the planet and the mulling backpacker crowd seems to talk every language out there. North of Kuta is the upmarket Seminyak, with its bevy of luxury hotels (including the Oberoi and the Anantara), where apparently the who's-who of the world stay when they come visiting.

Bali temple on the lake
Ulun Batur Temple
The city of Denpasar reminded us of the towns of Kerala, with sloping ornate roofs, criss-cross roads, and its smattering of gardens. The Bali Museum situated in town is small, but a worthy visit to understand Balinese culture in greater detail.

After a couple of days in Nusa Dua, we moved to Ubud, made famous in "Eat, Pray, Love". Ubud is one of the prettiest places I have been to. The culture, the markets, the verdant greenery of the rice-fields, the spas, and the bustling back-packer crowds make it an great experience for an idle walk around. An interesting part of the Ubud is the Monkey forest, where gazillions of monkeys abound. Most travellers love feeding the monkeys and playing with them, and it makes a fun watch, except when some of the simians start bounding after you!

During our stay in Ubud, we decided to take a chance and drive up to Lovina, near the northern-most tip of the island. The guy who we hired the car from, had said that the Lovina was "very very far", but we decided to take a chance, since at just under a hundred kilometers it didn't seem much. The drive took us a total of 3 hours from Ubud, and was quite memorable cutting across the Kintamani mountains with their verdant chill, and giving us a chance to visit the famous lake temple of Ulun Danu Batur. Interestingly, outside the temple of Ulun Batur was a painter, one of whose paintings was of Shah Rukh Khan !

The weather in Lovina was balmy and a bit sultry - reminding me of Mumbai. The beach, however, was nothing special - covered with stones and quite a bit of dirt - similar to the Chowpatty. As we walked along the beach, a couple of fishermen sitting nearby turned around, and noticing we were Indians, started singing "Kuch kuch hota hai" (!) with a Balinese twinge, making it a memorable visit. 

Another memorable trip was a visit to the temple of Ulu Watu, with its famous Hanuman Kecak and Fire Dance, depicting Hanuman's visit to Lanka and the burning of the tail & island. The actor playing 'Hanuman' was funny, jumping around all over the arena and in-between the audiences, and the crescendo rendition of the 'chak-chak'-ing monkey actors created an intensely theatrical, emotional feel.
Bali Hanuman dance 3
Ulu Watu Hanuman Kecak Dance
For Indians visiting Bali: Given the cultural similarity, Indians will associate well with the shared culture and legends (the Ramayana is widely popular, and so is Shah Rukh Khan ;-D). Vegetarian food is available widely. In addition, there is much to learn from the way Balinese people have inter-vowen and maintained their traditional culture in every part of their lifestyle - from the architecture, their music, to their daily food.

(For the record, we visited Bali late last year. I have finally managed to complete this post, after having sat down to write multiple times in parts)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A premium for hassle-free outsourcing?

The biggest pain in outsourcing is the hassle that one has to go through to manage a service provider - the hassle of managing the quality and levels of service, while having let go of control over processes. Service providers should learn to manage themselves, and I would bet that any experienced buyer will pay a premium for a hassle-free outsourcing service.

In my previous avatar, I was a management consultant who spent quite a bit of time advising companies on outsourcing, and advising service providers on delivering quality outsourcing services. Now, when I am a buyer of outsourcing services myself, albeit in a smaller vein, I have begun to realize the pain that buyers go through in the outsourcing process.

There is nothing more painful than to see the service provider perform poorly after having let go of control over your process and trusted a third party to deliver it for you. What makes it extremely painful in an outsourcing setup is the relative lack of visibility and control in managing performance vis-a-vis an internal setup. 

It is much easier to identify and establish corrective measures early when its an internal team: given your visibility it is much easier to identify poor performers or points of poor performance and institute corrective actions in-time: motivations, incentives, training, change, whatever.

If an external team performs poorly, you will only realize that issue post-facto and with significant amount of delay. Yes, everyone talks about fine-grained service levels and governance meetings to manage, but unless you are reviewing at a minutae level on a daily basis, there is limited chance that you will identify points of failure early. 

What's even worse is that it is possible for managers from the external party to not report poor performance (as one will realize, not everything can be measured or monitored impartially). Plus close review is against the fundamental tenet of outsourcing, which postulates a hands-off behavior to the extent possible. 

So when poor performance occurs, tracing that poor performance and resolving it is an incredible hassle.

Now the reality in any process management is that there will always be points of poor performance. Success lies in identifying and resolving those performance challenges early. Outsourcing makes it a hassle, and that is why it is such a pain.

I always used to wonder why most vendor managers in outsourcing relationships crib about their service providers. Now I know. I'd pay a premium for a service provider who would give me no hassle. Someone who could manage himself, and give me a pain-less outsourcing experience.

These are my hands-on learnings:
1. Be super diligent while identifying service providers. If one expends X effort in identifying and getting on-board employees, plan to expend 2-3X+ effort in identifying a quality vendor. Most people focus on capabilities and price, but attitudes, mindset, and work ethic make a much bigger difference. And reference checks make a world of a difference. (think of it as hiring taken to the next level). 
2. Manage closely, particularly at the start of a relationship. Do not let go early in a relationship. Spend time establishing behaviors and correctly setting expectations on performance like the vendor is your internal team. It is one thing to put things down on paper or on a contract, but it is quite another to institute those in people. 
3. Incentize. Incentivize positive and negative behaviors clearly. Have bonuses and penalties. It is easy to believe that everything will work well based on loose notions of mutual trust, but believe me, that it does not work in an outsourced setup as well as in an internal team. It is much easier to manage performance and attitudes if incentives are set well.

Before I close, let me say though that I am, and have always been, a big fan of outsourcing. I have always believed that one should focus on the core and outsource everything else. But hassle-free experiences are essential for outsourcing to succeed. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Do you teach the bright, or the slow?

One of the things I have been doing recently, now that I am supposedly the master of my own time, is teaching. Besides keeping me on my toes, the sense of personal fulfillment with teaching is quite distinctive. It is another matter that teaching has made me realize how little we actually use all the stuff that we were taught in school and college life, but that's another post.

Every class has a range of students. Some who learn fast and outdo everyone in their comprehension of a subject, some who are slow and take time to understand a subject, and a vast majority who fall around the means.

As a teacher, a big challenge is to figure which set of students should one focus on during class.

It is often easy to address the fast and the brightest, since they are the easiest to teach to. They get what you say and often tend to challenge you to push yourself. Often they are also the most participate and vocal.

However if you do so, it is pretty easy to leave behind the vast majority who would have understood very little of what you would have taught in class. Particularly the slow learners.

When I started teaching a long time back as a teaching assistant in college, this was a mistake I did - focusing on the fast. The classes would be exhilarating personally since I would focus on solving tough problems and debating with the fast learners in class. Yet after a couple of classes, I would realize that a majority of the class still did not grasp the concepts taught a few classes back. Worse still is the phenomenon that most students hesitate to ask questions when not understanding a topic, and after a couple of classes with incomprehension tend to lose interest in the subject. As a result one has created a whole class of slow learners by not getting the class along early. It took me a while to realize the folly of this approach.

Take the contrary approach of focusing on the slow learners. The challenge here is that by slowing down and working with the slow learners, it is possible to get a large part of class bored. Or so one would think.

Interestingly, even the brightest students often have weak spots. There are classes where even the brightest tend to be slow in comprehension, and even parts of a certain class could register slow. Therefore, slowing down tends to take along the whole class much better.

Add to this the reality that the fastest invariably know how to self learn a subject with minimal tutorial help. As teachers, we add greater value to the class by getting the slow learners and the vast majority to get alongside the fast in their grasp of the subject.

This is my experience. What do you think? Do you teach the bright, or the slow?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Out in the open

Mumbai is one of the few cities that manages to shock and awe every time one visits. Even if one has lived here and visited frequently, it is quite an experience to get back. What is sad though is the extent to which stark poverty can be observed so close by and so out in the open. 

From the slum roofs which are inescapable as one lands in this city to the shanties that intermingle with tall skyscrapers, Mumbai is a city of contrasts. At night, one sees an innumerable number of people who sleep out on footpaths or roads, right next to the cars whizzing by. In day, it is sad to see individuals performing their daily ablutions right in public view while living in houses the size of a mid-size cot.

Why doesn't it galvanize us better off citizens to change the situation? Is it because when one lives amidst such disparity we get so benumbed by seeing it daily that it does not sting? Or is it because we think there is no apparent solution to it? Or is it because we believe it is a problem for somebody else to solve? When we can manage to send rockets to outer-space, why can we not develop the initiative to resolve this disparity.

Monday, May 21, 2012

SimplyDoc

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been hacking around with healthcare data in India. It is quite surprising to see the poor quality of data that we in India have about our healthcare system.

There is hardly any validated, current information about the distribution of doctors and healthcare facilities in different locations. Even the Medical Council of India, the only centralized body which collates data about health facilities in India, is supposedly one-quarter inaccurate. I believe that this is an understatement, since I doubt if the database (which has over 9L entries starting from the 1960s) has ever been thoroughly validated.

So in order to improve the quality and currency of information, we have started geocoding available information from multiple sources on the presence of healthcare facilities in the country, and validating it to the extent possible.

We've hashed together a quick piece of code to put out what we have currently and the result is SimplyDoc (http://www.simplyDoc.in) - a simple platform that provides information about the closest healthcare facilities to you (using the browser's geoip to determine your location), or for any location that you specify.

Currently the data coverage is largely restricted to Bangalore and Mumbai, and our confidence on the accuracy of information uploaded is about 75%. We will continue to clean, validate and upload as much of the healthcare data as we can into the system and improve the quality of the system over time.

If any of you out there have any feedback or comments, or would like to validate any of the information available, please feel free to drop us a note - here or at vasant[at]simplydoc.in or tweet to us at @SimplyDoc

Friday, May 11, 2012

Starting up - a Month-1 perspective

Its an exciting roller-coaster journey on which I have commenced, and too early to call. So a few brief points to journal my learning.

1. Its all about the people
If there is one thing that defines success and failure in this environment, it is people. Their attitude and their quality. For someone from consulting, this is the biggest learning while starting up. The rigorous standards of people selection and development in management consulting often ensure that we work with the best, and the self-motivated. Outside here, its like the wild-wild-west. Add to that, the lack of a brand and limited ability to pay for high quality talent, and you have a situation where people often slip to the lowest-common denominator in their performance. In this environment, finding people with the right attitude and motivating them towards a vision is the biggest challenge one faces.

2. The devil lies in the details
In a consulting environment, one often has an attitude of taking a big picture view of everything. The so-called 10,000 ft perspective. And one often tends to undervalue the small issues and challenges in executing on design. A second big learning in a startup environment is that the real challenges exist in addressing the smallest of the issues effectively and in a time-bound fashion. The small issues are the attention and time suckers, the true devils that can jeapordise the best laid plans.

3. When everything is fluid, discipline matters
For someone from consulting, a fluid unstructured environment is a walk in the park. Or so I thought till I jumped in. The lack of structure here is of a different dimension relatively. There are no boundaries. There is no 'right' way and 'wrong' way. There is no work-life distinction (and therefore where the talk of a balance?). In the absence of bounding constraints, everything is up for re-definition and re-direction. Its very easy to spend attention and energy on a million different things without having achieved anything at the end of the week. So focus matters.

All said and done, despite the challenges one faces, starting up is intensely exciting and great fun. Its an adventure where the learning is so steep, that it feels like drinking from a fire hose.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Ranganathittu Ho!

Ranganthittu is a bird sanctuary located nearly 120 kms from Bangalore on the Mysore road, just off Srirangapatna. It's a day's drive from Bangalore and we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather to do a quick dekko.

We started from Bangalore around 7am with plans to reach the sanctuary by around 9-10. We took the Mysore road (State Highway #17) passing through Kengeri, Channapatna and Maddur. Surprisingly, we hit heavy traffic before RVCE, with all the Metro construction around which slowed us quite a bit. By the time we found the high road again near Kengeri, it was nearly 9.

Channapatna toy
We stopped for breakfast at Kamat near Ramanagara around 10. The buffet spread was awesome, with a wide range of regional delicacies that left us satiated, yet drowsy. The Jackfruit modaka and the Moode idli were outstanding! After buying a few colorful Channapatna toys (wooden ones for which it is famous), we headed out towards Mandya.

The turn after Srirangapatna towards the sanctuary was surprisingly unmarked. Thankfully with the iPhone navigators we had, we were able to find our way across the inner roads towards the sanctuary.

The sanctuary itself is incredibly verdant and well maintained. It has beautifully manicured lawns up front and the walk-ways are well paved. The main area of the sanctuary is a small lake (estuary?) of the Cauvery river, with a walk-way around it.

Ranganthittu stork
A large number of birds inhabit the islands on the lake - herons, egrets, painted storks - of varied colors and sizes, and are a worthy watch even to a un-ornithologist (for lack of a better word). The standard trip is a group short boating trip, though one can organized customized longer group-tours as well. Beware of the water though, for it has crocodiles in it, and we found 2-3 sized ones calmly swimming about (the guard assured us that the crocs were clearly fish and bird-eatarians and left humans alone).

Overall it was a worthy visit. The access one has to the birds is one of the closest I have had in any of the bird sanctuaries in India, literally a feet away at times. Plus the green surroundings and the calm waters make a worthy boating experience.

For those who follow: 1. The best times to visit are from February to May. 2. Make sure you try out the Kamat's lunch enroute from Bangalore. 3. The turn-off after Srirangapatna to Ranganthittu is unmarked, so do be on the lookout to avoid missing it. 4. Tickets at the entrance of the sanctuary include a boating trip (so do not book it again inside, as we did and realized late). 5. Do take a binocular or a telephoto lens for your camera for a great photo-opportunity.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A tale of two melting pots

India's cities are so different, and yet so similar. While extensive ethnic differences exist across the country, inter-migrations have made our cities melting pots of cultures with growing similarities.

Take Gurgaon and Bangalore. Two cities at the two ends of the country.

Gurgaon, is unarguably one of our dust-bowls. On a normal day, one would be hard-pressed to not get covered with an inch of dust while taking a trip outside. Roads, trees, houses, cars - everything is covered with dust. On 'special' days, dust-storms rule the roost. And yet, beautiful green oases have begun to sprout across the city - the Leisure Valley park and Tao Devi Lal park - to name two.

In contrast, my perception of Bangalore from outside was that of a verdant park, with a few roads thrown in for people to walk and ride bikes. Now I know that's far from the truth. Yes Bangalore has more green cover than any Indian city I have seen, but with all the Metro construction and new buildings coming up, there are many parts of the city which are no less dust-filled than Gurgaon. 

So different, and yet so similar. 

Once upon a time, people used to make fun of Gurgaon as the 'malled' city. Where the cold, impersonal 'mall' was the only measure of the shopping experience. They used to contrast it with other parts of the country where the neighborhood 'kirana' store was the shopping format with a personal experience. 

Today, Gurgaon has mellowed. Regional shopping markets in each area have become preferred everyday shopping areas, with 'kirana' store equivalents present in each apartment complex.

Contrast that with Bangalore. Today the talk is about the new malls which are mushrooming in every part of the city. Malls have become the new crowd pullers. Yes the 'kirana' store format does exist everywhere, but where do you think are all the new stores opening up?

So different, and yet so similar.

Gurgaon is a town of immigrants. People come from all over the country to work in the contact centers, the retail hubs, (now) the e-commerce setups, or to work as maids / helpers. As a result you hear a medley of languages. From the neighborhood UP 'bhaiya', to the Haryanwi 'jat', to the bongs who call me 'Basant' and the smattering of Tams who whistle in the Tamil movies which play in PVR, Gurgaon is India's multi-cultural melting point. 

Now I am surprised to find Bangalore is no different. Everyone here seems to be multi-lingual. Apart from speaking at least all the south Indian languages (and there are 5+ of that), Hindi is increasingly becoming the lingua-franca. The maids, carpentars, auto drivers,... everyone starts conversing in Hindi first. Besides that, of course are the Biharis and the Bongs, who seem omnipresent. 

So different, and yet so similar.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

To register, with love.

Registering a marriage in Gurgaon is a little understood process. It is also amongst the most convoluted ones I have ever come across. This post is meant to guide other frustrated souls who choose to follow this path.

Recent Supreme Court legislation makes the registration of all marriages compulsory. While my wife and I were married in Delhi, we are residents of Gurgaon, having lived here for over four years.

The first person we approached in Delhi quoted us a fee in double-digit thousands, without battering an eyelid to 'facilitate' the process. Looking at our stumped faces, he quoted a rule that mandates a 6-month Delhi residence for a registration. Much later, we realized that Cabinet mandates make it possible for non-residents married in Delhi to register without the 6-month requirement (here's the Gazette notification), but no one in the ADM's office has a clue that this is possible yet.

So we tried Gurgaon next. The new Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon's website claims that it is possible to register the marriage online (!) with a fee of just Rs. 100. But mind you, that service doesn't work, as yet. So we had to take the offline route.

As registration is a state subject,  local governments adopt their own rules. Haryana has one of the more retrograde ones in this matter, which among others, requires a blood relative from either side to be present as witness (why? aren't we adults yet?). For itinerant's like us, with no blood relatives lounging around in Gurgaon, this was a pain to manage.

Still more painful was the process itself. Despite the presence of a tech-savvy Citizen Facilitation Center (CFC), it takes a total for 2+ months and and infinite patience to complete.

Why? Consider the 8-step process below that requires one to shuttle between the CFC (which is in front of the Civil Hospital), the Court (near Rajiv Chowk) and the MCG Office (at Civil Lines).

1. Go to the citizen facilitation center (CFC) of the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) and collect the registration forms and the process checklist. The CFC works 9am-5pm, 7 days a week. 
2. Fill the registration forms and affidavits (one each from either blood-relative and witness, with photograph and id, address proofs)
3. Go to the State Bank office at the Gurgaon Court at pay Rs. 100/- and collect the challan.
4. At the Court, get the Court Fees and Stamps done on documents provided as part of the registration forms, and get everything notarized.
5. Go to the MCG office and get the challan stamped.
6. Submit the filled forms at the CFC, and obtain the witness certification date.
7. Complete the witness formalities at the MCG office at the appointed.
8. Collect the registration certificate from the MCG office at a subsequent date.

For those who choose to follow this path: (a) The CFC is very helpful, but make sure you clarify all process requirements clearly at this office. Or you would be left shuttling between the offices for the smallest of issues. Ask me about it. (b) Court stamps and fees are not the same, despite looking deceptively similar! (c) Folks at the MCG office are very helpful, but overloaded too. But make them your friends, for the process to work with ease. (d) 'Facilitators' at each place will scare you with the complexity of the process, but a patient and thorough approach will ensure that you can get the registration done by spending a few hundreds instead of double-digit thousands.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kausani, in Himalayan view

Kausani Range View
For most travel lovers from Delhi, a trip to the hills is a favorite weekend getaway. A long break at the year end offered us the perfect timeout. Nainital was our original intent, but Kausani came much recommended from colleagues.

We started off on a wintery thursday morning, with dense fog covering quite a bit out of the route out of Delhi. The traffic was sparse. We crossed Ghaziabad and Garmukteshwar rapidly and reached Moradabad by late morning.

Going from past experience, we decided to take the Kaladhungi route to Nainital, as it was quite scenic and well paved the last time I drove. Little did I know that the road was being paved, and came across the worst road I have ever seen. Over a period of 3hrs we covered approximately 10 kms, bumping over stone of every size and type - the poor car received many a beating.

The climb from Kaladhungi to Nainital was quite scenic though, with coniferous forests covering the route. We reached Nainital around late lunchtime and quickly checked into our hotel near the lake. Nainital has quite a few narrow winding climbs, and despite all my driving experience, landed a bad gash to the car that I badly regret.

Nainital was cold. Freezing cold. The mall road was lit up, but few tourists sauntered around the streets. We quickly made our way across the market, looking to buy a few souveniers. A friend had asked for some wax creations. We were surprised to learn that wax is a major produce of the region, with exquisite wax creations unlike anything we've seen anywhere before.

Next day, we got off to a late brunch, savoring the steaming hot maggi, bread pakodas and steaming tea served around the lake. A walk around the lake added to the sense of joi de vivre.

The standard road to Kausani from Nainital goes via Almora, but a recent landslide had made the route untenable. So we took the alternative longer route, via Ranikhet.

Ranikhet is an active cantonment town, with well paved roads and a beautiful view of the Nanda Devi range. The drive from Ranikhet to Kausani feels like a drive to nowhere, with winding narrow roads that cut across river valleys and sleepy village hamlets. Yet no doubt beautifully scenic.

We landed in Kausani after a 4 hour ride, only to realize that the hotel we had booked, advertised as an “eco-hut”, was just about that. A small hut. With a painfully long winding climb. And under construction.

Anashakti Ashram
All hotels seemed choc-a-block for New Years, but thankfully we found one with vacancy. Krishna Mountain View is a charming 3/4 star hotel with a brilliant view of the Himalayas, situated right next to the Anashakti Ashram. The Ashram was the abode of Gandhiji, when he wrote his treatise on the Anashakti yoga. A statue of his still stands in the Ashram, and is a major tourist spot in Kausani.

Next morning we did a quick hike up the mountain path bordering the hotel to reach a forest covered temple, that provided a sunny view of clear blue skies, cottony clouds, lush green trees, and brown mud tracks.

Kausani has a pretty shawl factory, where shawls are still made by hand. An old weaver patiently showed us the process explaining the warp and weft of the fabric. We were humbled by the amount of effort he put into each shawl, with each thread woven with great care.

Baijnath temples
We also made a quick trip to the Baijnath temple, stopping over at the tea gardens briefly enroute. The architecture of the temples resemble those in Puri and those in the South. The temples are eons old, said to have been built by the Pandavas, in honour of Lord Shiva.

After a good two day stay in Kausani, we decided to head back, taking the Ranikhet-Kathgodam route back. This route was clearly more scenic than the climb, with the road taking a circuitous mountain path, along the Corbett sanctuary. The road from Kathgodam to Moradabad is badly maintained, but not as abysmal as the route through Kaladhungi.

For those who plan to follow: Avoid the Kaladhungi route to Nainital. If going to Kausani, the Kathgodam route is the best bet. Kausani is a worthy visit if seeking peace and quiet, but it ain't no party place with just a few shops to keep busy. Krishna Mountain View is a great hotel, but may be a bit pricey - budget travellers may want to consider staying at the Ashram itself which seems well maintained. Finally, a navigation device like the MapMyIndia navigator we had is an invaluable asset to navigate the poorly mapped roads of the hills. God speed!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Helping Pharma Cliff Dive

Cross posted from Everest Group's blog, with minor contextual edits: 

In late November 2011, the world's largest branded drug by revenue - Lipitor® - went off patent. The forecasted fall in revenues for Pfizer is expected to knock it off the perch of being the world's largest pharmaceuticals firm. By 2015, industry analysts expect the patent cliff (revenue loss due to patent expiries) to cumulatively knock out more than US$200 billion in pharma industry revenues. For an industry that brings in just under a trillion dollars annually, this is a major revenue hit.

Exacerbating the problem is continually dipping R&D productivity that has constrained pharma firms’ capacity to replenish their pipelines. While R&D spend has doubled to nearly US$50 billion annually over the last decade, new drug approvals across the industry have more than halved.

To manage this unprecedented change, pharma firms are taking a re-look at their business profiles and cost structures.

Emerging market expansions are the industry's new mantra for growth. IMS, a leading provider of information services for the healthcare industry, estimates the industry's share of revenues from emerging pharma markets to double to nearly 40 percent by 2015. And all players, from the big pharma companies to generic manufacturers, are expanding their footprint in these markets, aggressively building and buying distribution capacity, and expanding sales and marketing networks. For example, Pfizer teamed up with ITC in India last year to leverage its distribution network to sell drugs to rural consumers.

In the face of steep revenue declines, productivity and cost optimizations are but a given. The R&D function is being restructured into leaner and more collaborative partnerships, with growing industry-academia interfaces. For example, in 2011, Pfizer aimed to reduce its R&D budget by US$1.5 billion with sizeable job cuts. And in the commercial function, sales force reductions have become the norm. In December 2011, AstraZeneca announced that it would cut its U.S. pharma sales force by over a quarter (even as it announced plans to scale up its emerging markets sales force).

Further, as the industry tries to manage its risk profile, it has begun to diversify into new consumer-centric business areas including generics, consumer healthcare, diagnostics, nutritionals, health management and animal health. For example, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) today lists the creation of a ”diversified global business” as its top strategic priority.

In this era of significant change, technology and business service providers have a great opportunity to exhibit leadership and step up to stronger partnerships with the industry by:

·         Helping drive innovation in the pharma industry
o    Bringing in ideas from other industries, not just in R&D, but also in manufacturing, retail, and distribution, e.g., helping pharma improve field-force design based on fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) principles, and its manufacturing and supply chain with ideas from logistics
o    Enabling a more effective use of technology to drive business results, e.g., through use of collaboration technologies to improve research, and by leveraging digital media more effectively for a more effective consumer presence

·         Helping pharma firms address the myriad of complexities they face as they enter and expand in emerging markets, e.g., establishing local market relationships, navigating regulatory issues, building distribution setups and partnerships, structuring low-cost solutions, etc. Established service providers with significant emerging market presence also have the potential to enable the industry with more holistic propositions to address a number of these complexities end-to-end.

·         Helping the industry optimize its cost structure:
o    Improving field-force effectiveness – where nearly one-third of pharma spend is concentrated – through enabling sales force management tools, data and analytics (in next generation areas such as effectiveness research and digital analytics) and back office services (sales operations)
o    Driving manufacturing and supply chain efficiencies through more integrated technology architectures (e.g., redesigned ERP implementations, and emerging rollouts)
o    Managing regulatory complexity (an area in which pharma firms spend a couple of billion dollars each year) through building validated, compliant technology environments and cost-effective BPO services in areas such as pharmacovigilance
o    Driving R&D efficiencies through collaborative platforms, and helping manage large volume high-throughput data environments
o    Increasing flexibility in the face of rapid change, e.g., through cloud-based models

Today, service providers seem focused on servicing the pharma industry's IT-BPO requirements largely in a “vendor” capacity. Traditionally, the pharma industry's cash rich and risk-averse culture often drove this arms-length positioning. However, in this time of massive change, a more proactive approach is called for, and smart technology and business service providers will not miss the opportunity to challenge the industry's status quo and support its growth through bold, provocative offerings and thought leadership.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Complexity breeds corruption

One of the biggest drivers of corruption in the India is the complexity involved in interfacing with Government departments. Anyone who has applied for passport, or a driving license, or a voter's id here is well aware of the myriad of processes and procedures that is encountered in the interaction.

This complexity is driven by multiple factors:
1. a lack of understanding or awareness of the process
2. the multitude of specifications that need to be addressed and the range of hand-offs involved
3. the number of human processing points involved
4. a lack of service levels or clarity in turn-around times - which often provides a perception of greater complexity

The average man who seeks to independently interface with Government machinery often gets frustrated by this complex set of opaque processes, and is forced to utilize middlemen who provide a greater understanding and structure to the process.

Now, it is fair to understand that the use of middlemen (touts, brokers, agents, consultants!, call them whatever you will) often occurs in public and private spheres where is significant complexity involved. Take travel ticketing: the rise of the travel agent industry is a function of the significant complexity involved in planning travel and booking tickets among the range of options available. Middlemen often provide a layer of encapsulation to manage complex processes. To that extent, it is not wrong.

Where it becomes a wrong is when the middlemen come in cahoots with officers to maintain the complexity. This drives corruption and inefficiency in the system, as the officers have now a vested interest in slowing it down.

Where it becomes wrong is when the process becomes exploitative and accessible to only a privileged few in the population who have the capacity to pay. When a free public service becomes a pricey interaction, where the wealthy have the option to pay 'speed money', it becomes a wrong.

Unfortunately, this is a reality in most parts of India today.

So what can the Government do?

a. Increase citizen awareness and provide transparency through better technology use
Providing information about services online, and providing means to access Government services online is a big way to mitigate the complexity involved. It improves the accessibility of services, provides greater transparency and helps manage work-load better.

Enable self service online. People who have worked in the contact center industry know this as one of the most effective ways of reducing the volume of processing requests. With most Government departments claiming to be buried under the load of volume, this is an effective approach.

The RTI Act has clearly been a path-breaking piece of legislation in improving Government transparency (I made an RTI application during a passport re-issuance, and got detailed process information within a week of putting it in. That was a 'Wow!' moment for me). Now its time to the RTI applications online - the current process of making offline applications in an unstructured format makes it cumbersome for applicants, and makes queries open ended for Government departments.

The Electronic Service Delivery Act is a foresighted piece of legislation in the works to move services online, though its up-take by States and the extent of its implementation still needs to be seen.

Better still, it is time for the Indian Government to proactively move data online. Government 2.0 initiatives in the US have been a great hit in improving citizen access and interaction, and its time for India to emulate these. The Ministry of IT's draft Framework document for use of Social media is an interesting start.

b. Simplify processes and rules, and standardize
Awareness and transparency will not be enough if Governmental processes continue to remain as complex as they are currently. The Government needs to take a close look at the number of steps and processes required in all citizen interfacing processes, and prune relentlessly.

Isin't there a better alternative to having stamp papers, court fees, court stamps on almost every application? (there must be alternative ways and means of financing the judiciary). Isin't there an alternative to having gazetted officers and notaries stamp every affidavit or declaration?

And standardize. Most Governmental procedures involve multiple levels of citizen identification or authentication, and simplifying this into one standard will help reduce complexity significantly. That's why UID has so much potential if managed well.

c. Institute a customer service culture
It is time for Government departments and officers to realize that citizens are their true customers, rather than viewing the service as a favor, as most currently seem to. A change in attitude will go a long way in improving the interaction into a more pleasing one, and give greater confidence to citizens that middlemen are not required.

Better still, it is time for the Government to consider instituting service levels (after all, isn't it 'For the people'). At least for the most common of interactions. The lack of a definitive turn-around time is one of the biggest concerns for citizens making an application. The Delhi Government's start in this - the Right to Citizen of Time Bound Delivery Act 2011 - is a brilliant move.

-

India definitely needs to reduce the complexity of its citizen-Government interfaces if it needs to has to attack the malaise of corruption in the system. While there have been attempts at various fronts, we need more serious thought and effort behind this issue.

(For the record, this post is written as an outcome of one such extremely grevious Government interaction) 

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The 'Growth' obsession

One of the great things of working in emerging markets like India is about being witness to the incredible amount of growth that some industries and firms here are going through. But, is an obsession with growth the 'right thing' in the long run? With stock markets and investors tracking growth on a quarter-by-quarter basis, many firms (and executives) have no choice but to put all their efforts behind relentless growth.

The problem with the relentless focus on growth is that it brings short-termism into decisions that executives make. A recent client had to choose between becoming one of the industry's largest players and becoming one of the industry's most distinctive value creators. Adopting the distinctiveness plank would create significant value for clients and itself in the long run, but would require it to patiently invest in shaping next generation opportunities. Adopting the scale plank would give it immediate growth, but would relegate it to a commodity positioning in the long run.

Guess what the firm chose? A typical senior executive spends 3-5 years in a specific career role during which he/she is measured largely by the extent of business growth in the duration. Who has the time for long-term thinking in this context?

Yet, long-term discipline is the basis of most things that stand the test of time. Launching new initiatives takes time, bringing about a change in thinking and approach takes time, creative innovation takes time, making structural changes takes time. An excessive focus on the short-term takes away attention from the long-term.

Is all this obsession with growth taking us in the right direction in the long run? I worry.