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.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

The era of the Chief Digital Officer

The new buzz word in the techno-business landscape is the role called the Chief Digital Officer (ominously enough, the CDO). Gartner believes that one-quarter of firms will have someone with that responsibility by 2015. Starbucks and Harvard have one, and apparently so do city governments like New York.
Here are my two cents on this topic.
The move to digital, while varying across industries, is a strong trend.
One would have to be blind to not recognize the magnitude of digital presence that is seeping across industries. As they say these days, every business is a digital business today.  In some, such as retail trade, entire channels are now digitally driven. In more physically constrained industries such as discrete manufacturing, digital control systems and sensor-enabled monitoring are pervasive (tomorrow, with the emergence of the 'Internet of things' digital will penetrate deeper). Finally, in knowledge-intensive areas of R&D and product design (for example, Pharma R&D, energy exploration or even financial product design), the use of large-scale Big data and analytics is now commonplace enough.
As a large number of operating  processes become digital, there is the need for new capabilities and  mental models in structuring businesses
The rules of the game in the digital enterprise are often substantially different from the traditional world.
Consider the operating blocks of the digital enterprise: that require utilizing new technologies such as mobility, social, cloud and big-data - so different from traditional approaches that utilized more constrained, capital intensive, and less flexible models.
Re-architecting entire value chains using these new building blocks lays an emphasis on:
  • Rapid innovation and experimentation (for example, leveraging the cloud to quickly build test capacity for new solutions)
  • Decision-making that is more  data and analysis driven vs. based on qualitative hypothesis (for example, utilizing big-data technologies to process real-time information)
  • Propositions  are more responsive in real-time to consumer needs (for example, customized offerings that reflect preferences communicated through social media)
  • Solutions that provide a greater range of customer access (for example, mobile-based offerings that are geo-location sensitive)
Consider also the cost structure of digital offerings: which is often a fraction of the traditional, fueled by cost-effective access to computing power, with minimal investments in capital-intensive assets, and with minimal IT personal oversight. At the time of Instagram's billion dollar valuation by Facebook, when it served 10 million+ users, it had about 20 engineers managing its infrastructure. Such cost effective capacity at scale was unimaginable traditionally.
Successfully leveraging these requires more than just an expertise with managing technology - one also needs an expansive grasp of business and operating models, and a creative bent in harnessing new technologies in creating innovative business models.
Will traditional CIOs be comfortable at stepping into the shoes of a CDO?
Traditionally, CIOs have remained comfortable managing cost-centers and leading delivery units. Stepping up to becoming P&L owners will be a different experience.
This will require them to externalize their focus and direct their understanding deeper towards business customers and markets . This will be a different from the traditional focus on the internal customer - and the change will require a whole new range of capabilities. It is, of course, quite another question as to how easy would be the 'permission-to-play' from their business brethren as they cross new boundaries.
Yet, if they do succeed in making this transition, it could see them becoming true business partners - an objective that has dominated business-IT alignment discussions for some time now.
Finally, do CDOs need a board level presence?
This is an interesting question, and aligned to whether digital efforts are significant enough to warrant a board-level focus. While the answer will vary by industry, here are few perspectives to consider:
  • Traditionally, there have been cases of CIOs reporting to the COO, CSO or another CxO, and therefore being a level removed from the Board. However, as digital initiatives span business and technology boundaries and in some cases business units, there may be the case for an elevated office of the CDO with greater sponsorship.
  • Organizationally, the question is also whether digital efforts are substantially strategic.  Consider the case of Walmart, which utilized a few acquisitions to create the digitally-focused Walmart Labs. In cases where digital is as strategic as causing a transformation in the core business, one would believe that a board representative is justified.
In sum: As every business out there transforms to becoming digitally-enabled and eventually digitally-led, the office of the Chief Digital Officer is likely to become an important one. The operating requirements and capabilities of this new role are beyond a mere evolution of the CIOs role, and may need a deeper rethink of organizational setups.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Perspectives on starting up - 1 year on

Earlier last year, I had written my perspectives on starting up - one month into the game. Continuing with my pensieve, these are my views one year on. For a bit of context, to people who do not know me and reading this, I started up a consumer internet firm last year after spending nearly seven years in a business consulting role with largish firms.

The below are in no particular order, but of how I thought of them.

#1. Starting up is brutal. Particularly in the early days.

In consulting firms, there is a saying that the early days of working in consulting are the equivalent of being thrown into a sea of sharks to learn swimming. This is usually meant to refer to the manner in which young, inexperienced, fresh-out-of-school analysts or associates are pushed out in front of client senior executives early and are expected to learn the ropes the hard way.

Entrepreneurship is no less brutal in its early days.

There is too much to do. Too few people. Too little time. Too little money. And a general lack of structure around. Also, since the start-up feels like your child, you are deeply and emotionally involved - which means that you can wish any thoughts about work-life balance away.

People often ask entrepreneurs: how does it feel to not have a boss? Well I tell you, it ain't that easy being the boss either. Plus, there is always a boss. From customers, to investors, to your own self, there is always someone you feel answerable to.

#2. Do not underestimate technology

A lot of people who do not have a background in the tech industry underestimate the complexity in technology, particularly in the internet space. 

The common view is: "bunches of college kids have been starting up multi-million dollar internet startups. So what can be complex about it? I will learn how to code in html, javascript, php and maybe photoshop in a couple of weeks and voila! I will have my own internet services or eCommerce firm soon."

This may have been true in the early days of the internet ten years back. Today, nothing can be farther from the truth. Yes, one can build a simple website in a couple of weeks (or days even), but that will get you nowhere near the quality standards in product design, user experience design and technology architectures that are absolutely required for building good businesses. Businesses that users will feel comfortable to visit, transact on and become loyal customers of.

By all means get your hands dirty with code and technology if you love to tinker, there is awesome fun in that. But, if you would like to build a scaled business, you are better off giving tech the respect that is due to it, and getting in experienced tech hands to build and manage a professional setup.

#3. Firms are efforts of individuals, magnified.

When one works in large firms, it is often easy to get lost in the maze of organizational constructs: processes, systems, hierarchies, titles, roles, responsibilities and even compensations. It is often easy to wonder: why am I doing this seemingly worthless role?, why am I being a mere cog in a slowly moving wheel? This sense of purposeless motion is a common experience.

Starting a new firm helps you realize what in essence firms are. Firms are large teams of people working in a directed manner in initiatives that seek to create benefit. If that seems like gobbledygook, I merely meant: firms at their very core are just people and their unified efforts. Nothing else.

Processes and systems are just aspects put in place so that everyone can work in a coordinated manner, rather than running helter-skelter. These are essential to magnify the efforts of the team, otherwise it is quite easy to work at cross purposes. 

Starting up helps one realize the importance of seemingly painful elements in big firms. It is only when you run around managing your firm's finances and file a seemingly infinite number of papers with the authorities that you realize the importance of those painful time and expense reports you had to file regularly. It is only when you search, recruit and grow talent for your own firm do you realize the value of those multifarious HR processes.

In consulting, I spent quite a bit of time doing due-diligence assignments for acquisitions. In these sort of things, one often tends to focus on financial numbers, markets and customers, real assets, IP, etc. with the review of people relegated as the last aspect to consider.

I now realize that one should do these possibly the other way around. Nothing is more important in a firm that its people and their potential to deliver. Everything else can be built up (or conversely destroyed) with relative ease. Of course, this may be the least quantifiable aspect, but people are definitely the most important component of the firm. 

#4. Talk to your customers. Go sell.

There is no equivalent uplifting experience in all of the start-up jig than in meeting potential customers, listening and understanding them, and selling your proposition to them. Nothing else has so many highs and lows. Nothing else gives you that level of brutally deep insight that is required for every business manager.

Working in large firms, in B2B or B2C industries alike, the function of sales is not often thought of in glamorous terms. Even in consumer-led industries (such as FMCG), it is often the area new recruits are put through to learn the ropes, before moving on to 'cleaner' areas like marketing. In the technology industry in particular, sales is often the last refuge.

True, sales is the wild-west. Particularly in the harsh environment of India. But starting up makes one realize the importance of being in front of the customer and selling, before everything else. If there was one advise I would give to myself in retrospect, and to any others who chance to read this article, it would be to sell before you build.

There is another aspect to this. A number of firms in the internet industry are increasingly moving towards the whole paradigm of using large amounts of data in learning about customers. As means to collect, store and analyze large volume data in real-time become common-place, there seems to be a move to substitute data for customer interactions. A large internet firm I know of has product managers launching and managing new products without having talked to a single customer, all by looking at voluminous, real-time data dashboards of customer interactions. 

I am quite wary of this. Yes, having some data is better that not having any. But it is very easy to confuse noise for signal when there is too much data. Plus, all the quantified data in the world can never substitute the qualitative interactions of a customer interaction. 

So get out of your cubicles and meet the customer. It teaches more than all those excel sheets and datasets.


That's it for now folks. God speed and hallelujah!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hasseraghatta and Kuteeram - A weekend near Bangalore

There was a birthday to celebrate, and we had the weekend  to ourselves. Thanks to a very benevolent sister we had bookings at the Kuteeram at Hasseraghatta. We had heard positive reviews about it before, but largely about the Nityagram dance village opposite which it is located. 

Hasseraghatta is a small village / township approximately 18-20 kms to the outskirts of Bangalore, approximately an hour's drive from the city center. The area was originally known for a large man-made reservoir, which used to have a prominent yatch club, but now the reservoir is completely dry. Nityagram is a dance-village and school established by the famous Odissi Dancer Protima Gauri in the early 1990's, and boasts of a famous dancing ensemble and celebrity visitors.

The drive to the location is quite a maze, but we had an easier time due to the mapmyindia navigator device with us. The Taj Kuteeram is an offbeat hotel with 15-20 rooms modeled after the vintage houses of Karnataka. The rooms are spacious and well-maintained, but in a rustic village setting with gardens and trees all around. The hotel's restaurant is  centrally located overseeing a fountain and a small stream of water, with ducks bounding about. The food is pretty good, but the downside is that one has to chose from a preset menu. Besides that, there are a few games that one can play, learn pottery and see a magic show or two. 

The Kuteeram is a great getaway from town, particularly on a weekend, and if one wants to do nothing but relax and enjoy the peace. We loved it because of the quiet and calm of the location, after a stressful week at work. But more activity-seeking individuals, and in particular kids may not find it as much fun. Yet, it is a great weekend getaway to consider from Bangalore, and is often available at a value price.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A weekend in Mysore

The Mysore Palace - at night
Mysore is Karnataka's second largest city, and is situated at a distance of 120 odd kilometres from Bangalore. Known for its beautiful gardens and its gorgeous Palace, the erstwhile capital city of the Wodeyars is bustling with historical treasures too. That besides, it also forms a stopping point to tourists visiting the National Parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole. Given the long weekend, we decided to do a quick drive to explore the city and its environs. 

The drive to Mysore took us a little over 3 hours, largely because of the Metro construction work going on along Mysore Road inside city limits. Once on the highway though, it was a breezy drive. 

Our first stop was the Mysore Palace. The palace is an old monument, documenting the life, times and objects of the Kings of Mysore. Wierdly though, cameras are not allowed to be taken into the Palace and so is any footwear. From 7 to 8 pm each night, the Palace has a beautiful sound and light show highlighting the life and times of the Mysore state. Sadly, this show is set in Kannada, leaving all out of state and out of country visitors scratching their heads. However the show culminates with a fully lit palace, decked up with a million lights, making it worthy for everyone around.

The next day, we did an early morning drive to Nagarhole, or the Rajiv Gandhi National Park as it is called, located at a distance of ~100 kms from Mysore. The Safari runs between 6-9 AM in the mornings, so we had an early start and covered the distance in about 2 hours. In January, Nagarhole is brown-green, with the trees having just about shed their leaves and new shoots on the way. The Safari ran for about an hour, and we saw a few elephants and lots of deer, but could not chance a glance at the elusive tiger for which Nagarhole is famous. 

Iruppu Falls
The Iruppu falls or the Lakshmanatirtha falls was our next port of call. Located 15 kms away from Nagarhole, the route runs along the scenic coffee plantations and is a worthy drive. The falls are located at a 100-odd steps of a climb up in the Bramhagiri range and have a quite a bit of water in January. Its a popular pilgrimage spot too with lots of people taking a shower in the falls and visiting the Rama temple nearby.

Enroute back, we decided to spend a few hours at the Jaganmohana Palace, which hosts an Art Gallery we had heard much about. The exhibit was quite impressive in the breadth and nature of the paintings  - the originals of Ravi Varma, Haldenkar, Tagore, and Roerich amongst others. However, the state of neglect with which these are maintained is quite sad, with dust everywhere, and holes and tears on the paintings and artifacts (wonder why a plastic/glass cover could not at least be put up). Yet, this is a worthy visit for all art lovers out there.

Overall, Mysore is an interesting city and a worthy weekend getaway. Close to Bangalore, yet much quieter, and with a lot of culture and tradition. Some of its elements could be maintained better, but a city to explore nevertheless.

For those who intend to follow our trail:

a. Do try to take the outer-ring road / Nice road to get out of the city. Despite being longer, given all the construction going on Mysore road, its a much faster way.

b. One of Mysore's most common scams is of auto/horse-cart drivers telling you that a certain monument or museum opens one or two hours later than the present time, and offering to take you to a convenient shopping destination till then, from which of course they receive a commission. Quite shameful to see this happening, but seems like a common enough occurance to which we were almost subjected twice, till we realized the game.

c. We stayed at the Mango suites at Jayalakshmipuram, and would recommend it to others. With pricing usually in the range of a Ginger, it offers spacious, clean rooms and a comfortable bed. Plus its located in a convenient area.

d. The Mysore Palace opens from 8.30 AM in the morning till 6 PM everyday. The Art Gallery opens from 8.30 AM to 5 PM each day. Nagarhole is open between 6AM and 6PM each day. Let nobody tell you otherwise, particularly the auto-drivers.