Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Professional

Subroto Bagchi’s new book The Professional is a useful addition to the universe of self-help books. Though a trifle preachy, its virtue is that it speaks direct and “as it is” without beating about the bush.
While the issues he has covered are quite comprehensive, there are a few points that I would add.
One important aspect of professionalism is respecting the work of others. I find in many organisations that technical people have a disdainful view of functions such as HR and Admin, and don’t realise or acknowledge that HR and Admin have an important role to play in providing the environment in which techies work. I am also amazed by the impolite way in which several of our “educated” and “professionally qualified” friends behave with people doing “manual” tasks. Some of the examples Subroto has given (Mahadeva, the customer service person in the Japanese store) hint at this, but I would have preferred a more direct reference.
Another important dimension is acknowledging the contribution of others. Many times, in a team context, the leader takes the credit for things that have been accomplished without acknowledging the contribution of his or her team. I would consider that distinctly unprofessional behaviour. A related issue is free-riding - for example, in R&D teams, many times the team leader’s name is routinely appended to all disclosures, patent applications, or papers written even though s/he may have made no identifiable contribution to the intellectual property created.
As a professional, one should value the professional contribution of others. I had an interesting experience a couple of years ago. I had given a talk on Strategic Management of Intellectual Property at a CII event. Shortly thereafter, a manager from the Bangalore R&D Centre of a leading MNC technology company came and invited me to give a similar talk as part of his company lecture series. I told him that I would be happy to, but also suggested that there should be a professional fee in return for the talk. I explained to him that in the same way that they would expect their knowledge to be paid for by their internal or external customers, it was only fair that they pay me in return for accessing my knowledge. I also told him that I would not negotiate on the quantum of money, but I was more interested in the principle involved. Being new to the company, he was not sure of the company’s policy, so he agreed to discuss this with his boss and get back. I was really amazed when he got back and told me that in the past they had not been paying academics for giving talks and that it would be difficult to change the “policy.”
Responding to calls/letters/emails is another area in which professionalism is lacking in India. While there is no doubt that a senior corporate executive would receive a number of unsolicited communications each day, and it may be physically impossible for him to personally respond to all of them, what surprises me is that most of them don’t have a system to deal with such communications.
On the subject of integrity, I am really glad that Subroto has emphasised the importance of having a clear Integrity Policy and walking the talk. A few years ago, a colleague (Prof Manohar Reddy) and I conducted a survey of the ethical attitudes of our students. While all such surveys have their limitations because of their dependence on self-reported responses, we found a consistent pattern over a few years. About 20% of our students see themselves as “aggressively ethical” – i.e. they would stand by their values and beliefs, and what is right, under any circumstances. At the other end of the spectrum, about 10% are totally ends-driven – they will do whatever it takes, including actions that would be considered unethical by others, to achieve their own goals. The interesting group is the big 70% in the middle. They will be shaped by their environment, go with the “hawa” and what the organisation says. This is the reason why a clear corporate code and integrity policy is so important.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The God Market

I got acquainted with Meera Nanda’s writing for the first time a few years ago when I read her fascinating piece in Frontline about the schizophrenia of Indian science – on the one hand, our scientists and engineers build missiles and nuclear power stations; on the other hand, many of them practice highly ritualistic forms of religion, and are captive to all manner of superstitions.
Meera Nanda’s new book – The God Market: How Globalization is making India more Hindu (Random House India, 2009) – is a thought-provoking addition to the contemporary literature that looks at where India is today, and that seeks to understand where it is headed. This book is firmly rooted in contemporary sociological perspectives on secularism and modernity, and this strong conceptual base provides a powerful lens to look at the growth of Hinduism in India.
Meera Nanda argues that the Indian middle class has grown more prosperous thanks to economic liberalisation, but, contrary to some of the dominant theories regarding secularism, has become more visibly and ritualistically religious. This growth in religiosity has gone along with a growth in jingoism, a sense that India’s time has come, and an attribution of India’s progress to the genius of the Hindu mind. Though the State remains officially secular, a sense of majoritarianism has crept in that attributes all good things to Hindu thought and culture. This majoritarian orientation does not, in Meera Nanda’s view, bode well for the future.
A useful contribution of this book is an attempt to document the growing nexus between the State (politicians, bureaucrats), organised religion (popular Hindu godmen) and big business. Meera Nanda identifies religious tourism, higher education and infrastructure as three domains in which the interests of these three actors coalesce.
It is difficult to disagree with much of what Meera Nanda says in this book. Though her data and evidence are not watertight, in aggregate they make a compelling case. And, we need to just look around us and reflect back to realise that the Nehruvian concept of secularism has take a severe beating and been replaced by a “Soft Hinduism” that pervades much of Indian society today. As the author observes, it is not as though every member of the (Hindu) Indian middle class has antipathy towards other communities and religions; but by failing to respond to the majoritarian viewpoint that has become dominant, we are more complicit than we realise.
This is fascinating book – it holds up a mirror to contemporary Indian society in a completely unique way.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Go Kiss the World

In his first book The High Performance Entrepreneur, Subroto wrote about the challenges of setting up an enterprise, based on his experience as a co-founder of MindTree. In Go Kiss the World, he goes a step further, relating his life story and drawing lessons from it for the young professional.
Subroto Bagchi is a romantic at heart and this rings loud and clear when he writes. When he advises professionals not to lose the child in them, the genuineness of his belief is reflected in the way he writes. Every step (and occasional mis-step) of his life so far has been at once a source of wonderment as of learning.
Starting from his modest childhood as the last child of an itinerant bureaucrat in Orissa, Subroto flowered into the corporate leader and entrepreneur that we know today. How did this evolution happen? Family figures played a role – he learnt the importance of dignity, tenacity and honesty from his parents. Frequent moves as a child gave him the curiosity to seek diverse experiences as well as the temperament to handle them. His early jobs taught him how to manage organisational politics (management trainee at DCM), influence and negotiate with people (sales at HCL and PSI), and coordinate across functions (sales coordinator’s role at Wipro). But clearly, Subroto has several innate traits such as leadership (Best NCC cadet at the national level in his school days), communication (an ability to make himself “memorable”), optimism and perseverance which have helped him achieve whatever he has. Above all, he obviously has the capacity to reflect on, and learn from his own actions, and to be perfectly honest with himself – in this book he has been quite candid about some of the failures in his life.
Subroto cautions high achievers against overplanning, and advocates placing tenacity over ambition. I suspect that this advice won’t have too many takers among today’s youth. In fact, this book seems to belong to an earlier era, not to the world of the internet, social networking, and seven figure salaries to graduating MBAs. But if Subroto’s aim is to make you stop and think, there is plenty of food for thought in his elegant and sometimes poetic narrative.
The only complaint I have about this book is that at times Subroto is not as objective and critical with his baby (MindTree) as he is with himself. Hopefully, that will be corrected in his future writings…

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reflections by IITians

The current controversy about the salaries of IIT faculty has brought the IITs onto the headlines. But Ram Krishnaswamy’s labour of love Reflections by IITians (contact Ram at raises much larger questions about our elite technology institutions.
Every contribution to this volume is by an IITian, predominantly from IIT Madras, but with a sprinkling of contributions from the other IITs thrown in. Almost every IITian who has contributed to this book has struggled to live up to the expectations of himself (except for one, all the contributors are men), his family, and society at large. Some have chosen the domain of research and the creation of knowledge to prove themselves, others entrepreneurship, and a good number are driven by social concerns. Not surprisingly, what does come out is that the IITians are an exceedingly talented bunch and there are few human endeavours in which they would fail to make a mark.
Would they have done just as well without the IIT education? It’s difficult to say. But what is clear is that the IITs taught them to work hard and work long hours, made them confident of solving analytical challenges, and developed leadership capabilities in those who sought out opportunities beyond the realm of academics. The IIT brand helped them gain entry into elite graduate and doctoral programs, and certification as professional engineers. What is equally clear is that most of them entered the IITs not because of any particular aptitude for engineering, but because they were good at Physics and Math and the IITs offered the best platform for their evolution, development, and career prospects.
One interesting takeaway from this book is on the differences between the IITs. In An Eye for Excellence, E.C. Subbarao applauds the science-based engineering curriculum of IIT Kanpur that created engineers with strong fundamental understanding of phenomena and excellent analytical capabilities. He implicitly admits the lack of “practical” engineering skill among IIT Kanpur engineers. Interestingly, according to the authors who studied at IIT Madras, in spite of the strong German influence and the rigorous workshop courses at IIT Madras, most IIT Madras engineers seem to have the same lack of practical engineering skills. It appears that the strong Indian cultural hierarchy that places the mind over the body dominates the Indian work ethic so strongly that there is little that the curriculum can do to overcome this. Of course, there are other interesting social forces that could be responsible for reinforcing this hierarchy, including the preponderance of Brahmins among IIT Madras faculty.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Advice to Board Members

I just finished reading Ram Charan's new book titled Owning Up. In this book, he explains 14 questions every board member needs to ask. I like his straightforward, unpretentious, and practical style, and this book stands up to the standards of The Game Changer (written with the CEO of P&G) and Execution (written with Larry Bossidy). I do, however, have some reservations about the applicability of his ideas in our largely promoter-driven companies. But that's a topic for another post some other day....

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Boxwallah and the Middleman

Looking for a relaxing sunday afternoon read? Check out Raj Chatterjee's The Boxwallah and the Middleman. This is a selection of the best "middles" written by Raj Chatterjee, a former ITC executive. Most of them reflect less complicated times, bringing back nostalgic memories of India in the 1970s and 1980s. (The "middle" itself is an endangered species as trivia and page 3 gossip take over most contemporary newspapers.) A "middle" is not profound but finds interesting ways of reflecting on contemporary life. Ideal for relaxation!

The History of IIT Kanpur

There's a recently published book on IIT Kanpur by Prof. EC Subbarao "An Eye for Excellence" that makes interesting reading. He identifies the Chemistry department, the Materials Science programme and Computer Science as major pioneering moves by IITK apart from the core engineering curriculum and the "culture" of the institute. If you go by his assessment (and he has some data to back up his arguments!), we studied there during IITK's least productive time! He has documented profiles of several of the outstanding departments, faculty, and alumni. Worth a quick read to understand IITK's contribution to science and engineering education in India.