Books; People; Ideas : These are few of my favourite things. As I live between day-to-day compromises and change-the-world aspirations, this is the chronicle of my journey, full of moments of occasional despair and opportune discoveries, of connections and creations, and, most of all, my quest of knowledge as conversations.
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Building Global Business: Five Sideways Reflections
Talking global is easy. In fact, it is not easy NOT to talk global. In this age of Internet, Facebook, Venture Capital, WTO, scale is the mantra: And, global is the only scale that really matters.
When I started working in England in 2004, I worked for a couple of interesting E-Learning companies for the first few years. They had good products and good people. I was greatly impressed by what they did, and with the sophistication of their technology and approach. They had large projects covering their cash flows, and were strategically poised to expand. But when I brought up the question of going global, given that I had first hand experience globally and thought these services would be quite compelling, the answer I got was "No Thanks!" These companies did not want to go global but rather service the small e-learning market in the UK that they knew well. They did not see the benefit of taking on the extra complexity and was afraid of 'global'. At that time, new in England, I treated this as a very English peculiarity. I got wiser afterwards.
In fact, soon afterwards: I was doing well in my job but I couldn't resist when I was solicited by an Irish businessman who wanted to set up a global training and recruitment chain. I jumped at it, because, at the time, that was what I really wanted to do. Looking back, that might not have been the wisest career decision I took, because I loved the technology environment and did not enjoy the culture of a recruitment company. But, since then, my work was almost always very globally focused: Its theme almost always was about taking concepts and ideas to new markets. And, unlike my experiences prior to 2004, when I worked for a large company going global, these were medium size firms and start-ups, who were in pursuit of scale. Some of these projects worked and became very successful: Others did not. But nonetheless, they all held lessons, which I now summarize along five broad themes.
But, before I talk about those five lessons, a personal note: I am at a point of time in my career that the novelty of air travel has truly worn off. Now, I claim, I get global. I have only worked in a handful of countries and not in all regions of the world, but I have been an eager student and now I know what works when someone is trying to get into a new country. My repertoire has some basic things, like respect, empathy and honesty, and I see that working everywhere. I am still fairly deficient in my global skills (when I can pause my life again, I would go back to reading Polish novels and practicing eating with chopsticks) but at least know what they are. I have come a full circle, falling in and out of love with the conversation about 'scale', the silicon valley way! From my experience, I know that the only way one can really 'scale' is by scaling one's mind, but that is almost impossible because global talk is, strangely, inimical to global thinking.
And, as I try to go local, here are the five lessons I learned while trying to play global:
First, Global Talk is usually reflected arrogance. While companies accept that the cardinal principle that all product development should start with the customers, they implicitly mean that this only applies to their home country customers. Large companies may have learnt the perils of this approach, but smaller companies, who need this even more because of their weaker brands, believe that such an approach is a large company thing: Being flexible hampers their dream of achieving scale quickly enough. Instead, they get into the missionary mode, and make the assumption that global customers don't know what they want. But without the magic and marketing budget of Apple, that's one wrong lesson to take from Steve Jobs.
Second, it is difficult to be Global. This may offend all those pursuing global dominance, but my favourite data point is that only 7% of S&P 500 directors are foreign-born. Given that we are talking about multinationals with huge global businesses here, this may surely reflect the difficulty of being global. In the small company setting, this is even more acute: The strength of familiarity that allow founding teams to work effectively also bars diversity. And, indeed, it is a strange phenomenon that while companies can't globalise internally, they constantly talk about global dominance outside. This mindset indeed comes from the mindset of capital, where a few elite bankers can dominate the global capital flows, but real businesses are far more messy than the value-neutral business of investing.
Third, some businesses are inherently more global than others. Capital flows are a great example, which can, under the current setting, can flow across borders pretty easily. Money has no colour, indeed, though most will want to keep it green. However, other real life businesses are different. We already know products may have to be different: McDonald's only succeed in India by designing a new range of products. Sometimes, it comes at the cost of efficiency: Subway creating separate counter for Vegetarians in India surely breaks their usual business model but they made that trade-off because they won't have a business otherwise. The businesses that require people may have to understand the cultures fairly deeply, including, as Devdutt Pattanaik will claim, the mythologies of the place, the 'subjective truths'. And, some of these businesses, including Education which I am involved in, is value-laden: Here globality is actively resisted. This is not just about cultural difference alone: Deep down, people don't want an education which clashes with their other values. Cultural mash-ups are easier to do than value mash-ups, and education, as it invariably becomes about values and attitudes, reaches an intensely local territory.
Fourth, being global means accepting variability of regulations. The globalisers usually treat regulations as an annoyance, a distraction, preferring to take a direct-to-consumer approach. This is indeed borrowed from the culture of capital, and the thinking system it has created. However, regulations are there for a reason, and in a large part, they may reflect a collective preference, though not an active choice. My favourite example is India's Foreign Education Providers' Bill, which has not got passed for over 15 years. This piece of legislation does not get passed because no one really wants it: It is not legislatively important, it does not change anything much for the students wanting education. Also, Britain's draconian immigration rules, which has affected the education industry there, broadly reflects people's social attitude. The Chinese censorship exists because the Chinese mind it less than we do. And, I am sure people in Dubai know how to access porn though we may be blocked out of them through filters. Law in many countries stand for different things than it would be in
Europe and North America, and the right response isn't to dismiss the
legal structure and focus on bypassing it. For me, being global is not about bypassing or dismissing the regulations at all, but understanding and respecting them - which may not necessarily mean following them blindly - and pragmatically adapting for them in the design of the business.
Finally, to put all of this together, being global means accepting the business model as a conversation. Business model, by definition, is not a spreadsheet, but a way of creating value and capturing a portion of that value for profit. Since the mechanics of creating value is different in different markets, the learning and conversation becomes of paramount importance in global businesses. And, as I see it, the world is converging on one plane, the culture of money, whereas diverging in other, the culture of living. Acknowledging this diversity, internally, in product design, in assessing the nature of the business and creating responsiveness to local regulations, are primary building blocks of successful global businesses.
So, in conclusion, the point is not to say that small businesses can't be global or global universities aren't possible (though I pretty much said that here). Indeed, one could argue that to follow the above suggestions would mean bidding good-bye to scale: However, to achieve 'scale' one has to 'scale' one's thinking. It remains perfectly possible to create a network of local engagements and relationships based on common values and weave it together in a global model: That, indeed, remains the only sustainable and scalable model of global business, one that's based on listening and engaging, and not preaching.
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation."
The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which appeared …
Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper etal, 1991). Arunthanesetal (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something).
The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive season, is …
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago.
Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so.
Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself.
Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as I …
In an earlier post, I pointed out that the application of 'platform thinking' in education misses the mark, as it fails to understand how value is created in education. Since this apparently contradicts my earlier enthusiasm for the university as a 'user network', this statement needs further explanation.
To start with, Clayton Christiansen's idea that the universities of the Twentieth Century needs to evolve from its current 'value chain' model - wherein its value lies in its processes - to a form of User Network, where its value emanates from its community, still resonates with me. The Value Chain model, with departments, examinations, textbooks and degrees, that we know the university for, is very much a late Nineteenth/ early Twentieth century formulation. And, indeed, one can claim that the universities were always communities, and its value came from being a member of that community rather than its end product - the degrees - for much of history. It …
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind, which echo the pessimism somewhat.
I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope.
However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right inside …
I didn't write for almost three weeks as I was in India. The essence of my work there is to deal with employment creation. Part of my work is pro-bono - a city initiative focused on Industry 4.0 - and the other part is commercial, advising a large Indian corporation on the development of next-generation Skills training programmes. But the sense of crisis regarding unemployment cuts across scale and scope of my work and is a recurrent theme that pops up everywhere.
India has a really big challenge. About 2 million people reach working age every month in India, and even if only half of them are actively seeking employment, the few thousand jobs that the organised sector creates are woefully inadequate. India may be the fastest growing large economy in the world, but demonetisation of 2016 and poorly implemented General Sales Tax (GST) have hit businesses hard and froze up recruitment in many sectors. The widely promoted 'Make in India' initiative - the government's atte…
Smart presentations don't mean valuable insights. So it is with the current fad of presenting the vision of an all-new 21st-century education - through presentations, conferences and infographics - style trumps substance all the way through.
For, despite the claims of revolutionary changes in society and the workplace, the neat charts that lay down 21st-century skills next to the 20th-century one's show do not how different they would be, but rather how similar these are projected to be.
We are told that we have arrived at a fundamentally disruptive moment in history and we need new skills. So, we need, for example, communication and critical thinking, learning to learn and a host of other cool things. Indeed, many of those terms are very familiar to the educator: Many of those were around for more than two centuries, ever since the dreams of liberal education were spelt out.
When these slides were presented, I often wondered whether the point about critical thinking meant …
India's unemployment rate has reached a historical high and the government is panicking. It has rejected and suppressed the report and committed itself to inventing a new set of numbers. Members of the national statistical body have resigned, and the bad job numbers have become one of the worst kept secrets in its modern history.
As the government went down the road of obfuscation, it had also fooled itself believing that everything was fine. Once the statistical reports were questioned, the best explanation that the Head of the apex economic policy-making body could come up with was that Uber and other taxi-hailing companies have created millions of jobs in India. But then, the crisis is anything but hidden - walk on any street in any neighbourhood in any Indian city, and it is likely that you will see a few working-age people loitering, waiting or playing cards or carom in the middle of the day. IMF has recently warned that youth inactivity in India is highest among all develo…
Today is the Birth Anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore was the first global Literary Superstar, the first Nobel Prize Winner from Asia, whose flowing robes and the white beard helped form the public image of an Indian sage on the global stage.
It is somewhat peculiar what Tagore is now known for. Given that many people reading this blog wouldn't know his name, I had to mention his Nobel prize. Yet, Tagore was somewhat resentful - and said so when he was facilitated in Calcutta after receiving the prize - that his countrymen would only recognise him only after the West had given him an award. The alternative way to tell who he was - that he was the man who wrote the National Anthem of India, as well as of Bangladesh - is equally problematic: Not just this brings up an old controversy (see An Exceptional Man) but, at least in case of India, reminds one of a Cosmopolitan Republican Nationalism that the current Indian government so love to hate.
Robots were supposed to take over the universe. Singularity - the end of human history - was due in about a decades time. And, then, it was to be a different world altogether - one with self-knowing, self-replicating machines.
But it seems that future may have been postponed.
If there is anything that the history of technological progress should teach us, it should be that we ought not to believe in the excited predictions that technology industry loves to make. It is part of their style - all those world-changing predictions! There is a vast difference between the rhetoric of Microsoft's seamlessly connected world and the reality of clunkiness of Windows; E-Commerce did well but the prognosis far outstripped the performance, and these are only the good examples. No aircraft ever fell out of the sky despite all the warnings of the Y2K doomsday: It did create a multi-billion dollar outsourcing industry though. And, there are those who are still waiting for the day when everyone l…