This did hurt because I still remember it after a good seventeen years. As a young professional, appraisals meant a lot to me. This was my first year at a big brand company, and we had come through a difficult year with flying colours. And, I thought I did particularly well. Starting at a point when we were definitely trailing the competition, the business in my territory had a remarkable turnaround, expanding geographically and posting impressive like-for-like sales. Personally, I fought it out too: I was competitive and did everything I could to ensure that we trounce the competition. We worked well in teams, and my team won the best team awards in the company through the season. So, I was expecting a grand review, a promotion etc.
The review was good and I did get the promotion. Senior Managers came and complimented me, and one of them told me something that became a permanent fixture in my vanity, that I was the best Marketer in the country. But I did not get the blank sheet that I expected as far as the improvement areas are concerned (yes, I did expect to hear that I was perfect when I was young). It came with a single observation, almost as if my boss had to write something to balance out all the praises, but a potentially damaging one: Tendency to philosophise at work needs to be put in check!
In those years of runaway growth, in a company which was growing fast and was adored by its customers, the tendency to philosophise was a cardinal sin. Everyone simply acted. We did not have time to think about the social, ethical or even practical long term implications of what we did. To ensure that we trump the competition, I did create an extensive system of corporate espionage, knowing competition's every move well in advance, and even at some point, through a business partner, had access to their entire customer list. I did run an advertising campaign which was ethically borderline, justified only by the fact that the competitors were doing the same or worse. We congratulated ourselves that we won because we were smarter, which we certainly were, and never really thought about what we were doing. Being smarter, ruthlessly efficient, being in control, were the values that we appreciated, and being a philosopher could not have sounded worse.
I indeed protested, somewhat justifiably because I thought I was fiercely competitive: My boss somewhat conceded the point that I was competitive, but nevertheless won't budge on the observation that I tend to think too much about my actions. I was told that rather than trying to prove the allegation baseless, I should focus on the next year, which commenced already. It was a Catch-22: If I didn't protest, I accept that I philosophise; if I did, I proved it.
As life moved on, I would live a very action-oriented life: I would start businesses, migrate to another country, go back to school, build networks from scratch. I shall also discover the word 'reflection' and pride myself to be a 'reflective' professional. Indeed, my reflective practise will grow into a full-scale enterprise in my blog, which started as a creative writing exercise but wouldn't have been sustained for the ten years it did if I didn't turn this into one long conversation about my work. But that infamy of being accused of 'philosophizing' remained with me. I shall bring it up many years later in a conversation with my former manager when I saw her again, who had by then forgotten all about it. When I confessed to her how touchy I still was about this, she complimented me, as if to console, that I was the most intelligent person she had ever worked with; and then, as if to relive the past, she added that I should remember that intelligence was a double-edged sword. It was deja vu all over again!
But this is more than my personal story. Over time, as I travelled, saw several businesses from inside and outside, I came to see my personal predicament as a part of a general paradox. To put it simply, that while businesses claim that they want their people to think, they don't. Business is supposed to be action-oriented, at least in its current popular American-inspired version. In fact, the precise value the business form of organisation brings to the society is its ability to get things done. This is the underlying reason when public services such as hospitals fail, we clamour for privatisation and put our faith on businesses sorting it out. This is the sense we convey when we say something is business-like, or not. This is what Vice Chancellors in universities today want to adopt, and be action-orientated, and discard the traditionally valued Socratic styles.
But, at the same time, I have seen, particularly because I worked in start-ups and businesses going global (and sometimes both), that such an approach is decidedly inadequate. The first problem is that when the outside world is complex and uncertain, focusing solely on doing leads businesses into deeper holes. This is the sort of attitude that many of the commentators observing global businesses coming into India or China (read Rama Bijapurkar, for example) complain about. Because they have no license to think, the only question they ask when entering these markets is how to fit the market into their strategy. They have no time to lose pondering about strategy, and then they lose all the time and money because they entered, as in markets like India and China, a 'never-before world' (Ms Bijapurkar's term).
Indeed, I generalise: These companies entering new marketplaces have very sophisticated strategic planning departments which do indeed work on the plans. And, here is perhaps my broader point. All companies want their people to think, because thinking is as much as an essential part of business as doing, but the currently popular model is that thinking is done by a brain-trust inside the company. This was indeed the case of the company I worked for seventeen years ago: Their specially designated R&D departments did some of the most esoteric thinking that were way ahead of its time and only getting traction now; their senior managers went out every quarter to discuss strategy and came up with clear plans. Yet, they failed, as do many other businesses, to spot shape-shifting trends in the market, just as the companies entering India and China spend millions of dollars in crafting strategies in mountain resorts of Switzerland, that do not work. And, this is because, I have come to believe, that thinking is not an isolated activity.
So, this exclusive brain-trust for thinking is an unthinking model in itself. This may have been good for, to use a cliche, twentieth century tasks with predictable outcomes, but completely out of sync with twenty-first century tasks where creative abilities are the key. To give an example, if I did what I did to thwart the competition seventeen years ago, I would expose my company to a far greater reputational danger than I did then: I am not denying it was edgy then, but today they may unleash a Facebook furore. My company was better off me thinking, and contributing into their thinking, then; it would be absolutely suicidal not to do it today.
I usually plead to the businesses I know to create a thinking culture all across the company, and integrate their hiring, doing and reviewing models around the same (and to make 'ability to philosophise' a good thing in appraisals). However, there remain two significant paradigmatic issues in achieving such a culture. The first is that an execution culture is antithetical to thinking: We want our people to do rather than think, businesses often say. Second is this brain-trust model, that some people are good at thinking and they should do all the thinking, rather than everyone chipping in. But both of these insurmountable problems on the way to a thinking culture are connected to our inherent model of thinking, represented best perhaps by Rodin's Thinker, who is solitary, inactive and self-absorbed. However, in real life, most of our finest thinkers are within people, doing the work and soaking up ideas from other people: We have numerous expositions, in academic research and business culture, which point that thinking is a social, active and creative occupation. And, once we accept this model of thinking, we may start accepting that the people most qualified to think are those who are closest to work; or, if that offends the inherently hierarchical idea of human civilisation some people may have, even they should accept that if possible, if those doing the work could do the thinking, it would produce the best outcome.
Popular posts from this blog
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
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving 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 et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (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 s
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
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,
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
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
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
The ‘Why’ Question? Adolf Hitler was appointed the German Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg on 30th January 1933. This was an extraordinary turn of events. Previously, President Von Hindenburg consistently refused to appoint Hitler the Chancellor, despite the impressive electoral performance of NSDAP in July 1932, Hitler’s uncompromising demand of the Chancellor’s post and a repeat election in November 1932 which failed to break the deadlock. Explaining his refusal, Hindenburg wrote in a letter on 24th November, “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.” The question ‘why’ Hitler was appointed Chancellor, despite the President being acutely aware of what might follow, is therefore a significant one. The NSDAP had election successes throughout 1932, and was already the biggest single party in the Reichstag and various Landtags acros
In our age, the only way to be politically correct is to be democratic. This is a post-70s affair - those days, still, some people had alternative ideologies in mind. Those alternate ideas are dead and gone, long discredited, and it seems that we have only one system which can make people happy, free and live longer. So, we have this huge export industry of democracy, and democracy's warriors, which the American security establishment has lately become. The democracy's businessmen, the bond traders, the media barons and the Hollywood types, are feted everywhere. The consensus is deafening and dumbing. It is indeed awkward to ask now - whether democracy is the right system for every society. It indeed should be. Collective wisdom is better than individual autocracy. In societies where democratic elections have been few and far between, the popular vote has demonstrated the extra-ordinary political savvy of the usually disinterested masses. Democracy has proved to be an excell
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.