Subba’s Serendipitous moments

May 27, 2009

Will Singapore usher in Government 2.0?

President Obama will surely go down in history for a number of things. Amongst many things, he was the first one to use the power of social networking so effectively which led him to win the Presidential elections decisively. He appointed Vivek Kundra as CIO in his administration and Aneesh Chopra as a CTO. Surprisingly they are not marquee names as one would have expected, but people who have blazed a new trail defying conventional practices. Some prefer to call them the iconoclasts.

Vivek Kundra, the CIO for the Obama Administration launched a new website called Data.gov which for all its radical breakthroughs was announced quietly. I hope it gets the publicity it so rightfully deserves. The intent of the website is to release vast amounts of raw data so that tax payers can see what’s happening in the government and buraucracy.

The new site has 50 feeds and is intended to grow to about 240,000 feeds next month itself. It will be a one-stop shop for free access to data that will be generated across all federal government agencies.

This is a paradigm shift and in some sense unparalleled in the history of Government IT. First, it establishes beyond doubt the credentials of President Obama to be as transparent as possible. Second, ingenious entreprenuers can quickly develop Web applications more easily (with mash-ups becoming so common) using government data and take it to market. Finally, interested citizens can provide ideas to the government’s problems, now that they have access to better, reliable and immediate data. Finally, it also goes to show that the government is prepared to accept that it may not have all the answers to its problems and that crowdsourcing must be encouraged.

The Singapore government has been not just an early but a staunch user of IT. It has in the past, pioneered effective applications and can rightfully claim credit for the high level of IT penetration in Singapore. Yet, in recent years it seems to have lost both the momentum and direction. The Government IT directions are managed in a hybrid model with the Government CIO being part of the IDA. One look at the Government CIO mandate here shows it is inwardly focused, tactically driven and continues to o continues to operate from a traditional mindset.

At this stage of IT maturity merely notching up some incremental percentage points on the efficiency scale is not going to help either the Government or the citizens. It needs a more forward looking radical approach if it has to remain relevant and regain the respect that it once had. It needs a President Obama philosophy and a Kundra’s impetus for action.

If what is stopping this leap is imagination, it needs new blood; a set of iconoclasts. If however they believe that the government knows best and that there is no wisdom in the crowd, then sadly, only a serious failure will force a rethink. If the Government does not want to be more transparent, it is only inhibiting the natural empowerment and evolution of the citizens. If the government needs a role model, President Obama has accepted to be one.

Let’s not forget that one constant dimension of the various developments in the IT world is empowerment. This has happened not just within the firewall but as part of the extended enterprise. Choosing to ignore the philosophical underpinnings of empowerment is choosing to ignore the true potential of IT and in a way also choosing to ignore true progress.



I will have the opportunity to speak on Government 2.0 at a National IT conference very soon and this gives me a lot to conceptualize things better.

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May 25, 2009

Managing change

Peter Drucker in a conversation with Peter Senge said, ‘Every organization will have to become a change leader. You can’t manage change. You can only be ahead of it. You can only make it.’

How true it is. Let us be ahead of ‘change.’

May 24, 2009

Singapore and Israel — a study of contrasts

I had a chance meeting with a NUS don and we ended up discussing my post on whether East Asia can produce a Susan Boyle. While remaining neutral about the arguments that I put forth, he mentioned the reason about Singapore being “small”.

I have heard the argument of Singapore being “small” ad nauseam. Singapore uses that as a convenient excuse whenever there’s a short coming or if they have to justify any hard measure to contain order. They also use it to explain away many of the things where they have come short. But, if you turn around and ask them how Singapore achieved some wonderful things in specific areas despite its small size, the discussion has veered off into a different direction.

Size and stability may be good, but lack of size and stability is not a deterrent to be successful. This reminds me of the famous lines in the old classic The Third Man: ” For 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

To serious skeptics, I usually cite Israel (population of 7.2 million) as an example.

Israel since its independence in 1948 has fought a several wars with its neighbors. It is always in a state of military preparedness. Yet it ranks highest in terms of human development, freedom of the press and economic competitiveness amongst Middle East countries. It is a parliamentary democracy and the average span of Israeli government of 22 months. The governments have often changed for a number of reasons — political scandals, peace process with their neighbors and the role of religion. It has the highest level of civil and human rights comparable to any Western world democracy and the freedom of press has been ranked highest amongst the Southwest regions.

Economically it is rated 3rd in the World Economic Forum’s Global competitiveness report. It has the 2nd largest number of startups after the US and the most number of companies listed in NASDAQ. Many of the large technology vendors like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco have advanced development centers in Israel.

Contrary to the Singaporean thinking, the Israelis have used the small size of Israel as an advantage. A Israeli start up knows that is home market is limited and hence function as a “mini-multinational” from day one. A surprising thing among Israelis is that they are never scared of failure and if 5% of the start ups in US are headed by repeat entrepreneurs, in Israel the ratio is well over around 30%.

Now coming to creative arts, Israel music has influences from all over the world. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has been operating for over 70 years and performs over 200 concerts each year. It also has a vibrant theatre scene.

How does one explain these successes in so many diverse fields despite its size and lack of peace? My view is their ability to be an inclusive society and they valuing diversity. All Jews irrespective of their lineage are welcome and they constitute 75% of the population. Muslims are the largest minority and it equally welcomes Christians.

The difference between Singapore and Israel was neatly summed up by Guy Kawasaki in one of his recent visits to Singapore. He called Singapore an one-opinion town. His precise words were: Israel has 5 million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions. Singapore has 5 million people, six entrepreneurs and one opinion. Yesterday Lydia Lim a political correspondent from Straits Times referred to this difference, but only to defend Singapore and make a statement that Singapore has more than one opinion.

Her effort was painstaking, but what she ended up doing was only to reinforce the Singapore’s stability mantra which gives the society the order, but fails to deliver the innovation and creativity that Singapore badly needs in these times of global slowdown.

May 20, 2009

Can a Susan Boyle happen in East Asia?

My learned friend Ananth put this question to his email group. His precise question was: Can Susan Boyle, (58 million views on YouTube), Julian Smith and Diversity happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies?

Here’s my answer to him and I just thought I would post it here as well:

I don’t think it can happen spontaneously / organically in East Asian societies. Let me try to deal at 2 levels: — The nature of East Asian society and the issue of culture and specifically creativity.

For such things to happen, society needs to be a genuine melting pot. East Asia may have immigrants, but the practice of assimilation and morphing of identities is only residual. Cultural pluralism may exist on the surface, but politicians and institutions have often curbed growth because they felt the need to retain control or sometimes even believed that they need to architect society, and hence have never allowed cross-cultural pollination to take place freely. Hegemonic practices have often imposed covert forces on the sections of society which have lived on the edge and tried to dominate them. In Western societies there is a not merely an appreciation of diversity, but a collective conscious to make it inclusive.

Now one aspect of spontaneity and organic growth is that it should be possible to have keen debate, not dumb reverence for just great personalities; historical consciousness and self-reflection not adherence to supposedly timeless values; and a continual expansion of a societal canon to match a necessarily unsettled sense of who we are and what we care about. East Asian societies in its singular adherence to Confucian thinking has led to creating a hierarchical and often authoritarian social constructs which has curbed spontaneity. Now add to that, the sheer fixation on commerce and materialism becoming a prime pursuit, it is natural to see less emphasis on experimentation and spontaneity.

Culture is not a package of knowledge, attitudes and customs which can be parceled up, handed over to the child and then passed on intact to the next generation as seem to be the general thinking in East Asia. It has to take deep roots and often allowed to find its own flow.

There is a dialectic between culture and learning which in turn is a manifestation of spontaneity and growth. Creativity thrives when the social substratum has been enriched with diverse experiences and perspectives. And such diversities occasionally produce creative conflicts. East Asian societies have often shunned anything that could even remotely produce a conflict and placed a (undue) premium on compliance.

Now coming more specifically to creative minds (the Susan Boyle of the world), immersion in an environment of cultural ferment is more likely to fuel the selection process. Pablo Picasso is a case in point. He borrowed, stole, and assimilated his way and produced over 20,000 works of art in varying styles because there was a deep cultural ferment during his time. Being surrounded to by contemporary creators often inspires even marginally talented people to attain heights well above what they could possibly achieve in isolation. The individual genius often flowers through cultural interaction.

Creative people by their innate nature often tend to have wider interests and are open to more varied influence. They thrive on ambiguity and have varied interests. They are non conforming and independent minded. They have the capacity to expose themselves to a full range of cultural variants available in their milieu and then choose to adopt a unique subset that develops their talent. In East Asia such creative people do not have much opportunity and hence even if there existed such people, they tend to migrate to environments where their nature is better appreciated.

People have often asked me both seriously and causally about whether India or China can produce the next Google or Facebook. My answer is the same — The chances are very low, because while Indians or Chinese may be smart engineers; the kind of business thinking that needs to envision something novel is not there.

Show me the money YouTube!

YouTube        200905202253.jpg          

Most of us love both Facebook and YouTube. It has become part of our daily consumption. Some are addicted to Facebook, some are to YouTube and some to both. Both of them have been category leaders with little competition. Yet, both seems to have the same problem — How to convert their traffic, the loyal visitors and their brand into actual revenues for their shareholders.

The Facebook success and the challenges have been discussed here at length. YouTube has changed the face of entertainment. It has created a complete new dimension in shared experience, made everyone a rich media content producer and consumer with just a few clicks. Yet a business model eludes YouTube.

A good 2.5 years have elapsed since Google acquired YouTube for a cool $1.65 billion. Google hasn’t taken any specific steps to monetize YouTube. It probably doesn’t need to, because its revenues (estimated at anything between $100-200 million) are insignificant . According to comscore, 100 million viewers watched over 5.9 billion videos in the U.S. alone in March 2009. It has 10 times the number of visitors as the next biggest site. Despite that, it has no advertising nor any model to charge for premium content. Yet to cater for the surging content library it has to make continuous investments in infrastructure in storage and bandwidth mainly estimated at $400 million. Well, Facebook is lucky because it has a rich daddy in Google who.

YouTube also faces new competition from Hulu — a joint venture of NBC and News Corporation which features NBC and Fox TV shows and others. Currently YouTube is also trying to get premium content and signed up deals with Sony, MGM and others. It also proposes to charge payment for premium content. Will it be successful?

The conditions at Facebook and YouTube begets an important question — They have successfully challenged tradition and created new categories. They have also been terrific success.

But when will they show us the money?

May 17, 2009

Management tips from Steve Ballmer of Microsoft

Steve Ballmer has changed considerably since he became the CEO of Microsoft. Not the impatient, belligerent Steve, but becoming a more balanced Steve.

The interview here gives an inkling of some of the changes that Steve wants to bring within himself. I have to say that while they seem trivial, both listening deeply and keeping the fine balance between positive thinking and realism is very important. Listening changes the level of trust, confidence and chemistry in a team work and the balance keeps one better focused.

May 15, 2009

The true cost of learning

Filed under: Inspiration,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:21 pm
Tags: , ,

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.

President Obama’s tax plan — A retrograde step

Filed under: Business,Leadership,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:09 pm
Tags: ,

President Barack Obama announced a plan that seeks to close loopholes used by companies and individuals to avoid paying taxes. In particular, the President Obama wants to make companies pay the proper tax rate on overseas profits.The goal, he said, is to end a “tax scam” by shutting down overseas tax havens that let U.S. multinational corporations and some individual taxpayers avoid paying U.S. taxes while ordinary Americans take up the slack.

Payments by US companies who create jobs overseas are treated as normal expenditures – but the new law (if passed by both Houses of Congress) will entail companies to pay tax on these expenditures as well (increase of almost 50%).
The White House says that some jobs go abroad because American companies are lured there by tax loopholes which, if closed, would bring the jobs home. This is just marginally true.

This and the related tax proposals are often referred to as “Say No to Bangalore, yes to Buffalo”.

At one level, this protectionist policy will do little to change the job losses in the US. It may hurt the US more than India. While Bangalore got mentioned, I am sure the theme applies to China as well which has been a dominant supplier to the US.

Now, if indeed it is the differential tax rates that President Obama is trying to fix, the gains would be marginal as US companies pay a tax of 33% in India as against 35% in the U.S.

Outsourcing boom was all about better quality at lower cost; I don’t think the US can provide either for many sectors including outsourcing.  Most of the big companies save 75% of their cost by outsourcing and the number goes higher for high-end BPOs.

In my view, it is simple rhetoric and grandstanding.

The team of stars or a star team

Filed under: Business,Leadership,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 3:26 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I have been thinking about what makes a great team as in the past few weeks several conversations with friends and business associates have gone in this direction. Often in my life if I have a series of causal discussions veering towards a particular theme or topic for no particular reason, I know I am on the verge of making a self discovery. The topic of team work is one such serendipitious moment.

I have great respect for people who can make ordinary teams extraordinary. And often this is highly underrated in an executive’s bio. Surprisingly this trait doesn’t get ratings even in leadership and management skills or behavioral inventory lists.

The manner in which Guus Hiddink has made a success of every coaching assignment led me to ponder deeper. Guus Hiddink took an unknown Korean team to the semi finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup defeating in the process formidable teams like Italy, Poland and Spain before losing to Germany. Just to prove that it was no flash in the pan,  he coached Australian soccer team to success in the 2006 world cup and is credited with turning a team into a solid defensive unit which only conceded one goal away from home to both Uruguay and the Netherlands. Well, success with the Russia soccer team followed.

Now more recently, as the caretaker manager of the Chelsea club, he has taken an ordinary bunch of players who were drawing every other match into a winning team and proved to all and sundry that he is an extraordinary coach.

Well, all that I would say is that a very deep understanding of human condition (the good, the bad and the ugly in all of us) to harness the energy and the talents of a team. Money alone will not buy loyalty, commitment, performance and achievement. Singularity of vision, ability to motivate, to energise and the knack of rallying a group of people around a single vision or goal all contribute towards delivering a high performing team. One undoubtedly needs talented individuals within a team, but without inspired leadership a talented team they just become a team with stars.

Not a star team.

May 3, 2009

The negative side of positive thinking

A positive thinking mind is an advantage. But an intense positive thinking mind bordering on the “pathological” often has negative or even severe repercussions. I have had the occasion to witness firsthand the perils of excessive positive thinking recently as I coached someone who has been having severe performance problems at work which has spilled over to his personal life as well. He was reluctant to make the hard changes that he had to; and often believed that thinking positive can solve his problems.

Positive thinking in this case only obfuscated the issue and clouded his judgment. In his case it was getting obsessive, but I have noticed that people tend to slip into a denial mode even with less intensity of positive thinking.

I am all for positive thinking, but it has to be balanced with the repercussions of failure. I have noticed that people try to shut out their fear of failure, or have an obsessive attachment to their desired result and rationalize that by having positive thoughts, they can accomplish it. Such an overwhelming positive thinking can be disastrous.

Positive thinking has been reduced to a cliche. Things are alarming when companies are investing more training dollars on motivational speakers than improving skills and competencies.

The notion that success is often achieved by attitude than aptitude is a reproach to rational thinking. It erodes the reverence for hard work, talent, diligence and other elements which are necessary for human progress.

Sometimes such delusional optimism can be dangerous. The recent architects of the sub prime crisis and the global financial meltdown are just a case in point.

Positivity and positive thinking are about optimism, self-confidence and diligence; not about micawberism, brashness, or pulling-a-fast-one and not living in a make believe world. Positivity with disregard to cost, risk and proper planning is day-dreaming — or worse setting oneself to disappointment, shock and even trauma.

Due caution does not destroy positive thinking but tempers it as fire does steel.

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