Subba’s Serendipitous moments

July 27, 2009

When intuition outsmarts rationality

In October 2001, a fire crew was fighting a fire in a disused bingo hall in Leicester in the UK. Even though it was big, the fire chief decided it was safe enough to send the crew into the building.

They were starting to make progress in knocking the fire down when the fire chief decided something was wrong, and ordered his team out of the building. The team protested, unwilling to give up the progress they had made. But the fire chief insisted and as they exited the building it exploded in a massive fireball. If the decision to evacuate hadn’t been made the entire team would have been killed.

It turns out that the fire was one of the rarest and most dangerous phenomenon in firefighting – a backdraft. The fire chief had never experienced a backdraft before, he just knew that something was wrong and they needed to get out. In the ensuing investigation it turns out there were three things that were unusual: the smoke was more orange than usual, air was rushing into the building rather than out of it, and the fire was unusually quiet. The fire chief was right in his decision, he just didn’t know why at the time.

Well, all is well, that ends well.

But let’s take a moment and reflect what could have happened to the same event in a different set of circumstances. Assume that the fire chief was not the decision maker but he had to refer the decision to his boss.

There was clearly no evidence that something unusual was underway and that the teams were in disagreement with the fire chief. The teams were actually making progress and were engaged in a great endeavor to put out the fires. Normal rational thinking would have demanded that the boss would overrule the fire chief. The firemen would continue to fight the fire and the entire team would have been killed.

An investigation would have ensued and the decision would have been termed as rational and the whole thing written off as a terrible tragic accident.

July 25, 2009

Singapore’s research institutes — suffering from split personality?

Is there a synergy between advanced technology R&D and standard training to mid career professionals so that they could garner yet another certification?

Or is it merely a case of making some revenues to cover their costs?

Or worse still, is it a way for the R&D institute to do some “notional national service” when there’s no local company to use the outputs produced by the R&D organization?

The strategies adopted by Singapore’s R&D institutions especially in the IT sector has always confounded me. The latest one is the Data Storage Institute and while on the one hand they claim they do cutting edge research, they are also offering standard training courses which can lead to industry certification (SNIA).

The milestones listed doesn’t talk about any breakthroughs in research or development but merely administrative or routine events. Has DSI lost it completely?

Well as an organization, sure they have resources to do both, but should they be doing both in the first place?

The data storage industry has changed significantly over the years and if DSI doesn’t find a clear and compelling reason to exist, they should redirect their strengths somewhere. It seems to me that there’s a huge disconnect between their areas of research and the aspirations of the local industry. The result — it is research for research sake and if at all there’s any benefit, it is for the MNCs who in any case can source such research from anywhere in the world.

This leads to the question — Does DSI have a compelling reason to exist?

Long timers in Singapore would possibly recognize that the Institute of Systems Science or ISS as it was popularly known had always a confused identity– It was a research institute, training institute, did consulting projects and many other things. It used multiple identities to its advantage sometimes, but despite being given dollops of dollars, it didn’t produce anything outstanding — be in in research, consulting or training. Finally it divested its research activities and became a training service provider. It does provide good training, but the courses it offers can be provided by any training service provider in the private sector.

Looks like DSI is going the same way as ISS?

Sometime back I wrote that Singapore’s research and development needs a rethink. It led to several interesting discussions amongst friends and quite a few work in the R&D sector. The surprising thing is that they do agree that it needs a rethink.

So, when will this happen?

July 16, 2009

Accept your true self and be happy.

A plum once said, just because a banana lover came by, I converted myself into a banana. Unfortunately, his taste changed after a few months and so I became an orange. When he said I was bitter I became an apple, but he went in search of grapes. Yielding to the opinions of so many people, I have changed so many times that I no more know who I am. How I wish I had remained a plum and waited for a plum lover.

Just because a group of people do not accept you as you are, there is no necessity for you to strip yourself of your originality. You need to think good of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate. Never stoop down in order to gain recognition. Never let go of your true self to win a relationship. In the long run, you will regret that you traded your greatest glory – your uniqueness, for momentary validation. Even Gandhi was not accepted by many people. The group that does not accept you as you is not your world.

There is a world for each one of you, where you shall reign as king / queen by just being yourself. Find that world… in fact, that world will find you.

What water can do, gasoline cannot and what copper can, gold cannot. The fragility of the ant enables it to move and the rigidity of the tree enables it to stay rooted. Everything and everybody has been designed with a proportion of uniqueness to serve a purpose that we can fulfill only by being our unique self. You as you alone can serve your purpose and I as I alone can serve my purpose.

You are here to be you… just you.

There was a time in this world when a Krishna was required and he was sent; a time when a Christ was required and he was sent; a time when a Mahatma was required and he was sent; a time when a Einstein was required and he was sent. There came a time when you were required on this planet and hence you were sent. Let us be the best we can be. Don’t miss yourself and let the world not miss you.

In the history of the universe, there has been nobody like you and to the infinite of time to come, there will be no one like you. Existence should have loved you so much that it broke the mould after making you, so that another of your kind will never get repeated. You are original. You are rare. You are unique. You are a wonder. You are a masterpiece. .. your Master’s piece. Celebrate your Uniqueness.

June 21, 2009

Will Singapore learn the lessons from the financial crisis?

Just finished reading Daniel Gross’s book, Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation. It is available as an e-book too. It is a book that I recommend to all executives and civil servants who are responsible for developing policy and strategy because it is important to place emphasis on perception tools as much as we do for analytical tools. There are similarities between the actors in the dumb money operation and in the Singapore civil service.

Dan writes:

“The Dumb Money creed rested on four pillars: perpetually low interest rates, perpetually rising asset prices (especially for housing), borrowers of all types remaining perpetually current, and perpetually strong markets for debt. The high priests of this cult were the nation’s central bankers.

In 2007 and 2008, each of the pillars of Dumb Money began to crumble. The rules of physics still applied to finance. Interest rates, it turned out, could rise. Asset prices could, indeed, fall. Borrowers, having seen no income growth in a decade, fell behind on their debts. All of which helped cause the markets for securitizing debt and derivatives to break down”

The people who blew up the system weren’t anarchists. They were members of the club: central bankers and private-equity honchos, hedge-fund geniuses and Ph.D. economists, CEOs and investment bankers. And the (overwhelmingly legal) con they perpetuated on themselves, their colleagues, their shareholders and creditors, and, ultimately, on us taxpayers makes Madoff’s sins look like child’s play.”

Looking back, the investors who believed the stories told by Madoff and Stanford—that they could deliver steady, positive, market-beating returns in any type of climate, despite the manifest failure of virtually every other money manager to do so—were obviously foolish. But our best financial minds also spun tales and theories with great assurance, making seemingly irrational and unprecedented activity seem completely sensible. And we bought them.”

So, Why do the best and brightest get it so wrong? One easy way to explain it is here.

The arrogance of power. Combine that with great wealth, quick progress, a group think syndrome, limited thinking style and big responsibility at a relatively immature age and you have a potent mix. It invariably leads to hubris. Hubris was typically responsible for the downfall of heroes in Greek tragedy.

In addition, people in positions of great power and/or wealth will often interact primarily with people like them, both at work and in their social life, most of whom share a similar world view. They start believing that they are the only ones who understand what is going on and what needs to be done. Everyone who disagrees with them is just plain wrong or worse downright stupid. When problems occur, they tend to circle the wagons and become even more isolated.

Now Singapore’s civil servants are intelligent people, but they have become ensconced in their ivory towers. There is too much group think and there is rarely a marketplace where ideas compete. Most Ministers and civil servants come from the same elitist institutions and often have a tendency to very much function like a club. I do not know how much debate happens during the cabinet meetings, but after observing Parliament proceedings closely I have rarely seen a good debate or alternate viewpoints being pursued.

More importantly, having seen civil servants and executives in Ministries and statutory boards interact, the “group think” syndrome just continues to strengthen because they don’t want to be left out of the club. Worse, any alternate view is interpreted as a challenge to the authority, not just to a point of view. Has kowtowing the superior become the SOP (standard operating procedure) or is it a “survive and grow” strategy or worse the natural default behavior? With so many Minsters and civil servants coming from the military side, I would not be surprised if compliance fetches a better premium than creativity.

The Singapore media has never had a track record of triggering new ideas or debating current ideas. It has always served to propagate official thinking and giving it a spin.

Now, can the top honcho always get it correct? And what’s the risk of his reading the situation wrong or coming up with the sub-optimal solution? I shudder to think.

If the financial crisis has one thing to teach the Singapore government and civil service, it is that systemic failures of massive proportions are possible. And the best and the brightest (in Singapore they are judged when they are 18 years old based predominantly by their school leaving scores) with their group think cannot be the fountainhead of wisdom.

Wisdom and government dominance have been strange bedfellows. And incompatible too.

March 13, 2009

MBA schools and Ethics.

Filed under: Business,Learning,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 5:26 pm
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I recently caught up with my learned friend Dr. Kulwant Singh – Professor of Strategy and currently Deputy Dean of the NUS Business school. Our discussions are always interesting because we hold diametrically opposite views on many issues and the exchanges are often robust, yet mutually respectful.

One such discussion recently was my suggestion that all Business schools should make Ethics a core subject in their BBA/MBA curriculum. I also quoted Dan Ariel’s research on the subject. His response was that by the time the student comes to do the MBA program his values are more or less set and there’s little that the Business school can do to shape it as the prospective student spends only between 1-1.5 yrs there. Fair point. Yet, business schools cannot use this to abdicate their responsibility, especially when most business schools claim their role is to produce business leaders for tomorrow.

Every time there’s a business collapse, invariably the discussion veers around the pedigree of the culprits. The Enron episode put the prominent Harvard Business School into the spotlight as the CEO was a famous alum. With the current global crisis, it is again time for the same school to be on the spotlight as there are a number of Harvard alumni who played a role both in the collapse and now in the rescue.

A recent article (by a Harvard alum) is unsparingly critical of Harvard Business school and makes some great points. It also makes the point of how distinguished professors got sucked by the business fads created by organizations and sung their praises only to be embarrassed when the organization collapsed. Gary Hamel of London Business School also had his share his blame as he praised Enron only to see the firm collapse in months after his book praising Enron was published.

This raises a few legitimate questions about the role of business schools, the faculty and the students:

Are some of the academics as gullible as the rest of us that they can’t see the structural weaknesses that some of the firms (the firms they study) face? Or are does the glitz and the glamor of the corporate world blind them in some way? Recent events seem to provide evidence. This time Prof Joel Podolny of Harvard Business School writes a great case about how Royal Bank of Scotland has deployed a new financial architecture. Another don from Harvard Business school — Prof Krishna Palepu who was on the Satyam board was criticized for not having asked the right questions when the Satyam – Maytas saga broke out.

Does the business school education accentuate their greed and “the get rich quick syndrome” that could be present in many of them? It is safe to assume that a lot of MBA aspirants are there to become rich, and become rich soon.

Do the business school students lose the element of critical thinking about their own personal values and define themselves by the outcomes they deliver, which by and large is making more money for themselves? Would a different pedagogy of learning by reflection that supplements the case study method help them with assessing their own personal value systems and recalibrating them if necessary?

I clearly don’t have the answers. I have been thinking about these issues for many years now.

The article somewhat  loses its credibility by over-generalizing the Harvard instance and seems to overstate the flaws and failures of the MBA education.

Notwithstanding the limitations that business schools face, if one has to consider the collateral damage that businesses and society as a whole pays for the neglect of the Ethics aspect of education, finding a way to inculcate the right values may turn out to be a wise investment.

The current global financial crisis has lessons for all of us including for business school academics and administrators. I do hope they get out of their ivory towers and make attempts to create not just business leaders, but the right kind of leaders.

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May 12, 2008

Shift happens — Amazing facts and interesting implications

Filed under: Business,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 8:56 pm
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Did you know:

China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world

The US ranks 20th in the world in broadband internet penetration

If MySpace were a country, it would be the 11th largest in the world

There are over 2.7 billion searches performed on Google each month

47 million laptops were shipped worldwide last year

For some more facts see here.

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April 29, 2008

Indian Education

Filed under: Education,India,Learning,Model — Subbaraman Iyer @ 12:12 am
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My friend and prolific blogger Atanu Dey has been shouting himself hoarse about the reforms that are needed in the Indian education system. He has written numerous posts on the subject and I only hope that he gets support.

A civilization which has Acharya devo bhava (The Teacher is GOD) as one of its basic tenets and which revered teachers and placed a high premium on education is clearly rotting.

Given my yearning for learning, I have attended several virtual learning programs including the one conducted out of Berkeley (HAAS school of business) over the video conferencing/ web. Even though I am not a student in the campus, I am amazed at the dedication of the faculty and the overall support the institution provides. When will we get even close?

The Times of India in a hard hitting piece brings the point home.

A few weeks back, one of my brightest students who, for some reason, resisted going abroad, asked me: “What is the difference between universities in the West and here?” A direct question on a subject like this can be difficult to answer.

There are visible differences determined by the funds at one’s disposal. But are there deeper ones? I tried to recall my experience as a student abroad and compared that to what my students in India go through. I zeroed in on two points.

The first concerns teaching, or rather with how teachers perceive their role and relationship with students. In our colleges and universities the proportion of teachers who prepare seriously for their classes is rather small.

Delivering a lecture is reduced to a routine, to the extent that one doesn’t think about individual classes, let alone individual students. The emphasis is on the number of lectures one delivers per week, not on their quality.

Even in cases where the quality is high because the teacher is an active scholar, interaction with students is minimal and concern for individual students and their progress is rare.

This is in sharp contrast to the treatment of students in the West. In most European and North American universities, each student is made to feel involved in the progress of the course. A lot of first-hand reading and writing is expected from everyone.

The teacher is expected to respond to each student’s writing as many times as the course calls for. Comments made on the student’s writing are not of a routine nature; rather, they convey the teacher’s incremental impression of the student’s work, including the reading done. As a student advances to higher levels, the teacher’s responsibility and involvement increases.

This is in sharp contrast to our universities where most doctoral students pine in vain for regular guidance. The teacher-student relationship here is a subset of the larger institutional ethos.

In universities, it is negative from day one when the student runs from one window to the next, completing admission chores. Regular teaching begins weeks after the academic session has officially started and remains sporadic.

Research students wait for months to receive their advisor’s comment which often turns out to be perfunctory.

Most teachers don’t care for their students’ intellectual progress or emotional well-being. The absence of kindness and concern in teachers’ behaviour is not confined to universities, as the recent spate of reports on severe corporal punishment shows.

The second major difference between universities overseas and ours concerns the condition of libraries. Why our libraries are so bad is a puzzle which cannot be explained by citing the paucity of funds alone.

I knew a librarian who was well-trained and cared for reading, but apparently did little to save his library from rapid decline. He said: “Most of our students study for marks and they can get marks without using the library”. What about teachers?

The frustrated man showed me records of books that teachers had borrowed over 10 years ago. Reminders and fines were of no avail.

The joy of browsing in a library remains alien to most of our students. Neither the syllabus nor the pedagogic relationship with teachers impels students to self-exploration.

As philosopher Mrinal Miri has pointed out, one can get through our system and do well, without coming across a single uplifting idea which can be sustained for a while. To get their entrance ticket for the examination hall, students are required to surrender their library tickets and obtain a ‘no objection certificate’.

This procedure shows how little we trust our students. We assume them to be cheats who run away with books. This attitude reflects the colonial character of our universities.

They have done little to overcome this legacy. They exist like relics of a bygone era, serving essentially as expensive babysitters for teenagers. It is a rare youngster who survives our higher education with self-esteem and a dream. Is it a surprise that such students normally want to proceed abroad to realise their dream?

Even while going abroad they face obstacles. American universities do not trust our mark sheets. They ask for a transcript freshly typed out and signed by the head of the relevant department. For this service, departments and colleges charge a bewildering variety of fees, ranging from Rs 25 to Rs 400 per copy.

The money is not all; the student must wait for days and run the stressful risk of losing the chance to go. In a recent case where the student had lost all hope of getting the transcript signed by the head of her alma mater, an authority no less than the vice-chancellor had to intervene. Mercy was finally shown but not without a farewell insult for using a short cut.

An alumnus who now resides in the US was less lucky. Her application for admission to a new course could not meet the
deadline because her old university in India failed to send a fresh transcript of the degree she had earned 15 years ago.

Should we be surprised that India did poorly in a recent ranking of the world’s 200 best universities?

I just saw another piece here which was equally heart rending. I am sure we all know someone at least remotely similar to these characters, but that doesn’t make it less tragic

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