Thursday, March 31, 2011

Water Water everywhere ......

........ Nor any drop to drink, goes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. He could very well be describing the labour situation in India. It seems to be one of perennial shortage. How can this be ?

After all, India is a land of 1.2 billion people. The unemployment rate is officially at 9.4 %, but we all know that the real number is much higher. This is because of seasonal employment in agriculture and unemployment outside the seasons. Underemployment is even higher - getting some job just to exist, but capable of doing much more. While India's growth is impressive in recent years, it has created nowhere near the number of new jobs required to cater to the number of people entering the job market every year. And India is a young country, not an ageing one. More and more people join the workforce each year.  The unemployment situation is so acute that the government runs a hugely expensive National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. And yet, ask any company what their biggest problem is - finding people to work for them and then staying.

At the more skilled levels, this talent shortage is easy to understand. The education system, despite all the improvements in recent years, is woefully inadequate. So talent is in real shortage. That's why you see the scarcity of talent to fill skilled jobs. At any level of skills (I am not talking just of IT here, but plumbers, fitters, draughtsmen, etc) you can command multiple jobs. Employers chase you rather than the other way around.  That is, at least, somewhat understandable.

But what about unskilled jobs - jobs that require no skill at all. Jobs like a security guard who is now ubiquitous in every building. Cleaners, maids, etc. There is a huge shortage of people even here and attrition rates are the highest in this sector (some 10-15% a month !). This foxes me.

There are some reasons for this phenomenon. The obvious one is that  jobs are in urban India while most of the labour is in rural India. While there are a lot of migrant workers, it becomes increasingly a very costly option for the worker due to one simple fact - the cost of housing is simply unaffordable. Even a place in an awful slum living in appalling conditions costs a lifetime of earnings. But another more important reason in my view is the increasing unwillingness to work hard. That's why a Railway clerk position attracts a stampede of applicants, but a field salesman's job in a private company is not so attractive.

There are really only two solutions to balance the demand supply equation. The first is education. On a massive scale. About 10 times the level at which it is today. This is a job for both government and private industry. And secondly to take jobs away from urban into rural areas. The only sector that can do this on scale is manufacturing. A huge lobby, fueled by misguided NGOs, is blocking this by resisting every land transfer from agriculture to industry.

Meanwhile, in this land of 1.2 billion people, we still can't find enough workers to man our jobs.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In praise of HR: The soft stuff can actually lead to some hard competitive advantage

It’s not easy being an HR executive. Just when you are about to applaud the cultural compatibility of a proposed merger someone starts talking about upstream synergies in the value chain. Or you unveil an innovative executive training programmed and boardroom colleagues question its net present value and pay-back time calculation. Or there is a crisis and the company needs to cut costs, so your desk is their first stop, since surely training, recruitment and work-life programmers are easily expendable?

Such attitudes are common, but they are also evidence of startling business naivety. A company’s real, sustainable competitive advantage is almost always based on the softer, intangible parts that HR executives care about – and very seldom on the hard stuff that’s easier to capture in numbers, such as production capacity, cash reserves or even brand recognition.

The hard stuff is often also the easiest to imitate. Production capacity, stock and sales points are things money can buy. A skilled and motivated workforce, a company culture which draws commitment and loyalty and effective informal networks and processes, are much harder to emulate, no matter how much money you have.

In fact the world of business is full of habits and beliefs which are taken for granted and rarely questioned. As an academic, I like to examine the research evidence about what actually happens in the real world of business – rather than what executives and consultants think should happen. Much of the evidence shows that HR practices do indeed have bottom line value. Here are a few of my favorite examples.

Downsizing (almost) never works. But good HR practices will be one of the success factors

Firms engage in downsizing to boost their profitability. But does it work? It has obvious advantages – waving the hatchet lowers headcount quite effectively and leaves you with lower staff costs. But there are some risky potential disadvantages, such as lower commitment and loyalty among the survivors. Academic studies indicate unwelcome rises in voluntary turnover rates after downsizing, often leaving a company leaner (and lamer) than intended.

Professors Charlie Trevor and Anthony Nyberg from the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to examine who could get away with a downsizing programmed or, put differently, what sort of companies did not suffer from a surge in voluntary turnover following a downsizing programmed. The answer was pretty clear: companies that had a history of HR practices that were aimed at assuring procedural fairness and justice – such as having an ombudsman who is designated to address employee complaints; confidential hotlines for problem resolution; the existence of grievance or appeal processes for non-union employees, etc. – did not see their turnover heighten after a downsizing effort. Companies with good work-life balance benefits – such as paid sabbaticals, on-site childcare, defined benefit plans, and flexible working patterns – also did much better. The surviving employees were more understanding of the company’s efforts, had higher commitment, and were confident that the downsizing effort had been fair and unavoidable.

So downsizing can work; but only if you have previously taken commitment to your people seriously.

The individual star never outweighs the organizational environment

Another myth which non-HR executives tend to harbor, is that star employees can easily take their virtual Rolodex and join a competitor – where they will make them just as much money as they did for you.

This is a painful underestimation of the value of a well-designed organization, and overplays the supposed portability of many star employees. Professor Boris Groysberg from the Harvard Business School examined top performing security analysts and what happened to their performance when they moved to another firm (for an even higher pay cheque); it pretty much always plummeted.

Even security analysts (who are often thought to be able to take their skills anywhere) were much more dependent on the specifics of the organization in which they were embedded than they, and their employers, realized. Hence, careful, firm-specific HR practices help certain individuals perform better – and they can’t just replicate that business in another company.

Losing a star performer can be a good thing – especially if they go to a client

Many top executives are just as frightened of clients or customers poaching their top employees, as they are of competitors’ advances. And, of course, losing your well-trained, top-performing employees is hardly ideal.

However, there is definitely a potential upside – as Professors Deepak Somaya, Ian Williamson and Natalia Lorinkova discovered. They examined the movement of patent attorneys between 123 US law firms and 109 Fortune 500 companies from a variety of industries. And they found strong evidence that if a client company recruited a patent attorney from a law firm, that law firm would start to get significantly more business from that company.

Hence, your employees leaving for your clients can be a good thing; they bring you valuable business. McKinsey understands and manages this process particularly well; when you leave McKinsey you automatically become an alumnus of the firm (rather than a deserter). The firm carefully nourishes its relationship with alumni, because they subsequently bring a large chunk of their business through the door.

Soft initiatives have real shareholder value

The final persistent myth that HR skeptics favor, is that HR costs money and that shareholders do not appreciate all sorts of soft measures, such as work-life programs. That used to be true in a bygone era, but no more.

For example, Professor Michelle Arthur, from the University of New Mexico, set out to examine stock market reactions to the announcement of Fortune 500 firms adopting such work-family initiatives. The results were very clear. In the early 1980s, the stock market would hardly react at all to such soft and fluffy initiatives; if anything the effect of the announcement on a firm’s share price was slightly negative (-.35%). However, that changed into the 1990s, when announcement of a work-family initiative caused an immediate rise in stock price by, on average, .48%. That may seem peanuts at first sight, but if you are a £5 billion company, it implies that even one such initiative would immediately increase the value of your firm by £24 million.

So executives who question the (shareholder) value of work-life initiatives are simply stuck in the 1980s; nowadays even the stock market recognizes their value.

Why isn’t this HR wisdom more widely accepted?

You may know the story of the inebriated cyclist searching for his bicycle keys under the lamppost, although he knows he lost them somewhere else. He tells a passer-by that he is looking for them under the lamppost because “it is light there, and I will never be able to find them in the dark” (where he had actually lost them). The story reminds me of the executive who is trying to solve a company crisis or gain a competitive advantage by managing the things that can easily be measured (production capacity, headcount, profit & loss). Those things may be easy to observe and influence but they are seldom the real root of the problem, nor do they really harness your competitive advantage.

To do that, you have to look where things are much more difficult to measure and manage – to the loyalty of your workforce, their motivation and job skills. Manage those things well and you are truly entering the light.

The Business March 30th 2011, "Cantrell-Versial" Edition

The final Business show in a triumphant month of March features special guest Rob Cantrell! Rob made his standup comedy bones in his adopted hometown of San Francisco before leaving for fame and fortune elsewhere. Said fame and fortune includes "Last Comic Standing," "The Marijuana-Logues," and a performance film - "Metaphysical Graffiti – A Road Movie" - that screened at the Cannes Film Festival. He's a contributing writer for High Times magazine, and he's got an album called "Keep On The Grass," which was recorded right here in San Francisco.

We've also got Chris Garcia, Bucky Sinister, Sean Keane, and Chris Thayer, along with comfortable theater seating, and convenient access to Cancun Taqueria. As always, admission is just five American dollars. See you there, America.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The titanic struggle

This blogger is extremely bleary eyed and prickly these days. Nocturnal slumber is not coming easy. No, we are not afflicted with the weighty travails of modern business ; we are letting younger and more energetic men and women shoulder such onerous responsibilities. (Notice the royal "we" ; high praise by this blogger in the last post has completely gone into the head ! ) No affliction of the body either. And yet, repose eludes. The villain is a certain creature that God created to inflict misery on man.

When confronted with this creature, pressing matters of the business world fly out of the window. Affairs of the state be damned. All concentration is on the futile act of achieving extermination of this malevolent species. This blog therefore takes a holiday from business until this emergency can be tackled.

You see, the business world has already got well into the class warfare of man against this torturer. First came coils that emitted smoke, which presumably the creature did not like. But smoky bedrooms, however romantic, do not necessarily aid slumber. So the industry graduated to mats which you heat on a contraption they provide. This apparently fooled the creature into believing you are not there. For a time this worked. But then Rajalakshmi - she of the gargantuan proportions - cannot easily fool somebody into believing that she does not exist. Meanwhile the businessmen moved on to "more improved", "new" and "revolutionary" products. You see they like to dilute everything with water if they can. So they started selling liquids that could also be heated on a special contraption and could drive away the menace. You can get them lavender scented, pine scented, lemon fresh, strawberry coloured etc etc. They might be very attractive to human sensibilities, but the blasted creature is least intimidated and merrily continues to torture unsuspecting human beings.

Experienced hands know that there are two types. There is the silent operator who you don't discover until an unbearable itch signals that the enemy has come and gone. Then there is the other type who has musical tendencies and decides to give you a full rendition of the octave. While music is always welcome, its not so pleasant in the hours when the body is weary, especially if such music is rendered two inches from your nose. Both are now merrily eluding all of human invention designed to keep them at bay. So what do I do ?

I've been through the entire gamut of solids and liquids, but my resident enemy simply laughs them away. Some creams and potions have also been prescribed, but other than a repulsive smell , do little good (discerning readers may note that all cream and potions, of whatever variety and sold for whatever reason to the gullible female of the species, achieve precisely the same result !) Sympathisers have assured me that in summer, these creatures vanish ; but then its rather hot in Bangalore these days and the taps have gone dry and yet our tormentor seems to be alive and kicking.

Advanced experts have prescribed body armour (otherwise called the net) as the only foolproof solution. But then the enemy wishes to join inside the armour. If you look rather closely, you might notice an unathletic man trying to contort himself into the body armour without allowing the oppressor in ; and failing spectacularly !

A kindly soul has attempted to comfort me that the singular attraction the scoundrel seems to have for me is simply because I'm "sweet"! While that did wonders for the soul, it does precious little for the body. The suffering continues.

I call upon the youth of the world to unite. Onwards to battle stations. To a war, even more important than Afghanistan, although both share the same trouble of being unwinnable. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender (with due apologies to Winston Churchill) !

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The price of obesity: How your salary depends on your weight

The world of business is still rife with discrimination. Women get paid less than men, people who are physically attractive earn more and are more likely to be seen as suitable leaders, and race determines chances of promotion. The business world in that sense is no different than other walks of life.

And the latter category – obesity – seems one of the nastier ones. Where discrimination based on race, religion or gender are at least generally looked upon as despicable, it seems much more socially acceptable to look different upon people based on their weight.

Obesity and income

Various studies have shown that overweight people are seen as less conscientious, less agreeable, less emotionally stable, less productive, lazy, lacking in self-discipline, and even dishonest, sloppy, ugly, socially unattractive, and sexually unskilled; the list goes on and on.* The stereotypes run so deep that even obese people hold these same discriminatory beliefs about other obese people. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that research has provided strong evidence that obese people are paid less than their slimmer counterparts.

However, my colleague at the London Business School, Dan Cable, and his co-author Timothy Judge from the University of Florida, suspected that this (generally) negative body weight–remuneration relationship might be different for men than for women. After all, as their overview of prior research on the topic revealed, the body weight standards that our media portray for women are considerably thinner than the actual female population, and often even thinner than the criteria for anorexia. Instead, the body weight standards for men represent a much proportional physique.

In order to examine this conjecture, they carefully collected weight and income data on 11,253 German employees and, in another study, on 12,686 American workers; the latter who were measured no less than 15 times over a period of 25 years, to also see how change in weight was related to changes in income. Then, they split the data and their statistical models into men and women. And the results clearly showed that men were treated differently than women; also when it comes to their income and weight.

Skinny women versus skinny men

Skinny women got paid substantially higher salaries than heavier women, yet this relationship was much less pronounced at the higher ends of the scale. Meaning that a female employee weighing 50 kilograms would get paid substantially more than someone weighing 60 kilograms, but the difference between 70 and 80 was much less severe. That’s probably because – as Dan and Tim put it – “the social preferences for a feminine body have already been violated”; you’re either skinny or not, but once you’re over the (rather extreme) threshold, we don’t care much anymore about the number on your scale.

Yet, this relationship looked very different for men. In contrast to the women in the sample, men of moderate weight would get paid substantially more than skinny men. But such a man of average weight would also get paid quite a bit more than an obese person. Hence, being skinny for a woman would mean more dosh, but for men it would mean less money – all in the order of magnitude of $10,000-15,000 per year.

Skinny men, indeed, are often regarded as nervous, sneaky, afraid, sad, weak, and sick, where men of well-proportioned build are associated with traits such as having lots of friends, being happy, polite, helpful, brave, smart, and neat. Dan and Timothy concluded that the media – in the broad form of magazines, fashion shows, actors and actresses, beauty pageants, Barbie dolls and GI Joes – distort our views of what is to be considered normal, and that the ripples of these views can be felt all the way onto our pay slip and bank account.

* For a thorough overview of all these findings, see Judge & Cable. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2010.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tag is what you make it

Something is happening in the blogworld. The female species which loves to start tags asking such earth shattering questions as "What are you wearing" seems to have vanished. No tags have been floating around for a year or so now - presumably the undying curiosity as to what you are wearing has been satiated. The holiday has now been broken by a tag from the star blogger cum author cum artist Preeti in this post of hers. No choice but to pick it up and as usual twist it to suit an allegedly business blog.

The rules , I am obliged to post, are

  1. The tag has three parts..Movies,Music, Books/ Authors
  2. Write a movie, book and author with each alphabet of your first name. The book, movie or song should be one that you really liked. If you say why it matters to you, it would be great! We will all discover new songs, movies and books this way.
  3. Tag as many people as there are letters in your name. (if your name has 4 letters, you have to tag 4 people and so on)
  4. Mention that the tag originated here and link back to this post :-)
  5. Copy paste these rules :)

Here goes. (sorry Preeti there's no way I can manage the alphabets of my name, but at least there are 6 choices each). All choices are from the 1900s, in keeping with my "image"!!

Movies :

In the business world, movies are the ads - there's a famous definition that every advertising type is a failed movie maker ! Here are six ads that came to mind (no apologies for the retro feel !)

1. Liril : The ad that came in the late seventies is probably the best ad of all time in India. It simply took the country by storm, when it hit the air. The ad was so successful that Levers paid Karen Lunel not to model ever for any other brand - she'll forever be the Liril girl. Remember, those days there wasn't much TV and the ad was aired in movie halls. It has reputedly been seen more times than Sholay !! See the ad here

2. Rasna : If you are from a certain generation, Ankita Jhaveri was a household name. I love you Rasna, or atleast, everybody loved Ankita. Ad's here.

3. Lalitaji : Never liked this ad, but it sold a million cases of washing powder. The lady in the ad, I'd run a million miles from. This is the ad.

4. Amul : Not a TV ad, but this series of hoardings has been going on for some 35 years. Brilliant and everybody in India has seen them. All the gems can be seen here.

5. Apple's 1984 : The ad that launched the Mac in 1984. One of the all time great ads. Watch it here.

6. Ericsson : An old Ericsson mobile phone ad that was the rage at that time. Shows how you can hook a viewer even in 30 seconds. See it here.


There are some ad jingles that stay in your mind for years. Here are a few of them.

1. British Airways : The jingle that was from Yanni's Aria. Listen to the ad here. Brilliant tune that helped set one of the greatest commercials of all time. To see the whole rendition of the Aria by Yanni click here. - it is beautiful music.

2. Close Up - The incredible jingle by Walter Navarro - come a little closer baby , smile for me. It was used on the radio in India in the 70s - has me humming it even now. Don't miss this song here.

3. Nirma : The jingle that pitted a David (Nirma) against the Goliath (Levers). The jingle was mainly on the radio those days, but ran as the music for Nirma ads for 20 years. Its here.

4. Gold Spot : Very catchy jingle. See the ad and hear the jingle it here.

5. Nescafe : Come Alive Come Alive Come alive with Nescafe. I can hum the jingle even now , but I simply can't find it anywhere on the Net. A radio jingle from the 70s or early 80s I think.

6. Benazir Bhutto : The famous zong, teer bijan, is actually a commercial made by the Pakistan People's Party for the 1988 elections. Great song. The video is eminently forgettable but the song is brilliant . Watch it here.

Books :

Business books are usually boring pedantic stuff and entirely unreadable. They are usually bought to be displayed, but rarely read. There are a few however that are very nice and that I have actually read ! Six of them are

1. Parkinson's Law : Absolutely brilliant. Small book of only 100 odd pages written long long ago. Incredibly humorous and a must read.

2. Barbarians at the Gate : The story of the 1980s takeover of RJR Nabisco. Told like a fiction novel. You can't put this book down.

3. Punjabi Saga : The trilogy that Prakash Tandon, the first Indian Chairman of Levers wrote. Its an autobiography, but is a fascinating insight into Punjabi Society as well as business. Beautiful book , especially for anybody who has worked in Levers.

4. Who moved my cheese : Again a short slim book that powerfully brought home the message about change.

5. In Search of Excellence : An all time classic by Tom Peters.

6. Control your destiny or someone else will : The unofficial GE leadership handbook that's based on Jack Welch.

In keeping with my usual practice, I won;t tage anybody by name, but all you folks out there - Gils. Zeno, Sandhya, RamMmm, Vishal, Hema, AJCL, ..... , pick it up if you want to. If you do, go to Preeti's post to pick up the true tag - not the improvisation I have done here.

Phew. That took a lot of doing. Blessed with a short name, it was still difficult. Imagine the plight of somebody named Ramasubramaniahariharasubramaniathathachariar !!

Need a strong cuppa ......

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Big firm innovators: What large companies can do to be just as innovative as small entrepreneurial ones

Big companies are thought to rarely be the real innovators in an industry. Usually, radical change – whether a new technology or an entirely new business model – comes from outside the industry, and is introduced by an entrant into the field. On average that is true – research confirms it – and there are various reasons for that. It pertains to a phenomenon I called “collective inertia”; established players often seem paralysed when significant, paradigm-busting change is sweeping through their business.

Why big firms are often slow to adapt

That is because those existing players usually do not see an interest in destroying their own business and competitive advantage; newspapers were reluctant to move into on-line media because it cannabilised their existing business, traditional airlines were reluctant to embrace the low-cost model, and steel companies shunned away from minimill technology. These new technologies and business models ate into their current business and therefore they were not keen, to say the least.

There is often also a softer, almost psychological component to it. It pertains to phenomena such as the success trap, escalation of commitment, and the Icarus paradox in business. Years of continued success have wedded the firm to its own proven formula and business model, and the new, initially often inferior technology is not something they believe in and particularly want to get involved with.

Hence, we see that existing players in an industry usually are not the inventors of radical new innovations and often even late adopters – often too late… Quite a few of them do not survive the transformational turbulence in their business as a result of their own inertia.

However, Professors Lin Jiang and Marie Thursby from Georgia Tech and Justin Tan from York University discovered that there are some exceptions to this rule, and some incumbents do manage to be inventors during the stage of technological dirsruption. And that is pretty interesting, because those firms teach us what existing players can do to prevent missing the boat, and becoming obsolete when their environments change – a problem that clearly bugs many of them.

Big firm innovators

Lin, Justin, and Marie examined the semi-conductor industry, where the initial reliance on vacuum tubes was replaced by bipolar technology, which in turn was replaced by complementary metal-oxide semiconductors (CMOS). At present, that technology is under threat from nanotechnology. Using extensive patent analysis, Lin and colleagues examined which existing players did not succumb to the new entrants, and were able to contribute to the new technology. And they found three key, related characteristics:

First, the firms that were able to contribute significantly to fresh knowledge in the new and emerging domain had forced themselves to continue to scan for new technological areas. They had not just rested on their laurels, trying to make the most out of an existing technology. In spite of the technology not being under threat yet, their R&D engineers had continued to scan the environment for new, substitute technologies. And now this paid off.

Second, the firms that did manage to be inventors in the newly emerging domain had maintained a broad portfolio of alliances – specifically a portfolio of alliances that consisted of both firms that were pretty close to its current set of activities and firms that were in entirely different domains. Such a combination of alliance partners is thought to assure that the firm is exposed to really radically different things, but at the same time also to things that are more within its own familiar domain of comprehension!

Finally, the successful inventors had always maintained clear ties to sources of scientific knowledge in the public domain, by collaborating with university scientists, reading scientific publications, and so on.

Innovations usually consist of some form of recombination of other, existing sources of knowledge. The aforementioned results show that if existing, successful players in an industry force themselves to continue to access a variety of external knowledge sources – in the form of experimenting with new technologies, maintaining alliances, and accessing university sources – they can not only survive a radical change in their business but even contribute to it. Hence, do keep an active, open mind and door, and let knowledge flow in, even if you think you are currently doing just fine.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Business March 16th 2011 "Bucky's Gotta Brand New Book" Edition

Hey guys, it's another grand edition of The Business. This week, Bucky's new book shows up!

Still Standing is another self-help book in the tradition of Get Up, his previous title. It's about addiction and recovery but with his trademark humor and sarcastic wit.

Last Gasp will be there selling books so we should be able to take credit cards. But It's always easiest to bring good old fashioned cash. Confederate script not accepted. War's over, rebel army.

Also joining Bucky are regulars Chris "The Cuban Divac" Garcia, Sean "Pooh" Keane, and Chris "Mind Flayer" Thayer. Actually those aren't their nicknames, but would be pretty cool if you ask me.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Beware bloggers; Ramamritham is after you

Readers of this blog are familiar with the mythical Ramamritham - the ubiquitous bureaucrat who frames awful rules and procedures. You can refresh your familiarity with this character here . Frequently this pest merely frames irritating rules that makes lives miserable, but rarely does he do direct harm. But this time he has outdone himself with his mischief and and is now proving to be a real menace. I am referring to the amendments he has proposed to the Indian IT Act, blandly named as the Draft Rule under Section 79 (nobody accused Ramamritham of possessing imagination)

Strip away the legalese and the implications are this
  • the government can shut down any website, including blogs, for the vaguest of reasons
  • Bloggers are responsible to censor reader comments ; if somebody comments inappropriately, its the blogger's problem
  • Intermediaries have to do due diligence on all user material. So presumably the ISP should shut you off if you show your finger to Ramamritham
  • Only an idiot will open a cyber cafe - the risks are simply not worth it.
Government censorship of the Internet is a worldwide problem. Regimes are struggling with how to tame the beast which they seldom understand. The ubiquity and speed of the net is something that is deeply unsettling. Hence this problem of censorship, which is creeping all over the world.

India's justification with censorship of the net started with terrorism. Because terrorists use the internet, it has to be policed, went the logic. It then extended to pornography. Clothed under such "laudable" aims, Ramamritham, in his trademark style has completely gone overboard. Consider the rules he is framing for cybercafes for example.
  • A cyber cafe has to obtain a special license (neta babu raj is back)
  • He must keep a hard and soft copy of log of all users in a prescribed format and must submit monthly returns to the licensing agency of all the websites that each user went to !!!
  • Partitions in the cafe cannot exceed 4.5 feet in height (presumably so that Ramamritham can peer and see if the user is looking at dirty pictures)
  • All screens of computers shall face outwards; so that they can be easily seen by others
  • Police inspectors are authorised to come and inspect whether these rules are being followed (we all know what that means in India)

I haven't made all these up - these are in the Draft Rules. If you don't believe me you can read the bland document here. No wonder you rarely see any reasonable standard internet cafe in India.

The real danger to bloggers is this - if you offend the powers that be, they now have the legal right to hound you. Its no good to say that these powers are meant to be used only to block terrorism or incitement to hatred. The fact that these powers exist means that they will be misused. The history of Ramamritham indicates that he cannot resist using a power he has.

The right way in a democracy to stop this is to lobby your elected representative so that the bill is defeated in the parliament. Fat chance. Imagine a reasoned debate between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Azhagiri on the need to protect individual liberty. So we can only, but moan, in forums such as these.

I though I had returned back from China. Evidently, I haven't. Perhaps the only really "safe" place to go is to that blessed land where the First Amendment is guarded with unbelievable diligence and vigour. Meanwhile, dear readers, do me a favour. Please preface every comment of yours with " The Government of India is next only to God; Hail Ramamritham ; More power to him ". You'll help keep me out of jail. Thank you !

PS - For a more reasoned and less frivolous reporting of the issue go here and here
PPS - Disclaimer - Ramamritham is entirely mythical and any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely accidental !

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Business, March 9th 2011 "The San Francisco Shuffle" Edition

The Business pulls a fast one this week, as we jettison three regular business men, welcome three irregular special guests and install a new “intern”

...and we do it all for you.

Alex, Chris and Sean are off to make the world outside the Dark Room smile, while Buck holds down the fort with the following delightful additions:

Beth Stelling visits The Business from Chicago, hoping to make San Francisco as a-flutter about her as her home town is. She was named the Best Stand-up Comedian by The Chicago Reader, The Chicago Tribune has listed her as a “Comedian to Watch” and she’s the youngest comic listed on’s “Top 20 Stand-up Comedians in Chicago”. All this while stealing the show at Just For Laughs Chicago and running a popular show called “Entertaining Julia”

Just Morgan (no
t to be confused with championship skimboarder Morgan Just) is in her own words “A 58 year old transgendered woman just telling the truth...” And what truth it is. Morgan is a favorite at Harvey's in the Castro, the Lookout, and she was recently featured at the very popular "Fags n Hags" show at the SF Punchline.

Returning to the Business is everyone’s favorite Marshmallow Peep enthusiast Kevin Hancock. Kevin has been around the SF Comedy scene for years. He works all the major clubs in town (The Gold Club, The Cat Club, The Hot Sauce of the Month Club), and is the host of "Pretty Good Not Much" a very funny radio program on Pirate Cat Radio.

with Alex traveling around the country with the next month or so like a modern day Johnny Joke-seed, The Business is proud to bring on Chris Thayer as his “understudy.” Thayer is also no stranger to the Business, making memorable past appearances that have endeared him to us all in a skinny, creepy way.

As always
, The Business is totally five bucks, totally at 8pm and totally not BYOB anymore, but totally get your taco on across the street. Totally.

Check out for 2 for 1 coupons!

Flawed remuneration: Large bonuses don’t get the job done

The so-called “Yerkes-Dodson law”, not surprisingly, is named after two people called Yerkes and Dodson. Robert Yerkes and John Dodson worked as psychobiologists in the beginning of the previous century. They studied animal behaviour, among others, to try and understand the behaviour of humans.

Rats and electrical shocks

In one of their experiments – in 1908 – they placed a bunch of rats in a cage in order for them to explore one of two passages. One passage, labeled with a white card, contained a reward while the other one, labeled with a black card, led to an electrical shock. They wanted to test how quickly the rats figured out that white was a good thing, while black passages were to be avoided.
The one thing they varied was the voltage of the shock. Some rats received a mild shock which was not much more than a tickle, others were subjected to a shock of an intermediate level, while the third group was nearly fried to death each time the poor suckers merely sniffed at the black passage. Then Yerkes and Dodson compared the results.

Initially, as expected, higher shocks stimulated the rats to learn quicker; rats that received an intermediate shock were quicker to put into their tiny rat brains that black was to be avoided than the animals that received only a minor electrical stimulant. However, then it got interesting (rather than only cruel). The rats that received the high voltage fast-frying shock were much slower at performing the task. It took them much longer to figure out that white was good and black was bad – although they clearly had the highest incentives of all.

Apparently, making the stakes very high hampered these animals’ task performance, rather than making it better. And I could not help but wonder whether this same relationship as found in rats might not apply to, say, bankers.

Bankers and bonuses

Professor Dan Ariely, from Duke University, together with some colleagues designed a series of experiments with humans (rather than with rats) and with monetary rewards (rather than – to my slight disappointment – electrical shocks), to test what the relationship is for us humans between high incentives and task performance. That’s interesting because there are of course a lot of jobs around with pay-for-performance, for which we assume that high pay provides an incentive that leads to higher performance. However, it did not. Apparently, we’re the same as rats.

Dan and colleagues performed most of their experiments in India, where the financial rewards they gave for successfully completing a task could really represent a small fortune for a respondent. Believe me; these people were really motivated to get it right. As expected – and as for the rats – increasing the “pay for performance” relationship initially led to better task results. However, when the stakes were really high, people crumbled and could not get the job done. Apparently, a very stiff pay-for-performance relationship, paying people a near obscene amount of money if they succeed, actually make them less likely to perform well. It is not that these people are not motivated; they are too motivated. The very high pay killed their creativity, clogged their memory, and made them unable to solve the problem at hand. People who received less money for the same task did much better.

We assume that pay-for-performance motivates people, and motivation leads to better performance. However, the last step appears to be a flawed assumption. Large pay can surely motivate people, but too much motivation decreases their task performance. Hence, large task incentives like bonuses – used for traders, bankers an in many other industries – can be counterproductive. They cost you lots of money, but don’t get the job done.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The farewell

It was his D Day. The day when he was to retire from his company. Precisely 25 years ago he had joined as a wide eyed young boy, to become a salesman. Coincidentally, on his first day in office, there was a farewell for a retiring colleague that day. There was a huge crowd. Speaker after speaker came up and extolled the virtues of the retiring man. A huge gift was presented. Many photos were taken. A few tears were shed too. The young man looked on in awe. His boss to be, nudged him and said, "Remember this young man; when its your time to retire from the company you should have done well enough to deserve a function like this ".

The young man started in all earnest the next day. He worked hard and learnt fast.Some days were good; others bad. He traveled many a kilometer, slept in many a strange bed, sold a million cases. The years flew by. After a decade or so he was promoted as a supervisor. He was proud as a parrot that he got promoted. He worked even harder. Nurtured dozens of young men who started out, just like he had , years ago. More years flew by. And suddenly, one fine day, he realised he had turned fifty. And had just completed 25 years in the company.

On that birthday, his wife nagged him to take a day's leave. So at home he stayed. That's why when the postman came, he was there to receive the letter in person. The letter from the company that said that , being fifty, he was being offered Voluntary Retirement. Could he please accept it and come to the office on the 31st of that month so that they could give him a farewell.

What choice did he have ? Its was a young man's world. There wasn't a place for the over 50s. He had to accept. Came that fateful day. He wended his way to the office. He remembered his first day when he had witnessed that grand farewell, all those years ago. Now, it was his turn. With a wistful sigh he went in.

Of course, nobody recognised him. Whoever recognises a sales guy from the field ? The pretty young thing at the reception made a face at this rather unsophisticated fellow who had come. When he said that he had come for his farewell, he was ushered into a room. And told to wait. The Branch Manager was busy on a call and would be late.

He waited and waited and waited. All alone. At long last, somebody came to fetch him. There were 15 people in the hall. He didn't recognise a soul. Most of the office had gone home - who was after all interested in the farewell for an old foggy, whom they had never even seen before. The Branch Manager came rushing in - he was a yuppy. MBA from somewhere. He loudly proclaimed, "Lets get this thing started. We need to finish fast as I have to get into another meeting ".

The Manager made a speech. Some 3 minutes or so. Of how the company was built by people such as the one to retire. He hadn't remembered his name. So he said - "this man". They had forgotten to get him his farewell gift. The HR type whispered in his ear - could he come after a week to collect it please. They had been very busy these days. Then came the dreaded moment. When he was invited to "say a few words".

You see , he had prepared his retirement speech very carefully. He had written and rewritten it some 10 times. Of how this was a great company. Of how he owed his entire life to the organisation. He wanted to talk about the good old days. He wanted to say why its values and caring were the reason he had stuck on for so long. He wanted to narrate the incident on his own first day. He wanted to tell the young people, how they could carry on his legacy and make the company even greater. He had even written a quote from the Gita to round off his speech.

When his moment came, however, he looked rather sadly around the room. The crowd had whittled down to 9 - a few had left to catch the bus. One was talking on the mobile; another was texting away. He folded his speech and put it back into his pocket. Instead he just thanked everybody for coming, of how much it meant to him and wished them all well. They came around to shake his hand and patted his back. Somebody thrust a cup of coffee in his hand. And in a few minutes everybody had left. He was alone in the room again.

He slowly made his way to the exit. All alone. A stoop had come to his shoulders. His thoughts were far away. His step was a tad slower, minus his customary spring. He paused for a moment at the door. A single tear dropped down on to the floor.

The itsy bitsy spider

Businesses have to anticipate and plan for all sorts of eventualities. A business continuity plan for an ebola outbreak or a response to gang warfare in the Niger delta may raise an eyebrow as to the extremes businesses go. But surely, planning a national response to an itsy bitsy spider takes the cake. And yet this is precisely what Mazda is discovering it ought to have done in the US of A.

The problem is this. Apparently a common spider called yellow sac spider has taken a distinct liking for Mazda cars. Or more precisely, the rubber hoses that are connected to the fuel tank. The spiders being rather fond of a long siesta during day time, find the inside of a tube the perfect place for somnolence in the hours of light. For some reason, the Mazda car tubes seem a superior choice to a Chevy tube, for instance.This apparently can lead to pressurisation or ventilation problems and in extreme cases could also crack the gas tank. So, Mazda has a problem on its hands.

Reportedly 20 such instances of "arachnid infestation" have been reported (surely a candidate for the Nonsense English award). Enough is enough. Mazda is having to recall 65,000 vehicles in the US for an investigation as to whether an eviction of the resident yellow sac spider is required.

Accusations are flying thick and fast. Mazda says these spiders have got in at the owner's garages. Some owners (and no doubt lawyers drooling on the prospect of a class action suit) are stating that they got in at Mazda's warehouse. Dealers who have to check these vehicles are figuring out what insurance they can take for the eventuality that some technician or the other may be bitten by one irate spider not amused by its summary eviction from its house. Mazda is no doubt issuing such pearls of wisdom as "Beware of spider before opening the car".

Meanwhile researchers are having a field day. They are getting their kicks researching why this spider has taken a liking to only the V6 Mazda, And not to any other model or any other brand. Some may deduce that the spider has a great taste in choosing cars - someday Mazda might even feature an ad that its car is the favourite of not only homo sapines, but other species as well.

Meanwhile Mazda is presumably busy trying to appoint a "Chief Entomology Officer". Anybody fancies this new job, which also carries the CEO tag ???

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Business, March 2nd 2011 "THE Jarrod Harris" Edition

The Business is kicking off the month of March with special out of town guest Jarrod Harris!

Mr. Harris is visiting us from Los Angeles, but he's originally from the Deep South. By "Deep" we're referring to the part of the south Nietzsche is from. Atlanta!

You may have seen Jarrod on the 4th season of Comedy Central's Live at Gotham. He placed 4th in the San Francisco International Comedy Competition and he was recently awarded a "Best of the Fest" nod at the 2010 Detroit Comedy Festival. But wait. There's more!

We'll also have 3 out of our 4 regular cast of characters you've grown to love: Bucky, Chris, and Sean. Alex will not be in attendance. He'll be at the San Francisco Punchline featuring for Chris Hardwick. Fancy!

As always, our show is only $5 and starts at 8pm. We are no longer BYOB (Thanks, Al Qaeda!), so consider shotgunning a two week old Kombucha and grabbing a Cancun Burrito from across the street. Aztec style!