Archive for January, 2010

Solving The Last Mile Problem

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Like me, most automobile drivers might find GPS navigation systems more useful to reach a particular place rather than to find the way to the general area in which the place is located, for example, 98 Meridian Place rather than Docklands in London. Similarly, when they’re driving from one city to another, they might be able to reach a city (say, London) with minimal use of GPS whereas they’d find the gadget indispensable in finding the way to a specific area (e.g. Docklands) within the city. The same holds good with maps of public transport systems, especially when it comes to tubes that run below the ground most of the time, thus leaving their commuters with very little sense of the area surrounding the destination station.

From these examples, it seems evident that directions for the proverbial “last mile” leading up to a particular place are more important than those for the earlier part of a journey. Then, how come when you ask people for directions, many of them ask you, “where are you coming from?” Is it because giving directions is an art, which only a minority of people has mastered?

Whenever someone wants to know where I’d be coming from before they begin to give me directions to their office or home, I suspect that I’ve encountered the majority. I renew my search for the rare person who knows, like the Cheshire-Cat in Alice in Wonderland, that the route to anywhere really “depends upon where you want to go” and can start giving directions by anchoring the destination by relating it to landmarks that anyone would know in its vicinity. 

If only the staff attached to India’s Finance Minister had kept this in mind, the honorable minister wouldn’t have landed up in the wrong Trident hotel located in (a placed called) Nariman Point in Bombay / Mumbai, some two hours away from the newly built Trident hotel in (another place called) BKC the inauguration ceremony of which he was to attend last month! Maybe, like street addresses that begin with the door number (e.g. 98 Meridian Place), then go on to the area (Docklands) before finally mentioning the city (London), hotels should also mention the area first viz. call it BKC Trident instead of Trident BKC? In case brand managers fear that such a change in the naming convention might lead to a relegation of their brands, I refer them to this article in the Economic Times, which holds that the Trident incident “must be seen as a pitfall of overbranding by hotels”.

Differentiate By Catalyzing Executive Mandate

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

“Executive mandate” is often cited as a critical success factor for virtually all kinds of information technology projects.

Whether it involves the development of custom solutions or implementation of ERP or any other type of packaged software, “top management commitment” – which is another term by which executive mandate is sometimes expressed – often finds a mention in many lists of top criteria for ensuring success of a technology initiative.

Such lists also include other criteria, some of which are specific to the nature of the technology and the industry to which the company belongs, and others that are more generic and apply across a wide range of technologies and industries. But, executive mandate ranks near the top in most of them.

Take for example, the following list of factors for overcoming organizational inhibitors in a business intelligence implementation project for the retail industry.   

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In this list extracted from the recent report “Using Business Intelligence to Help Control Outcomes in an Uncontrollable World” published by Retail Systems Research LLC, “Executive Mandate” ranks at #1 position with a towering lead of 33 points over the second-ranking factor which is related to data quality.

With such and other research reports placing executive mandate at the top of the table, it’s natural to expect that package implementers and system integrators would be highlighting the need for garnering top management commitment during project kickoff meetings and at other key stages thereafter. In fact, in all the hype, you can’t be faulted for jumping to the conclusion – not intended by research analysts, I’m sure – that the customer simply has to wave some magic wand and top management commitment will follow. 

Except in a few companies that exhibit an autocratic style of management, executive mandate cannot be won in isolation. In most companies, as best-in-class program managers are aware, top management commitment is closely linked to the status related to shared goals, change management, well-trained employees, data quality, usable analysis tools, and other prerequisites. Given that most of these feature in the list of critical success factors, executive mandate is not mutually excluded from them.

Agreed that most of these prerequisites are internal to the customer organization, but package implementers and system integrators can go beyond their traditional arm’s-length entreaties about the role of executive mandate and differentiate themselves by acting as catalysts for its achievement. By actively engaging with key customer executives during the normal course of program delivery, they can pave the way for fulfillment of these prerequisites, which will accelerate securing top management commitment.

Handwritten Note Or Email?

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

fc_pic04_250In response to a recent question on LinkedIN, “After an interview do you send an email or do you think a handwritten personal note can be make a difference?”, I’d replied that you could do both – well, almost! – with FontCapture. This innovative website converts your handwriting into a TrueType font file that you can download into your PC, where it will be available like Arial, Verdana, and other standard fonts for your use in all packages.

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However, since your recipient is not likely to have your handwritten font installed on their PC, they’ll only see your note in one of the standard fonts. This takes away the personal touch that only a handwritten note can give.

To circumvent this problem and preserve the personalized effect, I can think of two ways:

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If both of them sound like too much work, there’s always the email!

Factory – Not Charity – And Time For NUEGA

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Widely lauded for putting more money in the hands of India’s vast rural population, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) provides guaranteed employment of 100 days per year to the poor in India’s villages. While there are mixed views about the effectiveness of its implementation, NREGA is based on the fundamentally sound principle of pay for work, rather than charity.

In the early 2000s when I was in Germany, I’d noticed great pride among its citizens for its social security system which included a liberal payout to the unemployed. The subtext was third-world countries were  too poor to afford social security, so people there would be on the streets if they were fired from their jobs. While the German system prima facie appeared to be very humane, you could easily spot the pitfalls the moment you scratched the surface: Comfortable with a generous unemployment dole – if  I recall, the figure was as high as two-thirds of the last drawn net take home salary – people who were laid off would refuse to attend interviews arranged by the state-owned employment office if their new jobs meant relocation to another town or even called for a travel of more than 20-30 kms from their homes. As a result, they stayed unemployed longer and the government had to cough up unemployment benefits for more time, leading to a great strain on public finances.

Such unintended consequences of handouts add credence to views publicly expressed by Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of India’s largest private sector company, Reliance Industries Limited, who recently said, “one factory is worth ten charities”, in his speech at a recent public gathering – surely, providing work and pay for work is better than any form of handout.

Jean Dreze, the Belgian-born economist who turned Indian citizen in 2002, is widely credited for conceiving and implementing NREGA. It is not known whether Dreze was familiar with the pitfalls of typical European social security schemes and decided to avoid them by consciously architecting NREGA – a sort of Indian version of social security – along the lines of money for work and not as government handout while staying unemployed.

The soundness of NREGA – at least in principle if not in actual implementation – leads to the question, why not a similar program – NUEGA, or National Urban Employment Guarantee Act, as it could be called – targeted at India’s urban poor?

Of Black Swans And White Tigers

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

mz_bs01_300I can easily understand Alex Gross’s complaint with the Seattle zoo where he takes his son in James Patterson’s novel London Bridges since my family and I have faced similar problems during our visits to zoos in Katraj (Pune, India), Cologne and Stuttgart (both in Germany), and Colchester and London (both in the UK). Like these zoos, the one in Seattle uses the natural habitat format where animals are not locked up in cages and can instead roam around in large expanses of wooded lands resembling forests. However, people eager to see animals often return disappointed from their trips to natural habitat  zoos since animals who are free to roam around make full use of their freedom and regularly stray away from the viewing areas where visitors wait eagerly – and often in vain – to view them.

This problem is acutely magnified in wildlife sanctuaries. During a trip to Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary located at the border of Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Kerala – three south Indian states, for the uninitiated – last year, we were disappointed at not being able to see a single tiger for which this sanctuary is renowned. Forest officials assured us that there were enough tigers in the sanctuary, only that they were roaming around somewhere beyond the trails covered by the official bus tour.

mz_wt01_300In sharp contrast, the Mysore Zoo strikes the right balance between the cage and natural habitat formats. Where there are cages, they are large and afford plenty of space for the animals to move around. Whereas dwellings resembling natural habitats are compact enough so that people can still manage to get a glimpse of their favorite animals.

What’s more, people who know the terms “black swan” and “white tiger” only as metaphors for rare events will be pleasantly surprised to spot these rare animals in flesh and blood at the Mysore zoo – the former waddling around peacefully in a compact pond and the latter roaring around friskily in a large cage.

Season’s Greetings!

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Talk of Many Things wishes its readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2010.

Apart from WordPress on whose popular blogging platform this blog is built, let me thank two tools that have helped enrich Talk of Many Things.

IrfanView01_200One is IrfanView, which has helped greatly toward the processing of almost all pictures that appear on this blog. Over the years, I’ve dabbled with all kinds of graphics packages, ranging from the open source GIMP to advanced and expensive ones like Corel Draw. I’ve found all of them uniformly too complex for the novice user and have given up soon after starting to use them. But not IrfanView. It’s extremely simple to use while being adequately powerful for all everyday needs. 

AddThis01The other is AddThis, the small bookmarking button you see at the bottom of every post in Talk of Many Things and in thousands of other websites. AddThis is a simple, free widget that allows readers to conveniently bookmark and share the web page they’re reading on Digg, Del.icio.us, Facebook, LinkedIN, Twitter and over 200 other popular bookmarking and social networking services with a single mouse-click. Readers can also email and print any web page using AddThis. And, unlike the mailto tag based email links that you find on many websites, AddThis comes with its own email sending functionality and does not need any desktop email client like Outlook Express on your PC.

Although most users would find IrfanView and AddThis worth paying for, they’re both free. In the absence of a license fee, I hope they have some other revenue model that ensures their continued viability – I for one wouldn’t want to see them folding up.

Thank you for your continued interest in Talk of Many Things and look forward to staying in touch through 2010.