Work From Home

You can’t, if you are working for Yahoo. Reams have already gotten written about Marissa Mayer’s controversial decision so I won’t rehash those. Rather, I’ll make two quick points – where I stand with respect to telecommuting and, in my experience, what with respect to working from home I have seen work (and what doesn’t)

Firstly, a show of hands. I support working from home for certain functions (the standing joke at my office once was a window-cleaner who called in to say he was working from home). But again it is fallacious to cast these “functions” in stone. Even within functions some flexibility has to be built in. For example a Product Manager may very well decide to work from home the day she wants to finish up writing her stories but her presence at office is way much valuable the days engineers start coding her piece (assuming of course the engineers have all come in). So how does one write all these into a policy – is this not way too complicated? Short answer – one does not write a policy on this at all. That is why in most cases it is much simpler to ensure you’ve hired the right kind of folks with maturity to handle such black-gray-dirty white situations than have your exec veep sending out a hundred pager telecommuting policy. Telecommuting employees – especially those who come in only as an exception – must also realize that the workplace is as much a social construct as it is an economic vehicle. Staying at home gets the work done (and sometimes gets the work done much more efficiently than a noisy office with distractions) but one misses out on the working lunches, stairwell conversations and water cooler gossips. These are important in building an informal relationship network that becomes very important in getting things done. I think – and have seen – telecommuting to be career restrictive in most cases. So there is a price to pay for the flexibility that working from home offers

Even in organizations that allow telecommuting, working from home is looked upon derisively (“aha, he is working FOR home today” kind of jibes are common). Some rotten apples, who want to hide under the garb of working from home, bring about this bad name. For teams that have people working from home it is a must that they are all on some messaging system (not e-mail – that is too asynchronous). They must get on the phone much more often than across-the-hallway teams do. For teams producing artifacts – anything – like designs, wireframes, prototypes, presentations should use screen-sharing apps (webex for example) at the slightest possible excuse. And overcommunicate – nothing brings about a sense of togetherness and comfort than seeing conversations flowing back and forth

Now for something very trivial (but from experience I can say these make a lot of difference). Those working from home must get into the zone much like athletes do just before the start of an event. Please do not work in your night clothes (a friend of mine actually used to dress for office even when he just had to climb a flight of stairs to get to his home office). Get a home office setup – a desk, comfortable chair (not borrowed from the kitchen), a phone, headsets, good reliable internet connection and most importantly – a door that you can close to the rest of the house. Do take breaks and, most importantly, end your day like you would if you were at office

Enjoy the short commute back to the living room. And yes, you are now allowed to change into loungewear if you must

Winding Down

Santa's capIt has been a tumultuous year. And despite all expectations to the contrary we are not dinosaur’ed as people thought the Mayans predicted!

It was fun writing and more than gratifying to see you all read the stuff, extend the conversation by commenting and putting your faith by subscribing to updates on this blog. Words will sound hollow to express my gratitude

We will be winding down – as many of you also will – for the new year. I wish you and your family the best for the season and a very happy 2013

Thank you for staying with CDI and I’ll see you on the other side of the year

Gamify

Humans are wired for two things that has not changed ever since we figured out how to live in societies. The first is social interaction. We engage in reciprocatory interplay with others with apparently no immediate intent of benefits. Without hijacking this into a sociology discourse, mutual profit motives in social interactions are quite deep rooted, fructify in a complex manner over time and are played out over a labyrinth of relationships. It is sufficient to say that social interactivity is a net positive outcome for both individuals and society. The second constant in our wiring is the desire to win. This truism is well borne out by the Darwinian theory of evolution and intersects nicely with the desire of social interactions. How would we otherwise know what benchmarks to hit – and exceed – in order to win at whatever is it that we wish to win at? It is at this intersection of social interaction and the competitive gene that the concept of gamification stands

Gamification can be loosely defined as application of competitive games (that is where multiple players engage each other with reward systems that setout cardinal rankings) to situations that can result in a collective net positive outcome by increasing competitive awareness and intent. Gamification existed for a long time, perhaps even before the term was coined. Sales personnel were rewarded on their performance relative to each other, support engineers were cherry picked for promotions by the numbers of cases successfully addressed and so on. What gamification has brought about is a transparent process where not only the benchmark is visible to players but also the ranking of all who are playing the game (what good is running a race with only the end tape visible? It is the breath on your shoulders that matter the most)

Corporations looking to create better engagement with end users take gamification out of their firewalls into the wider world. Take for instance the Chevy Volt. Volt is a car that runs of electricity but switches over to gas when the charge runs out. To get optimum mileage from your car it is important to charge the car batteries regularly. You get a certain mileage from your volt – but how do you know how you are doing vis-a-vis other Volt owners? Up comes a website community where you can unleash your competitive spirit and while at it, get into good habits about eking the best fuel productivity from your vehicle. Net positive for the society. Corporations internally use gamification to improve upon – that is push the boundary of the net positive – goals that lend naturally to gamification. Sales and Support are two great examples (easily extensible to bugs per kilo lines of code for software developers!)

There are some areas where gamification can improve the net positive of societies outside corporate walls but these have not been tested well enough. Take for example outcome of financial savings and wealth creation. All of us save and invest in multiple financial and nonfinancial assets with an intent of maximizing portfolio value. It goes without saying that creation of wealth is a hugely competitive activity and hence should be a good candidate for gamification. But the play currently does not make it so – it is once again like that race where one does not know where others stand in this race (I am twenty seven, female, been working for three years and have a net worth of X. How does that stack up within my demography?). Keeping wealth creation at the core of this hypothesis it becomes easy to identify offshoots – like, a family of three in Hyderabad spends Y on groceries each month – so how do other similar families stack up?

I would love to know what you think about this and if there are services that have tried this out

By the way, I stumbled upon this interesting webcourse on Coursera on Gamification. It hasn’t started yet so there’s time yet to sign up – seems it will be fun

Death by a thousand cuts

ScalpelScale is the antithesis of specialization. A idea is boiled down to its core for implementation but once successful, pressure mounts to scale the thing and soon the core starts expanding. Before long, adjacencies get targeted and conquered – either directly or via partners (since the flavor of the season is extensible platforms, partners come in and implement the extension sometimes into areas that clearly challenge boundaries the founding fathers of the platform had conceived). The service starts behaving like an aggregator. Some platforms (they did not call themselves platforms then) started off as aggregators. Take market data terminals for example. They became aggregators the moment they started plugging in more and more exchanges liquidity venues, more newswires and more brokers. Common functionalities got overlaid so all incremental additions benefited from using those functionalities. Soon enough it became a mad scramble – add as much as possible, as much as the pipes would allow. Market data vendors started crisscrossing their content assets on different platforms. Very soon there were a couple of dominant players in the market who were mostly carrying all that was there to carry. So how does this model get disrupted?

Death can come in many ways. A single swift bullet often does not kill the incumbents in a deep seated market such as this (I would like to believe that what is true for the market data industry will also hold water with industries that display similar characteristics). Death comes by a thousand cuts. My colleague Kunal Mehta recently attracted my attention to Owlin. Owlin is a bottoms up news service that threatens to disrupt the market news vendors (like Reuters and Bloomberg) by scraping information off platforms where news tend to break quicker (‘break’ does not however mean verified. Anyone who has run a newsroom or consumes news for market price movement purposes must surely know the difference). If Owlin is successful then they would have inflicted an early cut (even if it does not and fails in the implementation, someone else will come up with a better way of reaching the same intended outcome). Aggregators also face threats of disintermediation – that is, a situation where competitors figure out the raw data source, get there and enhance value of the basic information more than what the aggregator does. In an era where information is reaching the public domain quicker than ever before, this is a clear and present danger for aggregators and a clear and present opportunity for disruptors. An area where aggregators yet have a moat is with content relationships. Over time, painstakingly they have built relationships with content creators who require a wide and effective distribution platform, which the aggregators have provided to them. Consider brokers who would want to maximize their distribution reach of research for investors but cannot make capital investment to build the infrastructure. They have been loyal (though slightly irritable) customers of aggregators for a long while (yes, this model can also be broken with a crowdsourced experts’ network but the actual moat here is not the content. It is credibility)

A thousand cuts is a nice phrase. It has an element of mortality to it but how useful is it for consumers in the industry that is getting slashed by the blades of the blind watchmaker? Aggregators make life easy for the users who make a trade off between convenience and the bleeding edge. It is acceptable to live with a sub-standard instant messaging system embedded in the aggregators’ system because it is just that much more easier to use that than a best of breed. History tells us that sooner or later the bleeding edge catches up. Early adopters who bravely withstand that pain of ditching the convenience factor are rewarded for their choice, leading to others following their footsteps. The small band behind the piped piper soon becomes a crowd. At a critical point of this crowd-swell people start thinking of mashups – where the best of breeds are brought together in a manner that the users can control (as opposed to ceding control to the aggregator). The integration, messy at the beginning start becoming elegant with passage of time with each micro-mashup (specific to an implementation) getting a development roadmap of its own

Unsurprisingly perhaps aggregators also see this situation via an identical set of optics. That is why the preponderance of building “extensible”, “open” (albeit walled garden) architecture platforms that are ready for the Great Bypass situation as and when it arrives. The next wave will perhaps be to acquire the bleeding edge capabilities (is that why rumors are rife – as are rebuttals of Bloomberg eyeing LinkedIn?)

Regulators and their Customers

Customers are reason why businesses exist. Businesses create value for which customers pay them – directly or in some other way – leading to creation of surpluses for the producers. That’s how it has been and will be in the future of businesses. If the customer is at the center and around everything that an enterprise does, an interesting question pops up about industry regulators. Who should regulators count as customers?

On one side of the regulators are the businesses that are regulated. It is the responsibility of the regulator to ensure there are level playing fields, non-discriminating policies, compititative environment and a healthy set of guidelines that ensure long term viability of the industry. The word “viability” is nuanced. It can be interpreted to mean assurance of a steady stream of supernormal profits, which it clearly does not – or should not – construe. Viability should rather mean ensuring a fair exchange for a service provided. And the fair exchange should be determined by the market. Regulators have to step in when market forces either break down or are ignored via collusion or such practices amongst suppliers. This is where the regulator starts serving the other end of his relationship structure – that with the consumers. Consumers in a retail heavy industry do not have the luxury of collective bargaining (or lobbying) like the suppliers have. This places an onus on the regulator to devote a disproportional share of attention and protect interests of consumers in the industry. It is indeed a fine balancing act that some regulators – especially those in India – find difficult to juggle

Regulators in India are notorious for being personality oriented. There is always enormous pressure by the firms in an industry to get an “insider” as the head of the regulating body. An “insider” is most likely to frame policies that are supplier friendly and at times conveniently look the other way when malafide happens. Industries that have enjoyed directed policies are most vociferous about getting insiders to top positions in regulators. Financial services in India is a nice example. For the past several years the industry has languished. Accusing fingers for the state of affairs have been pointed at every direction except the most important one. Inwards. The industry has made no efforts at innovation, business model disruption and such mechansim to break the logjam yet has had resources focused trying to fleece customers through bad product design, collusion and reckless sales practices . Just search the internet on misselling of financial products in India and you will be submerged with what comes back. HSBC had to suspend selling its mutual funds and insurance products when it possibly could not digest anymore the rampant malpractices. The Insurance regulatory authority in India, IRDA, is looking for a new boss and guess what the industry is clamoring for? An insider

Businesses must realize that pulling wool over consumers’ eyes is as transient a business policy as a drop of water is on a parched sand dune. The raison d’etre of a business is to create customer value. Steve Denning in a Forbes article argues, on the backdrop of Michael Porter’s firm Monitor Group declaring bankruptcy, that there is only one force (an oblique shot at Porter’s five forces) that matters – that of the customer. In situations where suppliers have abandoned pursuing that force with religious zeal, the regulator has to step up and play a much larger role for betterment of the industry. And in doing that it just cannot fall prey to the asymmetrical force of collective bargaining that skews the table in favor of the suppliers. In fact it must use its weight to overbalance in favor of consumers – and if required shake up the supplier mix such that it benefits the industry. Industries gather lard and gunk running for long patches of time with antiquated business models and policies that have unnecessary protective moats. Innovation is just a committee name for these businesses. Forward looking regulators need to self disrupt these industries to make them more efficient. For that they must make a choice. Who do they count as customers?

Corporate Social Responsibility: Needs a Reboot?

There was filth and squalor all around. The school, a government run single storied structure, was right behind a garbage dump. Dogs were running astray, feral beasts growling at the skillful kites that swooped down in calculated moves to usurp a common gourmet target from the dump. Street urchins loitered around in the midday sun. We mingled in that milieu as inconspicuously as a group of nuns would at a nightclub. Mineral water bottles in hand, all wearing a blue turtle-necked shirt, one carrying what obviously was a camera bag, we descended from a large bus and headed over to the school to do our social do. The annual Corporate Social Responsibility – a/k/a CSR – gig

It is not important to go into the details of our experience, which incidentally was quite overwhelming for us, curiously amusing to folks of the locality and rather useless for the NGO that we were affiliated to. The larger question is how best should something like social work be approached by corporations that want to give back to the society. The current model, most widely followed by companies in India that I know, has two variations. The first is where the company picks up a theme and aligns all it’s CSR activities around it. Anyone who has flown Jet Airways in India is aware of their Save the Children themed social activity. The second approach is more open where the firm chooses to work with a handful of NGOs of repute and lend resources for causes the NGO works for. Each model has its pros and cons and it is not my intent to initiate a debate on those. One feature of either model – or you may wish to call it a bug – is that the CSR activities happen parallel to, and most often in addition to, what the firm does as it’s business. This begs the question if there is a better model of social work where the company can creatively embed the cause into its business model

All businesses work to generate supernormal profits. There is nothing wrong in that. In pursuing that mission the business is interacting with and impacting the society in almost every activity it does. These are activities that happen as part of conducting business. Take my employers Thomson Reuters as example. We are the world’s largest provider of information and online workflow solutions for professionals. On the financial side, we power every financial institution on this planet in some way or the other. Thomson Reuters has a large business in India, a country plagued by financial illiteracy as well as a rather disturbing lack of penetration of financial products & services beyond Tier 1 and 2 towns. For a society to participate in and benefit from financial well being of a nation it is important to ensure optimal participation in banking systems and capital markets of every citizen of the country. A firm like ours can, and perhaps should, embed that social motive into our business model. Doing this frees up capital that was otherwise getting improperly spread too thin – now all the ducks can be aligned in one single straight line. A line that is no different from what the core business of the company is. This approach also allows the best use of human capital. None of us, for instance, we’re trained in what we ended up doing at that school (it was an opthalmological camp for people over sixty). Had this been about something that all of us are trained on, the engagement levels would have been much higher and consequently the impact of our work. This model works naturally for companies that have deep supply chains that reach sectors of society that when developed serves a shared cause for both the company and that part of society (a lot of FMCG companies come to mind, especially the e-choupal initiative by ITC). I’m not sure how this would work for say a very diversified software services firm or for that matter a company I referred to earlier – Jet Airways

I claim to be no expert in the best approach for corporations to approach social service but I do believe nothing can be more powerful than an initiative that stands at the intersection of need, scale and expertise. I would like to think that the approach to CSR also shouldn’t be any different

Pictures in this post courtesy my colleague Ajay Singh

What’s that you are wagging

Does your business strategy drive the business model or is it the other way around? Intuition and experience say that a business model should naturally emerge from the strategy but it is not always the case. If you are running a business, a division of a business or anything that needs both just pause and think for a moment

PS: If you indeed find that your model has been driving the strategy then it might be symptomatic of an inside out culture. Take stock. It’s worth the effort to change the culture and the symptom will take care of itself