Does ENGLISH Matter?

21 Dec

The title of this post is inspired by the very famous paper that was first published in 2004 titled “Does IT matter?” (http://www.nicholasgcarr.com/doesitmatter.html)

At the time, few of the leading magazines had this to say about the paper –

Nicholas Carr has foisted an existentialist debate on the mighty information-technology industry . . . His argument is simple, powerful and yet also subtle.” -The Economist

Carr [has] performed a service in puncturing some of the starry-eyed and self-serving cant of industry insiders. “ -Steven Levy, Newsweek

While my intention is neither to start an existential debate on the need for English proficiency amongst Indians nor is it an attempt to puncture any of the industry insiders, my hope is to be able to share my life experiences on this subject and seek validation.

People of my generation valued English language skills. English grammar was an important subject in itself. I wonder if it is still taught in schools. My first job was with Godrej & Boyce in Mumbai. The late Dr. K.R.Hathi, GM – Marketing asked us to hand write a one page essay on a topic that he gave on the spur of the moment. I am sure it helped him check our thinking and of course our English proficiency besides our handwriting, I guess.

We learnt to interview and choose likewise and while there could have been deficiencies in pronunciations, I am confident that I never chose a grammar challenged person in my career. Well, at least till some years ago.

I am not sure at what point in time that things started to slip up on the grammar side of things. Television, movies, lack of the reading habit, SMS – I am not sure about the exact cause, but at some stage things have gone really awry.

Very recently the Vice Chairman of a reputed IT firm with its headquarters in India, received a long, effusive and joyous email from one of his front line junior associates expressing his gratitude on having been promoted. The English in the email clearly horrified the Vice Chairman, who demanded to know how this associate had been promoted in the first place and went on to question the credentials of the managers who had authorized the promotion.

Intake quality in the IT industry in India has plummeted in recent times, of that there is no doubt. But over time the standards of English in India have always been on a decline. In the late eighties and early nineties, it was still the era of secretaries and personal assistants and managers were expected to be adept at the art of dictating letters or reports. And secys and PAs were expected to have the speed of transcription, contextual knowledge and good understanding of the English language to be able to reproduce with a fair bit of accuracy whatever the boss had dictated. This profession was an almost monopoly amongst the Goans and Mangalorean.

But sad to say, this population was rather short on the grammar part. Appalling instances of the language usage included,

I removed his photograph” ( a literal translation from Hindi)

Accident became”

“He reached me home” (in real danger of becoming mainstream)

Aksed for Asked and “He bees” ( I was so stunned by its usage that I can’t seem to remember the context of its usage) were clearly patented words / phrases even as far back as the early nineties.

My son has somehow escaped the clutches of this malaise of poor grammar. Even as a little boy of 4 years, he would read extensively and his material would even include a product brochure, if nothing else was available. I think it has stood him in good stead but people from that generation have in general poor English grammar for sure.

The other day, someone from the marketing function sent out a note to me where at several places he had written the word BROWCHER. Clearly he was planning to produce glossy brochures through the sweat of his brow. My wife, who works as a Vice Principal at a local college, received a written application from a junior colleague who sought COMPULSATORY off since she had turned up for work on the Sunday before. She was perhaps very clear in her mind that compensation had to be compulsory.

Of late someone saying, “I will explain you” is so common place, that at many times I have caught myself saying it too and later felt like undergoing some self-flagellation in private. :-)

Frankly, I am OK if someone does not have the context and refers to a heart procedure as ANGIOPLASTIC but “I didn’t went” just won’t do!

My dear friend, Chander who is the CEO of an MNC in India tells me that he has stopped rejecting candidates who start off by saying, “Myself Vijay Mahajan” when asked, “tell me something about yourself”. He changed the habit after several years when he finally realized that speaking / writing good English had nothing to do with being a good worker or even a salesperson, depending on the audience.

Around 7 years back I hired an MBA from IIM Calcutta into my team for a selling position. I was so aghast to read the drafts of emails he submitted to me, that I couldn’t help but ask him how he had made it into IIM-C in the first place. I learnt around that time that the virus had well and truly infected even these hallowed institutions.

My wife who has been teaching over these past 12 years is convinced that quality of English has plummeted and that there is little that can be done to get back to the gold standards that we are used to. She berates me on my fetish for seeking some felicity in the English language amongst my team mates and new hires.

People should be able to communicate and get their point of view across and more importantly be able to work hard, show passion and make things happen. She is convinced that youngsters have the right attitude to life and could essentially be good human beings and giving them the overhang on English proficiency on day one is to perhaps lose out on the better folks.

I have resisted her berating for very long, not wanting to believe that what cannot be cured has to be endured! 

A few months ago, we ran a test of the English language proficiency on a group of 343 young engineers at an IT company. I took the test myself and it was elementary. It sought to weed out the “I didn’t went” varieties. So we kept the cut off as 85%. Only 65 out of the 343 made the grade! With one more group discussion and a personal interview to go, I clearly needed more candidates in the hopper. I had to drop the cut off by another 10% to let in more people.

These days my resolve is weakening and I am inclined to believe that English is perhaps not as mandatory on day one and is a teachable skill. I am also a bit rattled. Am I holding on to something as being very precious when things have passed me by? “Do the Germans, Japanese or the Chinese speak or write great English?” my wife asks me.

Bring in candidates with great attitude, entrepreneurial orientation and drive for results and give them crash courses in English she says. Don’t expect skills of your level or anywhere close to that in them. Short of calling me a fossil on this aspect she has me all sewn up. :-)

Does IT Really Matter? (I mean English)

 

Building Organisational Enthusiasm – Final Part

19 Aug

I have been personally involved in and driven an engagement by tier 2 leadership during my tenure at Tech Mahindra in Mumbai. The Chandivali office near Powai, fully owned by Tech Mahindra has a capacity to house around 2000 software professionals. With a huge campus at Hinjewadi, Pune with a capacity of 10,000 and more expansion being planned, juicier projects were being moved to that location. Hiring in Mumbai was not happening as much and clearly it was a fiscal decision that any prudent management would make. However, morale was dipping amongst the troops at Mumbai. Rumours were floating thick and fast that Mumbai would be closed down and everyone would either have to move to Hinjewadi or leave.

The fact that the IT services industry was facing a slow down around that time did not help either. Salary raises were either not generous or nonexistent in some cases. Liberal perks were being re-examined and amended downwards where feasible. All decisions that any prudent management would take when you are focussed on the market and building shareholder value.

So in a nutshell we had a bunch of some 2000 associates who believed that they were being done in by the “management”!!

It was in this scenario that we constituted the Mumbai Center Council of handpicked leaders from within the Mumbai office. It was a cross section comprising young and experienced and from across functions and projects. Almost everyone in the Council subscribed to and believed in a set of views and values that are outlined below.

  • We don’t require external stimuli to be happy
  • We have within and amongst us sufficient empowerment to make a positive change in the environment we work in and amongst the people who work for / with us.
  • We will continuously seek out and highlight the positives amongst us and our immediate environment
  • We will through our genuine and personal positive behaviour attempt to infect others positively
  • We will do whatever is necessary to encourage activity, communication and participation amongst associates to foster a positive culture.

Something along the above lines was created as an unofficial charter of the Mumbai Center Council which was constantly reinforced in every meeting during the initial days. I along with some of my colleagues played an active role in ensuring ongoing reinforcements. When a positive vortex of energy like this is created, it does enlarge and takes within its fold more and more people and soon the positivity tends to spread.

One of my all time favourite lines has been, “YOU ARE ALWAYS HAPPY IN THE ABSOLUTE AND MISERABLE IN COMPARISON”. (We are not Gods and at times the comparison demon does rear its ugly head to bite us) What this in essence means is that we in the IT industry are relatively well off compared to our brethren in other industries. In absolute terms we should be and are happy. It is only when we compare with our neighbours, friends and colleagues that the unhappiness starts to seep in. Having said that each individual is made differently and his / her circumstances are different. So without generalizing much, we can safely say that if we have our health and if we have our job there is every reason to be happy.

And if we operate from this state of happiness that is fairly unconditional we will be able to transmit and infect others with it; which is what the Mumbai Center Council at Tech Mahindra did. We re-energized the JOSH team (the in-house fun and games group) and soon there were a slew of activities across the office. We instituted several new forums around bringing external speakers into the office (Chai & Why), encouraging book reading (Book Reading Club), ensuring that every employee gets to know more about the company (Virtual Sales Force) etc.

The Council ensured that employees were encouraged to attend external partner meets and IT summits by using a series of invitations that were landing up in senior leaders’ mailboxes but not being used.  Practices to Catch People Doing right were introduced by encouraging second line managers to use up awards instituted by HR but not being given away for lack of time and effort.

The Council also did regular web based chats with all employees to understand issues related to administration, facilities, premises etc and fixed it. During these chats and also during All Hands meets we took questions about the location viability and answered honestly and sincerely. All of this was regularly communicated via mailers and intranet portal based updates to all.

At the end of the day it is impossible to make everyone happy and positive in a group of 2000 people. But by any standards we succeeded wildly in our efforts and over 6 months we could see a perceptible shift in attitude and spirit of the Mumbai associates at Tech Mahindra.

That year Tech Mahindra Mumbai won the award for the Best Center Council – to me just a by product!!

Anyway, coming back, to me the Center Council was a subset of the tier 2 core team that the top leadership should create and nurture to be able to reach out to the masses and create the high touch that is so necessary in a people oriented business such as the IT services business. It is the responsibility of the leadership to infuse this core team with the belief and the passion for onward transmission to the larger mass.

I have not said anything very different or special from what we all know anyway, but just provided some examples from my own experience to illustrate that it does work if the intent is genuine and the efforts are well directed.

Building Organisational Enthusiasm – Part 2

14 Aug

During the past one plus year that I have been associated with smaller companies as an advisor, I have studied some of their practices. Many of these have unique aspects that can be adapted to a large corporation as well. It has also given me an opportunity to step back and re-examine some of the prevalent employee practices at large corporations and understand what could be done better.

So for one, leaders have to be aware of the 5:95 or the 3:97 rule and clearly identify their corps of leaders (3-5%) who will support and emulate (as closely as possible) their leaders’ passion and belief in the company. This is a very hard job, given attrition and the numbers involved. This group has to carefully handpicked and communicated with very regularly. The communication has to be HONEST and SINCERE. And this group needs to have a stake in the business – stocks, ESOPs, bonuses and many other instruments. The “many other instruments” might include a fully paid course at a Harvard for an aspiring leader or an all expenses paid trip to Europe with family (including parents) for another leader. What I mean is it need not be hard cash or promotions all the time. It is worth the while investing the time and effort to get to know this bunch of leaders, their true aspirations and what makes them tick.

HONEST and SINCERE communication – I cannot over emphasise this. Many leaders take the official corporate line in every forum and soon everyone has a mask on and no one believes anything that is being said. They lose the touch soon. Honesty and sincerity does not mean that you open up your cards at all times. There could be situations where you will not be able to be fully open. People understand if you have been overall honest and sincere. These are very easy things to write about but extremely difficult to put in practice especially in a large company scenario unless an individual is genuine about it. But it should be possible and must be implemented with your core set of second line leaders – the 3-5%!

Notwithstanding all this, the top management has to Communicate, Communicate and Communicate with their second line.

I have seen this practice being extremely well implemented by my dear friend Shailendra Gupta currently President APAC at Ingram Micro (formerly at Godrej a long time ago). An extremely capable manager and leader, he always ensured that his core team was well taken care of, well informed and stayed loyal with him. Most of them have stayed with him for over 20 years now. I recently met with one of his core team members, Aloysius Fernandes (who was my hire when at Godrej) who chose to move on from Ingram and is now President at Redington, Gulf. I was very surprised for example to find that despite spending close to 18 years with Shailendra, his pay at the time of leaving Ingram was very competitive as benchmarked with the market in India. I was impressed and it just reinforced my belief in Shailendra’s model of ensuring that you have a loyal and competent core team.

In the IT industry the usual model of hiring is around the adage of ” your neighbour’s spouse is always more attractive than your own“. With this practice, old timers are usually left way behind in terms of salary benchmarks with the external world and soon even the most motivated amongst the lot start to question the need for loyalty.

The next task is your larger mass of the 95-97 % employees. It is super critical that you have great systems and processes in place to provide controlled direction to them. While MNCs and the top tier IT companies may have implemented great systems, the large bulk of IT services companies have poor internal systems and processes. It’s so surprising that IT companies that provide business solutions to their customers have not themselves invested the time and effort to streamline their own processes. Microsoft calls this dog fooding – do stuff internally before you offer it to your customers. ERP, CRM, BI, Self Care Portals, Dashboards, HRM, Procurement, Resource Management……there are so many systems that if well implemented and integrated can provide a sense of control and direction to the 95% of the population. Systems like these clearly also relieve leadership bandwidth to focus on business strategy rather than data gathering and reconciliation.

I must again admire my friend Shailendra Gupta on this aspect. As early as 1998, he invested efforts, money and his personal time into implementing a companywide ERP at Godrej TechPacific of which he was CEO then. He told me that having accurate data at his fingertips was crucial to his business which operated in a single digit net margin marketplace. Since then today’s leading IT services companies like TCS, Wirpo, Infosys etc have also spent great sums of money and time to get their systems and processes in line.

Once this is in place, it is important to have continuous communication by the top leadership with the employees at large. But more importantly the second level of leadership as identified by you also needs to step in and demonstrate the passion and ownership to the rest of the troops.

TO BE CONTINUED……

Building Organisational Enthusiasm!

13 Aug

As organisations become large, as it quickly happens in the IT services industry, the challenge is always about keeping alive the small company spirit and the enthusiasm. The CEO and / or the owners start losing the touch with the masses and soon things start to become impersonal.

I have heard so many leaders talk about this and in public while they may spout ideologies on how their organisation has got it right, in private they are deeply concerned and don’t have the answers.

I have read a lot about strategy, reflected quite a bit and dug into my own little personal experiences with managing people and felt like sharing these thoughts here.

First a few postulates.

1. It is only the 3-5 % of the employees who really run the company, the rest are the worker bees and a large number are also sleep walkers. Usually we hear of the 20:80 rule. With IT company employee figures running into tens of thousands, 20% of say 100,000 employees works out to 20,000 employees. Its not a practical figure. Plus in the IT services industry, your people are the plant and machinery and hence I have used the 3-5% rule rather than the 20% rule. Why 3 to 5 % and not 5%? Well because as the numbers grow it becomes harder to create and maintain the corps of leaders who are your passion drivers.

2. Across human beings, what I have noticed is that employees want to be associated with companies that are already successful. Which means business is coming in at a good pace and profits are good. In such companies employee morale is generally good and there is a general level of well being. The distinguishing factor here is of course the leadership. Companies with great leadership don’t take the good times for granted and continuously focus on ensuring competitive advantage, while badly lead companies ride the wave and die a death when the wave subsides. The corollaries of this association by employees with already successful companies are as follows -

a) Employees crave to feel wanted and loved.

b) Employees want to believe that they are paid competitive and fair salaries as benchmarked with their colleagues around.

c) Employees dislike working under the constant threat of a Damocles sword – which in business speak is a TARGET!

Empirically this is a truism, though no management guru or corporate czar will accept this, at least in public.

How can you be in business and not have targets?

Now if this is reality in a large IT Services company how do we keep up the enthusiasm, how do we instill ownership amongst people, how to fire up the passion? Hard questions and clearly there are no pat answers.

TO BE CONTINUED……….

MEA Strategy 101 – Part III

3 Apr

The challenge with crafting a strategy for the Middle East and Africa is deciding on where to focus. I call it “choosing your Normandy”. If you can work that bit out early and well then it is possible to conquer the region.

Unfortunately entrepreneurs that I meet in the small and medium enterprise spaces in India come with either pre set notions about the region or don’t have a overall buy in about doing business in the region. The Indian IT industry has traditionally viewed the MEA region as a back up when things don’t go right in the US or Europe.

If you have to be successful in the MEA region you have to be seen on the ground as a long term player and an investor. Gone are the days when you could flit in and out and carry back orders in your bag.  So my advice to people is that if you are looking to grab a few deals and then decide about long term viability then MEA is not the region for you. But if fundamentally you have decided to have a longer term strategy for the region, then it makes sense to build the awareness and credibility over 2-3 quarters in key pockets of your target market.

Again deciding on the target market is a function of your offering. Not all the 72 countries in MEA are the same. The GCC Arab nations are affluent but it also means the market is crowded. North Africa is rich for the pickings once things stabilize but at this time the political turmoil keeps the regular business people wary. The risk takers are indeed making money. Western Africa with Nigeria as its center of gravity offers many opportunities that also come with business risks as well as personal risk. East Africa is stable and does offer some opportunity but there is a whole bunch of competent local companies out there and hence differentiation of your offerings have to be strong. South Africa bloc again offers a lot of potential but there are issues of BEE and localization that has to be taken into account. Central Africa is relatively less prosperous but there are pockets that are beginning to bloom.

Having a local partner is key and the ability to judge and select an appropriate local partner becomes critical. If you have been to exhibitions and have had stalls, you will realize that more than 50% of the visiting cards that you will collect will be around local partners. And everyone says that they have influence and have a ready made set of customers. Chances are only 2-3 out of this bunch may be relevant for you and have the chance to perform. Its an art to decide on who could be the right partner for you.

Orchestrating a company entry is much beyond just signing up a local partner. There is so much more – consulates, trade bodies, tax, personal security of your staff and hence insurance, media. Everything needs to be aligned for you and clearly is not conducive to a flit  in and out strategy!

 

MEA Strategy 101 Part II

20 Feb

UAE-residence-investor-visa-free-zone-company-dubai-abu-dhabi

The GCC countries are an easier place to start when you look at MEA region. And precisely for the same reason, GCC is now a crowded market as far as IT goes.

Dubai is a great watering hole and it pays to be seen in Dubai where anyone who is anyone in the IT world has a presence either at the Dubai Internet City (DIC) or the Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZA) or Dubai Airport Free Zone (DAFZA) or any one of the myriad free zones in the Emirate. Microsoft, HP, Oracle, Dell, IBM….you name it and they have a significant presence in Dubai. And being a watering hole there are a slew of events that are held in the city. In the telecom world they could be a 3GSM show or a TMW event or a CommsMEA awards show or one of the many events put together by one or the other technology vendor. All these offer great networking opportunities.

For any company that is serious about exploring MEA on a longer term, my advice for them would be to set up a local free zone company or establish a branch office in a free zone. Again there are many options to choose from. A registration allows you to open a local bank account in the UAE and also grants you a limited number of work visas for your employees. Having a “manager” work visa of the UAE confers upon the person holding it some distinct advantages such as the privilege of procuring a visa on arrival in 4 other GCC countries viz Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. Suddenly travel logistics complications vanish for a sales person.

Likewise UAE does not require a resident visa holder to be staying permanently in the country. You just need to enter the country once every 6 months. Its quite convenient and companies can consider different models of deployment including basing their sales manager in their country and having them travel to cover the GCC region. For India based companies we are looking at a maximum of a 3.5 hour flight from Mumbai in any case.

Bahrain also provides a similar facility to potential business people and could be an option too. Oman’s KOM is another free zone that I am told provides this facility but its difficult to match the savvy of a Dubai or a Bahrain.

The indirect advantages of having a UAE or Bahrain resident visa are manifold. Income is tax free in these countries and any deposits made into accounts opened there will not be taxed in that country. Of course you need to worry about taxation in your base country and comply with all those rules. Another advantage is that you become eligible to apply for visit visas to European and American countries in that country. For people from the Indian sub continent its a huge plus as crowds are far lesser and tenure of visas granted are much longer if applied from either UAE or Bahrain.

Small advantages but can be significant when you are a travel warrior. For companies that wish to be nimble and responsive, it provides a convenient tool to be customer facing at a very short notice.

How I moved Mount Microsoft – an epilogue!

6 Jan

MSIDC

When we started the engagements at Microsoft IDC at Hyderabad we came across several problems related to HR and motivation and this post is about how we went about making small innovations to tweak a services company behavior to service requirements of a products company like Microsoft.

MBT till then was a Mumbai and Pune company, period. This meant that for any other location, we had to provide for travel allowances as per policy. There was no Hyderabad location we could technically transfer associates into. So initially we bore the costs of the allowances for the associates who moved to Hyderabad. We also went about finding apartments / guest houses for people to stay in, because the policy said that after 60 days the daily allowance would stop and it would get into a consolidated one time allowance. And this amount was not really sufficient to rent a house and so on. So to motivate people to go to Hyderabad we went into all this.

Over time, we had close to 30 apartments in Hyderabad. With software engineers there is no end to cribbing. “Oh that flat has a leak.” Or “The fridge in my flat is not working.” to a whole range of admin complaints. With no formal admin oversight of Hyderabad, the salesperson became the fulcrum for every such issue. In due course (read that as 3 years), we decided that it was important to create a help desk for Hyderabad and working with HR and Admin we created one and this helped mitigate the issues.

In a company where BT used to give requirements in the hundreds, there was not much management attention on 50 people sitting at the Microsoft offices in Hyderabad. So in effect, the pressure to perform for the sales team as well as the delivery team was enormous. It was also a difficult job to keep motivation levels up for everyone. After all, the refrain used to be, “why should we be slogging like this, when the BT folks are having a ball of a time and getting promoted too?” It became increasingly difficult to attract people to work for the Microsoft account, motivate them to work at Hyderabad and keep them motivated enough to stay on and not fall for the lure of the easier life across the wall.

In order for the Hyderabad team to feel connected to the mother ships at Pune and Mumbai, I instituted several HR measures locally. We created a Microsoft corner on the MBT intranet site via a micro site and ensured that the larger organisation came to know of their achievements and accolades. Periodic senior level visits were arranged to Hyderabad to address the team and share the developments. Pizza parties and outdoor events were done with regularity. Spot awards and pats on the back were instituted. All these helped to an extent I suppose but it was always an uphill task and required some tremendous motivation and drive from me and other leaders to infuse positivism in the system.

On and off a requirement would come from Microsoft, that they wished to hire such and such person (despite a Non Hire clause) and a raging debate would start internally on “HOW CAN they even suggest this?” The ostensible reason would be that s/he wants to leave anyway, so why not keep him/her in the ecosystem and s/he could become your “insider”. There were no simple and straight line answers to these and I played each ball on its merit.

With folks like CP Gurnani in the senior leadership, there was always tacit but valuable support and appreciation for this work and that did help a great deal.

Over time word got around in the organisation that people that had worked in the Microsoft project were extremely competent and would be a valuable addition to any team. They got snapped up easily and placed in good positions in various teams.

I believe that, Tech Mahindra learnt product engineering related staffing and projects work at some scale through the Microsoft engagement and subsequently did several such engagements including Motorola at Bangalore and Hyderabad which went on to become larger successes in terms of people deployed.

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