Monday, October 31, 2011

DIY* Silly - A Bane Called Outsourcing

One of my colleagues asked me today if we could outsource coordination of office events to an event management company. It sounded like an efficient solution compared to the pain that we undertake every time some event is being organized. Event management is definitely not one of our core competencies, and the argument looked like a case-closed one in favor of an external vendor. But, it also set me thinking. 3 or 4 events that we coordinated for our team was a resounding success. Be it a party, an annual competition, or a Himalayan trip. A team of 4 or 5 of us did the groundwork, another bunch did the running around, and a select few did the final coordination. And thanks to the teamwork, we could give each other high-fives at the end of each event. There was so much learning, a fair degree of control over what's happening, and most importantly the development of a sense of camaraderie. Something that would rarely occur if we used a third party vendor.

Which brings me to the fundamental premise of outsourcing - efficiency gains by weeding out non-core functions. To use another example, my parents organized a party of sorts for 30-35 close relatives when we took my little kid home back to my native place for the first time. My dad outsourced the lunch part to professional caterers. The food was good, judging by the burps, and the solution was efficient, as no one had to toil preparing meals for the crowd. But there was one thing missing - the warmth. If this party had happened when I was a kid,  I can visualize 10 of my relatives at least coming in a day before, helping with the cooking and all the associated tasks. I can see my uncles sitting in the veranda talking about their latest problems, real estate, kids' education, some cousin who refuses to get married etc. I can see my aunts gossiping, discussing movies-fish/vegetable prices, kids' education, some cousin who refuses to get married etc.I can see myself running around with my cousins till I dropped dead. Next day morning we would wear new clothes and stand out welcoming those who preferred to show up for the party, all the while eying the gifts that they had  with them. Once the party is over, people would just sit around, and some might even stay for the night. All that's compromised in favor of an "event" which is perfunctory at best. The event is successful, but the spirit/idea is lost.

One of my best childhood memories is the wedding ceremony of a relative. I stayed at their home for 7 days. I remember lending a hand almost every other hour to eat the laddus and jilebis that were being prepared in-house. It was non-stop boisterous fun for us kids. Our kids, unfortunately, will never have such memories. To add to it, when I came home last night after attending the Metallica concert, my boots and jeans were muddy, thanks to rain on Palace Grounds, BLR.  My family was upset at all the dirt, and I had a hard time explaining to them it's just "MUD", something that I grew up playing with.

Nobody needed to have worried though, because we have outsourced everything. We will send the jeans to the cleaners, and then ask the ironing professional (yeah, the people who live in shacks and make a living out of using the good ol' iron box to make time-scarce executives look spic and span. Iron box had a true metallic ring to it back then, unlike the spray/plastic variety which sits unused in our households.) to come and pick it up, iron it, and drop it back home. And I will wear it on Fridays, and pretend nothing happened.

Something's happened, to the extend that we outsource certain functions (at a minuscule level compared to the total population) to old age homes. Taking care of an old grand dad is not a core competency anymore.

In all of this, we do not possibly realize that warmth is a core competency which cannot be outsourced. The sooner corporations and managers realize it, the better for them. Managers cannot live in isolation thinking that "employee motivation and well-being" is a function to be outsourced to Human Resources. Similarly, office events are not playgrounds for event management companies. Irrespective of the strength of the labor market, successful companies will be built when they realize that true warmth in office relationships is a core competency. It's not a paradigm shift, it was always meant to be that way.

As for families and caterers, god help us. Nihilistic at worst, but that's the truth.

*Do It Yourself

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What an old man taught me

There I was, running my own firm in the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century (Thought that would sound a bit ancient and dramatic than 2002).

A few hundred metres from my office there was this man who sold cigarettes, candies (the lemon sweet variety), and little eats. He was blind. I used to make small talk with him occasionally over a smoke. He smoked beedies [pungent Indian substitute for nicotine addicts] all the time, and at no point did I think that was repugnant. One night, at around 8 PM in the night, I asked him where he lived. And he said "Keshavadasapura" a few miles from "Kawdiar" in Trivandrum where my office was located. I asked him how he went back home and he said "I walk back, of course", and I wasn't convinced.

I was surprised, and I asked him how he made the journey of a few miles, despite being blind. He said that he walked back home, with a lantern which he held in front of him. Today, too far removed from the reality of that day, I can almost visualize him doing that - an old blind man, finding his familiar way back, with a lantern dangling in front of him.

But I was surprised again by a thought. What use is a lantern to a blind man? I asked him that question, partly fueled by curiosity, and partly because political correctness was never my strength. And his answer was this - "The lantern is not for me. It is an announcement for those coming against me. I'm just hoping they can see me."

That man taught me a lesson. The lantern that I often hold dear is not for me. It is for those who come against me. I just hope (for all of our sake) they see the flame.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I'm a dad, and a stress-free one at that, blessed with a kid who doesn't create much fuss, sleeps peacefully ever since the day he was born, and travels without irritating people around him. The stress started as soon as I sent my kid to a play school. Oh - we just sent him there so that he can interact with kids. Basically, to get him out of our apartment and meet people of his age.

And one of these days when my wife went to pick him up, he was standing there in a corner along with another offender. They were not allowed to join the games and action that were going on. Apparently he got into a tiff with another kid. And their idea of punishing him was by depriving him of the only reason to go to playschool - play. All of 2 years and 10 months, it was his first brush with punishment. He came home and just lay down there on the bed for hours with his eyes fixed at the ceiling.

Anyway, my point is our education system. It's not the Hello Kids, Smart Kids, or Junior Kids that I'm talking about. It's about the biotech/microbiology courses that leaves students with no jobs. It's about the MBAs with amazing CGPA scores who have no clue except that they wear blazers, have a laptop given by the college, and have been on a free trip to Europe as part of the course. It's about the MAs in English who cannot write a sentence correctly. It's about the Engineers who would do anything other than engineering. As part of my job, I interview quite a good number of them and come out of it with the feeling, "they have no idea why they were studying something." Which is a familiar feeling of course, because I had no idea why, when I was doing my studies.

What is the purpose of education? Why should I study what I'm studying? It's high time we started asking such questions.  The broader answer to that would be to study or do what you really enjoy. Can we imagine Tendulkar as a statistician or Harsha Bhogle as a batsman? Satyajit Ray as an economist or Amartya Sen as a film director. The really successful people were able to practice what they liked. Or they fought against all odds to find a way to do it. Or they were plain lucky to be noticed early on. They are, in most instances, people who became what they are despite the system.

Once in school, we were given this assignment to write a complete story based on the outline given. I wrote it and gave it the title "Washed Out". The story is the familiar one about -Con artist____a puppy painted with spots and sold___when it rains later____the spots get washed away___con revealed. The teacher told me that the title "Washed Out" was inappropriate and that it should have been "The Painted Puppy" or "The Spotted Puppy" or something like that. I know the title I gave was sad, but I was shocked at the instruction from my teacher, that I remember that feedback about a quarter of a century later.

No wonder I liked Pink Floyd the first time I heard it!

The video below gives some answers. It's 20 minutes long, but if you're a concerned citizen, a frustrated student, an academic, or a parent just bothered about your kid, you may just watch all of it.  [Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?:]

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The + of my life

Lot of people ask me how I'm able to go for one or two week long treks and stuff like that. Their biggest question actually is this - how does your wife let you go like that? Which brings me to the love of my life. Ladies and Gentlemen - for one last time, the answer is this - she let's me go wherever, whenever. Well, there are some strings attached, but let's just say I can work around those [wink]. And she happens to be amazingly creative. I tell her often that  if I had half her talent, I would have forced Maqbool Fida Husain and the likes into retirement. But as is often the case with people gifted with numerous talents (art, crafts, cooking and much more in this case), she does not do full justice to them. Of late, she is picking up some steam. The blog link below showcases some of her artwork. Just started. If you even came to my blog by mistake, I recommend you go to her's. Unlike mine, it might make your day.

[Used with permission.]