China, China, China

And we've been to China too...

For many of us, who chose the China Symposium as the international elective, this was one of the definitive highlights of the year.

The symposium itself was 5 days long, held between 9th and 13th June in Shanghai, and all sorts of expat and Chinese business professionals and also journalists talked about doing business in China. We had people from Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Siemens Medical, Tomkins, ENO and many others, a really diverse range of fields.

I think we all know, at least to some extent, about the issues in China: the influence of politics is everywhere. The Chinese version of Capitalism is building rapidly and in a way it was very interesting to hear from a banker working for Deutsche Bank about Private Wealth Management i.e. the exponentially growing wealth of a very small group. Pretty much similar as everyone else in the world for the same state of economic development, I'd think, although the scale is different.

What was the most interesting to me and made me think - every once in a while even since then - when the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Shanghai Daily talked about the press in China. Even if he tried to avoid a few areas in his speech, in the Q&A there was no chance to escape. He had to answer straight questions about how they dealt with the non-existing free press and the governmental influence. I was really impressed with him trying to get his message across without explicitly saying 'inappropriate' things. He finished his speech with the following: 'Everything I told you was completely true. But look online and you will see a different China'.

And now to the fun part: a few of us thought that while there, why not go to Hong Kong before Shanghai and to Beijing after? So we did.
Flying 15 hours to arrive in Hong Kong on the 6th June in the middle of the pouring tropical rain and to start discovering the best venues. We spent 2 days in HK and then flew off to Shanghai to the official Cass programme.
Having to attend the sessions every morning didn't stop anyone from going out every night, eating scorpions, haggling and you name it, but the lack of sleep started to catch up on some by the end of the week.

It wasn't over yet though as visiting Beijing was the last leg of our tour. Another 2.5 days on the Great Wall and in the Forbidden City and the last night having dinner in a teppanyaki restaurant which was great - apart from the fact that the Japanese waitresses being in China spoke no English. At all.

It was just amazing. Good days.

Project time

So for a lot of MBAs this is what the course is all about. Putting what we've learnt over the last year into practice (well we've kind of done that already but everyone would agree this time it's more serious).

We've finished our final electives and with any luck have secured placements with companies or finalised a research topic for our projects. To a lot of employers (or at least those who have done an MBA or know of it) know that the individual project really tells them a lot about the candidate. After all, it's the successful application of knowledge gained throughout the course that will prove if we are true MBAs or academics in the making (cheap shot!).

Of course I'm not saying that all academics are failed business folk but there is a very different mindset between an academic who is working on his latest piece of research and the entrepreneur, for example, working on his latest venture.

To be fair Cass Business School has always made an effort not only to employ purely academics but also successful business men and women as well as invite them to give talks and share their experiences. This to me is something unique to a good MBA qualification, not always found in online MBA programs, it really does do its best to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

You won't see many other lecturers in other qualifications with no doctorate but that you do see it on MBAs. I think that acknowledging the inherent business skills and knowledge of an individual without first looking at a checklist of qualifications is a stellar move because business is as much about understanding how success is achieved as it is about achieving that success.

The Entrepreneurship elective

We're getting a lot of press after the £10 million we got for the new entrepreneurship center at Cass. This one is related to an elective I took in May - Innovation Business Project - where we worked for ChangeBase and came up with strategy we thought they should follow.

I'm probably doing an entrepreneurship project this summer and trying to come up with a business proposal - will post some more info when that has progressed a bit.

I must say though, I do not agree with John's comment in this article that entrepreneurs are born. Sure some of us may be born with genes that make us less risk averse, but the zeal, the ambition and the business aptitude, I think that's bred into us - now whether that can happen at a business school is open to debate, but I can certainly see how events that happened when I was a kid, have affected my entrepreneurial spirit.

Entrepreneurs: born or made and if so, how? by -- ARE people born to be entrepreneurs, or can anyone learn how to set up and run a business?

The best-known entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson really stand out from the crowd - often outspoken and flamboyant,...

The Food Chain - In Fertile India, Population Has Outstripped Agriculture

The Food Chain - In Fertile India, Population Has Outstripped Agriculture - Series - NYTimes.com

With the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world. Instead, it can barely feed itself. India’s supply of arable land is second only to that of the United States, its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, and its industrial innovation is legendary. But when it comes to agriculture, its output lags far behind potential. For some staples, India must turn to already stretched international markets, exacerbating a global food crisis.
I was discussing this with a classmate a few days ago and we were talking about how, if India could produce more food, it can actually diversify its strengths and become a truly global powerhouse and increase its per capita income much quicker than it has managed so far.

Agriculture in India is still stuck in the socialist mindset - and sometime I think, rightly so - but in order to leverage India's resources, this must change. OVer 60% farmers in India (according to the 1991 census) have an average landholding size of under 1 hectare and less than 5% farmers have a landholding more than 5 hectares (World Bank report). This seriously limits the opportunity to 'industrialise' agriculture on an individual basis and we will probably have to (and already do in some parts) approach agriculture as a collective enterprise, i.e. the government funds a tractor or combine harvestor for a group of farmers rather than each one buying one, which will be impossibly expensive and uneconomical.

On the other hand, farmers can only sell their produce to the government, at pre-decided prices - there is some privatisation but that (to my knowledge) sits with the collection, distribution and payments mechanism rather than with the ownership of the whole process. There are probably a few exceptions, perhaps for coffee, tea or tobacco, but for staple food crops, this seems to be the system generally in place.

Now, unless private players, or rather private capital, can come in and consolidate the agriculture industry, it will be difficult to either increase yields, or help farmers out of poverty.

With Reliance Fresh and the proposed initiative by Bharti (along with Wal-Mart), some of this could change, i.e Indian farmers may now have an alternative market and this could lead to better prices, or at least investment, for many of them. Of course, introducing private players does add to risk, in terms guaranteed payments and that is crucial to the hundreds of millions of farmers. Even a slight disruption, or delay in payments, could render several million homeless and poor and push them to the brink of starvation.

This is certainly one of the major challenges India faces if it is to grow beyond what its traditional industry and services backbone will allow.

This of course, is not helped by the fact that agricultural subsidies remain at high levels in the EU and in the US - and the limitations this places on world food trade, especially with regard to countries like India that continue to block (or highly restrict) food imports. For India, allowing food imports is an eventuality as is the the ultimate reduction and elimination of food subsidies in the west, but challenges will remain unless the agricultural sector itself is reorganised and adapted to withstand fluctuations that free market forces will bring.

Until that happens, unfortunately, I do not think there is going to a clear resolution to the world food crisis that continues.

On your marks, get set...it's the MBA tournament

Training sessions in Regent's Park, London, are not on the MBA curriculum at Cass Business School but there is no doubt how seriously they are taken by the students. The goal is the MBA Tournament, or MBAT for short, and the strategy is total fitness.

"Early on in the year we were visited by members of last year's class, who gave us a presentation about the MBAT," says Nicolas Michaelides, 32, who represented Cass this year. "At the tournament, we stuck together as a team – a few people got injured, but that actually turned into quite a bonding point which brought people together."

Read more in today's Independent newspaper

Are call centers in India slave ships?

There was a report published in late 2005 that compared work in the Indian Business Process Outsourcing industry to Roman slave ships. An article on that report can be found here.

Now I had written a comment on a post the Indian Economy blog that I happened to bump into again today. I was exasperated then that people in India considered call centers to be a good thing and took it as a matter of 'national pride' rather than to look at it objectively.

I incidentally, worked in the Indian software outsourcing industry, with a pretty large Anglo-Dutch software services firm and my experience, even in that company, was that organsational processes were still far behind what the west takes as standard.

My impressions of the Indian software/process outsourcing industry are (adapted from the earlier comment),

The good:
1. They have provided jobs to previously unemployed people
2. They provide better job environments than other industries

These points aside, we must look at the report in an encouraging way. Sure, there have been unqualified comparisons - “slave labour” and working like “coolies”. But lets not argue over the grammar, let us instead look at the basis of the report.

I have read, and I support the findings of this report, especially, with regards to working conditions.

Some of you (those who are in India and support the BPO industry) might dispute the fact that working conditions in Indian BPOs are equivalent (or in some cases even better than) to similar enterprises in the West. While there might be a few exceptions, I disagree that this is a general trend.

For instance, how many of us - who work (or worked) in BPO/IT sectors in India, can say that our Health and Safety is well looked after?

1. Fire - In my FTSE100 office, my building was apparently protected against fire and we had fire marshalls - however, on my floor, there was a fire exit door that was kept locked and none of us were given information about safety or health issues in the orientation week. On top of that, considering that fire departments in India are ill-maintained even where they exist, one would expect the multinational companies who come to hire thousands of staff, to provide for better arrangements than elsewhere - however, these are often much worse.

We had an instance where the global CEO visited our office. I remarked to one of my colleagues that the company had gone so far as to rent (yes, rent) some fire extinguishers especially for that event. Fire extinguishers were rented because before that we had empty placeholders - with no extinguishers in them. Okay, granted, after the CEO visit ended, and some time passed, fire extinguishers were bought and the office was equipped. Still, you would not have a lapse like this in a London office of the same company.

About emergency lighting - the less said the better, these did not exist initially, and were only provided later once perhaps they received budgetary sanction.

2. Disability - The issue of disabled friendly buildings, or offices, is ridiculously enough, a complete non-issue in India. Again, we do not have laws or government mandates in this area, but one would again expect that international organisations, with established practices in the rest of the world, would transmit some of that to developing countries as well. But no, this is not the case.

In my office of 3500 people, I counted two disabled people. Thats an incredibly low ratio for a job where most of us sit around at a computer and write code all day.

Diversity of staff can still be blamed on demographics, i.e. not a huge number of disabled people qualify as technical experts in India. However, one would expect office bildings to have ramps, to have entrances and exits that allow for the passge of disabled people. The companies that operate in India, go so far as to create new office locations and customised workstations for people without limbs or sight, but in India, these issues are laughed at.

3. Workplace - I had the fortune to get introduced to Dr. Deepak Sharan, a doctor who treats repetitive stress injuries in Bangalore. I myself had suffered from Carpel Tunnel syndrome earlier and my girlfriend was (and still is, unfortunately) suffering from RSI.

Speaking to Dr. Sharan, I realized that he had conducted a survey that found that a majority (over 60% if I remember) of people who worked in the IT/BPO sector in India, suffered from some form of stress injury as a result of badly designed workstations and ignorance of the management.

I tried to counter some of that by arranging for him to come to our office and speak to the staff to make them aware. The response was phenomenal and the thanks I received from the people who had been suffering but had not been aware, made it totally worth it.

However, upon trying to get some feedback from project managers in my company, I was summoned to the HR director's cabin and asked to keep it down as such things 'demotivate' employees. The HR directors point was that the office was ergonomically designed (my opinion: it was not. far from it) and that people do not get injured from tapping on keyboards (ya right).

Anyway, there were only so many causes I could fight for.

There were a number of other instances where the attitude of the management was clearly agitated to any initiative that could, in their opinion, demonize them somehow. The attitude was this cannot be changed because if it is changed then it would appear that I was to blame for the earlier faults.

This is an attitude pervasive in Indian software and BPO companies. Everyone looks towards the bright side but forgets there is another story, one that few of us can see and even fewer talk about.

I had the fortune to work for, what I believe was a 'better' company in terms of its policies and structure. I have heard stories and met people, who were not as lucky as me, and their experiences, were directly affected as a result of the single minded focus on sales/profits and the illusion that Indian human resource could last forever.

Oh and did I mention that in the Indian IT/BPO sector, managers frequently refer to people as resources? Their ridiculously archaic English knowledge and perhaps their insensitivity, means that they frequently, in all staff meetings and reports and the like, mention that they require 20 resources (when they mean people) or that they hired 200 resources the previous month, or even worse, that one resource has left their team but two new resources are on their way in.

The Indian software and BPO industries are on a slave ship and they're so ecstatic that their ships are going to America that they do not see how hard they have to row or how many of us perish on the way.

Image sources:

So why would Madonna live by this map?

Besides the usual MBA stuff we have an elective at Cass called Business Mystery, which is aimed at developing the creative and artistic mind of us MBAs - besides the analytical mind which focuses on finance, strategy and other such stuff.

Its quite unusual, we've been told, for an MBA program to have an elective where the lecture notes are not ditributed in advance and where even the venue where the lecture will take place is kept secret until about a week in advance. Of course, I'm referring to our classes on this elective as 'lectures' but that is not really an appropriate term, as in this class, our professors (and there's three of them leading this one) particpate with us in teams as well.

So anyway, a couple of weeks ago, we had a class on the theme of 'maps as part of journeys' and I was given this 'assignment' - to figure out why Madonna would live by this map. Its quite interesting and I was quick to spot the analytical part of it, as there is a word on the bottom left part of this map that says 'Kabbalah', but it took me more time to figure out that this is themed on the London Tube map - of course I spotted that but could not immediately link it up to Kaballah and the fact that she lives in London.

Actually, this elective has been so good it has almost independently reinforced my belief that I made the right decision in coming to Cass and not going to Leeds or Cranfield (which were the other two options for me).

In other classes, we've had experiences including walking through a 'catacomb', visiting a museum and a theatre. In about 10 days we have to submit an exhibit on which we will be marked for the 5 credits for this course. Hopefully I will come up with an idea soon but do not want to be limited to drawings, artefacts or videos as the case has been in previous years of this course.

Meanwhile, for a full lowdown on this and other such maps, visit Strange Maps, a wonderful and totally interesting website with a lot of strange maps from all over the world. The last time I visited I was so glued to it I spent 4 hours just looking at all the stuff there!

Cass on the MBAT

Thats us - the Cass MBA team that went to the MBAT at HEC in May (thanks Dee for the photo).

For those of you interested in what the Cass team did at the MBAT, here are two posts - one by Dee and the other by Toby.

My class raises most money for Oxfam!

Instead of selling hot air ballooning and bungee jumping, Oxfam decided to challenge business schools and blue chip companies to show their entrepreneurial skills...

...Apart from Cass, Oxfam Experiences has worked, or is working with, London Business School, Warwick, Tanaka, and Cranfield and, on the corporate front, with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Vodafone, IBM, T-Mobile, Shell and Bodyshop. According to Oxfam, the Cass team raised the most money of any business school.

(and to think this happened in the first two weeks of the MBA...!)

read more | digg story

A look at Tata Nano: The World's Cheapest Car

In the BBC today: "India is fast becoming the centre of a revolution in motoring. A new generation of ultra-cheap cars is about to hit the streets, allowing millions of would-be drivers to dream of personal mobility for themselves and their families. The Tata Nano was unveiled with fanfare in January. Its basic price - about $2,500 - is about half of its rivals." (Read more here)

The video in this article is quite interesting, the Nano does look very sluggish, it seems to take ages just to get up to moving speed, but I guess the target market won't really mind. After all, they're upgrading from a "family bike" or just unpedestrianizing themselves.

I couldn't help noticing though, that while the Tata engineer says this is not reinventing the car, it really is reinventing the car. Okay, this might not be the quickest, or most beautiful thing in the world, but the design innovation in this thing seems incredible. And not just that, the cheap price could only have been made possible as a result of innovation in process and operations management.

Now, just a couple of days ago I was in Brussels where we were talking about the fact that the EU still has not (can not hope to) meet the objective of the Lisbon Agenda which was to increase R&D spending up to 3% of GDP. The speakers were also lamenting that while things get invented in the EU (MP3 music for instance), they get commercialized in the US. At the same time, according to trends, it appears that China will now actually equal or exceed the EU in total R&D spend by next year - and you thought China could only imitate!

Using Second Life in the MBA

Read news today that the School of Informatics at City University (incidentally also the place where my girlfriend studies), hosted a seminar in Second Life.

Of course I had blogged earlier about having created a group in SL for Cass Business School and now we have 6 members (yay) but my arguments for using Second Life as a platform for delivering MBA education have had their merits counter argued by at least one professor at Cass.

In the interests of open discussion, let me post some bits of my motivation to have Second Life be a greater part of the MBA.

The use of SL for PR and marketing purposes is probably hard to justify, and many universities have failed miserably at it, but there remain several advantages to using virtual worlds for academic research and for educational purposes.

INSEAD, IESE and several British universities have failed miserably in Second Life because their ventures were poorly implemented and minimally linked to their real world work.

INSEAD, for instance, used Second Life for some research that was
(a) not very different from what could be achieved off a website,
(b) static,
(c) uninteresting to SL users.

Other universities have used the Second Life for PR in ways that is not very different from using a website. To me then, there is no surprise that these ventures have been unsuccessful.

My attraction to SL as an MBA student is based on several characteristics that are hard to find elsewhere,
(a) A healthy, well functioning and growing virtual economy (financial markets, buying, selling)
(b) A user base whose demographic is different from what can be found elsewhere
(c) A virtual world in which one can interact in 3 dimensions

These characteristics mean that there are a number of educational opportunities at least within the areas of marketing, entrepreneurship, equity research, investments and product innovation.

For instance, as part of a finance elective or course, I would be excited to do a 'live' coursework within a virtual world that alllows me to set up my own securities exchange, or my own broking company and where reslts are determined by real consumers (albeit in virtual avatars) who I can see and speak to.

Similarly, for product innovation, it would be exciting to build a virtual product that actually sells and see how sales figures can be manipulated using different marketing techniques.

Our MBA class had a Markstrat days in late December - during this session various teams managed virtual companies selling products. The marketing drive and product strategies we came up with determined our sales, profits and therefore the share price.

We did that on a boring, very expensive piece of software (Markstrat). We really could have done that on Second Life and interacted with a whole real market rather than just with each other (now thats a product idea!). That would have been far more interesting for me as a student as we prefer to interact with real people (even as virtual avatars) rather than programmatically with some pre-designed algorithms pretending to be consumers.

There are so many more ideas that can come up for other related subjects that are taught in any MBA.

Yes it is probably true that most of these ideas haven't been attempted, or even thought of yet (and therefore remain unknown). My objective has been to bring some ideas and bridge the technology divide that curently exists between generations. Of course it will take time to develop and fine tune these ideas, but once done they could be implemented within any virtual world and not just be limited to Second Life.

For those who are interested, there are several discussion forums (can be subscribed to via email) for specific subjects where academics from all over the world discuss ideas related to education and how they can be implemented within Second Life. There is even an MBA educators group in SL.

By the way, I was told last week that the typical user of Second Life is 29 and male. So I do fit that demographic pretty well and perhaps that is why I am such a keen proponent of its use :-)

The Interstate so far

So I'm here in Brussels for the Interstate Programme. Its been quite a good 4 days and we have only the afternoon session left after which I travel back to London.

One of the special things about the Interstate is that it introduces a political perspective to MBAs. This time in Brussels, besides me from Cass, we have participants from Wharton, IE, Tuck, UCLA, Leeds, ESSEC and HEC.

A point was made the first day and that in my opinion reflects an interesting characteristic of today's MBAs, which is that while in most world class MBA programmes, we study finance, economics, strategy, consulting and softer subjects like HRM and organizational beaviour, there is little focus on the current and future geopolitical balance (or imbalance) in the world.

Now the Interstate is focused on the relationship European Union has with the Unitred States. However, that dialogue cannot exist without taking in the realities of the growing influence of the emerging economies (BRICS), Russia's specific influence and recent tactics in Ukraine and Georgia, China's increasing influence in Africa and its global ambition. At the same time, the EU is caught in an internal struggle, where it is falling behind its self-imposed targets (the Lisbon Agenda for instance) and where there is continued debate about its future role in the world.

It has been an interesting debate and certainly quite stimulating as opinions of MBAs from all over the world (we are about 40 of us here) interact with those of senior figures in the EU, NATO, the US administration and publications such as the WSJ and the FT.

I'm certainly going to post some of my opinion up here later, when I have more time and am not paying 12 euros an hour for internet access(!).

But yes, if any of you are planning, or are currently pursuing an MBA, then do have a look at the Interstate programme - its one of a kind and has certainly been one of the highlights of my MBA year so far.