IPL is a great example of why big brands die hard

Indian-Premier-League-IPL-logoVivek Kaul
The Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s biggest T20 cricket tournament, has been surrounded by controversies for a while. The latest round started yesterday with a panel appointed by the Supreme Court indicting Gurunath Meiyappan for spot fixing. Meiyappan is the son-in-law of the BCCI president N Srinivasan. Srinivasan also owns the IPL Team, Chennai Super Kings (CSK). He is also scheduled to takeover as the first chairman of the International Cricket Council (ICC) from July 2014.
This is not the first time that controversy has hit the IPL. In the past, there have been issues about the shenanigans of Lalit Modi, and how he started and ran the tournament. There have been issues about the union minister Shashi Tharoor using his late wife Sunanda Pushkar to pick up “sweat equity” in the now defunct IPL team Kochi Tuskers Kerala. Then there have also been issues about spot fixing, leading to the arrest of S Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan
who played for the Rajasthan Royals cricket team.
But despite these controversies, the brand IPL has held strong and advertisers have thronged to it, year on year. Interestingly, the research firm American Appraisal, in a report titled 
Clearing the Fence with Brand Value: A Concise Report on Brand Values in the Indian Premier League found that “43 percent of the respondents thought that the controversies surrounding the tournament impacted their new or continued relation with the IPL as sponsors or advertisers.” But more interestingly, “almost half said that the controversies in no way influenced their decision to affiliate with the tournament.” American Appraisal reached out to over 300 companies and ad agencies that are involved with the IPL. 
So what is it that makes brand IPL so strong despite all the controversies that have surrounded it? India is a cricket mad nation and for any company which has a consumer oriented focus, some money to spend and a lazy marketing strategy, it makes sense to be associated with the IPL brand. But that as they say is a no brainer.
The more important question to ask here is why have the companies continued to be associated with the IPL, despite all the controversies surrounding the tournament. Niraj Dawar possibly has an answer in his book Tilt- Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers. As he writes “Brands die hard…One consequence of the strong association of a brand with a criterion of purchase is that even when the brand falls behind technologically or fails to deliver on the product, it continues to benefit from the customers’ default assumptions for a long while…Customer associations provide the brand with the buffer that shields it from crises and quality issues.”
The IPL brand is well settled in the minds of the Indian consumer and the controversies that have hit the cricket tournament have been unable to dislodge it. Given this ‘strong’ association of the Indian consumer with the IPL, it is not surprising that companies and their brands want to continue to be associated with the T20 tournament.
This, despite the fact that the IPL may have failed to deliver on its main product, which is an honestly and competitively played twenty over cricket match. For all we know that may not be happening, given that the owners of IPL teams (like Gurunath Meiyappan of CSK and Raj Kundra of the Rajasthan Royals) may have been betting against their own teams.
A report in the Mumbai Mirror newspaper points out “In his exhaustive and extensive report on the spot-fixing scandal in last year’s Indian Premier League, Justice Mukul Mudgal has raised suspicion about one particular game between the Chennai Super Kings and the Rajasthan Royals. While the 170-page report largely remains inconclusive over whether matches were fixed in the league, it clearly states this particular match needs to be investigated. “The Committee feels that there is enough information available on record to indicate that a further investigation is required in respect of the match held at Jaipur, between Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings on May 5, 2013,” the report says.”
Despite this, the Indian cricket fan (who also happens to be a consumer) is not done with the IPL as yet. Once a brand is established consumers typically tend to give it a long rope. As Dawar writes “Microsoft was able to retain most of its customers even through the life of the ill-conceived Windows Vista operating system, a disastrous product that would have been the death knell for a start-up brand. Apple’s reputation was barely dented despite the antenna problems of iPhone 4, AT&T’s spotty coverage, and the embarrassment of prematurely launching Siri, an artificial intelligence bot that was not quite ready for prime time, and faulty Apple iMaps. The brand easily withered these slipups.”
If a start-up would have made any of these mistakes, the game would have been more or less over for it. But that is not the case with big and established brands. Interestingly, the controversies started to hit the IPL only after the first few seasons, and by that time it had already managed to establish itself in the mind of the Indian consumer. As Dawar puts it “Customers are slow to switch, so that even if decline sets in, it is gradual allowing the company time to fix the problem and respond to challenges.”
This time that consumers give a big brand to fix itself can also lead to complacency, as happened in case of BlackBerry. As Dawar puts it “It allows managers the room they need to remain in denial about challengers and challenges. When BlackBerry sales continues to rise, even into 2012 in some parts of the world, its newly appointed CEO felt free to declare early that year, “We have fantastic devices in a fantastic ecosystem. I don’t think there is some drastic change needed.”
We all know what happened to BlackBerry after that. Consumers do give long ropes to big brands, but these are not infinitely long ropes. One day their patience does run out. Maybe, there is a thing or two, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) which runs the IPL, can learn from this. 

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on February 12, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

“ India should have been after Pakistan to start talking after 26/11”

Stuart DiamondVivek Kaul

Stuart Diamond has taught and advised on negotiation and cultural diversity to corporate and government leaders in more than 40 countries. For more than 90% of the semesters over the past 15 years his negotiation course has been the most popular at the Wharton Business School, based on the course auction. He is also the author of Getting More – How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work and Life. In this interview he speaks to Firstpost on why India and Pakistan need to negotiate, how the soldiers negotiate with tribal leaders in Afghanistan and why the lack of people skills is proving costly for technology firms.

What is the most important point in any negotiation?
Almost any negotiation worth doing with anybody, whether its a billion dollar deal, diplomacy or my kid wants an ice cream cone, is a high stakes negotiation to that person. So almost every negotiation that is done in the world begins as an emotional negotiation. When stakes are high people get emotional and listen less.
That’s a very perceptive point you make….
Hence, unless you deal with that in the beginning you are not going to get the response you like. Also, I’d like to point out that we have begun to study the cost of conflict i.e. the cost of not collaborating. It turns out that India is in a fair amount of trouble when it comes to this. Only 20% of the people in India, trust each other, 80% don’t. If India had the same amount of trust as Sweden, its GDP would be $95 billion higher, which is twice as much as the defence budget, ten times the education budget, fourteen times the health budget and equal to the entire budget shortfall. In addition to that it would have 38 million more jobs, which is twice the population of Mumbai. Therefore the lack of trust in this country is a significant social and economic issue.
Why would that be? Isn’t trust also a function the amount of equality in the country? Like you gave the example of Sweden. Sweden has one of the highest equality levels in the world…
I would phrase it differently. I would say that trust occurs when someone thinks you want to do something for them, even if you are unequal. It begins with the notion of do I care about them? For example, when we had terrorist attacks in Mumbai around five years back, that’s when India and Pakistan should have started talking non stop. That’s part and parcel of the problem, which is even if Pakistan wanted to stop talking, India should have been after Pakistan to start talking, because you cannot solve a problem by not talking. In other words, if we mistrust each other, that’s the time to start talking. So this is counter-intuitive to many people because it says that the less I trust you the more I need to talk to you.
Can you elaborate on that?
For example, instead of India threatening to clean out terrorist cells in Pakistan, and instead of Pakistan putting people on the border, India should say to Pakistan, do you like terrorism? If you don’t like terrorism, we don’t. You want us to be able to do something about it? Let’s start small. What’s the worse problem we can solve in the easiest way? How do we start? Have a discussion about it. As opposed to do it my way. Or I demand this. There needs to be discussion. Even my 11 year old son, when he breaks something on the floor, I don’t blame the floor, I say Alexander how can you prevent this from happening again? Even a 11 year old kid understands that. How do we fix the process?
Not many people would buy that argument these days…
So much time is being spent arguing over yesterday instead of fixing the process for tomorrow. Yesterday adds no value. It is done and you can’t fix it and you can’t do anything about it. Tomorrow is what we can add value to. Too many people are backward facing when they should be forward facing.
One of the interesting examples that I came across was where you allowed your son to watch Scooby Doo for every minute that he played the piano. What was that all about?
It was a trade. First of all life is about a trade. Even a relationship. Quid pro quo. If you don’t need each others needs, soon you won’t have a relationship. And parents expect kids to do things for nothing, when they themselves would never do things for nothing. I wanted to teach my child the value of the trade. I paid money for the piano. I knew he would grow out of Scooby Doo, but he still plays the piano.
What is the lesson?
I wanted to know what do we trade. It teaches people to be responsible. That’s a really good thing to be thinking about with kids and others. What do they value? It doesn’t have to be monetary. It can be something intangible. It can be a letter of reference.
Letter of reference? 
Let me tell you an interesting story. About three months ago one of Google’s senior negotiators went to do a deal in the Southern United States where they doubled the fibre optics capacity. The first tranche cost $6 million and it closed two years ago. The vendor wanted $6 million for the second tranche. Instead of asking for a discount this Google negotiator said what can Google do for you? And the vendor said you can write us a letter of reference, so we could build our business.
That’s interesting…
The Google negotiator said fine we will do that. And then he said, what can you do for Google? The vendor decided to offer a discount to Google. And the vendor charged Google $6000 for an installation of $6 million, a 99.9% discount. This happened because they made the human connection and it wasn’t just about the money.
Can you give us another example of where an intangible played an important part in a negotiation?
My models are not only used by Google but by Special Operations in Afghanistan. If they make a connection with the tribal leaders, which may be something as simple as praising the fact that he(i.e. the tribal leader) was a war hero against the Soviets, the tribal leader will tell them where the bombs are buried and where the Taliban are. People say negotiations are complicated. No they are that simple. I like to watch kids negotiate. Kids are very simple. I am happy. I am sad. I am hungry. We are not getting along. A lot of what passes for negotiation is too complicated. Its just a conversation about what’s going on. The thing is it is not rocket science. But unless you know how to do it, it’s completely invisible. These tools are obvious when you see them, but are invisible unless you know them.
The Afghanistan example was interesting..
Let me give you another example. In Afghanistan, you have got tribal leaders interested in co-operating with the Allies. So, I teach the soldiers to say, think your kid is going to be sick next year? It takes some months to get medicines in Afghanistan. Your kid might die. We can get the medicine the same day. Who cares about that in your village? Whether they are a hard bargainer or a soft bargainer, it will be very hard for them(i.e. the tribal leaders) to turn down the alliance. So the more you can create a vision for someone, the more they are likely to buy in.
Any other example?
Here is one. Google wanted to put cigarette advertising and liquor advertising on cell phones. The legal department of Google did not want to do this because there was danger of kids getting access to it. We realised that whenever people think this is risky if you are more incremental you can be more persuasive. So then what was proposed was a limited experiment. We try with cigarette advertising in Britain and liquor advertising in the US for a small portion of the market and see if it can protected from under age people. Google would use that as a test to see how people self regulate. Google would be a leader in the industry as opposed to someone trying to get a heads up. So you can completely turn something around by being more incremental and by re-framing it in a way to capture the imagination of people.
In complicated situations do outsiders tend to be the best negotiators?
In fact, somebody without an emotional history is often the right negotiator. There are times when you can do it yourself but by the time it gets to a situation where the husband and wife are fighting with each other, you need a marriage counsellor. Before that point you can often do it yourself. But it is also true that sometimes the best negotiator with my wife is my son. So the right negotiator is the person who can make the best connection with the other side. The right negotiator is not the smartest, the most skilled and the most experienced. It might be the weakest member of your team.
That’s interesting. Can you give us an example?
I told this to the senior management of Morgan Stanley last month and they said that this flies in the face of a 100 years of investment banking experience. They are going to think of changing this. For 100 years, the most senior person did the negotiation. And that’s not often the right negotiator.
Because he has got too many things to do anyway. You need someone who does not come with a baggage…
Yes. Exactly.

Men better do better at negotiations than women” you point out. Why is that?
And that’s only because men practice more. Women are instinctively better negotiators than men. They listen more. But they don’t practice enough and so they are not trained enough. And some training is better than no training. As soon as they get trained at negotiations they do very very well. In fact, 30% of the people in my classes are women and they get more than half the highest marks.
One of the things that you write about is that the lack of people skills is proving costly to technology firms…
Absolutely. I gave a talk four years ago to 400 people from Microsoft from the business development and legal departments. I started the talk by saying that this morning I googled Microsoft. I typed “Europe hates Microsoft”. Why did I get 10 million hits in a tenth of a second? I said you are thinking it costs you money because people don’t like you. People investigate you because they don’t like you. The notion is that it is not just about the technology, if people don’t like you they will find a way not to buy your products and services.
Hmmm. And that’s impacting technology firms?
The FBI in Washington tells me that they use Oracle. They hate Larry Ellison and they are trying to find a way to use something else. And of course if you have got $12 billion like Larry Ellison has, you can be an SOB, but the problem is when you get to an America’s Cup race, only two people show up, including you. So there are costs to that even if you can get away with it for a short period of time.
Around 25 years ago I read a really an interesting quote from a treatise called The Myth of US Industrial Supremacy. though I am not sure of it.“There is no human organisation, institution or civilization, that cannot given enough time be ruined”. So I worry about it. However, powerful I am, if I make myself the issue over and over again, people are going to run away. The lack of people skills is the Achilles’ heal for the technology industry because it is not just about the technology. It is about how people feel about the technology.
The interview originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on October 1, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)


Lessons from Nokia: Companies, unlike cockroaches, aren't great survivors

nokia-logoVivek Kaul

Cockroaches are great survivors. They can even survive a nuclear attack. As Dylan Grice, formerly with Soceite Generale and now the editor of the Edelweiss Journal wrote in a report titled Cockroaches for the long run! in November 2012 “Cockroaches may not be able to build nuclear bombs, but they can withstand the nuclear war. They survive.”
Grice also points out that the oldest cockroach fossil is nearly 350 million years old. “According to the record of the rocks, cockroaches first appeared just after the second of the earth’s five mass extinctions (defined as the loss of 75% of all species). In other words, that means they survived, the third, the fourth and fifth mass extinctions which followed,” writes Grice.
And there is no rocket science behind the ability of cockroaches to survive. They follow a very simple algorithm. As Grice writes “According to Richard Bookstaber, that algorithm is “singularly simple and seemingly suboptimal: it moves in the opposite direction of gusts of wind that must signal an approaching predator.” And that’s it.”
Such a simple straight forward strategy, along with their ability to go without air for 45 minutes, survive submerged underwater for half an hour, withstand 15 times more radiation than humans and eat almost anything, including the glue on the back of stamps, helps cockroaches survive.
Companies do not come with the same kind of flexibility. Neither are they good at avoiding trouble. And given that their turnover rate is pretty high. 
The average life span of a company listed on the S&P 500 index of leading American companies is around 15 years. This has come down dramatically from around 67 years in the 1920s.
Companies have a very high mortality rate. 
As an article in the Bloomberg Businessweek points out “The average life expectancy of a multinational corporation-Fortune 500 or its equivalent-is between 40 and 50 years. This figure is based on most surveys of corporate births and deaths.”
Companies are either acquired, merged, broken to pieces or simply shut down. Nokia, which till a few years back was the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, is now going through a phase of trying to stay relevant. It was announced yesterday that the mobile phone division of the Finnish company 
would be sold to Microsoft for $7.2 billion.
Nokia produced the first mobile phone in 1987, more than a quarter century back. It was the world’s largest vendor of mobile phones, until Samsung overtook it in 2012. Even now, Nokia makes nearly 15% of the world’s mobile phones. But it only has 3% share in the lucrative smart phone market, where the most of the mobile phone users seem to be moving towards.
So what went wrong with Nokia? It failed to see the rise of a new category of mobile phones i.e. the smart phone market. As marketing consultants Al and Laura Ries,write in 
War In the Boardroom, “The biggest mistake of logical management types is their failure to see the rise of a new category. They seem to believe that categories are firmly fixed and a new one seldom arises.”
Companies tend to remain obsessed in selling a product they are good at selling and thus fail to see the rise of a totally new category. Nokia fell victim to this as well.
The history of business is littered with many such examples. Sony invented the walkman but allowed Apple and others to walkway with the MP3 player market. RCA ,which was big radio manufacturer, had earlier allowed Sony to walkway with the pocket radio market. Southwest Airlines created an entirely new low cost airline market which gradually spread to all other parts of the world. Incumbents like Panam, Delta, Singapore Airlines and British Airways did not spot this opportunity. The 24 hour news market was spotted by CNN and not BBC as you would have expected to given the dominance they have had in the global news market.
So the question is why do incumbents which are doing particularly well fail to see the rise of a new category? The answer for this lies in what happened with Kodak, a company which was a global leader in film photography. As Mark Johnson writes in 
Seizing the White Space – Business Model Innovation for Growth and Renewal “In 1975, Kodak engineer, Steve Sasson invented the first camera, which captured low-resolution black-and-white images and transferred them to a TV. Perhaps fatally, he dubbed it “filmless photography” when he demonstrated the device for various leaders at the company.”
Sasson was told “that’s cute – but don’t tell anyone about it.” The reason for this reluctance was very simple. What Sasson had invented went against the existing business model of the company. Kodak at that point of time was the world’s largest producer of photo film. And any camera that did not use photo-film was obviously going to be detrimental to the interests of the company.
So Kodak ignored the segment. By the time it realised the importance of the segment other companies like Canon had already jumped in and become big players. Also by then brand Canon had come to be associated very strongly with the digital camera whereas Kodak continued to be associated with the old photo film.
The same thing happened to Sony as
well. The MP3 player was ultimately an extension of the Walkman and the Cdman market which the company had successfully captured. So what stopped them from capturing the MP3 player market as well? Over the years, other than being a full fledged electronics company, Sony had also morphed into a music company which had the rights to the songs of some of the biggest rock stars and pop stars. Hence, Sony supporting MP3 technology would mean that one of the biggest music companies in the world was supporting the free copying and distribution of music because that was what MP3 was all about.
And that of course wouldn’t work. This obsession with the current way of doing business stops companies from seeing the rise of a totally new category of doing business. Closer to home, Bharti Beetel is an excellent example. The company pioneered the sale of landline phones which had buttons. But it was so busy selling these phones that it failed to see the rise of the mobile phone market. And by the time the market took off brands like Nokia were firmly entrenched. This happened at the same time as Beetel’s sister concern, Bharti Airtel, became the largest mobile phone company in India.
Imagine the possibilities here. If Bharti Airtel during its heydays had sold a Bharti Beetel mobile phone along with every connection, a lot of money could have been made.
Another excellent example of this is Xerox. “Just think of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, which famously owned the technologies that helped catapult Apple (the graphical user interface, the mouse), Adobe (post script graphical technology) and 3Com (Ethernet technology) to success,” writes Johnson. But the company had an excellent product in the photo copy machine which was selling like hot cakes, and there was no need for it to concentrate on other products which would be viable some day in the future.
Nokia became a victim of this phenomenon as well where it completely ignored the rise of a new category. The company was busy selling its mobile phones and failed to see the rise of the smart phone market. Even though smart phones have been around for a while now its only in the last couple of years that they have really taken off. Hence, as long as the basic phones of Nokia were selling well, it had no real interest in thinking about the smart phone market.
By the time it woke up to the smart phone game, the likes of Galaxy (from Samsung) and iPhone (from Apple) had already captured the smart phone market. The company has been trying to play catchup in the smart phone market through its Lumia brand but has very little market share. 
As a Reuters report points out “Although Nokia also said in July it had shipped 7.4 million Lumia smart phones in the quarter, up 32 percent from Q1, it was fewer than the 8.1 million units analysts had anticipated. Nokia now boasts only around 15 percent of the handset market share, with an even smaller 3 percent share in smart phones.”
Blackberry is another such company. It was busy selling phones which had an excellent email application. Meanwhile, it failed to see the rise of the smart phone market like Nokia. It is now trying catchup but other companies have already captured the market. In the days to come, the chances of Blackberry being acquired by another company, like Nokia has been, are very high.
What the Nokia story tells us is that companies unlike cockroaches are not great survivors. As the Bloomberg Businessweek article quoted earlier points out “Even the big, solid companies, the pillars of the society we live in, seem to hold out for not much longer than an aver-age of 40 years. And that 40-year figure, short though it seems, represents the life expectancy of companies of a considerable size…A recent study by Ellen de Rooij of the Stratix Group in Amsterdam indicates that the average life expectancy of all firms, regardless of size, measured in Japan and much of Europe, is only 12.5 years.”
Nokia started operating in 1871 and was named after the Nokianvirta river. It spent more than a 100 years manufacturing everything from boots to cables to tyres. In 1987, the company made the first mobile phone. In 2013, the mobile phone division was sold to Microsoft. That’s a period of 26 years. Almost double the life expectancy of 12.5 years which prevails for companies in Europe. As per that parameter, Nokia survived long enough.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 4, 2013 

 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

‘Adapt to India, don’t wait for it to catch up with your model’

India Economic Summit 2009
Ravi Venkatesan is the former Chairman of Microsoft India and Cummins India. He is currently a director on the boards of Infosys and AB Volvo. Most recently he has authored Win in India, Win Everywhere – Conquering the Chaos (Harvard Business Review Press, Rs 895). In the book he makes a case for multi-national companies (MNCs) not to ignore India, despite the country being a VUCCA market (i.e. operating in an environment characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, corruption and ambiguity). In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
The first thing I felt after reading your book was that given the current scenario in our country, its a tad too optimistic….
The reality of the Indian economy is very grim. But in spite of that companies need to find a way to break through. India is one of those extraordinarily fortunate countries which has to do nothing to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). People are dying to come here. We just have to stop scaring them away. Unfortunately we have done a pretty good job of scaring them away to the point where they are really losing interest.

Why have only a few MNCs succeeded in India?
Because only a handful of them have taken the country seriously. It takes three things to succeed in a market like India. Number one is the mindset. Companies need to realise that India is strategically important. It may not have their act together now, but a country of billion people cannot be ignored without consequences. So lets take a long term view. Lets be a leader. That is the mindset needed.
The second thing you need is to get the leadership right. You need a stable leadership team you can trust. You empower them overtime to take most of the decisions. But very few companies have succeeded in doing that. For most of them it is a fast moving sales outfit with no imagination.
The third thing you have to get right is that you have to realise you have to adapt to the country rather than wait for the country to catch up to your business model. 

In India the business model may never catch up with you….
Yes. So if you are Apple and you say listen I am going to wait till the distribution system is more efficient and more Indians can afford the iPhone as is. Fine yaar.

Meanwhile the Indians will buy a Samsung...
Yeah. They will buy a little Samsung. A little HTC. A little Nokia. And you are going to be wiped out. When you look at it, this doesn’t sound to be much. But it is an extraordinary one in a hundred who actually gets these three elements right.

So the mindset is very important?
Yes. The global headquarters might say oh my God if they come up with something it will cannibalise my rich product. Imagine an iPhone that is half the price and almost everything that an iPhone is. That would not be good news. It would mean cheapening the brand and destroying the profitability of the company because the Americans will ask why can’t I have that phone as well. And so usually companies decide that do nothing is a good strategy.

Can you give us an example of a company which came to India, tried establishing its business model which did not work and then adapted it with success…
Microsoft came to India with its arrogance and established a certain presence. Then Bill Gates woke up and he realised, hey listen we have a $100 million business and 1000 people in a country of a billion people. What is going on? This was 2003. So they hired me in all their wisdom, even though I did not know anything about IT.
What was one of the main issues facing the company? Back then the piracy rate was 75%. Bill said this is okay. We will get them using it, one day we will collect. Steve Ballmer said, time has come to collect. “You are the country head, you collect,” he told me.

What did you do?
I went around enforcement, ye wo kiya, par kuch nahi hua (did this and that, but nothing happened). Then one minister, who shall remained unnamed, called me, and spoke to me in Tamil, and said “listen, you seem like a good guy, but maybe a little stupid. So let me give you some advise. Copyright in India means right to copy. So you change your business model because India is not going to change for you guys.” So we changed our business model in 2006-07. We changed our pricing. We came up with local language versions. Changed distribution and took the piracy rate down from 75% to 64% and saw dramatic growth.

You cut prices dramatically…
Office used to be $300. We came up with Office Home and Student which is $60. We came up with a version of Office for government schools which was $2. So if somebody said what is the price of Office in India? The answer was I don’t know. It’s free if you are an NGO. It’s two dollars if you are a school, and its $300 if you are Infosys. So that is adapting your business model for the reality of a country.

Any other examples?
JCB is a beautiful example. Everyone else came with an excavator. These guys came with a backhoe Bakchoes was 1960s technology, but India needed a backhoe. The country needed something low tech, very versatile and very inexpensive. They also localised to get the price point right. Also everybody optimises a machine for productivity i.e. how much mud can you dig in one hour. These guys optimised it for fuel efficiency i.e. how much mud can I dig per litre of diesel. Every point they made a different decision based on the market. How do you adapt your equipment so that it can run on adulterated diesel and abuse? You can’t find operators to run the machines. So lets start schools for backhoe operators across the countries.

The other companies did not do these things?
Everybody else was saying when the market comes up, then we will do it. These guys created the market and so they own it. Do you have a microwave oven from Samsung?

It doesn’t say time setting. It says dal. It figures out the time and setting on its own.

That is a great innovation…
And it is so simple. And it will also in certain models say dal in Hindi. Is this rocket science or genius? No it is paying attention to your customer. That is all it is.

The interview originally appeared in Daily News and Analysis on July 27, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

‘Many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the philosopher’s stone’

Managers like all of us are also suckers for easy answers. “Management as a discipline is in very early stages of development. The equivalent would be the subject of chemistry as it was in the fifteenth-sixteenth century when it was alchemy. For centuries people were looking for the philosopher’s stone which was some kind of catalyst which could turn base metal into gold. Management is a bit like that. So many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the simple answer,” says Robert Grant. He is a professor of strategic management and holder of the ENI Chair of Strategic Management in the Energy Sector at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. He is currently in India teaching a course on strategy to the first batch of students at the Mumbai International School of Business, an initiative of the SDA Bocconi School of Management in India. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
You have talked about the fact that the knowledge and insight needed to make sound strategic decisions and guide the development of their organisations is best served by strategy teaching that is rooted in theory. What do you mean by that?
Some people would reject the whole notion of business education. Some would say that the best way to become a successful manager is to learn on the job i.e. there is no substitute for experience. Part of the whole notion of having a business school is to say that actually there are principles, and there are things that can be learnt from an analytical approach.
Can you explain this through an example?
You have individuals who appear to be successful managers and the question is what can we learn from them. Can we in anyway generalize about this? So you look at Apple and you say is Apple all about Steve Jobs? Then what was his leadership style? Here is a quirky individualistic, unconventional and a very autocratic management style. And you ask why has this worked? You look at a different company like IBM and its former CEO Sam Palmisano, who had a very different leadership style. You start looking at all these examples and say can we see patterns. Can we see something that we can generalize? Soresearch tries to generalise for this diversity of experience and then the teaching says that here are some principles that we can start applying.
You talked about Steve Jobs and Sam Palmisano two people with very different leadership styles. Which style works more often than not?
Palmisano fits in with a more observable trend you are seeing in large companies where leaders are becoming less the people who make the key decisions. The problem is that most organisations are so complex that the CEO knows maybe 2% of what is going on in that organisation. Also these days businesses have to respond so quickly that they can’t wait for the stuff to get to the CEO level before decisions can be made. So you have to have highly decentralized decision making. So what then is the role of the CEO? Increasingly the role of the CEO is to manage culture and manage the development of people within the organisation, rather than to take the role of the decision maker.
So where does that leave the likes of Jobs?
In many ways Jobs may well have been the one of the last of the old school. This was somebody who was very very hands on. In the early days he was the designer. At one level he was the Chairman of Apple Computers but he was also the project leader on the projects. He was very deeply involved in tiny details which he was incredibly emotionally attached to. So I think in terms of models of leadership probably companies are making some serious mistakes if they say the Jobs way is the way to go.
At some level he was also the biggest marketer of his company…
Yup. He was a great marketing guy because he was the founder of this incredibly successful company that was a major part of a social revolution that took computing, something that had been dominated by governments and large corporations, and taken it down to young people. He empowered young people.
So how do you see Apple performing now that he is not there to lead them?
The case with Apple is like all companies that have visionary powerful founders who go on to be their leaders. The key is can that intuition and vision of the founder, become embodied in the capabilities of the firm. The fact is that Jobs had from several years before his death increasingly distancing himself as the chief decision maker of the firm. This must mean that in terms of the culture of the company, the systems by which the products are designed, how they understand the market, technology, their users, and many of the intuitive level skills that Jobs had, have actually become embodied in the capabilities of the organisation. It’s the same with every entrepreneurial company. Can the company make the transition from a company which is entrepreneur led, family led, into an organisation which is professionally managed but has managed to embody those skills.
Does that happen?
It does happen. You look at Walt Disney. The values and the quest for quality entertainment orientated towards children and families is something that has become embodied in the set of capabilities at Disney. Wal-Mart has a culture where cost efficiency is almost like a religion. Avoiding all waste and looking for new solutions to keep costs down, was something that was a part of the protestant upbringing of Sam Walton. But it has been transferred into the company. So I think it does happen. And it has to happen if the company is going to make that transition.
In one of your research papers you write “I frequently observe a propensity to fall back on ideas and beliefs that amount to little more than folk wisdom.” Could you talk about that in a little detail?
Management as a discipline is in very early stages of development. The equivalent would be the subject of chemistry as it was in the fifteenth-sixteenth century when it was alchemy. For centuries people were looking for the philosopher’s stone which was some kind of catalyst which could turn base metal into gold. Management is a bit like that. So many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the simple answer. Hence, all the time you have people coming up with the philosopher’s stone. These fads in management come and go. Go back to the late 1970s and the early 1980s market share was the in thing. If you need to get anywhere in business you need to have market share was the in thing. The way to get market share is penetration pricing. This is what the Japanese companies were doing. So that was the sort of thinking that dominated that era. It made sense but not in others. Since then we have had wave after wave of notions, typically given tremendous appeal by the fact that people espoused them are usually fantastic performers. People like Tom Peters for example.
I was about to take his name…
HaHa. To give them their credit most of them have a key value but it is all within a context. One of the ones that was most influential was CK Prahalad and his core competence of the corporation. For many business leaders this was a kind of a revelation that rather than going out there thinking about what does the customer want, it made more sense to start looking inside, what the hell do you well as a company? The article was written 22 years ago and now you look back and say, core competence, that is just one single thing. Now when you look at companies you say there is a whole network of things and the key is the way in which they all fit together. The tremendous danger is this belief that there can be a single idea that provides a universal solution.
How does folk wisdom prevalent in organisations at various points of time influences decisions made by senior executives in companies?
If you look at the lead up to the financial services crisis a phenomenon that you saw particularly among the retail banks was internationalizing. So nearly all the US banks, and major European banks said, we have to have a position in China. They bought minority stakes typically in Chinese banks. Look at Royal Bank of Scotland, which was a Scottish bank, and present only in Scotland. Then it acquired NatWest in Britain. Then they started acquiring banks elsewhere in Europe, in United States and Asia as well. Bank of Santander did the same thing. HSBC internationalized as well. Other banks like the UniCredit Bank started to say we need to get into the game. I remember having this executive seminar with one of the Italian banks and I asked them what are you doing right now? And I was told we are internationalizing. And when I asked them why? Because we are living in a global world, was the answer that came along. So what? This sort of notion of globalisation just takes hold of people and it almost becomes an excuse for not really thinking about what really makes sense.
So globalisation is the current fad…
It is one of the current fads. The question that needs to be asked is globalisation creating any value for many businesses? In the case of retail banking you acquire banks in different countries. Then you ask are there any benefits of having them under common ownership? For starters you have to put them under the same brand. But then the regulations in different countries are different. Hence banks in different countries have to be separately funded. They have to meet the reserve requirements specific to that country. The markets are very often different and so you can’t launch the same products. So you say, well hang on, does this make sense? The same is true about telecom. Vodafone is the most international company and yet in every country it has to acquire licenses, has to establish structure etc. So the question is where are the economies of scale? So they say, maybe the economies are in sourcing. And then you start sourcing phones on a global scale. But in Japan they want Japanese phones simply because those phones had higher standards than what consumers in the UK were happy with. So you start saying where is the value being added here?
Vodafone hasn’t been doing terribly well in India…
Another of the link to this globalisation is to say where do we need to be internationally? Emerging markets. Why do you need to be in emerging markets? Because that’s where the growth is. But growth doesn’t necessarily mean profitability. All those banks that went into China most of them have sold of their holdings now. The car companies are still rushing into China building plants. In China they growth of capacity in automobiles is faster than the growth of demand. So you have the same excess capacity that you have in Europe and North America and so most of these companies are not making money in China. When it comes to telecom the emerging markets are pretty much close to saturation. India has a brutally competitive market in telecom. This is not a market where France Telecom or AT&T can say hey if we move in we are going to make a lot of money. To a lot of extent there is this sort of naïve thinking that just because you are in a growth market you are going to make money.
What has been the impact of increased volatility and unpredictability of the business environment in the last few years upon the strategic planning processes of companies?
What this means that you can’t forecast. So you have to have a planning system which is based upon the notion that actually you don’t really know, what is going to happen next week, let alone next year. And that is a major challenge. Though you don’t know what the environment is going to be you still need to make investments. The oil companies are making investments in oil fields and majorly into gas fields. These fields aren’t going to come on stream for another six, seven, eight years and then they are going to last for another 20-30 years. But nobody knows what the price of gas is going to be in six month’s time, let alone in ten years.
So the companies need to function more and more like venture capitalists?
I think you are onto something here. What companies increasingly need to do is not so much as manage a portfolio of major businesses necessarily, but at least have a portfolio of options. So they are looking at the future and saying we don’t know what is going to happen. But maybe we can engage in some in alternative scenarios now and make relatively small investments, so that if the market develops in this way, we can expand on that base and really exploit that opportunity.
Can you give an example to explain that?
Some of the technology companies are quite good at this. If you look at Google and ask what is it doing, you realise that wow it’s all over the place. And yet it is doing things that make sense in an environment of uncertain change. It started Android its mobile device operating system with the realisation that even though it was dominating search within PCs, laptops and so on, the internet access was increasingly going to move to mobile devices in the days to come. So that was a threat to Google because the question was that would these mobile devices be compatible with the Google search engine? So they decided that maybe if we have our own operating system then we can ensure all our applications are going to run on it. Then of course RIM and then Apple became the dominant players in the mobile business. Apple likes its close garden. It likes to control its own applications through its own app store and so on.
So what happened?
Google exercised the Android option, which was basically an embryonic protocol operating system. It then said we are going to launch this, we are going to invest in this, we are going to talk to major handset makers and provide them with the necessary tools to support it and so on. This despite the fact that Android was free and Google wasn’t making any money out of it. But it became a way of ensuring that their Google search engine and other Google products could make their movement into the mobile sector. Then they start saying what are the threats that we face in terms of our desktop applications? We are dependant upon Microsoft because our search engine runs on the Microsoft browser, internet explorer. It also runs on the Microsoft operating system. So again they said lets introduce Chrome. It’s an option. It’s not a massive investment. But it’s their own browser. And then they came up with the Chrome operating system as well. And it becomes an alternative. In fact they haven’t had to make a massive investment in rollout because Firefox’s Mozilla has eroded Microsoft’s clout and Microsoft is no longer dominant in the browser business. That’s one way of interpreting what companies are doing.
This approach you talk about might be possible in technology because expenses are not huge. But what about other businesses?
You look at the oil business. Nobody knows what the price of oil is going to be. Nobody knows if the House of Sa’ud is going to fall. Maybe that could be next domino. Nobody knows if the Israelis are going to bomb the hell out of Iran. So there is all that uncertainty in this business. So companies are hedging their bets. They are making investments in shale gas. They are taking minority stakes. The Chinese are taking stakes in the oil sands of Canada. But most of those are just minority stakes. But it’s enough for them to say that if it looks like that we are going to lose a lot of our upstream oil reserves, if the price of oil is going to rocket, then we are in a position now to understand enough about this business either to expand it internally or acquire a majority stake. Just looking at the options approach it means that you are building flexibility. It is building your ability to adapt.
(The interview originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on August 20,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_many-managers-are-suckers-for-the-guru-who-can-provide-the-philosophers-stone_1730122))
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])