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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Animals of IIMA

As the last exam of the last term of PGP1 draws to an end, I am getting a bit sentimental about those good(and not so good!) times in the past year. Prime among those would be the interesting characteristics of some of my fellow students from IIMA and other campuses whom I saw/heard of. So without much ado, I present to you the species I notice.
  1. Cuckoo:- Like how the cuckoo lays its eggs in the crow's nest(and escapes its fair share of work), this person puts the burden of group assignment on the others in the group. Virtually all study groups have atleast one of the species(but exceptions do exist)
  2. Hyena:- Like the animal kingdom counterpart which attacks injured creatures adding to their burden at the worst possible time, this person is swift to 'rat on' others who are already in some trouble. 
  3. Dog:- A dog has many attributes but displays loyalty and licks the ass of other superior dogs. We have people on campus who butter up the senior batch/recruiters so blatantly, they become a byword for desperation/ give-up ness. Of course, this behavior can be justified as being an integral part of life etc, and is a valuable life skill for those who can do it well.
  4. Parasite:- Meaning self explanatory. This person not only does not contribute a single thing(individually or in group assignments), s(he) actually drains the others of their energy and motivation by cracking jokes, tangential arguments and unpleasantness. And you can be sure that just before an exam/surprise quiz, you will get a SOS from that person for help-what where they doing on the weekend?
  5. Parrot:- A parrot is expert in reciting even what it does not know/understand. Some people behave like this in class discussions when they recite case facts/ analysis from other sections.
  6. Ox:- This person is low key yet solid, intelligent and a valuable group member.
  7. Rhino:- This person is as thickskinned as a rhino, who does not take implied and expressed hint. Whether it be sharing your notes, imposing on your time/food etc, you can be certain that unless you virtually slam the door/phone, the rhino will end up getting his way
  8. Snake:- Has a long tongue(!) and venom filled fangs. Not a good enemy to make.
  9. Cat:- Lazy, delicate, pampered creature who pokes her nose into unwanted matters.
  10. Elephant:- Good natured giant-physically and mentally. Quite efficient in difficult work needing attention for long duration/advance notice etc
  11. Cheetah:- Person with enough 'street smarts'/'flexibility' to start an assignment at 8:15 and yet submit it by 8:45..AND get a good grade in the process. Like the animal kingdom equivalent, a fast worker albeit in faster spells.
To those who know me(and classify yourself in one of the above), remember this post MAY not have had you in mind at all. Any resemblance to real life characters is unintended :P

Open notes Strategic management exam costing 9000 pages-was it worth it?

When it was announced that our end term exam would be a single case, that too distributed about 4 days in advance to let us analyze/prepare, I was quite excited about the possibility of using all that in depth company/industry analysis I'd done during my 1 yr industrial training stint. But I did not bargain for my dorm mates and batchmates.

Following the typical engineering mindset of 'Some How in Time', their case analysis began on the previous night. And of course, instead of analyzing and then taking printouts, people began to take wholesale printouts of analyst reports, annual reports, frameworks, XYZ....And this went to such an extent that one of my dorm mates started mechanically demanding an extra copy of whatever people were printing-without even looking at it. Some people's hard written analysis began to be mass forwarded allowing free riding. And of course, more time was spent on hunting up other people's notes/analysis rather than working out the case. I did a guesstimate of the pages lost via this approach. There are 440 first years..even taking conservatively that 50% of them printed out notes...average copies amounting to 50+(thanks to a 35pg summary floating somewhere)..that works out to around 11,000 pages. As very few bothered to do back-back page saving techniques, that would come to around 9000+ pages wasted.

Thankfully, the case questions(given in the exam hall) were both analytical(needing you to think) AND long(thus giving people very little time to search their mass of notes). So although it probably achieved its objective of rewarding those who thought critically about the case, it left a bad taste in my mouth due to the number of printouts wasted.

So how can the system be refined? Maybe permit a case analysis of maximum ...pages to be brought to the exam hall. A fair size would be 10pages(including exhibits/data). That would reduce the superfluous junk being printed, or atleast force people to paraphrase in their own words. Still, the case did give  chance for deep reflection BEFORE the exam itself, thus improving the answer quality for those who sincerely approached it. So I guess it was worth it for those people(small minority though).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lessons from the famed first year at IIMA

People say(only partly joking) that IIM-Ahmedabad  should be renamed IIM-Academics or IIM-Assignments. As the first year classes wind to a close tomorrow, I can attest to the accuracy of both these acronyms. Coming from the CA curriculum, I thought that there could be no tougher academic curriculum in India, but IIM-A does come close(still does not beat the CA course in toughness). In the flood of cases, quizzes, projects, placement preparation, contests and(of course) studies, the first year just passed by. It seems just yesterday that I entered those famed red arches for the first time Time has passed and how!. So other than a host of concepts, procedures and techniques, what else have I taken away from the first year? The main things would be
  1. Read cases from the reverse:- I did this even before joining IIM-A, but here I've learned to place a premium on this habit. Given the heavy back loading of case exhibits/case facts(towards the end), one does get a better investment on time if reading from the end is done. In fact, even for research reports/consulting reports, this habit helps because I've noticed that the fine print, methodology, caveats etc(basically the valuable stuff) is again biased towards the end
  2. Maintain a calm perspective:- With the pace of things here, not every day will be favourable to you. It is counterproductive and useful to get depressed/panicked over things over which you have no control. For our batch, common examples were the mess quality, exchange criteria etc. Do not waste valuable time under the stress, specially on which you cannot control
  3. Politics does exist deal with it:- Whether it be the elections for the Student Advisory Council(SAC), study group formation, club selections etc, there are politics involved in some way or the other, specially for 'high value' clubs/posts. So instead of turning a Nelson's eye, grin and bear it, and use it to your advantage when necesssary
  4. It is not what you know, it is whom/whose you know:- For some people out there(you know who you are), academic assignments are more about 'replicating best practices' from top scoring assignments from past years, using 'Blackbooks' indiscriminately, seeking tips from seniors even for group projects etc. This practice while not illegal, does bend the academic integrity norms a bit. Luckily, a minuscle percentage of the student body indulges in these practices, for which they reap rewards in terms of higher grades. At some slight personal cost, I did manage to stay away from that.
  5. Group dynamics do matter:-The study group process here works that you can decide maximum 2/3rd of your study group members-the others will be allotted randomly, and most(but not all) are those who were not accepted by other groups. The challenge for the voluntary study group members is, motivating the randomly allocated members to work hard. And trust me, doing that is easier said than studying OB/HR subjects. Even work exp guys face problems here because unlike in the work place where there are formal sanctions to punish those slackers over whom you have no authority, there are no formal mechanisms here to punish free loaders. That said, social sanctions do matter but the thick skinned even ignore those
  6. The abstaining/indifferent junta make up the majority:- During one of the under graduate polls for class representatives, one of the candidates got less than 50% vote by show of hands, and so the other candidate was declared elected. It occurred to me later that the other voters may have been abstaining/indifferent-in which case the successful candidate is the one who is polled second!! Even at IIM-A, the response on email threads/certain class discussions/case analyses makes me feel the same way.
There's lot more to add but this is what I can think for the time being. 

My first(and hopefully the only!) night without end at IIM-A

The last 23 hours were hectic. Starting with a 45min Corporate Finance Quiz(yesterday at 2:30pm, thankfully a sitter) and culminating with 3(yes, you read that right, THREE) group assignments due today, things were pretty rushed. Being infected with the SHIT(Somehow in time) mentality typical to engineering students, I started my allocated group work of poster making at 7pm. And boy, did I regret it. While the analysis part was finished by 10pm, the xerox shops did not cooperate by staying open for providing that A3 print. So till 10am today, I was on tenterhooks whether we would be able to print that poster for which so much effort had been expended in power point smart shapes, colour combos etc. Luckily, a low tech alternative(chart paper + sketchpens+ colour printouts) saved the day and resulted in a pretty decent looking chart. Kudos to my group mates for rolling their sleeves up and working with glue, scissors and sketchpens to salvage it.

But maybe I'm getting too ahead of myself. While another groupmate and me were working on the poster yesterday, the others were busy on the remaining 2 reports. One report was a slim 8 pager while the other was a mammoth 24page report PLUS presentation(which was made today itself). Technically, I could have slept at 10pm itself but when everyone around you is working hard, and you know that your help may be needed on a group assignment, you just manage to stay awake. So in between intermittent spells of sleep, I some how stayed awake to help edit another report. And luckily! Sleep deprivation had begun to take its toll on some group mates(less so on me) and I could spot some editing errors before submitting the final draft. My work closed at 7am, at which time I headed out to the local Amul parlour to gorge on a butterscotch cone.

I guess staying awake was from a personal standpoint, unnecessary. But for the other group members working on a submission, the knowledge that someone else is 'there for you', can be quite comforting, even if they do not have occasion to use the extra help. Of course, these were the last 3 study group assignments, so they ended with a bang. I'll miss the fun, cribbing, moral suasion and other aspects of group work, but thats for a different post.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Do experienced candidates really deserve preference in today's 2yr MBA scenario?

Whenever there are debates about the utility of a MBA, the question comes up of work experience. Theorists like Mintzberg argue that MBA should  be offered to candidates with atleast 3-4yrs work experience, and that too part time, allowing the candidate to apply learning directly on the job. While global MBA programs already offer such an option, the focus of this post is the value that experienced candidates bring to the table vis-a-vis freshers in 2yr MBA programs. In 1yr MBA programs, admissions are anyway restricted to candidates with atleast 5yrs+ experience(ISB) or 8-9yrs(IIM-A)

The conventional arguments for giving preference to experienced candidates vis-a-vis freshers is
  1. Unlike freshers, they would(hopefully) have more goal clarity about WHY they want to do a MBA. But the counter to this would be that they are taking the easy way out of career stagnation, or simply that even they are attracted more by 'filthy lucre' than the genuine desire to change streams. 
  2. Having worked in an organization before, their perspectives on the 'softer aspects' like group dynamics, organization politics, change management etc will rub off on their group mates, and also help in giving a non financial perspective to class discussions and case analysis. The counter argument is that those who have been part of ANY organization(including clubs, associations) will bring the same value.
  3. Their sector expertise(gained by working in XYZ field) will add value to class discussions. This of course, would apply to those with a minimum threshold of work experience-I think 1-2yrs just does not cut it. This could also lead to 'cross fertilization' of ideas when people from different backgrounds and expertise interact. They could work on consulting projects etc and add value
  4. They will take away more value from the MBA program because they can relate it easily to their previous experience. This may not hold for very experienced candidates whose mindset may be fixed. So institutes like IIM Bangalore have the maximum work exp weights for candidates with 3yrs experience, after which the score for work exp keeps reducing. Also, this point focus more on the life experience of the candidate(which goes WAY beyond work exp alone). 
The only strong point remaining is the sector expertise part. To that, the technological advances negating the work exp advantages are
  1. HowStuffWorks is a site which explains the technical details of processes in simple to understand language. So for that operations case describing steel making, you no longer need a chemical engineer to describe it to the class. Just open the site and look at the animations/videos.
  2. YouTube has a plethora of videos for both technical aspects and marketing aspects as well. 
  3. There are amply biographies/non fiction books(like Eli Goldratt's books) which give a flavour of the practitioners work. Of course, value accrues only to those who take out that time to read. 
  4. Where faculty have that industry background/awareness, then the necessity of students having it is reduced.
I agree that ceteris-paribus, experienced candidates may still add more value to the class than freshers. But in this tech savvy world, this is much harder to substantiate.

IIM CAT and case studies are justified for weeding out 'analysis paralysis' etc

The online CAT fiasco in my attempt(Nov'09) had drawn adverse comment and analysis about the validity of such standardized tests in assessing potential managerial ability. While the conventional answer would be TINA(There is no alternative) argument in weeding out lakhs of potential applicants, there is more to it. Consider what does a test like CAT(with sectional cutoffs) do?
  1. It tests the ability of a candidate to turn in a balanced performance(sectional scores) using his limited resources(time) to the maximum. This ability is not dependent on the test content. That it evaluates analytical ability, verbal reasoning and quantitative ability is a bonus. These skills are not an exhaustive set of skills needed for MBA, but are virtually the only skills amenable to standardized testing. Also, these skills usually suffice for case study analysis
  2. At IIMs(and most other top Bschools), the Harvard case study pattern is followed where students must prepare cases in their study groups. Typically, there are 2-3 cases/day all with exhibits and analysis to be done. The rationale for case studies is that they expose students to real life situations(and help learn from past mistakes/hits), encourage them to take the inter disciplinary decision maker approach and take decisions under ambiguity/incomplete information. Some argue that candidates with work experience are exposed to real life situations and can read books to learn from past hits/flips. 
  3. Few graduates(if any) get a chance to work in an inter disciplinary role, so case studies add real value here. One may argue that this trains MBA to be overconfident and give their opinions/sound bytes on things they are least equipped to discuss. But this is just the 'specialist versus generalist' argument in a new content. 
  4. My view is that case study approach does not promote short termism. Professors expect(and get) rigorous analysis. Also, most cases emphasize the importance of taking the bigger picture/long term view also considering non financial factors. In fact, the case approach compells the student to make up his mind under uncertainty and avoid analysis paralysis. This is true even for CAT where students cannot linger over a problem too long(leave that to R&D candidates!). To my mind, taking reasoned decisions in a short time, under constraints of information, is the hallmark of a manager, and both CAT/case study approach inculcates that in ample measure.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How IIM-A teaches you to take risk

India's(and for that matter even the world's) top Bschools are perceived as producing managers not entrepreneurs. But whatever the reason, the curriculum is not at fault. Taking a calculated risk is the hallmark of an entrepreneur(as opposed to a wishful 'leap of faith') and this is rewarded in several forms as the examples below show
  1. In simulation games(Littlefield, Stratos etc), the actual demand exceeds the forecast by a not-significant amount thus rewarding those who think aggressively . 
  2. During Summer Placements, you are usually allowed to keep an offer 'on hold' and try to get another offer from the company at the top of your internal priority list. This strategy worked for most of my batchmates who could leverage their offer to get a 'better' one
  3. During bidding for electives(in this case for Term IV from Jun-11 to Aug-11), those who took the strategy of following their heart rather than fearing the uncertain, got the coveted Shodh Yatra course for a rock bottom number of credits. 
  4. Even during final placements, people can reject their summers PPO and try again. This also does work out for the most part since the very fact of summers PPO is a strong signaling effect. 
  5. During reformation of study groups, people can either form groups of 4 or have themselves allocated randomly through the general pool. Atleast in my section(Slot IV end), those who opted for random allocation got a better deal than they would otherwise have got. Of course, they ran the risk of unfavorable group dynamics too.  
  6. I've noticed that those who profess(and can argue) rather unconventional view points get better marks in CP(class participation) as well as assignments. After all, people do like fresh views at times. This risk here is the 'foot in mouth' syndrome if you cannot defend your view point.
  The jury is still out on whether this encourages the 'trading' mentality of always trying for something better. My view is that risk taking is good, specially if you have a net to back you up(net in this case is the IIM-A brand). 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lessons from a Rs 12,000 crore man(Mr Pankaj Patel, MD-Zydus Cadilla)

In the concluding lecture of the IIM-A guest lecture series, we had Mr Pankaj Patel(of Cadilla Healthcare Ltd) present his life experiences. For those unaware about the company, it is India's 5th largest pharma company, with FY11 sales of $1BN, with a FY16 revenue target of $3BN(!). It has delivered on its earlier promiises and the market rewards it with a valuation of $3.5BN(close to Ranbaxy's market cap). This lecture held a special interest for me because my study group had presented(to our class) our understanding/critical evaluation of the company's strategy. I naturally wanted to assess the accuracy of that evaluation. And then, Mr Patel is a technocrat with more than 50 research papers to his name(for more about him read this Nov-10 cover story in Businessworld).

From his talk, the following were the highlights/impressions I got
  1. Practical/Numbers driven:- Like most Gujaratis(and I'm not being racist merely complimentary), Mr Patel believes in the adage of performance/bottomline. So his vision statement itself contains the revenue target. His explanation is that unless he holds himself accountable, how can he expect the other company staff to be accountable for achieving that target.
  2. But taking a long term view eschewing shorttermism:- Giving the below examples, Mr Patel cautioned against the tendency to be too greedy. He said that taking a long term approach worked.
    1. his 1997 JV with Bayer(which broke down and was again revived in 2010)-where he had parted amicably without extracting the pound of flesh(break up fee)
    2. The 50:50 Zydus-Nycomed JV(yielding Rs 60Cr dividends/yr), where he had allowed royalty to the foreign partner(unusual in the pre 2005 era) expecting gains post 2005
    3. Waiting 2 years to assemble a team in USA for organic growth instead of rushing into a value destroying acquisition.
  3.  Paying attention to small details to change people's mindset:- The examples for change management were really mind blowing such as 
    1. Changing the target currency from INR to $. He said that that was to make the whole company think in terms of $ and expand their mindset
    2. Renaming the company's conference rooms as 'London, Paris,New York' and those locations where Zydus planned to expand/locate itself
    3. Using a 1 fingered salute to remind people about the $1BN target(!). This allowed the people to slowly internalize in the concept of $1BN. Tagline of 'healthy billion' also used.
    4. Playing a motivational video before every company event/meeting, which leveraged the emotional anchors of independence struggle, daring to dream etc. 
  4.  Culture is everything:- Following a small firm 'string of pearls' acquisition strategy where they pay reasonable prices for small firms, align those people to Zydus's mindset and then focus on understanding the market. This approach is slow and steady but it works. For example, they are among the top 10 in France but another Indian MNC entering late is lagging despite hefty acquisition. 
  5. Co-existing with competition:- Giving the example of the USA generics market, he said that Zydus voluntarily decided to just take 20% of the market(where it could have taken 80% due to cost advantage) because it did not want margin erosion later. He contrasted this approach with the present view of 'killing the competition'. He explained the importance of this philosophy in the pharma industry where  JVs/alliances are the norms wherein you compete with your allies in some segments and partner with them on the other. 
  6. Proactively building organization capabilities(few example of initiatives).
    1. Disha:- Therapy marketing training-where salesman learns how to sell more than 1 brand to serve the purpose of chronic treatments.
    2. Phoenix:- Brand building
    3. Prism:- Procuring better
    4. Delta:- Globalize
    5. Sphinix:- reduce manufacturing costs.
  7. Strong performance review/leadership development:- Every quarter, the top 100 leaders meet to review the performance. During that session, a reputed business thinker is called in to present his views.
  8. Big picture/risk taking/out of box:-Many of the initiatives like respecting patents, building infrastructure, investing in research and entering certain markets, were far ahead of their time. For instance, while deciding to enter into the virgin territory(of France), he carefully picked a high growth soft spot of generics where a rising tide would lift all boats. This careful analysis, coupled with some big picture thinking like India shifting to product patent regime post 2005 and India losing cost competitiveness eventually so better focus on productivity, helped Zydus Cadilla to withstand the vagaries of time. 
While I still doubt the R&D based target(due to some spending issues), I admire the zeal and passion of Mr Patel. After listening to him, I understood why he's worth so much. And that was a learning in itself.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

From Cow to Consumer-insights from the Amul CEOs talk at IIM-A

Attending a mandatory guest lecture on a Friday afternoon is not everyone's cup of tea, especially  when you would rather be asleep/mugging. But I somehow attended Mr RS Sodhi's guest lecture at IIM-A, and was glad I did. The talk started with their corporate presentation and some commercials. At the end, he answered some(actually many!) questions. Some takeaways I got from the talk were
  1. Their cash management must be amazing. They manage to pay all 2.6 million farmers for their milk within 12hrs, which must be involving an immense logistics operation. In fact, once the smart cards/no frills account is universalized, Amul's work would be much simpler-just credit the amount into the farmer's bank account and let them withdraw when they wish
  2. Their single minded focus on the milk producer is commendable. Despite the management fads of diversification, focus again diversification, Amul has applied a single benchmark to address strategic issues-will this make more money for the milk producer? When asked by a student about why Amul had entered an impulse category like chocolates, Mr Sodhi claimed that this was because farmers had surplus cocoa beans to sell in an year, and then the whole idea had started.
  3. Turning conventional theory on its head, he said that the textbook following MNCs were easiest to beat because Amul could anticipate their strategies and plan. But against Indian competitors who know the ground realities, marketing battles are harder.
  4. Explaining Amul's pricing strategy, he said that unlike MNCs, Amul did not need to pay 19% costs(3% R&D, 5% brand royalty, 5% extra distributor margins and 6% advertising costs). This is over and above raw material procurement efficiencies. That allows realistic pricing which ensures volumes that lubricate the supply chain
  5. Elaborating on their distribution strategy, he said that Amul is present across all 4 channels( Frozen, Chilled, Ambient and Fresh). Comparing the channel to a highway, he said that MNCs can pay and 'buy' the highway. But to keep it maintained('channel loyalty'), they need volumes which Amul's pricing does not allow them to take market share/volumes
  6. Explaining Amul's single minded dairy focus, he said that Amul processes merely 3% of India's milk and that they have a long way to go before even thinking of entering unrelated segments. 
  7. He also explained how the brand had been built-the famous Amul moffet, brand extensions etc
  8. Contrary to my perceptions about public sector presentations, the PPT was exceptional, with good graphics, up to date data and logical flow.  
  9. Explaining the reasons for high milk prices, he detailed the economics of the marginal dairy farmer(Rs 100 expenses/cow versus Rs 125(25Rs/litre*5 Litres)) who gets around Rs 25/day for 3-4hrs work. Contrast that to NREGA wages and you see why enhancing milk supply may be a problem.
They concluded by distributing their newly launched yoghurt and copies of the 2009-10 Annual Report. Overall, a superb talk by a passionate CEO. Amul seems an organization which will endure despite Dr Kurien's exit. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Never love a stranger

Before people get other ideas, let me clarify love is used in the context of 'attachment/emotional dependence' on another person. The title is taken from a best seller of Harold Robins. In that book(pages 453-454 available at Google Books here), the protagonist has some very powerful insights during his last moments
  1. You cannot live without regard for society and the so-called common man. For to live so, is to live without regard for yourself
  2. A man can live alone if he shares his home with 20 other humans and his heart with none
  3. Do not grow up sheltered, clothed, fed and cared for, and yet poorest in human qualities than the poorest of humans.A man needs more than food, clothing and education to make him human. He needs love, kindness and affection.
  4. Love means giving not taking
While doing a case analysis, considering the HR/social angle is important to avoid losing sight of human values. That financially optimal worker layoff strategy may have to be chucked for another strategy which is more considerate, as implied in point (1)

I think point(2) is specially relevant here. There are dorms of 30+ people but if the interaction between dorm mates is less, then it becomes like (2) where it is a building of strangers. Even huge offices may face this problem if people stick to their own teams.

And as said in the Gita,one should do one's work without stressing on the outcomes. This sounds BS to me(we all do work in anticipation of rewards) but once we are near the top of Maslow's hierarchy(basic needs met etc), then this may hold. I have seen several relationships of convenience here which are fundamentally fragile but still go on. In some study group/work group formations, I have seen rational optimization behaviors prevail over friendships/feelings. In that case, the affected party should not have high expectations in the first place. If you help a person, leave it at that without future expectations. That is what I interpret from point (4)

Time to log out of Facebook and face the books(!)

Just before a surprise quix, my study group mate(and close friend)  put this as his status message today. It got me thinking about the amount of time IIMians and IITians spend on social media, movies, TV shows etc. As explained to me by my IIMA friends(veterans of engineering college hostels), watching TV shows does become a craze. And now, social media has become the new idiot box. A sociologist may attribute it to factors like loneliness, insecurity, boredom, easy supply(and net speed) etc but the fact remains that many of India's brightest spend(waste?) a lot of time online-specially on Facebook.

Now, evaluating someone's time use decisions as 'waste' is not my intention. But even on occasions where this is expected to fall(exams, assignments etc), empirical evidence shows that people still stay logged on. If this has become the new junkie fix, I wonder about the implications for workplace internet bans, social advertising etc. If people cannot do without Facebook for days, then can FB become the new 'Big Boss'? My concerns may be overdone but this does seem a serious issue.