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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Indian Government reports/policies being jazzed up-a good thing?

Till recently, one could identify a 'sarkari' report/document by the sheer unappealing nature of it. No pictures, black and white text, poor formatting, verbose text-all this would put off even the most avid reader-BUT those who could make themselves pore through all the documents, would often make windfall profits, merely because other(not having read/digested the policy) would not take benefit of it. During a CPE(Continuing Professional Education) program organized by the ICWAI, a faculty member, while advising the attendees to 'read minutely and between the lines', boasted that he had convinced a cigarette baron to set up a factory in an area where the Govt had not set an upper cap for sales tax rebate-even though this was meant to subsidize the capital outlay only. I thought this was a bluff, but when I cross checked the facts later(using Google), I found this to be truth.

But recently, the Government has taken a leaf from the (expensive) pages of the consultants they often use. Be it the Economic Survey, Planning Commission Guidelines, Vision documents of the infrastructure ministry(Rail/Aviation/Ports etc), all of them are colorful, well laid out, and a pleasure to read. This has brought in many PR brownie points for their authors. But the question to be asked is-in the haste to bring our press friendly, politically correct policy documents, are we sacrificing their viability? For instance, the Civil Aviation's Vision 2010-20 included politically correct plans to rescue Air India. Those assumptions were explained in great detail, but were a classic example of 'Garbage In Garbage Out'-and that has been validated by the financial crisis the airline is presently facing.

My only advice is this-while reading pleasant on the eye documents, do not suspend your belief. Professional drafting/writing does not necessarily mean logical flow of thought, viability, unbiasedness etc. For evidence on this front, ask yourself-why do investment banks/consulting firms always come out with bullish reports/studies to identify the next hot thing? It is because they want to be in forefront of the investment advisors who will counsel on that gold rush. Similarly, the policy document author may just want to prove a political point(like Railways White paper written in 2009, commissioned by the then new Railway Minister).
As MBA students, we would often need to use these documents for secondary research. Then, suspending critical thinking would be a bad thing.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bloomberg Aptitude Test(BAT)-another 'network good' available to IIM students

For those not in the know, BAT is a test which Bloomberg is trying to popularize as THE test to measure a student's finance concepts, skills and aptitude, in relation to his peers. Designed as an undergrad test, it has however been offered to post grad students as well(a different version I guess). They are field testing the BAT, so they offered it free to all qualified test takers. At IIM-A, nearly 200+ applicants gave the test. A 165 question test of 3hrs, most students elsewhere completed the test within 2.5hrs. While the practical/conceptual part of the test was quite good, the 'aptitude' portion(verbal/quant/logic) was probably based on the easy(easy to Indians) GMAT level.  Unlike a conventional test, this one did try to measure situational judgement and ethics as well. Also, the questions did give a good idea of the types of tasks a person would do on the job during internship and beyond. Tweaking valuation models, describing a graph within a slide, understanding fund manager pitches, calculating portfolio risk metrics-all these were tested.

So who would 'ace the test'? Well, people would perform differently based on prior experience, internships and education. But a person with some prior finance exposure and oodles of interest in the subject, would have performed quite well. The level was around that of CFA L1, except that very few numerical problems were asked. We students were used as guinea pigs but did not mind it, because we shall get to know our relative standing, and also (more importantly) sub area wise performance.

Why would BAT give the test free only to certain campuses, and not any online test taker? Well, having the test proctored on campus ensures invigilation and test integrity. And like higher education, tests are a network good and a club good, meaning that the results are more robust and visible with more and better quality test takers BUT those test takers would only be willing with a catchet of exclusivity. Hence this exclusivity.

Right from telephone plans to newspaper/magazine subscriptions, competitions and freebies, IIM(and other top college) students have a huge choice. It is for them to make good use of it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

IIM Ahmedabad's 2010 Exchange criteria-was it justified after all?

Ask people about the importance of extra curriculars in IIM-Ahmedabad, and you get mixed reviews. Some cynics claim that IIM-A(cads) does not value other stuff, while yet others(including a recent media article) claim that extra curricular activities get the pride of place here. The truth lies between these two extremes, as people try balancing both these things. Extra curriculars can mean
  1. Organizing intra IIMA activities/events/contests etc as part of various clubs/bodies
  2. Participating in outside activities/competitions. This is mostly individual driven
In the exchange program selection criteria for exchange for the PGP 2010-12 batch, academics hardly made a significant difference compared to weightage for membership of clubs/SIGs/events. People who were part of multiple clubs/had taken part in outside contests hit the jackpot nudging out the academic toppers for the coveted exchange program seats/scholarships. As for any other change, the losers protested and the winners were happy. At that time, I broadly agreed with the concept but opposed the timing(not informed in advance during induction) and non discrimination(awarding both free loaders and hard workers).

After the summer internship and some events on campus, it occured to me that the criteria was probably justified, in the interest of the campus culture. IIM-A's festivals like Chaos/Confluence/Insight, and its Clubs(Beta/Consult/Niche etc) have carved their own place in the sun. To take that tradition forward, encourage new events and reach greater heights for brand building, IIMA does need students to actively participate in events to build the brand. Thanks to the recruiter/role mix during Summer placements and Final placements, extra curricular activities do not get rewarded, in proportion to the time invested on them. Perhaps realizing this, the institute took a conscious decision to rework its exchange program criteria, to reward those who contributed to clubs/events.

But this noble initiative is in danger of being gamed by
  1. Few students hogging memberships(80:20 rule):- There is an informal limit in place of 3 club/event/SIG memberships. But still, people desirous of working will not get a role
  2. Non transparent selection:-This is inevitable because disclosing the criteria etc will open a Pandora's box and encourage gaming of system in later years. But Exchange program being an academic activity, it is surprising that a student activity of club selection is allowed to affect that. There is a TINA(There is no alternative) thing here because faculty cannot(will not?) get involved in the club selection, and the problem is larger than it looks because by far club selections are fair. But those who network less/find out less information are at a disadvantage. This problem will persist though for the near future.
  3. Free loaders benefiting:- If all activities get the same weight-age, then the differentiation ceases to exist. Perhaps, the outgoing club coordinators can award differentiated CV points to their club members, to penalize those who free loaded during the year, so that they do not benefit.
In conclusion, I would think that the criteria will probably do its job, if it is ensured that people get into atleast one activity, and that they do not free ride. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

If sportspersons(cricketers etc) earn millions, why not top MBAs?

During any debate on the causes/effects yadda-yadda of the subprime crisis, especially in online forums, it has become fashionable to trash the high pay of those in the banking/consulting domain. These are seen as low hanging fruit to be easily chopped off, pending the difficult questions of real reform. And even politicans play to the gallery by taxing bonuses, tweaking regulations to mandate lower payouts etc. But sportsmen who earn similar sums(especially in India) are rarely harassed. No one even mentions asking them to pay more than the statutory tax, and often they can get away importing luxury cars etc without paying the appropriate taxes.

At first blush, this comparison may seem absurd. How can you compare a Sachin/Dhoni who earn 'with the sweat of their brow' to the laptop warriors/trading moneys, who can earn and lose millions for themselves/their clients in a fraction? The answer has little to do with underlying skill involved, and more to do with the 'leverage'. The money in cricket comes from broadcasting/advertising revenues, and when the match can reach more people via TV, then the value goes up. Even sponsors are willing to pay millions to both the star and the teams, because they can magnify that exposure. Similarly, consultants/investment bankers working in large global corporations, can leverage those vast global networks and synergies, to create reusable content/ideas/projects etc, and finally to boost the bottom line by outsized amounts.

Like in sports, not all make it. Only the seemingly best are picked, and then ruthlessly discarded by the wayside when they begin to under-perform.  And after tasting the elixir of working with the top brains under the most free conditions, then they may often not be employable elsewhere. No wonder then, that even cold economic logic would justify bumper pay to those lucky few from entry itself, so that others are motivated to compete(akin to lottery), and that this will hedge those few in their times of need(though how much savings remains is an open question).

Another argument dished out is that a top MBA grad may have been elsewhere, if not for that fraction of the cutoff/score. Well, ,life is unfair, more so at the margin. The rewards for being a slight notch better than the other person, results in outsized additional rewards. This is true everywhere. An IIM-A student may draw more than an XLRI student, who may in turn out earn an NMIMS student; even if they had the same work/educational/extra currics profiles at entry. Surely, the difference in their educations is unlikely to have made all the difference, it is merely the brand that carries the day. So if you accept that small differences matter, and that people pay for a reason, then most of the trash arguments about pay will bite the dust.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why do some people create false 'IIM" profiles on Facebook?

Come May/June(the new batch into the IIMs) and seniors are deluged by friend requests from the junior batch, most not even accompanied by a basic introductory message. If it is someone like me, they will write back politely explaining that they do not add strangers. But most people just take a cursory look, confirm from the profile that it is an IIM-A student, and then add it(even faster if it is a girl :)), as a friend.
I blogged earlier(http://andy161.blogspot.com/2011/07/is-facebook-becoming-new-orkut.html)  on the trend of Facebook becoming a community of strangers(not friends), and that is quite applicable here.

Some enterprising people(only girls so far) have been using that time window, to add IIMA people as their friends. For example, Ankita Mittal(http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002546811577). She is not an IIMA student/alumnus(I confirmed this from our IIMA records), but has already added 50+ IIMA students on the basis of the fake profiles. These profiles may be created by males, but they must have noticed the faster response rate when a good looking female pic is created!

Now, this will only work online-when it comes to a job search/attending alum meets etc they will be caught red handed. But they may be able to fish for relationships(and hope it is condoned when it goes far!). Or they may be Media persons in disguise, waiting to extract nuggets from the status messages/other things posted by students.
Takeaway:- Whatever their motivation, this is pretty disgusting, and I encourage you to report these fake profiles as abuse whenever noticed. From an IIM branding perspective, people faking their identities on social networks are free riding, and this is unacceptable.