Friday, January 29, 2010

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Calcutta ...

On a flight i was reading the magazine and the magazine was talking about the "City of Joy". What is interesting is that the article about things in Calcutta (or Kolkata if you may) was refering to the parts of Calcutta which i think are not things which make Calcutta stand out as one of the most charming tourist destinations, leave aside being one of the most wonderful cities in the world. The things about Calcutta which the article was talking about were Nicco Park, Science City, and a few of the things which more or less you could find in most of the cities around the world.
What i am talking about are the things about Calcutta which make the city stand apart as a city with a soul. The article didnt talk about the Phuchkas of Calcutta (to someone who loves eating thats probably the first thing that comes to mind when one talks about Calcutta given that Delhi and Mumbai claim their place in the Phuchka world with their Gol-Guppas and Pani Puris). Of course ther was no mention of the wonderful view of the city on a rain drenched morning having breakfast at Flury's, one of the landmarks and a must-go-to place if you a re a visitor to the city. There was also no mention of the Egg-Chicken Rolls on some of the places to eat on Park Street. Nor does it tell you about the veritable gastronomic delights of Park Street or rather the half-kilometre stretch of road which can give you probably the best fare you could find in any part of the country. From Trinca's (the music is probably not the same as the Iyer Sisters but nevertheless quite good) to Ming Room, or the wonderful fare of Kwality's to One Step Up or (if you are an old-timer) the Steaks at Ollie Pub (a landmark of venerable vintage) to the veritable delights of Flury's or the delightful Chelo Kababs (yes they come from Iran but Peter Cat knows the way to make them probably as delightful) at Peter Cat. There are also the delights of Tung Fong or if you are a die-hard Bengali food fan, Kosturi or Rodhuni which specialize in Bengali cuisine. The Prawns and the Fish there are simply amazing but then reading about them is not quite the same as eating them. There are the modern eateries too, Eats n Treats for example, which gives some very good food. And the Fish and Rice on the roadside at Sector V which is a veritable treat though not when Calcutta is having her affair with high humidity.

The article also doesnt tell about the mini bus waiting for a passenger who is probably half a mile away and the indignant fury of the passengers wondering aloud whether the bus will move at all or not. This doesnt also talk about the banter in the bus. Nor about the charms of travelling on an overcast day by tram through Maidan at a speed which can at best be described as leisurely. The article though did say that the CTC has introduced glass ceiling trams. Looked nice.
More than these, though, what the article didnt talk about was the spirit of Calcutta. Of the friendliness of the people of Calcutta, of their way of making you at at ease (with a bit of condescension but thats to be had with a pinch of salt) of their love for anything intellectual, whether it be politics, football, Dada's (Sourav for the uninitiated) scoring average or Shakespeare to Satyajit Ray or Jamini Roy. Of course it definitely doesnt include the spirit of College Street, the pilgrimege of anyone who has more than a passinf interest in books, or of the intellectual atmosphere of the Coffee House there.
What Calcutta has is very difficult to describe and i know that many writers who i am not capable to holding a candle to have written volumes about the charms of the city but still, i try to write and say that the city has the charm and delight which is rather more than a trifle difficult to find in today's world. Whether it be the Radha-Bollobhis or the Indrayanis, or the Sondesh or Roshogollas, Calcutta has them all and Calcutta can have you eating out of her many varied colours or charms for as long as you would like. And this is something which belongs to the people of Calcutta, and no matter where the city goes in terms of modern economic terms, this is something which onone can take away from the people of the city. What i would say is that having Breakfast at Flury's on a leisurely morning, with a few cups of Tea, watching the city walk by you is an experience which is quite difficult to find anywhere in the world, more so with the backdrop of Park Street, or maybe i should say Calcutta.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Memories Of Guavas ...

I think Guavas are my favourite fruit. Huh? Ok, this is what any writer faces. Go straight into the narrative and the audience has no idea where the author is coming, or how they are coming, too. Go too slow, and you have a set of yawning readers. While i wouldnt want you yawning (except under a hangover, in which case too, i think a guava would be just right), a little bit of background may be required.

Travelling from Dehradun to Delhi, one would go to Haridwar. While a dip wasn't really happening, given that there was very little water, as they were cleaning the Ghats, the guavas on the fruit-vendor's cart seemed most inviting, and hence this. As a child i have found the guava to be one of my favourite fruits, along with the musk-melon ... Kharbooza. Not just about any, but the kharboozas which used to come from Baghpat ... Large, succulent, sweet ... Sinful. Regrettably those aren't to be found in the market during summers. Which is why i am thankful that the large, ripe (yellow in colour, not green), soft, sweet guavas are still available aplenty.

Now to the background ...

As a child, i remember walks with my grandfather, to the fruit bazaar. Fruits, you see, were the invariable dessert of choice. Pity i didn't inherit this, though i am discovering this trait post the blood-test, which had doomsayers predicting dire consequences from diabetes. I remember the way Dadaji used to look for fruit which was a little ruptured (kharboozas get ruptured as they ripen, which means that ruptured fruit is sweeter and more succulent, more often than not). Another way of finding, of course, is sniffing. A well-trained nose is almost an infallible way to find whether fruit would be sweet. Glad to believe i have inherited the nose.

Dadaji in his trademark shorts (this was the 80s, but Dadaji always rocked), t-shirt, and shoes, me holding his hand, or riding sitting on the cross-bar of the bicycle. Exhilarating! But getting back to the guavas, i dont think too highly of them. Huh? Somehow, Amrood sounds far more delicious. Of course, amrood used to coincide with gobhi-shalgam ka achaar, and the absence of ghia, tori, tinde, much to my relief. But thats not the reason i love the amrood.

Granted, i love amrood as a fruit. But more so because of memories. Memories of cold winter mornings sitting on the terrace, on the manji, amrood and mathematics. Now, i can imagine you trying to picture me part of a looney bin, but mathematics was actually my favourite subject, much to the detriment of my performance in other subjects. Preparing for IIT-JEE, the amrood was one of my companions. Especially because it was it was at times stolen (for no particular reason), and at times, was shared with Dadaji. This also gave me pictures of children in other, seemingly diverse parts of the country being hounded by their parents to study subjects which they found unsavoury, while being comforted by their grandparents with amrood. Now this might sound a little silly, but growing up in the 80s, one wasnt too aware of the way things are in other parts of the country, and i am not talking about general knowledge. So, somehow, we used to believe that boys from the southern, western, or eastern parts of the country (i am not going to talk about stereotypes ... They have been long discarded, so maybe on another occasion, when i am writing something comical) were all good, hardworking, conscientious students, and that it was only boys from Delhi, Punjab, or Haryana who were the lafangas. After all, haven't we all heard the refrain ...

Padhoge, likhoge hoge kharaab,

kheloge, koodoge banoge nawab!

Experience hasnt really shaken this idea. But the primary reason is still Dadaji.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The China Debate ...

There seems to be a tectonic shift in Indian foreign policy. Or at least, the way the establishment in India looks at the geo-political situation in our neighbourhood. I am not an expert in foreign policy, but still, felt there are a few points which are probably not being adequately highlighted in the debate which is going on these days.

It seems that it started with recent Chinese incursions into Indian territory. And with the Chinese display of military might on the occasion of their national day, there is a lot of attention that China has got in the media. The question which a lot of people seem to be asking is whether China is India's enemy number one. Why i call this tectonic is because with this, the mindshare of Pakistan seems to have fallen quite a bit, and Pakistan's loss is China's gain, if they would like to call it that.

So what is the question? In simple terms, should we read anything significant into Chinese incursions, or into their show of military might. Are we repeating the mistake of 1962? The question that this question raises is whether the India of 2009 is the same as the India of 1962, and whether internal geo-politics is the same, or even similar to 1962. But then, is the China of today the same as the China of 1962. The answer to both questions seems to be no. Which means that we need to learn the mistakes of 1962, but place them in the context of today.

First of all, we in India face a psychological threat from China, probably more than a real one. Ask normal people, and you will get a reply that India can anyday beat Pakistan militarily. Ask the question about China, and the same confidence seems to be missing. Let us keep this in mind when trying to answer this question lest we allow this prejudice to influence the line of thought with respect to this question.

Let's understand something clearly. Whether China intends to attack India or not, or whether China is simply trying to browbeat us, or whether this display of military might is meant for global consumption, rather than for Indian consumption, is one dimension of the problem. Another dimension which we need to keep in mind is that it is not very pertinent to think that China sees India as a threat. However, that, to my mind is a short-term point of view, as a lot of economists believe, that the Indian economic and political model is much more enduring if you look at the long term. Another dimension is that it is one thing to put up a show of strength, and quite another to sustain it over time, as we have seen from the Soviet experience.

Looking at this, it is difficult to determine the Chinese intentions. Even so,common sense says that its better to be safe than sorry. This would mean that one would need to be on the guard. To make sure we are prepared for eventualities. But take it too far, and military preparedness could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having said that, though, we also need to understand that military tensions are something neither China nor India can afford, given the march towards prosperity we are both engaged in, while competition can only bring out the best in both.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Of Definitions ...

This is the season of discussing and describing some of the fundamental aspects of Knowledge Management. On similar lines is the post by Luis Suarez about using stories for defining KM and e2.0 ... interesting reading.

Beginning with the idea of definitions, there is the important part about defining KM. This is where i believe we need to do a bit of rethink. I believe that there is no single universal definition of KM, simply because there is no single, universal definition of knowledge. What i am trying to say is that if we dont know what we are managing, then the definition of the management process itself must be a little hazy. Hence, the starting point for this has to be a definition for the concept of knowledge. Now, this is not to say that i claim to have come up with a definition. And i am not even trying. All i am trying to say here is that if a universal definition eludes us, then we must look for definitions which are specific in nature, from the perspective of the world of business, and then try to build up a somewhat universal definition, which covers ample ground.

What this means is that we can define knowledge in the context of a particular scenario. Now, this definition may not be applicable outside of this context but thats ok, because if we look at a series of contexts, then every scenario, within the organization, that is, forms a context. This is akin to looking for a working definition, rather than a precse one. And once this definition can be found out, then the definition of Knowledge Management can get derived from there. Again, by definition, this definition would be contextual, but again, being a working definition, this gives us a good starting point for building up KM initiatives. And if we look at enough of these definitions, we could come up with something which is generic enough to cover ample ground, which is why i quite like the definition which Dave Snowden has given at his blog.

Having said this, this kind of working knowledge can be built up using the art of story-telling as well. However, this probably doesnt take away much from the need of a definition, because i believe that what you cannot define in two sentences is something you havent understood. But, yes, i do believe that stories can be an excellent way of building up this understanding, which in turn can be quite a good way to approach a better understanding. For example, i use stories, too, rather, examples, when trying to define Knowledge, and from there, define Knowledge Management when i am running sessions for this. I like to distinguish between three terms before proceeding:

Data: Meteorological data, collected from across the world by weather satellites.

Information: Its going to rain in Kolkata

Knowledge: Better carry an umbrella if you are travelling to Kolkata.

This also bring up the idea of relevance of knowledge, illustrating the idea that what is considered knowledge by one person may not be so by another. What i like to take as an example of this is the incident from A Study in Scarlet, where, when told by Dr Watson, that the earth revolves around the sun, Sherlock Holmes informs him that now that he knows this, he will try to forget it, because this is not relevant to him. While it is true that its very difficult to say what information, from which sphere, could lead to what new discovery, in which sphere, it is impractical to have access to all knowledge on the world, and hence, the notion of knowledge being that which is relevant comes into the picture.

These ideas can be refined by the audience to arrive at a definition of Knowledge Management, which, while being different each time, usually comes to something like:

Knowledge Management is the management discipline of facilitating the flow of knowledge in the organization, ensuring relevant information is made available to the relevant people, in a timely manner, to enable them to perform their job more effectively.

As you can see, this definition is something which is specific to the working context, like i said that probably its better to create something which is contextual, and then build upon it. Any ideas of where this definition might lead you?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Defining ... Some Thoughts

This seems to be the season for fundamental re-thinks. It began with Dave Snowden's post about alternative to CKO, which delved into the relationship between business units and KM. I had published a poll about the same topic (which is open till 10th October), and blogged about Dave's thoughts. And something i have been thinking about for a few days (the reason i havent been able to blog about this earlier is simply laziness) ... how could one define KM. And came across this post by Dave Snowden, defining KM, which i think is a very good description of what KM should be doing in an organization.
I think the definition Dave gives describes KM quite well:

The purpose of Knowledge Management is to provide support for improved decision-making and innovation throughout the organization. This is achieved through the effective management of human intuition and experience augmented by the provision of information, processes and technology together with training and mentoring program.

Improved decision-making ... this is something which was promised by information systems more than a decade back. Though decisions did improve, there is still the possibility of decision-making being more improved. How, one may ask. Till now, the paradigm of decision-making hasnt considered that decision-making is not a perfectly rational process. In other words, decisions arent always made on perfectly rational assumptions, or on information available, and that, even if theoretically, all possible information were available (which it cant), there would still be that factor x which is not totally definable, and which cannot be externalized, which influences decision-making. Could we call this tacit knowledge? Probably. Could we call this experience? Maybe. No matter what we call this, this remains the major aspect of Knowledge Management.

Add to this the aspect that it is not usually possible for everyone to have access to all possible information required to make a decision. Not only is this because of systemic constraints, but also because there is usually no single definition about what information is relevant, or required, for making a decision. In some scenarios there is, but not in all. Given this, one aspect of KM is also to get people connected with sources of knowledge, whether repositories, or people, and to get them access to knowledge, whether directly or indirectly, which may be relevant for decision-making. This is the essential value-proposition for tools like social networking.

Another aspect which Dave mentioned is about the positioning of KM in the organization. The essence is that at a centralized level, KM needs to be synchronized with the strategic imperatives of the organization, while implementation should be done at localized level. Implementation of KM initiatives should be within the context of the localized business requirements. This has a number of benefits. One, this ensures that while overall KM is aligned with strategic requirements, at the point of implementation, KM is aligned with specifics of business requirements. Two, this also creates a level of ownership for  KM initiatives among business units. Three, it is easier to measure the impact of KM initiatives in highly localized context, where it is easy to define the way KM can impact the business, rather than at a generic level.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dead, Or Alive?

There is a very interesting article that ToI has run on the front page. This article is about a rare heart operation. While i dont know details, and even if i did, i wouldnt have been able to understand them. But i am not writing about my ignorance. I dont have to, its quite well known.

So what am i writing about? This surgical procedure which is rare, for a heart condition which is rare, too. Though thats not what i am writing about. What i am thinking about is what the state of suspended animation means. What the article says is that the patient was put in a state of suspended animation. What that meant, according to the article, is that the patient was put in a state where the brain wasnt functioning. In other words, the patient was in a state where the body was not functioning. Not that it wasnt functioning normally, it just wasnt functioning.

While this aspect is quite understood with respect to micro-organisms (high school biology will tell you thatif you freeze food, the micro-organisms get frozen too ... The thaw brings them back to the realm of activity), apart from the biological aspect, this opens up interesting lines of thought. What is the difference, for example, between someone who is in suspended, and someone who is dead? If both states are about the bodily functions stopping, one temporary, another permanent, how does one know, when in the middle, whether it is temporary or permanent?

Exploring this further, if theres no way to make out, in the middle of it, whether this is a temporary or permanent state, then what is it that makes it temporary, or permanent? Obviously, there must be some component the absence of which makes this permanent state. What, then, is this component? It cant be biological. Which implies that we have not yet completely understood the structure of human existence. This isnt something a lot of people would disagree with. Since that is so, we seem to be on the right track.

So what makes the difference between suspended animation and death? Let me ask another question to illustrate what i am thinking. Is the difference between suspended animation and death the same as the difference between the living and the dead? And i am not even talking about the subject of awareness. Thats another complex aspect which i will write about later. I think it is. While i may be oversimplifying, one is either in this world or not. If we say that as long as one is on this world, they are alive, then the rest follows from there. Now, why would we say that? If we appreciate the fact that death is irreversible, we can, from there, lead to the idea that one cannot come back from the state of death. But one can come back from the state of suspended animation, so this is definitely not equivalent to death. Which, in our binary scenario, is equivalent to being alive. This would mean the presence of consciousness in the state of suspended animation, and this, i believe, is what distinguishes between one and the other, between whether its temporary or permanent. Any thoughts, please do comment.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Knowledge Management Team ...

There is a wonderful post by Dave Snowden discussing alternatives to CKO. I would put this post as one of those which is a must-read for anyone who has some interest in the realm of Knowledge Management. This is because the post gives a very clear picture of the way a KM team should be structured, and what should be some aspects of the role of a CKO in the organization.

I agree with Dave that with the current model, of having a CKO as being distinct from the "business units" or LoBs in the organization, KM is seen as being something which needs to be done by someone else. This is one of the reasons why KM initiatives in a lot of organizations face a scenario of low engagement with business units. Unless we can come up with a scenario where KM is not seen as being something has to be done by someone else, this seems as though it would continue. KM, in other words, needs to be the responsibility of everyone. However, an important part of this is that KM must be relevant. KM today is seen as a set of practices, and platforms which can be used by everyone in the organization uniformly. This is where i believe there must be a change. That different people in the organization need KM to solve different problems, that different people would engage with KM in different ways and scenarios, and that different people need different things from KM is something which needs to be understood well. If KM is something additional which needs to be "done", probability is that it wont get "done". Which means that KM needs to be more and more a part of the day-to-day work of people. In other words, we need to look at a scenario where KM practices are integrated with the business processes in the organization, as i have written before (and still looking for inptus, folks).

Another important thing that Dave says is that central support is a must-have, though it should not be the driving factor, but rather, the supporting the factor in KM initiatives. The way i look at it, the KM initiatives should be driven by the business units, with some form of support which comes from a centralized KM function, which can leverage their expertise at KM initiatives to support the KM initiatives being run by business units. This will ensure that the KM initiatives are synchronized with the business needs of the business unit, while at the same time, ensuring that the business units own the KM initiatives. A small example ... When you are talking to a team to introduce the KM portal to them, are you able to introduce the portal as a KM portal, or as their portal, which, by the way, is hosted by KM, being the facilitator. What this means, i believe, is that the KM function in the organization should look at a form of a federated structure, with a central KM team, which are the facilitators, or rather, i would look at them as being consultants, who are also facilitators, supporting the KM initiatives decided and run by business units, with their own KM teams.

Dave also says that the role of the CKO should not be rotating role, with people from the different functions and business units taking up this role for a period of time. This would ensure that there is no drying up of new ideas to take KM to the next level, and also that the KM initiatives are synchronized with business needs. Another way, though, i feel, could be to create a clear distinction between the ownership for KM initiatives, and the facilitation for these KM initiatives. If the CKO should be someone from business units, then the career path for people who are part of the central KM team seems to lead to the bogs. On the other hand, if you have a dedicated, full-time CKO, and he happens to be a CKO 1.0 (please pardon the pun), then that, probably, is the surest way of taking your KM initiatives downhill. A large number of organizations, for example, have CKO's who dont really appreciate the power of web 2.0 in knowledge-sharing, and this is a sure way of getting the KM initiatives going the way i mentioned before.

In a nutshell, KM should be a two-tiered structure, with a central, support team, and a business unit-owned team, which actually formulates, and drives the KM strategy, and the resultant initiatives. While on this topic, please look to the right of the screen, and right below the beautiful picture of the Victoria Memorial, please do take a moment and post your opinion on the poll i have posted (isnt this the season for KM team structure?).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Conversations ...

There is a rather interesting post by Nick Milton about the value of dialogue in KM. Nick makes a very important point about the non-clarity of the knowledge available with "suppliers", and the knowledge required by "customers". This is so because, by definition, we cannot articulate everything. And this makes conversations very important. And with conversations, i am not just talking about people talking face-to-face, but conversation as a generic presence within organizations.

Another aspect which i wanted to bring out here is that the value of conversations also comes from the fact that conversations bring out a shared context which is important for knowledge-sharing to happen. While i believe that with knowledge-sharing within the organizational context, the organization plays an important role in creating a shared context, within this larger picture, between the supplier and customer, there must be a shared understanding of what is being shared. This becomes even more important the more diverse the supplier and customer in terms of their background, whether geographic, work area, experience, etc., because the more diverse they are, the more important conversation becomes a way to bridge this contextual gap.

Lets take another step further. If we look at the KM scenario today, we find that content management is something which is already a given. Its not as though organizations are starting to implement content management. Rather, the concept of content management is already matured, with organizations already having a good understanding of what it is about, and what it entails, and the benefits they could expect from it. On the other hand, collaboration, rather, conversation, is something which is emerging as a concept in organizations. Which means that CKO's probably need to look more closely at this aspect of KM. Maybe we need, in addition to CKO, someone as CCO ... Chief Conversation Officer?