Saturday, June 23, 2012

Indian Roads – lessons on the Chariot and Of the Charioteer

There are a few advantages of the perpetual reconstruction on Indian roads. Especially in big cities, it arrests your mind, if you are willing to be led there – by your unconscious. So it was, that despite reserving an extra hour for travel to the airport last week, obstacles unseen by the traveller’s eye slowed traffic down. I got into a conversation to distract the driver from the time-bounded targets he normally meters. So the insights about the hands on the wheel came in early.

Sitting on the rear seat, I was wondering which community in Bangalore would keep the tail-lump on the male’s head. The driver was speaking chaste Kannada with his employer, and I was curious to know which unknown part of rural Karnataka did he migrate from. “I’m from Gonda in UP”, he said in chaste Hindi, that did not quite resemble the taxi driver experiences I would have in Mumbai. Now, now, since when was he in Bangalore? “1994!” What brought him to this city then? “My uncle was helping me get to the army, but his son got through, and I was rejected. I had suspected money changed hands then, but,  I stayed on with the image I had of Bangalore. In school text-books, we were taught that Bangalore has the same weather all year round – and it was pleasant, unlike our home in Bihar…” (What an eternal curse, I thought to myself). 

That stumped me further. “My family belongs to Bihar, but my father settled in UP. We farm there...”   “So whom do you have here for family?” as I heard him talk to someone like he were to pick up on return from the airport. “Oh, that was my cousin, who needed employment. So he drives this car by day”. And then came another call “I told you I will be home this morning. Keep hot water, and some break-fast..” Well, the ride was long enough for me to know that the driver was a couple of years into marriage, and that his wife was just back from his home-town, as she could not take well to the death of their girl infant six months ago. She had congenital brain and heart defects. The struggle of life on the roads put aside all manner of infrastructure hurdles aside. Perhaps, the Indian employee works largely to service his or her social role, and not for the sake of career per se. 

The same day, after deplaning, I looked for the placard bearing my name. None was there. So peering through my hand-held I retrieved the hotel’s phone number. “Sir, the driver is not there? He is at the exit, sir…just a minute…”. I had already waited 10 minutes. The hotel called back “Sir, he is five minutes way – got stuck in traffic”. The driver came, and rather low on energy, he picked up my baggage, and I eased him into the next trip. “Do you need to wash your face or drink some water before we start?” “Sir, we are ready”,   looking relieved by the question itself. So, I was keen to hear of the traffic at mid-day. “No, sir, this car was stopped by the traffic police. Our hotel owns this car. I am an employee of the hotel. I do not know about the taxi-registration”. He was trying to explain his delay. “I have told the manager”. It was a sight to see the chain of spots on the road, where instead of marshalling traffic, policemen were piled in motor-worthy corners of the road on the 15 kilometre stretch to the hotel. 

So I asked him to be certain of his awareness of his context “Does this happen in Modi’s Gujarat?” Unflappable, the calm driver on the wheels was making sure that a ruder motorist went ahead of him, than to kick up another highway fracas.  “Sir, everything happens here, including sale of liquor. Cash flows without question.”

This Jaipuri driver in Ahmedabad and the morning Bihari descendant were migrants eking out their lives. I marvelled at their bounded rationality, evenas I gulped at the consequence of my education. While both my chauffeurs of the day reciprocated their truths it was their trust in me that left me wondering, “They trust us their secrets as a release from their stresses, on an implicit assumption – they will not want their stories told on their account, not at least with their identities revealed. They culture us in sympathy into their own context, and deflect us from our fleeting comforts only to deceive both conversationalists from the reality they need to confront”. 

Today my perpetual calendar with quotes says this from the Upanishads “Know the Self to be sitting in the chariot, the intellect the charioteer, and the mind the reins”. Where do you think your hands of action are?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Performance - will you drive it or elicit it?

Let us face it. Organizations do not do anything—only people do—and if organizations are to perform at all, their people must perform first. Individual, group, organisations, institutions, ecology and so on, would it be? The implications on performance of humans at the contemporary workplace are not lost on anyone interested in workplace excellence. Fred Nickols made a glorious attempt in his paper "Dawn of a New Era" earlier published in Performance Improvement, Vol. 51, no. 3, March 2012,  © 2012 International Society for Performance Improvement  ( Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI: 10.1002/pfi.21243)

Here I attempt to make concise points of mention from that perspective.

1. What Shifted : What happened in the pre-wikinomics era was largely the result of technology and economics. Work shifted in dependency. The shift was from the availability of materials to the premises of information. General Dynamics, General Electric and General Motors generally became ‘smarter’. Warheads and drones too have ‘information’ at their tips! Some, like Peter Drucker, referred to this as a shift to knowledge work. Fred Nickols says “It would be more accurate to refer to it as a shift from prefigured routines to configured responses. Instead of doing what someone else had figured out, the work of many people now required them to figure out what to do.”

2.  Who shifts? We cannot ‘engineer’ the outputs of people in high skilled, high-end jobs. The new workers have to do it themselves. For information-based work, the information varies, the conditions are nonstandard, the interactions vary, and the outcomes sought vary. Consequently, activities have to be configured in response to the circumstances or the context at hand. Job-crafting came up in response I guess.

3. How does it occur? When work activities are essentially intangible, the focus of control must shift from activities to results or outcomes. The focus of control must be on the intangible work, not the worker. In such circumstances, the principle of managerial control must shift from ensuring compliance to eliciting – and not soliciting contributions from the worker.

4. Where does it happen? The role of the worker, shifts namely, from an instrument of managerial will to that of a relatively autonomous agent acting on behalf of the employer in the employer’s best interests. The standards that matter are variable and internal to the worker. Knowledge is now widely dispersed or diffused; indeed, in many cases, only the workers possess the required knowledge in idiosyncratic code at times.

5. Why does it matter? Employees are living control systems who design their own performance. Orchestrating that kind of outcome is not done by using models that depict people as compliant, conditioned beings capable of being manipulated ad nauseam.  Not anyone who is able to exercise adequate control over others will figure this shift easily either. Top Management should be genuinely and intensely interested in how to help people craft their own performance because the path to organizational performance passes through the ever refining sieve of individual discretion.

6. Whom does it matter to? Conditions for performance are controlled today in more sentient ways. Models of human behaviors and performance in the workplace must correspond to an irreversible aspect of human evolution. Humans are more than what a manufacturer once thought of autoworkers "I just want to hire a hand, but the whole person always comes with it.They are not simple, stimulus-response organisms. Cultures they create are intangible assets.

“They have, they set, and they achieve goals” says Nickols. I am personally delighted that my association with Bob Ebers allows me to work on this frontier of engaging the science of yield from the wisdom of groups. Through statistical aggregations and content analysis of individual opinions a range of possibilities are presented for human judgement. Predictive analytics and behavioral economics are 'out there'. So are balance-sheets and stock-markets. Performance is felt 'in' employees, and not elsewhere. Leadership is about recognizing this subtle balance between 'externals' in the dynamic environment and the 'internals' of the employee coping, if not thriving on both realms of change.

This blog is an acknowledgement in part of the great opportunity of making contemporary web 2.0 technology work on behalf of a humbler leadership working in service of enlightened employees. Performance is no longer what it used to be. And people are at it indeed.