Let me start with a question. Has any KT session you have attended ever left a mark or helped you in the long run? There will be very few who can say yes to this with any degree of confidence. They would be the lucky ones. For the rest it is just an interminable few days of listening to a monologue by some person who does not really care whether you understand or not. I know because I have been such a person, on occasions.

For the uninitiated, KT, in information technology parlance, is knowledge transfer. This is one part of the larger, organisation-wide practice of knowledge management. This is a process for disseminating very specific, concentrated chunks of information, accumulated over the years by hard work and bad luck. The Agile manifesto puts it quite elegantly as:

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.”

Right from the plain-Jane shared drive, containing relevant (mostly irrelevant) documents to the US Army standard, After Action Review (AAR), there are several ways of passing on what one has learnt. Gartner’s Darin Stewart highlights one aspect of the AAR in his blog which I think is very significant – no recriminations. During these reviews whatever is said cannot be used by anyone to assess an individual’s performance in the project or task. The rule is – no one shall play God and denounce thee.

The IT industry, especially Indian IT, is service-oriented in nature. There is a very obvious master-slave relationship (crude but close enough :-)). The only thing missing is the line “As you command, Master” from people’s email signatures. Nevertheless, processes are taken seriously, without any push from the customer, and reviews are held frequently. Any post-mortem reviews (appropriate right?) held, delve into a great depth. There are pages of reports produced, actions assigned (notice the verb), superiors are informed and 15 days later everyone has forgotten about it. This is very true in case the previous milestone was a success. And is even more true if it was a failure.

In the latter case, it becomes very obvious that people are trying to cover their backsides in the first 5 mins of the meeting. How many times have you seen a colleague trying to hunt down an old email which can prove that he/she had proof of knowing that the system would fail but did nothing since no one approved it? During the annual performance appraisal he/she can then throw the email at the supervisor’s face and demand why the rating was so poor. One of the most amusing things I have seen during these review meetings is the formation of a review team to ensure such slips do not happen again. Quite like the committees our politicians are good at setting up and with the same end result. No one remembers what the review team was supposed to do.

I’m digressing. My point is such review meetings, post-failures, tend to be a blame game. And the one who is not vocal enough or smart enough to duck, is blamed. It is a natural reaction to fear from any negative action on one’s person and protect oneself from it. Instead, like the US Army, these review meetings should concentrate only on disseminating what was learnt during the failure. When the team knows that any disclosure of information in such meetings will not lead to a downgrade in the performance assessment, then there will be a far better release and absorption of these ‘lessons learnt’. It would then not matter whether anyone kept any minutes of that or not. It would simply transform into a group discussion, with each person retaining almost all of that which was discussed. If this kind of a philosophy works for the US Army, which I think you will agree has more important work to do, it would work on a team of geeky, overweight software developers.

There are caveats, of course. To catalyse such a discussion, a skilful moderator, who has great people skills, would be needed. It is a role where trust has to be implicitly established. The team will need to understand that humans make mistakes and that it takes another human to recognise and accept such mistakes. The moderator has to be this person. Is it Christmas yet? A miracle is required in the corner IT shop.

One can argue that essentially overlooking people’s mistakes will only cause more harm and that people will not try to change themselves until someone comes at them with a stick. I beg to differ. As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, I believe in the basic goodness of humanity. People will be ashamed enough to change when they see others overlooking their mistakes (it’s not wishful thinking, its Gandhigiri :-)).

Google Play Store houses a number of apps categorised under ‘productivity’. Google’s content editors have classified these as such. It is debatable whether these actually help improve productivity or not. But anyway people think about how small things like predictive keyboards help in their day-to-day lives, to work or complete tasks more efficiently. And so be more productive in whatever they do.

Ironically, when it comes to taking decisions which impact lives of over 1 billion Indians, productivity seems to be immaterial. TOI had printed an article last month which stated that the current parliament has had 1157 hours of sitting. This is deemed to be the lowest number of hours that any parliament (those who have done full terms) has clocked since independence. You would be justified in saying “what do you expect from such ‘leaders’ anyway”? Some would also say that the current government is so corrupt that the opposition is indeed doing a good job to teach it a lesson and stop it from passing any bills. Apparently, this is a strategic move by the opposition.

Parliament of India, Credit: http://www.parliamentofindia.nic.in/

Parliament of India, Credit: http://www.parliamentofindia.nic.in/

The statistics are interesting yes. But is this what one should concentrate on? Even if no time had been wasted would you have called the parliament productive? How do you quantify productivity of a parliament? The keen eyed will note that I have used ‘parliament’ not ‘government’. As far as I know, all representatives, be it from the ruling party or the opposition,  inside the parliament have a task and so can, ideally, be measured against some standard. Agreed that the processes inside the parliament are complex but that does not mean that outcomes can’t be measured, surely?

There was a movie starring Anil Kapoor in which he becomes the Chief Minister of a state for 24 hours. He goes about ‘CMing’ in typical movie style. Imagine that you had been given similar powers and asked to draft a set of rules to define productivity norms for parliamentarians. Boy, “draft a set of rules to define productivity norms” sounds heavy! But bear with me.

Lets start with a simple one – attendance. During engineering we had norms to have at least 75% attendance in classes (which was quite difficult frankly :-)). Now our ‘esteemed’ leaders are supposed to be doing a serious job so 75% won’t really do. Lets make it 90%.  Any shortage would automatically be deducted from their salaries (they will be registering their attendance using a retina scanner of course, both in and out :-)).

Forming and modifying legislation is the primary task of our parliament. So obviously the number of such modifications and introduction of new legislations should be a contributing factor. The number, however, would only be half the story. the quality of these legislations would have some weightage. This ‘quality’ should be determined by crowd sourcing – political experts, accomplished academicians and the like being the ‘crowd’. The formula could be something like

Legislation score = (Number of legislations + Number of modifications to legislations) * Quality factor

The opposition’s duty, in theory at least, is to enable a thorough discussion on various bills tabled by the government. A lot of shouting, standing on chairs and tables or boycotting the sessions are various ways our politicians ‘discuss’. Any serious discussion would be based on facts, figures and a reasoned debate. This would, of course, look quite boring on TV. So its quite understandable that our leaders resort to more creative ways of showing disagreement. Is there a better way? Perhaps. Instead of simply broadcasting sessions on national TV, make these sessions interactive with the public. A instant poll on what people think about various member’s skills, behaviour, and work ethics would hopefully shame them enough to behave like responsible people. If you take this argument to the logical conclusion, then a consolidated drubbing in polls over a year or so would be enough to ‘fire’ a parliament member. Too much you think? If people can put the person in the parliament in the first place, then why can’t they fire the same person?

No doubt this is an amateurish set of suggestions. I like to think that the collective knowledge and wisdom of the public would have much better ways of making our parliamentarians be more productive. What would your suggestions be?

Why is there such a hue-and-cry about some cricketers getting caught accepting bribes? News channels covered it as though no one had heard about fixing. I don’t think any one should be surprised. The whole point of IPL is to make money. The promoters are making money, BCCI is making money, the sponsors are making money and so are the cricketers. And some of them were stupid enough to do it illegally and get caught.

I am sure most of you know how the IPL auction works. Teams bid for players in an open auction and the highest bidder wins. As in any other auction there is a base price set for each player and bidding starts from that point onwards. The interesting thing here is that the base price changes if an uncapped player plays even one international match. Any match – be it T20, One-day or Test. And the base price increases in direct proportion to which  type of match he’s played. Overnight the base price tends to go up – by an order of magnitude. You can say the cricketer deserves higher remuneration. Yes getting into the national side is no mean feat. But once done he can continue playing in the IPL and make far more money than he ever will at the international level. Goodbye national pride.

The scope of IPL is massive, financially. At the auction itself $ 1,285,000 was spent. But this is only a fraction of the total spend on the ‘extravaganza’. Think about franchisees paying BCCI, advertisers paying franchisees and broadcasters paying BBCI for telecast rights. There is no scope for the entire process to be completely legal. Has anyone investigated where the franchisees source their money from? Is it all ‘white’? It is difficult to believe all the money circulating in IPL has been accounted for by the IT department. I, for one, always find something fishy about where so much money comes from.

Various people have written alarming (for some anyway) pieces about the death of IPL. May be the old adage of ‘one bad fish spoils the pond’ stands here. But in all probability it does not. IPL is too big to affected over the long-term by something like this. Its sheen may wear-off (hopefully!) but in cricket-crazy India there will always be people who will follow this come what may. For a short while they will be cynical. Whenever someone drops a catch, the reaction will be “pata nahin kitna liya hai drop karne ke liye!!” (don’t know how much he’s got to drop that catch!!). Likewise if a team loses miserably there will be arguments on whether they were paid to throw the game away. They will be angry but again for a short while. As it always happens things will die down and TRPs for broadcasters will return to their normal levels.

Besides the franchisees and sponsors have invested too much to dial it down now. There will be investigations, committees, piece meal action. There will be action against some, some will be let go due lack of evidence. New laws may get enacted. The BCCI itself can only ban players from playing ever again. But that’s about it. Unless there is solid proof like phone records, even this may be improbable. Another set of blogs will be written (like this one :-)) stating why they are for or against the actions taken. But death of IPL, naah!

However, it will not clean-up the game or the organisations involved (come on, do you really think BCCI is not part of some nexus here?). Notice that there is no doubt or guess here. It won’t happen. Perhaps this a very bleak outlook but there it is. People involved in IPL are a cross-section of Indian society. There is no point trying to think IPL and cricket are immune from the plague called corruption which infects this society. Unless the society as a whole says  no to corruption, IPL will not be clean.

In one of the episodes of the Big Bang Theory, the protagonist tries to garner support and a research grant for some experiments in advanced physics. He is successful but in a rather twisted way. This example shows that even popular culture knows that any project in advanced physics will be very expensive. Proving any hypothesis requires loads of money which certainly does not guarantee success. Corporations and governments spend billions in aid to various such projects in the hope of a breakthrough. So how much do you think the most expensive project undertaken costs?

Thirteen billion Euro. Yes the figure is correct. This is the estimated cost of the ITER project (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). This is a collaborative attempt by 34 countries to prove that energy can be produced using thermonuclear fusion outside a laboratory  Its aim is to produce about 500 MW of power with an input of about 50 MW. When you have the time visit their site. The numbers are astounding. Astounding because this is essentially a proof of concept. When this is complete (should I also say ‘if”?), scientists involved will have categorically proven that it is possible to build commercially viable nuclear fusion reactors. Next someone will have to actually build a reactor so that countries can buy one. It will have to be a country, I guess, given the likely cost of such a thing.  All this will take decades. The earliest date for the prototype to start producing energy is in 2026.

fusions-missing-pieces_1

Image: ITER Lego sculpture by Sachiko Akinaga, Photograph by Hironobu Maeda, Credit: Scientific American

So is this the right thing to do when the world needs solutions for its energy problems quickly? Its naysayers would simply dismiss it as a colossal waste of money whereas the scientists involved will hail it as mankind’s saviour. Scientific American had a recent article about various problems it was having (funding of course is talked about). There is no question, however, that fusion once domesticated will be our main source of energy. Till that point the world should be looking at alternatives.

Easier said than done that. And yes most countries are looking at other energy sources. Batteries, more efficient solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells and new deposits of natural gas to name a few. Hang on, something’s missing from this list! Where is nuclear fission? The world seems to have lost faith in fission it seems. New fission reactors are a big no-no nowadays, after Fukushima of course (but warheads are obviously multiplying). This is more of a knee-jerk reaction. Something similar would have happened after Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. There are people thinking about making fission safer, cheaper and less damaging to the environment. The most noteworthy example is Taylor Wilson. You might say – who? I would have if not for a recent talk on TED which I saw. Wilson, then 18, won the Thiel Prize in 2012 as an Applied Nuclear Physicist. And he’s built a fusion reactor in his dad’s garage! In the talk, he talks about a design for a modular nuclear fission reactor capable of producing 50-100 MW. If the design works, it may not be as expensive as a conventional reactor and probably not as complicated. This means it will be easier to build and maintain, especially in the developing economies.

Someone should be looking at a comprehensive plan for energy. Someone with the reach of the World Bank or UN. And they should take a leaf out of Agile and start showing quick results for the almost-panicking world.

PS: Here’s my 4-point plan for energy (go ahead, laugh :-))

  1. Reduce energy consumption. Any which way. See this post by T K Arun (Times of India blogs) as an example of the lengths one can go to.
  2. Develop hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure for vehicular usage. Period.
  3. For the near term, look at fission, solar, wind and hydel energy solutions. Move away from burning anything having carbon in it.
  4. Make fusion cheaper. If a teenager can build a working prototype of a fusion plant in a garage, why does one need to spend gargantuan sums of money elsewhere to build a different one?

I follow Gartner and Forrester blogs on a regular basis. Both consultancy firms (is it right to call them that?) talk a great deal about Master Data Management (MDM), its benefits, pitfalls and the lot. They, being professionals, would have done detailed analysis and dozens of surveys to arrive at a conclusion on what MDM is, what to do and what not to do with it. I have learnt a good deal about the topic from these blogs. But I do find something missing.

Wikipedia describes MDM thus:

“Master Data Management (MDM) comprises a set of processes, governance, policies, standards and tools that consistently defines and manages the master data (i.e. non-transactional data entities) of an organization (which may include reference data).”

Other sites essentially describe the same thing in different terms. In short, it is a mechanism to arrive at and maintain a single version of truth about the customer’s data, held by an organisation. A common example used to illustrate this is using a customer of a bank. Let’s say a customer buys an insurance policy from his bank and a week later he gets a call from the same bank, trying to sell a similar kind of policy. Such a thing is quite normal (and annoying) and most of us would have faced it. Why would this happen? Doesn’t the bank know that you have just bought an insurance policy? This would suggest that either the bank does not have an MDM solution in place or that the MDM solution is ineffective.

Take another example. I have a savings account and a credit card with a large international banking corporation. I had applied for both at different times and, unfortunately, in one I had expanded one of my initials while in the other I had not. To escape the hassle of maintaining multiple logins for each product, I had initiated a request for the accounts to be merged, However it was declined due to difference in the names in their database. I was a disappointed to say the least.

In both situations, it is customer who has to compromise and live with the situation, to let the bank manage his or her data. Customer  or User experience (UX) – this, I think, is missing from what MDM is taken to mean.

Like the 12 principles of Agile, one of the tenets of MDM should be to be an enabler in creating a seamless, consistent user experience for the customer. It is unlikely that any MDM implementation would be wide enough in scope to actually define the UX component of the business. However, from the perspective of enterprise architecture practice of the organisation, the MDM solution should open gateways for the UX to offer a consistent experience.

An MDM solution, then, should look at how well existing business processes dealing with UX can be integrated. And propose changes to these processes and the associated IT components.

Drawing1

Wikipedia can then say:

“Master Data Management (MDM) comprises a set of processes, governance, policies, standards and tools that consistently defines and manages the master data (i.e. non-transactional data entities) of an organization (which may include reference data), allowing its customers to have a consistent, seamless user experience.”

Cricket-itis

Posted: April 21, 2013 in Sports

I suffer from a rare affliction, which I call Cricketitis. The medical community can diagnose its symptoms very easily, especially in India. It manifests itself as an abject boredom and disinterest with following cricket, in any media. The incubation period can be quite lengthy and it may take years for the condition to reach its final stage. Unfortunately there is no known cure. I will only have to harden my will and hope my family will still love me despite my condition.

I used to follow cricket regularly and sat watching matches whenever they were telecast, at whatever time. I remember sitting and watching a India-Pakistan match on the eve of my 10th standard mathematics exam. It was a close match and I sat there chewing my nails [I don’t chew nails per se but its a nice figure of speech :-)] before a boundary won us the match. I read books on cricket and cricketers, read opinions in daily newspapers, idolised ‘the Wall’ and argued with classmates on why he was the best. I was elated when the boys in blue won and got frustrated and angry when they didn’t. Ah, the good old days!

The first signs of impending trouble coincided with the first season of IPL. Cricket suddenly looked like a movie with scripts, superstars, theatrics and drama queens. I didn’t manage to watch even a single IPL game, even in the first season, fully. I persevered with watching One-dayers and Tests (of course Dravid had not retired yet!) for another couple of years. By the time the World Cup happened in 2011, the condition had reached the final stage. I got incontrovertible proof of this when I decided to go have dinner in a popular restaurant during the World Cup final, simply because it would be easier to get a table and parking!

Two years on I have learnt to live with it. I do not get into conversations about cricket and do not worry too much when two-bit players are ‘auctioned’ for a few millions during the annual IPL tournament. I do have hope, however, that society at large will become aware of this and be show some empathy towards the sufferers. I have come to recognise that there are other things I can do with my time. What if one counts the number of matches India plays in a year, multiplies that by the number of hours in each game, and that by the number of people who match a sizeable portion of each game? How many hours would this be [this will be an enlightening statistic]? And what if India diverts its attention, talent and ability in another direction for even half this many hours? Where would that take us?

I have learnt now that my wife does not care that I don’t watch cricket and I have not become an outcast because I do not know who won the last IPL season. Ah! Cricketitis seems to be bliss.

The Vidhana Soudha, the seat of Karnataka's le...

The Vidhana Soudha, the seat of Karnataka’s legislative assembly, is located in Bengaluru. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Karnataka goes to polls in May this year. And as usual there are increasing amounts of press coverage for our politicians and expert predictions of what the outcome will be. A leading newspaper calls it the ‘dance of democracy’. Call it thus or showmanship or a shameless scramble to get a seat in the assembly, we, as citizens, will have to make up our minds and vote to the most suitable party or individual around. Hope you all have registered in the appropriate constituency. I have not. For various reasons I have ignored-slash-forgotten about it. And now it is too late do anything. Come to think of it I had not voted in the last assembly elections either. Agreed that I should be voting but looking at the state of Karnataka politics, one wonders if there is a point. How do you decide which party or individual to support? Close you eyes and press the button which comes to hand first?

Schools teach political sciences as a mandatory subject (or at least they used to). In it there were very detailed descriptions of how an election works in a democracy, with India being taken as an example. One of the points I remember of this process is that each party which wants to contest an election publishes a manifesto, which contains ‘election promises’. Parties contesting elections will publish these and one can get a copy by visiting the local offices of the party in question. How many people do this before voting to understand what the party is promising in return for their vote? I don’t know any who has done so.

Another method can be to see what each party has done in other states and cast your vote hoping they do the same in the next term here. An obvious example is Gujarat. Even though both Karnataka and Gujarat are governed by members of the same party, the state of governance is vastly different. The situation in Karnataka is, well, a mess. It does not look like there is any hope for significant improvement even if the incumbent party returns to power with full majority. This in turn means good performance in one place does not mean good performance elsewhere.

In any election, people are brought to power by the ‘aam aadmi’ based purely on trust. One trusts a particular party or individual and so the vote is cast in favour of that party or individual. How does a party then establish trust then? By ‘governing’, in its purest sense. This is idealistic prattle of course. But there is at least one way to establish some trust. The Election Commission records cases pending against candidates which the candidates need to specify in their applications. One can find out how many and which types of cases are pending against candidates, if any of course. A consolidated view of this statistic across Karnataka should yield interesting results, to say the least. If you are keeping up with this, then the vote would go to the party fielding less number of such individuals. To take this to the next logical point, if in a ward all candidates are equally, lets say, controversial, then the populace should abstain. This would force re-election for that ward. And, if the parties in question have any common sense, they will field a different set of candidates.

Something like this would obviously be a long-term process. And just because a case is registered against a person, does not make that person guilty. I like to think that the populace can make up their minds on guilt based on extensive news coverage such things tend to attract. It would be a start nonetheless. The present system needs a refresh. It is too muddled up, too opaque. Better minds than mine can come with better mechanisms but a change in the angle of the rudder is required, however small.

So who will you vote for?