Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Experience in HBS

This April I visited Boston and was lucky to experience a Harvard Business School Class. They have a program where visitors can come and seat within the class to experience the famous 'Case Study method' live in action. I visited a Macroeconomics class and the case study was on India - Indian history, how Indian policy making and demographic profile have worked so far, how Indian growth is different/similar to that of China and finally should someone invest in India. Prof Dante Roscini drove the discussion and made sure all students shared their insights. He is a great teacher and facilitated the discussion very effectively. 

There were many interesting observations from diverse background of students - how Gini changed over time and whether Interest Rate spreads inherently mean Indian investors getting comfortable with Government Debt; whether China's growth in Manufacturing is mainly due to currency manipulation or competitiveness; whether number of engineers produced in India truly indicates the quality of Indian education system etc. The most influencing thought for me was whether democracy is good for India even if that compromises growth. There was no final answer - Indian students supported Indian democracy(even though they accepted it is not True democracy, illiterate voters have no idea on main issues and they vote based on caste or specific preference to a political dynasty) whereas Chinese students supported Growth(everybody loves their country!).

I came back with that burning question in mind - Democracy or autocracy, Chinese speed of execution or slowness of argumentative Indians? Over time I realized that there is no correct answer. Let me provide some business perspectives before I go back to the actual example of governance. Autocracy is a high-risk high-return game. If we have great leadership autocracy is fantastic - we could not have so artistically brilliant Apple Products if there were multiple decision makers deciding on Product features instead of Steve Jobs leading the end-to-end process of keeping the minimalist user-friendliness. At the same time it will be too risky - if there is no one to challenge the leader and the leader makes a bad decision(or become evil). Do you want to build a great product and then launch it in market(keep it neat - don't listen to users - they have no idea what they want) or you want to prototype and test the product incrementally by incorporating the customer feedback(some may be good, some may be very bad - overall a messy process). The Great Apple iPod would not be possible if Jobs listened to his customers for product features. But think about it -  thousands of start-ups fail because they don't listen to the market needs.

In politics and governance same rule applies and history says we can have success/failure in both. We can have great autocratic governance if we have truly visionary leaders(with good intention- rare combination although!). But generally speaking we have seen democracy ruling the game most of the time. Collaboration is messy & slow but it helps to avoid the big mistakes.

Culture Change?

Americans are great communicators. It is always an advantage when the universal language of communication is your First Language and comes naturally to you. But I think there is something more to this skill. Even if we allow people to speak in their First Language(for me Bengali), per my experience, many Indians won't be able to communicate as effectively as Americans. I think it is more around training and social culture. You may not effectively learn to count or make logical decisions in an US school but you must learn how to speak dramatically or 'sell' something. US culture rewards 'extrovert salespersons' rather than 'introvert builders'.

Don't take me wrong - effective communication is a great skill. It is so much easy when your co-worker can articulate exactly what he is looking for. But sometimes this culture of speaking more and doing more hurts us. US workers possibly send more emails and attend more meetings than any country in the world. We always prefer to keep everything 'in writing' and inform as many people as possible as 'FYI' even if the receiver has nothing to do with the development. Possibly because we don't trust each other - we always hope that in case of a crisis I will be saved if I can show my boss that I wrote an email(remember your Boss may get terminated during the crisis and you too). Or for that matter I won't be sued if I keep a 200 page disclaimer which nobody(except the one who will find a flaw and sue you) will read.

US work ethic is legendary-US has one of the most hard-working, innovative and entrepreneurial  labor class in the world. US workers have best skill sets with the capability of generating highest level of productivity(my mistake - they have one of the best level of productivity in the world!). But I have a feel that something is wrong and we can do better. It needs culture change, it needs right focus, it needs right reward system. We need to do less and focus more on most important problems, we need to reward the introvert imagineers - the builders and architects of the society. We need to create a work environment of trust and empathy and kill the easy path of flattery and PowerPoint to progress in corporate ladder.