15 September 2011

The farmer’s plight

The Indian farmer’s life is in danger. Not just now, but it has been so for a couple of hundred years.

Though we would like to believe that the widespread use of industrial fertilisers and pesticides, the introduction of genetically-modified (GM) seeds, the inefficient public distribution system of farm produce, the land-grabbing by the rich and the industrialised, the corrupt government officials, etc are all responsible for ruining the Indian farmer’s life – and, believe me, they all are – there is, perhaps, something of greater concern.

You see, there’s a history – a legacy you could say – to the farmer’s plight. It has been, and still is, a sort of built-in or inherent risk to the farmer’s profession and life... and future.

This risk has everything to do with human progress and our civilisation, and therefore difficult to resist or reverse. The reality, and the tragedy of it, is that the farmer is caught in a time trap. Neither can the farmer stop the accelerating force of industrial and post-industrial life that is squeezing the life-force out of him; nor can he go back to tribal living where life for the hunter-gatherer was, and still is, poor, brutal, dangerous and (ah yes) downright uncivilised.

There was a time when farming was a noble profession. Farmers grew the food we ate, hired workers for their fields and generated employment for many, were primarily responsible for our sustenance for generations to come, and helped build our modern societies. They were the creators of wealth of our nations. They shaped our social values. They were esteemed members of our communities, along with skilled artisans, builders and teachers, while merchants where actually viewed with doubt. After all, what did the merchant do but make money for himself!

Two forces changed all that for the Indian farmer. First, the invasion and colonisation of our country by the Europeans. Second, the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, and then, rather slowly, in India.

As a result, the control of forests and farm land were taken over by those in power (the government and the rich) and deployed for building towns, roads, railroads and factories. And, the mass production of goods – along with the extraction of ores and their conversion to metals which enabled the mass production of goods – took precedence over agriculture. Progress became the buzzword; building great societies became a noble profession. Those who built industries became the new leaders. Merchants and businessmen began wielding power and became the new esteemed members of our communities.

For us, in the industrial and post-industrial era, there has been no looking back since then. For the Indian farmer, however, life has taken a sad turn. Now, with his much-devalued-and-redistributed land, his continuing dependence on mass-produced seeds, fertilisers and pesticides from large industrial companies, and his price-controlled produce marketed through a corrupt and inefficient public distribution system, he is no longer considered a creator of wealth of our nation. On the contrary, he is lucky if he can create any wealth at all for himself and his family.

Once a noble ‘professional’ and an esteemed member of our community, the Indian farmer is now left stranded in his fields. And, if he doesn’t watch out, soon, that too may not be his.

26 August 2011

The Consulting Conundrum

In a meeting yesterday, this is what a prospective client of mine told me: “We’ve hired consultants before. They are full of babble. They don’t deliver.”

I was affronted. And hurt. You see, I’m a consultant. The meeting was obviously starting on the wrong foot and I had to quickly come up with a defence – for myself, and the consulting fraternity. It got me thinking about my own profession. What if she was right! That, consultants were full of babble and they didn’t deliver.

Various images sprung up in my head and I was reminded of Robert Townsend’s comment in his book, Up The Organization, which I had read some twenty years ago. Although I don’t remember it verbatim, it went something like this: “Consultants are people who borrow your watch and tell you what time it is, and then walk off with the watch.”

As you can see, this was not flattery. If this was a fitting description of what I did for a living, then I was in the wrong profession. But, perceptions are perceptions, no matter how much truth there is in them.

Leaving aside my client’s idiosyncrasies – and Robert Townsend’s wisdom – there does seem to be a controversy over how a consultant really should work with a client. There seems to be a mismatch between what a client expects from a consultant and what a consultant delivers in the end. This can not only lead to bad feelings between the two, it can actually damage each other’s reputation. Perhaps, there was a way out.

Let’s face it: We can’t do everything alone. Once in a while, we need someone to help us out. This dictum holds good not only for the individual or the individual team manager, even the best organisations depend on external help from time to time. And, its commonplace to hire a few consultants on their teams. The question is: If there’s already an external consultant on their team, how is an organisation supposed to get the best out of him?

Set your goals in the beginning

As you know, consultants come in different shapes and sizes – from individual experts to multinational consulting firms – and with different core competencies. Although the consultant’s individual area of expertise is critical in selecting the right consultant for your organisation, your success with a consultant depends a great deal more on the goals you set for the consultant and the role you expect the consultant to play.

If these are not determined early in the process of selecting and working with the consultant, chances are, you will find your consultant underutilised, your organisation out-of-pocket by a large sum of money, and yourself unhappy. Soon, this will lead to a breakdown in your relationship with the consultant, forcing you or the consultant to walk off in a huff – sometimes with a trail of unfinished tasks – which really doesn’t do anyone any good. When this happens, you and your organisation have as much to lose as the consultant.

Once I had to end a relationship with a client because she refused to set the goals in the beginning. I entered the relationship offering marketing strategies, but ended up setting organisation goals and sales budgets, taking calls on HR issues, recruitment and training, and deciding on IT purchases. I even selected the books for the office library. Before long, I became an extra pair of hands in the client’s office – a sort of an odd-job manager who was involved in almost every activity.

Although the importance showered on me was gratifying, and my client got more than her money’s worth for hiring my services, it took the client-consultant relationship to a virtual dead end.

If you’re a CEO with an external consultant on your team, don’t ever let this happen. Remind yourself that a consultant is an expert in a specific field. Not everything. Consult him only for his expertise. Express and explain what is expected from him as he sets out to help you solve the problem for which he is hired. In other words, set your goals right in the beginning of the client-consultant relationship.

Be honest, be open

A consultant offers guidance based on your description of the problem. If you are frank about your organisation’s problems, the consultant gets a better picture of the issues involved and makes a better recommendation. That means putting aside your embarrassment and telling your consultant the whole story. It means coming clean with the consultant. It means honesty.

One way of looking at it is to consider that, together, the consultant and you own the problem – and later, the diagnosis and even the solution. This gives your consultant a lot more confidence to work with and actually results in a team effort. The ownership is shared. The idea is to apply the consultant’s knowledge, skills and insights to arrive at a solution that has the best chance of working for you and your organisation.

It also means keeping an open mind – not only in terms of viewing the problem at hand, but also in accepting the consultant’s recommendations.

Sometimes, as a CEO or a line manager, you’re so neck-deep in day-to-day operations that it’s difficult for you to see the problem as it is. It’s easy to mix up the symptoms with the cause, thereby arriving at an incorrect definition of the problem. Just stop for a second and imagine how difficult it is for the consultant to work on an incorrect brief from you. The entire foundation of his solution is likely to be shaky.

Sometimes, a consultant will prescribe a course of action totally contrary to what you may expect from him. It may even mean a serious change in the way your organisation thinks or behaves. It may mean letting go of old habits – habits, which may have been your strengths at one time but are incompatible with the changing market scene today. And, believe it or not, the best of us suffer from such temperaments. Here’s a case in point:

On an assignment with a large well-know business house, I found them to be so full of themselves that they refused to look the problem in the eye. In their retail venture, which generated inadequate revenues as a result of too few customers, they became hell-bent on starting a customer loyalty programme. With total disregard for the problem at hand. They mixed up a simple branding problem, which advertising would have solved, with a customer loyalty issue. Today, they still don’t have enough footfalls in their stores; and still no great revenues from sales. Now, they have one more problem – they cannot justify the cost of running the customer loyalty programme as it can’t reach substantial economies of scale.

When you hire a consultant, have faith in him. Tell him your whole story. Let the consultant do his homework. Then put your heads together to diagnose the problem. You will arrive at a much better solution thereafter.

Collaborate, become a partner

Here’s the prototype consultancy model:

The consultant is hired for his expertise which your organisation doesn’t posses. He works with you and your team as a collaborator, without exercising direct control on or over your organisation’s resources and systems. He listens patiently to your needs and, after doing his own analysis and homework, suggests a course of action for your organisation (the solution).

Much like a doctor attends to his patient by diagnosing an ailment and prescribing appropriate medication and a diet.

Just as a patient believes that the doctor can cure his ailment and that things will improve if he follows the doctor’s prescription, you have to have faith in the consultant’s advice. Just as the patient has to swallow the medicine himself, you have to resist the urge to maintain status quo and implement the recommended strategies and processes. Sort of, bootstrap yourself to a new level. This requires fundamental shifts in your attitude and in your work style – even at a personal level. If you’re unwilling to change, neither will your organisation.

Once you agree with the consultant’s recommendations, you can internally influence the members of your team – either using the hierarchical authority that the consultant lacks, or simply as an inside man – to ensure a successful and speedy implementation. You know exactly how your organisation adapts to new situations, reacts to new ideas, responds to new types of behaviour, and you are the best person to recognise and leverage the consultant’s skills for your organisation’s benefit.

As a client, you must hold up your end. You should always aim for a partnership.

From what I’ve read and heard, Robert Townsend’s story at Avis is a wonderful example of this kind of partnership – with Bill Bernbach – and is worth a mention here. When Townsend became President of Avis Rent-a-Car in 1962, Avis was an unprofitable company. With Bernbach’s masterful advertising, Avis assumed the “We’re No.2. We try harder.” platform and propelled its sales and market share manifold in just a few years.

Apparently, Bernbach recommended Townsend to overhaul Avis’ customer service and upgrade its product offering before his agency, DDB, creates the advertising. People from DDB, in fact, spent several months learning the Avis business, meeting with and talking to Avis employees about the company. This led them to ask a simple question: “Why does anyone ever rent a car from you?” The reply was: “We try harder because we have to.” The rest is marketing history.

Yes, Bernbach is credited with the “We’re No.2. We try harder.” advertising for Avis. But, don’t forget, Townsend had the wisdom to listen to Bernbach and the courage to run the advertising he recommended.

28 March 2011

Indian consumers voice concerns over GM food

What with cricket, scams and forthcoming state elections ruling the headlines, the debate over introducing genetically-modified (GM) food/crops in India is almost forgotten. Is that a good thing? Depends on which side you’re on.

If you’re in favour of introducing GM food/crops in India, then, perhaps, a quiet entry while no one is looking is the best strategy to adopt. However, if you’re a concerned citizen, worried about your own and your children’s future, then, perhaps, the entry of GM food/crops in India and their proliferation in the Indian consumer market can be a scary proposition.

That’s possibly one reason why, two weeks ago, on World Consumer Rights Day (15 March 2011), a group of concerned citizens met in Mumbai to open up the debate over the possible introduction of GM food/crops in India and the quick and quiet passing of the proposed BRAI (Biotechnology and Regulatory Authority of India) Bill.

[BRAI is expected to act as the sole agency responsible for the regulatory system, including research, transport, import, manufacture and the use of GM crops in India.]

The meeting was organised by the Mumbai Grahak Panchayat, with over 22,000 members, and the Alliance of Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an alliance of over 300 farmer and consumer organisations from across India. Their proposition: the government must encourage public hearings prior to the passing of the BRAI Bill and the introduction of GM foods in India.

Some important questions were raised at the meeting: Is GM food safe for human and livestock consumption? Will farmer interests be safeguarded once GM seeds are introduced in India? Will consumers have easy access to information on GM foods offered to them and be able to exercise their right to refuse GM food in favour of natural/organic food? Is the Indian government ensuring that Indian citizens are kept informed of the risks of GM food/crops?

And, most importantly, is the Indian government trying to evade consumer concern for, and opposition to, GM food/crops by passing the BRAI Bill quietly?

16 February 2011

Surviving the 21st century

The impact of the internet, the mobilephone and air travel is beyond doubt. Technology has indeed changed our lives: helping us to connect with our family and friends, to conduct business speedily, to have access to education and healthcare which were beyond our reach earlier.

Today, in urban India, we can learn about a socio-political uprising in Egypt, spread the news to our friends on our social networks, post opinions on our blogs, comment on online news sites, and show our support for the cause with thousands of people across the world... from the comfort of our homes.

What this means is that technology has liberated us to an unimaginable degree. Now we can hear what’s going on, and be heard, in all corners of the world.

But, technology also binds us. It locks us into believing that what is provided on our platter is all good. Good for our consumption, as food and as thought. So subtle and yet so powerful is this belief that we seldom question what is offered to us. We take it for granted that what’s offered to us is pure and safe, and will improve our lives and lifestyles.

This is not always so. If we think the global financial crisis of 2008 was a shocker, taking away what’s most sacred to us, then we are aware of only half the story. There is a deadlier crisis at bay; a deadlier conspiracy at play. What I’m talking about is the danger of genetically modified food that is served on our platter every day.

From health hazards to environmental hazards to failure of crops which affect our food supply, technologies that propagate genetically modified food are killing machines. Yet, and in spite of volumes of information available on the internet, worldwide, awareness of the risks of genetically modified food is low.

In India, where genetically modified crop failures and farmer suicides are rampant, educating the farmers and the public at large are uphill tasks. Who could or would provide this education? And, at what cost? How does one reach out to over a billion people, most of whom are illiterate?

Added to this is apathy in the media and among policy makers and the government. With the Food and Agriculture Minister preoccupied with cricket, construction and his other interests, who’s going to chalk out a strategy for us to survive the 21st century?