Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Company as a Digital-Driven Organism

It is the season of mega mergers and buyouts. I was pondering the questions of life times of companies, their evolution and long-term survival in the wake of Dell-EMC, Microsoft-LinkedIn, Verizon-Yahoo and, back home in India, Flipkart/Myntra-Jabong.

Among the queries crowding in my mind: What makes companies buy or sell other companies? Why do we get the same old dope about synergies and leave the gory details about layoffs out in all those self-congratulating announcements? Does innovation gain or lose in the bargain? How would consumers of the merged entities fare?

While the above are regular sort of questions, another thought was pounding the gray matter inside my cranium: how does the infusion of new technology, especially digital, change the way companies behave in their environment?

I began to think of an organization as an organism: not a mish-mash of lines and dotted lines of hierarchies or collection of assets, liabilities and other attributes that usually go with a company—but as a living, breathing entity that evolves, grows and sustains itself as well as those associated with it.

At this point, out of the many tabs open in my web browser, one particular headline caught my attention and stopped my musings in their tracks—because it more or less mirrored my thoughts! “Live Business: The Digitization of Everything,” it read.

Among other things, in this amazing and wide-ranging paper, Dinesh Sharma, Vice President of Digital Economy at SAP, notes that the old, machine-like view of a company is giving way to a new, digital reality that thrives on hyperconnectivity, big data and adaptive systems.

One of the analogies Sharma uses in comparing the current industrial/knowledge economy to the upcoming digital/adaptive economy is closed systems versus open systems. Here is a largish excerpt from the paper:

“Auto manufacturers in the United States have traditionally focused on building factories to efficiently produce cars in large quantities. These factories are closed systems: as long as they get a constant volume of input, they produce a constant volume of cars. But the auto industry as a whole is an open system, subject to factors such as customer demand, which companies cannot control. The auto industry has outsourced the “open” part of their system to networks of dealers. The result is that auto makers continue to push cars out of their factories, even when demand drops. When this happens, the market becomes glutted with new cars and prices fall. Dealers can’t sell the cars, and manufacturers are forced to offer incentives and sell cars at a loss just so that they can keep the factories running.”

Adaptive systems, in contrast, writes Sharma, “are a special class of open systems, characterized by dynamic networks of agents interacting with each other and their environments.” He avers that adaptive systems are continuously evolving and shifting, much like the complex worlds of ant and bee colonies, stock markets, biological ecosystems and human organizations, including companies.

For many, many years, companies have been designed as “information-processing and production machines” but that machine view is set to be replaced by, if I may say so, an organism view in which learning is a creative process rather than a mechanical one, just as Sharma argues.

The mechanical view and rigid structures of companies have served us well in the industrial and, to some extent, the knowledge era but these must now be replaced with more flexible, agile arrangements that can be conjured up or dissolved quickly as the need arises or fades.

Hyperconnectivity, which rides on the digital cocktail of social, mobile, analytics, cloud (SMAC) and IoT (Internet of Things), will make sure that traditional and incumbent organizations across industries play by the new rules of market success.

“Hyperconnectivity is an assault on stable environments that have been the foundation of growth in the knowledge economy. The pace of change in the business world is accelerating to unprecedented speeds. For example, a retailer can engage with customers in the moment in a personalized one-to-one online relationship that is immediately known to a sales associate who helps the customer in a brick and mortar store. In another instance, employees build scenarios for the latest marketing campaigns that draw on real-time company data intermingled with live social network feeds. The new reality is that data can come from anywhere at any time in the new hyperconnected enterprise. The modern business needs to exchange data with its environment at unheard-of speeds,” notes Sharma in his research paper.

He identifies three key attributes of a successful digital business: seamless, connected and data-driven.

Things are jarring on all three of these counts when it comes to India: there are gaps in businesses being seamless, connectivity is broken and unreliable and data is just getting seeded into the entrails of business to make up the case for sufficient data-richness (the rewards of which could be reaped through big data analytics or other tools).

But Indian firms are getting there, in bits and pieces, in jerks and jumps, in the fierce competition of Olas and Ubers, in the dot-com launches/relaunches of ABOFs and BabyOyes, the payments frenzies of PayTMs and Mobikwiks—and the mergers and marriages of Myntras and Jabongs.

Needless to say, it is a time of transition for the industry. Companies that have more digital balm to apply to their internal and external joints will be able to alleviate or lessen the pain that comes naturally as part of this transition.

(Lead image courtesy:

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The CIO Role: Very Much Alive and Rising in Influence

Doubters of the CIO role and function, here’s some bad news for you: a new global survey reveals “an undeniable increase in the influence of the CIO.”

The survey, conducted by Harvey Nash, a leading professional recruitment firm, and consulting major KPMG, notes that more CIOs now report directly to the CEO (34%) than at any time in the past decade. And before I share other insights from the 18th edition of this global survey that received almost 3,400 responses from CIOs and technology leaders across 82 countries, let me pull out a happy tidbit: CIOs with a direct report to the CEO are also the happiest (87% report job fulfillment).

While there could be multiple reasons for this “happiness,” my surmise is that such a direct reporting structure would certainly take away many irritants for technology leaders and untangle them from other CXO/peer “issues.”

Another indicator of the increasing CIO influence is that 57% of CIOs now sit on the executive board or other senior leadership committees (up by 50% over 11 years), as per the survey. (I know it’s a long, relatively slow march, but hey, it’s happening :)

Among other highlights is the fact that one in four CIOs now spend at least one day each week outside their core function of IT. The CEO focus, too, is shifting from projects that save money to those that make money (see graphic).

The survey (titled Harvey Nash/KPMG 2016 CIO Survey) reveals that traditional IT priorities are seeing major shifts over the past four years: increasing operational efficiencies has dropped 16%, and delivering stable IT performance has dropped 27%.

These statistics not only point to the growing influence of the CIO in a company but also that they have more time for top/bottom-line improvement and innovation.

What continues to hold them back, however, is what this media release on the survey terms as “the greatest technology skills shortage since the Great Recession almost a decade ago.”

As many as 65% of CIO respondents say they believe a lack of talent will hinder their organizations’ ability to keep up with the pace of change—which is a 10% rise in the past year alone.

For the second consecutive year, data analytics is the most in-demand skill (39%). A high 89% of CIOs are worried about talent retention. (It’s another matter, perhaps, that there have been ample job movements and career shifts within the CIO community itself: 31% of the CIOs have been in their current role for less than two years and 15% moved job last year.)

The changing talent and CIO career dynamics could also be the result of the growing acceptance and impact of Digital.

One in five organizations now deploys a CDO (no, the CDO is not off the radar, though the initial euphoria on a separate digital officer seems to have come down a bit). More important, 58% of respondents reported that their organization has a clear digital vision and strategy.

In his executive summary for the report, Dr. Jonathan Mitchell, Non-Executive Chair, Global CIO Practice, Harvey Nash (a former CIO of Rolls-Royce and a tech veteran), writes: “There is little doubt that our industry is changing rapidly. In the last two years, IT leaders have become newly invigorated. The days of budget cuts and staff losses are well behind us. New challenges such as ‘digital’ have emerged. Was this yet another technology fad? No, was the resounding response from last year’s respondents. Digital is most definitely real and it is changing the way in which everyone thinks about IT.”

While there are many challenges for CIOs in the disruptive days ahead, let’s hope that the CIO role stays invigorated for many, many years to come.

(Lead image credit: This blog post first appeared on

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Disaster Management: Can Internet of Things Make a Difference?

What happens when disaster strikes? The answer depends, among other things, on where you are located. And if you live in a third-world, hot, crowded and messy country like India—all hell breaks loose.

Millions among India’s billion-plus citizens have seen that hell from up, close and personal: in the ruthless form of floods, earthquakes, cloudbursts, landslides and other disasters that destroy lives, livestock and the lock, stock and barrels that help people sustain their existence.

In fact, as I write these lines, the country is in the midst of disastrous rains and flooding in several states across its length and breadth.

On such occasions, the administration goes into an overdrive, the army and paramilitary forces are called in and the voluntary organizations are roped in for relief work. But Nature’s fury often proves too much and, despite all their efforts and hard work, the scale at which misery unfolds in the aftermath is astounding.

Can technology play a role in anticipating, mitigating, controlling and managing this misery? And if so, to what extent and in what ways?

Those were the questions that came flooding to my mind as I attended the launch recently of a white paper titled “Internet of Things (IoT) for Effective Disaster Management.” The paper was brought out by Digital India Action Group (DIAG), a think tank set up by IT vendor lobby group MAIT for “ideating and monitoring policy initiatives to support the Indian Government’s mission of Digital India.”

The objective of the paper is “to create awareness and appreciation about the potential use and applications of IoT for different aspects of disaster management.”

Alongside, DIAG also released another white paper, “Aadhaar-Enablement: A Framework for Citizen-Centric Services”.

For the uninitiated, Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identity issued by the Government’s Unique ID Authority of India. Over 1 billion of these IDs have been given thus far in what is billed as the largest such exercise in the world.

While discussing Aadhaar and the potential of Aadhaar-based services is a Pandora’s box in itself, let me confine myself to IoT in disaster management for this post.

The role of IoT in disaster management, in keeping with the huge potential of this mother-of-all-technological-paradigm, is critical and wide-ranging. A multiplicity of agencies, infrastructure, devices, policies, and applications, among others, must come together to make the whole exercise “effective”, as the DIAG paper rightly highlights in its title.

The presence of a cross-section of officials and executives—from government, industry and consulting organizations (see pic)—is, one hopes, symbolic of the coordinated, on-ground effort that will be required in the days to come to give actual shape to the vision laid out in the document.
The IoT white paper recommends a “Seven-Point Action Plan” to shift from a “relief and recovery” model to “risk and vulnerability assessment” and address key issues and challenges related to management of natural and man-made disasters in India.

According to data from the IoT white paper, as much as 57% land area of India is vulnerable to earthquakes; 12% of this area is vulnerable to severe earthquakes. Besides, 68% land is vulnerable to drought, 12% land vulnerable to floods and 8%, to cyclones. The paper notes that many cities in India are also vulnerable to chemical, industrial and other man-made disasters.

The benefits of IoT in disaster management are easy to visualize (though difficult to implement, given the current realities of India): agencies can gain a clear picture of operations with real-time visibility of data as well as model data from multiple sources. This can further be transformed into accessible, actionable intelligence for faster, better-informed decisions. It is important, therefore, to create “a single, federated information hub.”

The paper calls for building an information backbone which all parties—government agencies, NGOs, infrastructure operators and community—can contribute to and work from.

One term in the paper that specifically caught my eye was “intuitive analytics” which seems to take the capabilities of the current big data analytics technologies to their optimal level.

In this context, SAP’s Lovneesh Chanana presented an insightful video of the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. After the disastrous floods in the year 2013, which resulted in loss of close to a hundred lives and millions of dollars, the Argentine capital decided to put sensors in over 30,000 storm drains that measure, as per this report on the SAP site, “the direction, level and speed of water.” One of the key technologies to gather and analyze this huge amount of data in real-time is SAP HANA.

Technologies lie SAP HANA (or IBM Watson, for that matter) are not cheap to deploy for funds-starved governments. But consider the impact of not using the most advanced technologies: A World Bank forecast puts the annual losses from floods alone to reach as high as $1 trillion worldwide if cities don’t take preventive measures.

Each city, in my opinion, will need to take a deep view of what’s the best fit for it in terms of technologies, including IoT and the use of social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. (If you think lightly of the idea, pause for a moment to consider that the US Geological Survey, a government entity, runs a service called the Tweet Earthquake Dispatch (TED). Under this, there are two Twitter accounts that send out earthquake alerts: @USGSted and @USGSBigQuakes.)

I remember reading a report a few years ago that was in a way precursor to the TED service. When, in the US, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake shook the Northeast in 2011, many New Yorkers learned about it on Twitter—seconds before the shaking actually started. Tweets from people at the epicenter near Washington, D.C., outpaced the quake itself, providing a unique early warning system. (Conventional alerts, by contrast, were said to take two to 20 minutes to be issued.)

Technology is advancing at a much faster pace now, especially with machine learning, robotics and drones appearing more frequently in headlines than ever before.

What should the Indian government and industry players be doing in tackling disasters with IoT and other tools?

The DIAG white paper gives some recommendations, the MAIT DIAG Seven-Point Action Plan, which includes:

- Release of cloud security and related guidelines as part of the Digital India policy framework.
- Inclusion of ICT in Disaster Management in the National Skills Development Framework and Plan.
- Release of IoT Policy for India.
- Development of framework for continuous industry participation in planning for disaster management.
- Back-end applications for asset management with disaster management authorities.
- Knowledge portal for sharing experiences and best practices.
- A comprehensive plan for prevention of cyber disasters.

Even if some of the above points are put into practice by a government-industry “action tank” (taking the think part to its logical conclusion), the disasters that certainly, unavoidably await the Indian multitudes can perhaps be mitigated and managed much better than before.

For CIOs, tech leaders and others who would like to dig deeper or get involved, here are some reference links:

 (The above blog post first appeared on Lead visual credit:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Four Stages of Digital Disruption CXOs Should Know

It is easy for people within an industry to see something repeated quite often as clich├ęd, boring, hyped or done-to-death. But when it comes to the double dose of “Digital Disruption” (with two heavyweight words wrestling alongside), there is usually a lot of discomfort as well.

And while one often gets to hear the names of the usual “culprits”—the Ubers and Olas, the Airbnbs, the Facebooks of the world—who are causing or have caused a lot of disruption in the market, it is good to come across something that helps the existing enterprises or the incumbents chart digital territory with greater confidence.

McKinsey’s aptly titled “An incumbent’s guide to digital disruption” offers a few silver linings and plenty of hope. The introduction lures you in with these powerful words: “Incumbents needn’t be victims of disruption if they recognize the crucial thresholds in their life cycle, and act in time.”

It goes on to describe in interesting detail the four stages of disruption from an incumbent’s perspective, the barriers to overcome, and the choices and responses needed at each stage.

The four stages are identified in self-explanatory terms—Stage one: Signals amidst the noise; Stage two: Change takes hold; Stage three: The inevitable transformation; and Stage four: Adapting to the new normal.

The authors of the McKinsey article, Chris Bradley and Clayton O’Toole, also help the incumbent organizations in visualization of their current stage on an S-curve and mapping their moves and barriers along various inflection points on the graph.

The authors pepper these stages with real-life examples and insights, which makes for useful reading for companies that are in the midst of their own digital journeys and can take cues from those who have been there or done that (or not done that, for that matter).

Sample a few: as long as 10 years back, Norwegian media group Schibsted made the bold move to offer classifieds online—for free; Netflix “disrupted itself” in 2011 by shifting its focus from DVD rentals to online streaming; and Grocery retailer Aldi is said to have disrupted numerous incumbents globally with its low-price model.

You can read the full McKinsey article here or download an assessment guide that helps an organization in ascertaining its position in the digital journey by clicking this link.

It is always better to disrupt yourself than let someone else do it!

Monday, June 20, 2016

International Yoga Day: Meditations on Meditation

Like many other great things that have come to us through the rich inheritance of ancient Indian art and culture, the origin of meditation is difficult to pin down to a single date of the Gregorian calendar (the current map of our oh-so-busy daily routines).

But never mind that. Let’s begin with mindfulness—the very essence of the life mantra that the Buddha, arguably the greatest teacher who ever walked on Earth, chanted for himself and one that he compassionately advocated for millions of his followers.

The four establishments of mindfulness help us see the interconnected nature of everything in the universe and nudge us toward attunement of our self/non-self dualistic instruments to the rhythm divine (or Nada Brahma, as per ancient Indian spiritual sages).

If that sounds quite a mindful, here are the four establishments: in mindfulness, the adept or practitioner tries to maintain awareness of whatever is going on in their “body, feelings, mind and objects of mind”. For instance, if you are breathing, you are aware that you are breathing; if you are feeling angry, you observe this anger and contemplate on the constituents or causes of this anger, how it arises, how it affects your breathing, how it fades, etc. (you do this without reacting to the anger or without abruptly trying to stop feeling angry); and so on and so forth. (This simplified explanation is based on Satipatthana Sutta as described in the book Old Path White Clouds by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh).

The basic idea of mindfulness is to detach ourselves from the perceptions and objects imagined or visualized by the mind and watch over whatever is happening with us as if we are an outside observer to all these phenomena. Gradually and with practice, we can begin to see the cause-and-effect reality around us and the dependent co-arising of everything that exists.

And let’s also not forget about emptiness or Sunyata, another construct of the grand edifice of meditation. In Buddhist references, it is also known as voidness.

So, thus far, you have these three key terms to juggle and tease: meditation, mindfulness, sunyata.

Stay with me a little more, before you run away to the noisy craziness of your life. I know you will. Why, I will (to my own box of craziness, not yours :) But it wouldn’t hurt to let the balmy breeze of meditation caress and smoothen your hair a bit before you put on your daily hat.

Before we talk further about meditation, be aware that just as the divine river of yoga has flowed continuously since eons, so has the ocean of meditation been churned for nectar for ages. And just as yoga today has scores of tributaries, with multiple streams (and “revenue streams” in a fast-commercializing world; see my post on the origins and significance of yoga), the ripples from the ocean-font of meditation have had their far-reaching waves of influence as well. Take chakra meditation, for instance. (Google it, I’m not giving you the link this time :)

One earnest request I would like to make in the backdrop of the apparent usurping of the eternal legacies of yoga and meditation by political and commercial entities. Like the Buddha had said, if someone points a finger to the moon to show it to you in its cool majestic brilliance, then you should not “mistake the finger for the moon.”

So, if the Modis and Ramdevs of the world happen to be, at the moment, “showcasing” yoga or meditation to the world at large, why mistake their religion-loaded or money-making follies for the supreme, everlasting mind-body-soul systems we all can practice and benefit from?

Without further ado, let me put down some of my *meditations* on meditation (a few are taken from my book, Strings of the Soul). So sit back, relax, read, and breathe easy:

“Meditation takes you away from the torrent of oppressive thoughts into the inexplicable joy of stillness.”

“Make your mind not a tangled cocoon of familiarity but a wide open sea, where the waves of free thought continually sweep the beaches of your imagination. And let these waves wash away your worries and keep the delta where mind meets body fresh and fertile.”

“Meditation is the process of setting yourself free from the prison of your own thoughts.”

"Meditation is the key to transforming your monkey mind into a monk."

Don’t try too hard to meditate, nor think too much about what really is meditation. Get a handle on your body, a grip on your mind and a bridle to your breath. Devise your own mantra if you haven’t found a worthy guru who can give it to you (in all likelihood you haven’t but in all possibility you can :) Be with yourself for as long as you wish in an inner atmosphere of freedom, trust and tranquility. Explore the visions of your mind, not with craving or aggression but in a blissful balancing of mind-body-soul. Dissect, analyze as much as you want but, gradually, finally, take a few quiet steps in making everything in the universe look one, look great, look whole.

The thorns pricking in your inner consciousness will begin to feel like rose petals. The turmoil of your feelings and sensations will subside to a gentle swing. And your heart and mind will aspire for something higher, much higher than you ever thought possible.

That, my dear, is meditation.

Meditation teaches you to hold infinity in the calm of your mind.

(Image credit: