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December 6, 2010 / pkdhodapkar

Repositioning old technologies

What happens to obsolete technologies? Do they simply fade away?

Not necessarily!! Obsolete technologies can be reinvented or presented in a new way to enhance their effectiveness or capture a niche market. 

As an example, we know that the ‘radio’ almost faded away due to the emergence of a richer media, the TV. However, the radio made a comeback in a new form, the satellite radio. The underlying technology has changed in several ways: (1) digital encryption is used to control access (2) the quality of received sound is much better (3) The new format provides mobility to cater to the “anywhere, anytime” attitude of the modern generation.

 The new technology possesses some characteristics that can be termed as the critical success factors: (1) Quality of sound- master copies must be available and good quality sound must be produced from existing recordings. (2) The new format has diversified offerings of news, eastern and western music; as well as channels that offer spiritual discourses and music. All this requires investment in the form of new hardware and software. Other expenses may be incurred in the form of operator license fees to be paid to the government. Private operators are predominantly the service providers of satellite radio. In contrast, the legacy radio service was government operated and an annual fee was charged to consumers (later discontinued).   

 In contrast to the value added and technology intensive service offered in the case of satellite radio, sometimes a service may be continued to be offered to clients, without appreciable technological input, simply for its ‘nostalgia’ value. The Darjeeling Railway is one such example that comes to mind.  

 (Note: “Worldspace”, the world leader in providing satellite radio services, recently filed for bankruptcy in respect of its India operations).

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November 19, 2010 / pkdhodapkar

Technology and social change

Technology is known to be the enabler of organizational growth and economic growth in general.  It can also be argued that technological change brings about social change. One of the best examples of this can be given in the context of Indian society. Manual scavenging was known to the worst curse on human society, and was eliminated with the widespread use of modern toilets. Other social agenda such as gender equality and literacy and public health can be achieved through introduction of suitable technologies. The reverse is also true. That is, the diffusion of technology is best facilitated by social acceptance. Many technologies are often opposed even if the benefits of implementation are known. The opposition to the computerization of banks in India and the worldwide opposition to the GM foods are well known examples. The discipline of S&T communication is aimed at engaging the society in a meaningful and continuous dialogue in order to minimize the friction between scientists, policy and rule makers, social activists and people at large.

November 12, 2010 / pkdhodapkar

Re-inventing the wheel

“Let us not re-invent the wheel” is a common refrain when people do not want to deliberate on something which is supposed to be known by all. However, I find it interesting to delve into the origin of technologies that have transformed our lives- and the wheel is one such marvel of human ingenuity.

Innovations do not occur suddenly (the eureka moment), but build up upon the work of others or on the existing arrangements. Human beings, being keen observers, must have noticed that round pebbles (the ones that were eroded uniformly by the river currents) roll nicely and travel some distance. The flat ones resist movement, but the combination of flat shape with round edge is an ideal arrangement and evolved into the wheel as we know. It must have taken years (may be several hundreds of years) to exploit this discovery and innovating mobility, because fewer resources were available. 

What must have sustained the interest of the earlier human beings to pursue the discovery of wheel? Keen observation, an element of fun and adventure, experimentation and persistent efforts, necessity of reducing human labor….. all of these must have gone into making of the wheel. As it happens with almost all the innovations, the efforts to make the wheel must have been ridiculed in the initial stages, because the dominant use of tools was in hunting, and the wheel must have appeared a very useless thing for most of the hunters.

 Things have changed dramatically, and today the wheel is a ubiquitous, whether we want to travel on roads, by airplanes or railways.

October 31, 2010 / pkdhodapkar

Is overexploitation attaining dangerous proportions?

Apart from the shopping and the excitement surrounding the festival time, a very different kind of activity is gaining momentum. The law is trying to unearth cases of food adulteration. Already, several cases of adulterated ‘mawa’ have been detected in the country. It is not that adulteration or cheating happens only during the periods of peak demand such as festivals. Fruits such as mangoes, pears or apples are harvested and marketed prematurely. 

The trend can be generalized to say that the goodwill enjoyed by certain goods has been overexploited. The nature has a limited capacity to supply food for the mankind. When certain goods such as apples from Kashmir, hilsa fish from West Bengal, Beganpalli mangoes of Andhra Pradesh become highly sought after, a tendency to supply the unripe or non-mature goods sets in. Strictly speaking, unlike adulteration, this is not a criminal act. But this should be condemned and discouraged since it destroys the long-standing goodwill enjoyed by the goods.

Even a ‘commodity’ like higher education is susceptible to overexploitation. This is evident from the mushrooming of coaching institutions that promise to help the several hundred thousands of aspirants for the IITs and NITs in India. Needless to say, majority of the aspirants are disappointed in their quest. But this does not affect the coaching institutions or publishers of ‘guides’. In a way, coaching has become an industry. It is high time that the students and parents reassess their aspirations.

October 31, 2010 / pkdhodapkar

Celebrating festivals in a ‘green’ manner

Its festival time, and there are a large number of activists who advocate celebrations in an environmentally friendly manner. However, one of my earliest lessons in green celebrations was learnt way back in the mid seventies, a time when global warming or GHG were yet to catch up as buzzwords. During the Dusshera festival, when we were customarily exchanging shami leaves with fellow students and teachers, our biology teacher reprimanded us in a gentle yet firm manner. As per him, we were interfering with the nature. He reminded us that leaves performed the important task of carbon dioxide uptake from the atmosphere for photosynthesis, and warned us against such indiscriminate use of leaves in the name of festivals. He urged us to find alternate ways of celebrating festivals such as planting of trees. 

Today, green activism has caught up and we are aware of the consequences of use of colors in Holi, toxic materials in the making of Ganesh idols, noise and air pollution during the Deepawali, etc. Yet, the first lesson has been the most unforgettable for me. Yet, a lot of work remains to be done to achieve the desired change.

September 30, 2010 / pkdhodapkar

Nature’s ways of doing things

Everything in the nature appears to be very static. Nothing can be farther from the truth.Standing in front of the window overlooking the garden, I often wonder how dynamic and well coordinated the natural changes are. New leaves and flowers appear on the trees at just the correct time. Almost instanteneously, all the natural agents swing into action. Light, wind, rains, bees and insects, .. all play their designated roles in bringing about the change. Even the waste is taken care of very well in the nature’s scheme of things. All the fallen leaves or twigs or logs become either ‘useful’ material (for building nests) or become food for the nature’s scavengers like fungi. Thus at every stage of  seasonal changes and life, the trees have a synergistic relationship with the different organisms. Well, almost… Human beings are different. The pace at which human beings alter the nature’s scheme of things speaks of one thing- greed. Nature has its own ways of getting even. If the effect of the tsunammis, earthquakes, floods, landslides is any indication, the chance of humans controlling everything around them is very remote.

September 21, 2010 / pkdhodapkar

To change or not to change

While trying to achieve business or social change, it is interesting to study what has been successfully done by others, elsewhere. Hence one should look for case studies from all possible sources, including popular media. After a few hours of watching TV, I could gather quite a few for my case folio!   

In an episode of ‘Man vs. Food’ in TLC channel, the successes of standardized foods like beans (Barney’s Beanery, LA), chicken wings with sauce (‘Buffalo wings’ from Buffalo, NY), hot dogs (Lafayette Coney Island hot dogs) were highlighted. The core recipes have not changed for several decades. Why would someone change something which is liked by so many customers all over the country and even abroad? However, this is a dysfunctional way of looking at strategy. We need to take a closer look at the reasons for these successes.

 Take the case of Buffalo wings. What started as an impromptu dish for the guests who had dropped in late, the recipe (with the proprietary sauce at the heart of its success) grew into an international hit. The only variation that has been introduced over the years – the sauces come in different grades: mild, medium, hot and suicidal (yes, that’s the term they use). There are food fests organized around this ‘product’, with several events thrown in for ensuring fun and participation. Is there something else to this success, apart from the customers’ liking for the product? Sure. Firstly, the success of Buffalo wings clearly shows the importance tradesecrets. Secondly, without meticulous supply chain management, and event management capability (possibly outsourced) the product cannot be provided at the scale that is being done presently. 

The movie ‘Kinky boots’ provides another perspective on business strategy. In the plot, the hero inherits a shoe factory from his father. He soon discovers that the business is in trouble as the key customer is shifting to a cheaper, lower quality brand. In a struggle to keep the factory going, he has to take many unpleasant decisions-laying off many workers, mortgaging his house, etc. In spite of all his sincerity, he ends up damaging relationships with fiancé and subordinates. A chance encounter with a drag queen and a suggestion by a female colleague makes him hit upon a diversification strategy – a niche market consisting of sturdy and queer shoes for the drag queen and many others like ‘him’. After a lot of struggle, he ends up being successful with the help of his stakeholders. 

The above story (a touching one, no doubt, with lot of elements in it) is another dysfunctional way of looking at strategy. Change is portrayed as something thrust upon, a struggle to be overcome with no possibility of systematic planning.