Archive for March, 2006

Where Search is Going Next

Esther Dyson invited me on the panel opening PC Forum 06 at San Diego, March 12th but more than anything I contributed, the amount I learnt was staggering. I have a notebook full and  this is the first of hopefully several  posts on this event

From comments made at the Search panel (Jeff Weiner of Yahoo, Kordestani of Google, Ellen Siminoff and Rich Burton of Zillow).

In the very early days of the web, consumers discovered websites by checking around in newsgroups. Then came along Yahoo with their collection of useful sites classified in a directory. Altavista contrinuted the next step by introducing a search box into which you were encouraged to put in keywords that found you sites that matched what you were looking for.

From then on Search has been a game of guessing at the searchers intentions as declared in the few ( usually one to 3 ) keywords that users put in at a time.

Google found a way to mine webmasters’ knowledge by their checking inward links and ranking sites based on the frequency of such links (the famous Page Rank method).

Many believe that this path of development may already be at a point of diminishing returns and are next looking to guess at the searchers intentions by presenting a list of categories for him to investigate . For example, a search for the words ‘credit card’ could first list all the credit card issuers’ sites ( Visa, Mastercard, Citibank, etc) and also present a list of categories such as Credit Repair Offers, Cards for Students, Free Card Offers and so on which help the searcher get to his desired site faster. An other way of doing this is asking him to choose among alternative tags.

In other words personalization is the next frontier.

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Al Gore Comes By

Former Vice President of the US, Al Gore came by ( on Feb 11th) to Bombay for breakfast with a few of us and had some interesting comments.

The world used to be inspired when the US spoke of values but is surprised, he said, when the US acts in its self interest.

Many Americans feel, he says,that they have wandered into an alternative universe where there is little intelligent political discussion in the media. This change in America, he believes happened when political dialogue in media moved from the printed word to 30 second TV. People, through out the world do not have access to reason-based dialogue; TV is too image based.

I asked him at this point whether this could be due to any reason other than the deliberate cussedness  of US media owners and executives. For example the way the business models of media companies are organized they are dependant on competing for mass viewership with the winner of this competition getting most of the advertising revenue and such mass audiences in TV are not particularly enthralled by deep debate at the end of a hrad working day- all eloquently  described by Naom Chomsky in his book  The Manufacturing of Consent.  He agreed with me that this could be a strong possible reason and added quickly that other than this he is not a great fan of Chomsky. Unfortunately there was not enough time to pursue this comment. 

Nowadays he travels the world, he says, evangelizing the enivoronmental cause: 50% of the world population is dependant on the Himalyas- the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Iravati are all dependant on the Himalayas and global warming threatens this.
Nuclear energy will only be a niche source of electric power: nuclear plants take very long to build, civilian programs can easily shift to military ones and anyway there is as a shortage of uranium which makes nuclear programs dependant on breeder programs and this makes weapon production much easier. The solution to electric power needs , he believes, lies in small de-centralized power sources.

I  came away feeling that I had met a true idealist



I pushed myself awake. It was still dark outside. I could feel the chill of a December Calcutta morning. I glanced at my room-mate huddled on his bed with his blanket wrapped tightly over his head. I stumbled over my mud-caked football boots in the dark and I hoped the clattering sound would not disturb my room mate. I switched on my desk lamp and settled down to read the MIT economist Paul Samuelson’s chapter on price elasticity of demand, when the shot rang out.

The sound was so loud that my room-mate jumped out from under blanket.

“That’s gunfire”, he said.

We ran out to investigate. In the middle of the football field was a body and at its edge we could see a group of young men running away.

“Let’s go see what’s happening”, I said

When we got to the body, there was an absolute stillness to it. We were management student’s not medical students. We had no idea whether the body had life in it or what we ought to do to save it. We didn’t have long to worry; a police jeep came screaming to the middle of the football field.

“Go back to your hostel rooms,” said the policeman. “Don’t get involved in these Naxalite incidents. You will have to come to court as witnesses many times a month. It will be a waste of your time.”

I trudged back to my IIM room and Samuelson’s Economics.

It was 1971, Calcutta was burning and there was revolution in the air. Talented young men and women were abandoning their education at Calcutta University fired by Charu Majumdar’s exhortation to bring social justice. The Indian economy had collapsed in the wake of the first oil price hike. Nehru’s and India’s independence era hopes had evaporated with the failure of the 2nd Five Year Plan and the border wars with China and Pakistan.

Soon afterward, the Indian Army moved into Bengal, mowed down the young idealists and locked up in jail whoever survived that brutal onslaught. The country collectively heaved a sigh of relief- social justice could wait for the future, what was important right then was preservation of social order. I left all such issues behind, graduating from IIM Calcutta, taking a flight to Bombay, setting out on a course that would lead to my joining two other young men in founding Rediffusion. Bringing a revolution to Indian industry seemed a more practical bet.

IIM Calcutta too, like other management institutions, has left such troubling concerns far behind. Social revolutions are decidedly unfashionable in this era of globalization. And what better proof do we need that the choices we made are right and that the system works than the astounding starting salaries of IIM graduates? If the likes of Goldman Sachs , who surely know what they are doing, are prepared to pay Rupees twenty lacs a year or more for a freshly minted IIM graduate, surely we must be doing a great job running these institutions.

However, management institutes, unlike medical and engineering ones, have the suffer the annual embarrassing reality check of rankings issued by business newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. In this era where all our eyes are turned towards international success, the methodology used for ranking by the Financial Times London is instructive. While it does assign the single highest weight age (40%) to the starting salaries commanded by the MBA’s a school produces, substantial weight age (20% each) is placed on factors such as quality of thought leadership by the faculty and diversity – the number of women and international presence at the faculty, student and board levels. And in the Financial Times list last year, no Indian management institute figured.

The success of the IIMs (for that matter higher education institutions in medicine, engineering and the social sciences in India) is predicated as much on the highly selective entrance process- less than 1% of applicants make it into these institutions- as on the value that is added during the students’ tenure at these institutions.

The true driver of the value added by educational institutions like the IIMs is the thought leadership they provide.The objective measure of thought leadership is the number of research articles published in high quality international management journals. Such high quality research is normally the outcome of consulting assignments with real life businesses. And both such linkages with industry and research output are woefully inadequate at present at present.

Management science works off the theoretical foundations laid by its more mature cousins: economics, psychology, sociology, mathematics. Where it adds value is by creating ‘theories’ – schema that operating managers can use in their daily work; instead of looking at each problem as a new one and using trial and error, such theories save time and effort. And since such theories often tend to be specific to economic and social situations it’s not as easy as prescribing Harvard Business School cases to Indian management students.

Today, ensconced in their secure world, do IIMs hear the distant but troubling social and economic gunfire of battles Indian companies fight? WTO intellectual property battles, the fight to build a world scale services industry, the battle to make Indian manufacturing competitive…

Do they have the luxury of merely observing these battles from the safe confines of academia?

( This was published in India Today some time ago)

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A Minute that has lasted 168 years

Thomas Babington Macaulay, just 34 when he arrived in India, threw himself immediately into a debate that was going on in the Governor General’s Committee of Public Instruction; five members ( the ‘Anglicists’) supported making English the language of higher education in India and another five ( the ‘Orientalists’) were for using Arabic and Sanskrit. Macaulay was the President of the committee and after a brief period studying the issue cast his tie-breaking vote for English.

The lengthy justification that he wrote, his “Minute”, included England’s own historical example:

“ …at the beginning of the sixteenth century… almost every thing that was worth reading was contained in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto acted; had they neglected the language of Cicero and Tacitus; had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island; had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but Chronicles in Anglo-Saxon, and Romances in Norman-French, would England have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India.”

Lord Bentinck, the Governor General, accepted Macaulay’s Minute and thus, in 1835, English became the medium of instruction for higher education in India.

Universities were founded, civil servants were trained, the Empire waxed to its glory days and then waned; Indian nationalists secured independence, statues of Governors General and Viceroys were pulled down (much like Sadam’s recently in Iraq), streets that were once called Hornby Wellard now became Bhulabhai Desai Road, Victoria Terminus became Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus…

But English remains the medium of higher education in India and the High Courts and the Supreme Court conduct their proceedings in English.

Why then is so much Indian entertainment in the “vernacular”? Why do Hindi and Malayalam and English newspapers outsell English newspapers? Why do Hindi and Tamil and other Indian language news and entertainment television channels earn so much more revenue than English ones? Does this imply that English is still in a transient state and will one day disappear?

R.S. Gupta of the Jawaharlal Nehru University has an explanation for this paradox and he calls it ‘code mixing’.

When an Indian says “Judges kaa decision final hooga”, or ,“Fixed deposits me bahut high interest milta hai”, he is ‘code mixing’.
He says a whole new world of compound and conjunct verbs, nominal compounds and verbal phrases have sprung up in day to day usage:
The Hindi operator karna gets conjoined with English nouns, verbs and adjectives to create open-ended phrases: “improvement karna”, “slow karna”, “invite karna”.

Or nominal compounds: “Parliament bhavan”, “mahila block”, “kabaddi team”. Or when mixing is done to add tone and colour to speech:
“Vice Chancellor nee kahaa hai ‘the university is willing to pay its share.’

“This kind of mixing,” he says is not “the result of ignorance or imperfect learning as some language pedagogues …would have us believe. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the long contact between English and Indian languages…”

He says that Indians frequently use mixed code in peer group interactions, transactional situations like commerce , but only occasionally in mass media or family situations and very rarely in formal situations like literature or religion.

In dyadic pairs like friend-friend or brother-sister there is frequent use of mixed code, only occasionally in dyadic pairs like boss-subordinate, teacher-student, father-son and rarely in hawker-customer, grandparent-grandchild and master –domestic servant.

Why then does an Indian family today with any financial wherewithal sends its child to an English medium school while all those who cannot afford it have to make do with government-run free ‘vernacular’ medium schools?

Macaulay observed this phenomena 168 years ago in his Minute:

“…we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanscrit students, while those who earn English are willing to pay us. All the declamations in the world about the love and reverence of the natives for their sacred dialects will never, in the mind of any impartial person, outweigh the undisputed fact, that we cannot find, in all our vast empire, a single student who will let us teach him those dialects unless we will pay him.”

“I have now before me,” wrote Macaulay, “the accounts of the Madrassa for one month, — the month of December 1833. The Arabic students appear to have been seventy-seven in number. All receive stipends from the public. The whole amount paid to them is about 500 rupees a month. On the other side of the account stands the following item: Deduct amount realized from the out-students of English for the months of May, June and July last, 103 rupees…

“The people of India do not require to be paid for eating rice when they are hungry, or for wearing woolen cloth in the cold season…why then is it necessary to pay people to learn Sanscrit and Arabic? Evidently because it is universally felt that the Sanscrit and Arabic are languages, the knowledge of which does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them. On all such subjects the state of the market is the decisive test.”

The IT export revolution, that great showpiece of Indian success is based at least as much on the English-speaking skills as it is on the computer science knowledge of Indian programmers. The relative ease with which graduates of India’s Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management have risen to the top levels of giant US corporations is based substantially on their ease with the English language. The much anticipated BPO revolution that is expected to create 20 million jobs by the year 2020 (nearly 80% of all new jobs expected to be created by then) is predicated on the English language skills of our graduates.

Macaulay’s Minute comes echoing down the 168 years since it was first written.

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