Archive for May, 2007

Innovation Tips from the Beatles


There is considerable discussion within the Indian policy establishment about the apparent poor record of Indian researchers in delivering world class research output in science, technology or business studies in spite of decades of reasonably generous funding. You will find this angst echoed in letters to the editor in journals like Current Science and in speeches made at gatherings of scientists and researchers. I have participated in a few of these and and left wondering what is it that we need to do to foster innovation other than funding. In other words, what is the key to innovation?.

Some scholars feel that we can find answers to this question in the story of the Beatles, those consummate British musicians who have held spell-bound music lovers from the 1960’s right up till today and whose recordings have sold more copies than any other music group in history.

            When the Beatles arrived in the United States in 1964 they were greeted by rapturous crowds. This left them genuinely puzzled. Why do you think we are so fantastic when we are merely singing American music, John Lennon is supposed to have asked? 

There is a profound context in Lennon’s question. The Beatles’ music has its origin in Blues, those tales of sorrow sung by African slaves on American plantations.

 Little Richard, an African American singer, first brought it to white teenage audiences with his 1955 rendition of “Tutti Frutti”. This was a mega hit with its heavily accentuated back-beat and shouted vocals, moans and screams. British sailors carried records of  songs like this  to Liverpool and played it in night clubs there. The young Beatles heard these records there and started their career singing cover versions of these songs in Liverpool and Hamburg. Slowly they adapted this music by working in lyrics of young love and loss which we have come to know as the trade mark Beatles style.

You can see why Lennon was justified in being surprised at the fantastic reception the Beatles got for bringing American music back to America. Songs like Love Me Do, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band helped create the modern music industry.

            In his book, How Breakthroughs Happen, Andrew Hargadon looks at many such examples of what he calls “recombinant innovation”, the notion that most innovations are the result of recombinations of existing concepts and materials.

            For example, email, that ubiquitous application of modern life was “invented” by Ray Tomlinson in 1972 by combining the software code of an existing intra-computer messaging application with an existing inter-computer file transfer protocol.

            The Excel spreadsheet that other staple of modern white collar work life is a combination of the best features of two earlier products, Visicalc and Lotus 123.

Innovation happened when two worlds, previously unconnected collide. And innovators are really people who see the connections between these worlds.

If Indian companies, research organizations and universities have to meet our national aspirations to be truly innovative what we probably need to do is to provide them opportunities to encounters worlds different from their own so that they can make the crucial connections that are the keys to innovation.

In business school innovation, for instance, one way may be to get business school professors onto the boards of innovative and dynamic companies. Listening in and participating at Board meetings that deal with strategic issues may allow them to see the connections that lead to breakthrough research agendas.

            But merely putting together at the same site people who are trained in problem solving skills and those who, in their normal work day, encounter problems that need solving may not be enough.

When Indian merchants needed to dramatically increase output to meet the demand for cotton cloth from European buyers in the late 17th century, they solved this problem by setting up chains of weaving villages. The merchants role was to supplying yarn to these villages, give them cash advances when needed and even running private police forces to protect movement of yarn and finished cloth as it moved around the country during the production process.

In the same period, in England, Richard Arkwright,a businessman, faced with the same problem of meeting exploding demand for cotton yarn and cloth, took another approach to solving it. He brought into play things he had learned from another world, the world of clock-making. He deployed the skill in making clocks to another domain: how to spin a strong warp thread. He looked to clock-like mechanisms and devised a machine that could automatically spin this thread.

 And that, as we know, started off the Industrial Revolution.

Not only do two worlds need to collide for innovation to happen, but the socio-economic system in which this collision happens has a role in it as well. This is why the same problem, how to meet exploding demand for cotton cloth and yarn, was solved in two different ways: in Britain by inventing the spinning machine and in India’s case by  deploying more labour.

Nonetheless, dusting out those old Beatles LPs and listening to them all over again might just be what you need to do to start off your innovation efforts.





India’s Grapes of Wrath


When I read yet another report about a farmer who commits suicide, I sit transfixed trying to imagine the depths of despair a man must sink to before he decides to kill himself and abandon his family to the mercy of a world that he himself could not face.

Was it an act of irresponsibility? Was he a wastrel? Or has the crisis in Indian agriculture become so deep that many farmers have reached a dead end? Or, as many newspaper reports seem to imply, are money lenders in rural India snaring innocent farmers to pledge their bullocks and land on such usurious terms that the farmer has no choice but to abandon these, the only assets he has, and take his own life to escape the shame?

            I have been walking around with such questions rattling in my head, till, the other day, browsing at a bookshop in Bangalore, when my eyes lit on the title, “Undeserved Death, A Study on Suicide of Farmers in Andhra Pradesh, 2000-2005”, I leapt to get it. It reports the findings of a study done during 2004 and 2005 by the Council of Social Development.

            One case in it, that of Mr Kommalu, a 48 year old farmer from Warangal district, is an illustrative one. In the 90’s, Kommalu separates himself from his already small joint family farm and sets out to make a living on his own 3 acres. He grows paddy on 2.5 acres and vegetables on the rest. In normal times, the village tank, filled by rain water, serves him well for two crops a year. In a pinch he buys water at nominal rates from his neighbor’s bore well. Kommalu could have continued leading this low risk, if subsistence level life, if he had not turned ambitious.

            Large farmers around Kommulu are raking in money growing cotton. Local dealers tempt him offering seeds, fertilizer and pesticide on easy credit to grow cotton. Kommalu decides, in 1992, to grow cotton on one acre of his three acres. The crop is good and he sells it to the same dealers.  Encouraged,  he next grows cotton on all of his three acres. In five years, he is able to buy a motor bike, a TV  and some jewelry.

Fertilizer and seed prices are steadily rising and he realizes that  he needs to grow ever more cotton to make the same amount of money. He leases a neighbor’s five acres and grows cotton on that. That year, despite pest attacks, he squeezes through, paying off half the credit from the fertilizer supplier.  When the time comes to pay the balance, he takes out a loan from a money lender, mortgaging an acre of his land.

1999,to 2001 are drought years in Warangal. Unfortunately, that is also when two of his daughters have to be married off. He is back to the money lender, mortgaging his remaining two acres. By now, he has also fallen behind on lease payments, and his neighbor takes back the leased five acres.

            Kommulu is back to growing cotton on his three acres for ever smaller returns except that these  three acres are truly not his- they are mortgaged to the money lender.

            When his daughters get pregnant he is back to the money lender. Now his two plough bullocks are mortgaged as well.

            While interest payments mount, returns from cotton farming have become  negligible. To make ends meet, he, his son and wife become agricultural labourers.

            One evening, he, walks over to the land that he once owned, stands watching the sun set, swallows pesticide and ends his life.

            In spite of the precise, scholarly tone of the report, I could feel a lump in my throat.

This is not just Kommulu’s story. It is a theme across the many  suicide cases in this study: Indian farm sizes get smaller as joint families divide; the farmer attempts to get scale by leasing out land at high rates; a steadily depleting water table, a switch to single crop cash crop from the mixed crop farming of the past; the unpredictable and ever decreasing price of cash crops, ever increasing costs of seeds and fertilizer; increasing expenditure on weddings, education and health…

            The American version of Kommulu’s story is the basis of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the story of the Joad family whose farm is foreclosed by bankers in drought ridden Oklahoma. We follow them as they struggle their way in their jalopy piled high with mattresses and pots and pans ,through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and cross the Mojave Desert to get to the land of their dreams, California. They work as fruit pickers ( or landless labourers, as we call them here in India.)

Steinbeck’s villains too are the financiers, the “Bank of the West” (a thinly veiled reference to Bank of America) who helps  land barons gobble up small farms to concentrate them into a few large holdings. Just as we blame the banks  “the village moneylender” for not lending enough to the farmer in trouble. An unpaid loan is often a sign that the borrower’s business just isn’t making enough money. Making more credit available, while a kind hearted gesture, to do, does not solve that problem.

When the large retail chains get going, it’s going to be a boon for farmers, but probably only farmers with hundreds of acres may be able to match the prices, quality and consistency needed.

The Joad family odyssey ends in California in the Santa Clara valley, which in the 1930’s was full of fruit farms. Today it is the home of Intel, Apple, Yahoo Google…

Is the  moral of the Kommalu and the Joads stories  this: the faster we make the transition from farm to industry the shorter the pain?

( first published in the Business Standard, May 11th 2007)


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