Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Comprehending China's rise

China ~ myth of immensity?

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Is China like the Greek mythological figure Icarus flying too close to the sun on wings of feathers and wax? From Long March to Mao’s Thoughts to Cultural Revolution to no-holds-barred mercantile capitalism is quite a flight. China is a nation intoxicated with its future: “Rise up, people who do not want to be slaves.” “Motherland, 10, 000 years.”

Cleverly staged mass media propaganda and lobbying by people in high places including some of the top CEOs of major US corporations has helped the Chinese authorities in blurring facts with fiction, creating the perception of China’s relentless and inevitable rise to a global superpower. “You cannot afford not to be in China,” runs the refrain in many corporate boardrooms in the USA.

China fascinates corporate America with its myth of immensity but more so with its ruling party’s collective mind that controls the obedient masses: 1.3 billion worker-consumers who would one day buy every branded product made in the USA. You have heard the drumbeat, repeated ad nauseam. And China has come to believe that since Americans cannot do without its cheap goods, why worry about intellectual property thefts, currency manipulation to fuel exports, humongous trade surplus, or even the problem of nuclear proliferation created by North Korea and Iran?

Consider, for example, the 2008 Games. In 2001, the International Olympics Committee too took the bait, as The Wall Street Journal had naively put it, “to refashion the Olympics from a sports and merchandising extravaganza to an engine of political and social change.” That’s expecting too much from an organisation like IOC that has been paying little attention to its own widespread problems, bribery scandals and drugs, for example. If human rights were the deciding factor in determining the choice of the host city for the Games, Moscow under the Soviet Union and Berlin under the Nazis would not have been selected to host the Olympics. China won the right to stage the Games in spite of its abominable record of the suppression of human rights of the people of Tibet, the followers of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, political dissidents and scholars rotting in its jails without recourse to a fair trial.

Doing business with China is more important than human rights, though Americans along with rest of the world go on paying lip service to the problem. But Falun Gong is still alive and kicking, as a protestor demonstrated loudly on the south lawn of the White House, a most restricted area, during President Hu’s meeting with President Bush last week (“President Bush, stop the persecution of Falun Gong, stop the killing,” shouted the protestor).

Trade and the Olympics had no civilising effect upon Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union; therefore, to expect a miracle to happen in China because of the Olympics in 2008 or increasing international trade is puerile and silly. Rising prosperity would not force China’s Communist Party to give up its monopoly over power and become democratic. Since Deng Xiaoping took the road to capitalism about three decades ago, China’s economy has been opening up and growing rapidly with its gross national product rising to more than two trillion dollars. The rate of annual economic growth has remained above nine per cent. Made-in-China goods ~ toys, shoes, electronics, and even golf clubs and handguns ~ are found in every shopping mall of the world. Much economic benefits are expected from the 2008 Games because it has necessitated an investment of billions in infrastructure and information technology to modernise and showcase Beijing for the events. Millions of tourists would pour into China. But would they remain silent observers?

The Deng Xiaoping market economy revolution unleashed China’s entrepreneurial and organisational energies, but not without the help from the outside world, especially the USA, which magnanimously opened its markets to China. Today China is a healthier, better-fed and better-educated nation than most other developing countries but it remains a closed society. China feels that it can compete with the best, but can it tolerate the noise and chaos of an open society like the multicultural and multiracial USA, where the people demand accountability from their political leaders?

Beijing with the help of Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Cisco has been trying to expand its control into the digital domain, but I wonder if it ever would have the same control over cyberspace as it has over Tiananmen Square. The Internet might bring about tremendous political upheavals in China.

Large centralised political systems break down due to internal pressures triggered by communications technology, unless they have built-in capabilities for adjustment, which China does not have at present. And so it is difficult to say what might happen in China in the age of the Internet, satellites, cell phones and hosts of other wireless, digital, and interconnected sensing devices that are becoming available. Can China control the uncontrollable, the digital generation swapping billions of text messages on cell phones, the generation that could organise itself into an upsurge? Look at the wonderful people of Nepal!

The authoritarian Communist regime may have no choice but to open its doors, skies and cyberspaces to a worldwide audience. China does not live on the Communist time but the Internet time, where changes occur fast; and events occur on a different time scale and generate different values.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Oprah The Shopping Mall Creditcards With Eyeballs


Women in cyberspace ~ so desirable, so vulnerable

From The Statesman

The dotcom world is rising again. Companies that survived the last crisis have revamped their business models by turning cyberspace into an extended turf of their existing businesses.
Cyberspace has become a goldmine of valuable information left by surfers, which could be turned into databases for target marketing. Cyber profiling is emerging as an important business tool for reaching the right woman through narrowly focused and targeted popup and banner advertising and e-mail marketing.

Since most of the domestic buying in the USA, more than 80 per cent according to some estimates, is done by women, data miners and cyber profilers are concentrating on websites aimed at women, which is raising serious concern about information privacy.

It is no great surprise that advertisers and marketers have begun to use the Internet in befriending women because they control effective spending. Only in the matter of high expenditure items like buying a new house, car or going on a vacation, men do butt in with their wisdom, though even in these domains, the woman's voice is decisive.

Advertisers have known the truth all along. In the 1920s, radio began to develop as a mass medium with a potential to reach millions of women, most of who did not have jobs and stayed at home with children and extended families. Domestic product companies like Proctor & Gamble developed daytime serial dramas to entertain and hook women so that they could listen to soap commercials.

That's how daytime radio dramas came to be called soap operas. In the 1950s, when television started to dominate American homes, soap operas migrated to the new medium and they have continued to retain their popularity, in spite of the fact that most women work today.

Soap operas dramatise women's problems ranging from date rapes and workplace harassment to raising children and keeping up with husbands in a culture where matrimony is one block away from the divorce court.

Those who do not succumb to the charm of slow moving daytime dramas cannot resist the temptations of Oprah Winfrey, her talk show, her "O" magazine, and her Oxygen Media, where TV and the Web converge. She is probably the biggest electronic shopping mall where women come and go talking of George Clooney and Tom Cruise, but leave with bags full of goodies. Women are "inherently desirable" not only in cyberspace but also in the traditional media because they virtually control the purse. Why? Because women love to shop.

Men do not know even the size of their own shirt collar. Ask a man to buy an apple and he would bring an orange! Men can't buy their pajamas or decide on what colour their boxers should be. Home Shopping Network and other interactive television shopping malls run on the patronage of women. Men in the mall might push the cart, but women fill it up.

There lies the future of cyberspace as a medium of e-commerce, but that would require the building of high quality websites where women feel comfortable and do not mind shedding valuable data that can be aggregated and collated into reliable individual profiles. Imagine every woman having her own personal shopping corner in cyberspace where everyone knows her tastes and preferences and where all her problems can be solved.

So when a woman enters iVillage.com or Oxygen Media portal, she could join a women's chat group and make new virtual friends; explore fitness and beauty issues and food recipes, while working from home and parenting; find advice about her job and tips about marriage, dating and love; and publish her personal story on the Web.

There is a price to pay for in cyberspace free lunch is a thing of the past. As women become comfortable in their own cyber quarters, they will be scanned of all their personal data, including intimate details, but unlike at the airport, where touching and probing and electronic scanning can be so humiliating, in cyberspace it will be painless because they won't even know it.

Once cyberspace held so much promise for women, wrote Professor Ann Bartowin in the University of San Francisco Law Review, that it was the closest women could come to being "brains in boxes". "In cyberspace, we would not be judged by our bodies. No one would know when we have bad hair days. We would not have to wear make-up and high heels. We could be even 'men' without the hormones or expensive surgery. Then we began shopping and chatting over the Internet. Shortly thereafter, we learned that anyone in cyberspace could ascertain our gender, ages, incomes, education levels, marital status, sizes, consumer purchase proclivities, aspects of our health, and employment histories, and the number, ages, and genders of our children, and that this information could be used to sell us goods and services. Now, instead of 'brains in boxes', we are eyeballs with credit cards."

That's a terrible disappointment for women who thought that the anonymity of cyberspace would enlarge their freedom and empower them vis-à-vis men. But instead of reaching new thresholds of freedom and equality, women are being robbed of their privacy through surreptitious profiling. Welcome to cyber age.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Pit Bull Corporate Diplomacy


Handling corporate crises


Wal-Mart, according to a New York Times report, has been looking for a couple of wise guys who could help the global retailer to brighten its public image and to also fight its dirty battles the way politicians do during election times, for example, by doing opposition research on those who attack the company.

Wal-Mart should not forget that those who live in a glass house must not throw stones at others. There are better and more constructive ways for a corporation to build public goodwill than to have an overly aggressive attitude toward its critics. Every corporation gets into trouble but not all troubles turn into a crisis. Some crises are man-made due to criminal intent, negligence or poor product design.

A crisis by its very nature takes everyone by surprise and makes an excellent story for the media, which thrives on scoops and bad news. Companies like Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble, and Coca Cola, for example, are not darlings of the news media and a whiff of suspicion is enough for the media to spin yarns on criminal neglect and blame. Crisis management requires some of the best communications and diplomatic abilities on the part of top leadership. Pit bull dogs won’t do.

Although disasters that strike a company such as hurricanes, earthquakes or riots cannot be avoided, enough advanced planning can be done to mitigate the ensuing disastrous effects. Sincere efforts help the company to rehabilitate itself in the public eye and recover its reputation as a reliable company.

Manmade crises due to negligence such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, Perrier natural mineral water contamination in 1990, or Union Carbide (Bhopal, 1984); or crises due to evil intentions as in Tylenol (cyanide lacing in 1980s) or Pepsi (the syringe hoax case, 1993) could be worse than natural disasters. Manmade crises occur mostly due to poverty of imagination.

But once shock and awe sets in, the crisis develops quickly and draws intense scrutiny by the public and the media. No one can come up with quick answers to myriad questions. This worsens the situation.

In spite of the best intentions and creative exercise of anticipatory imagination and scenario building, any corporation could be hit by a crisis. Smart ones, nonetheless, not only manage a crisis successfully but also turn it to their advantage and renew themselves and come out even stronger, as Johnson and Johnson did after the Tylenol crisis.

Response to any crisis will most likely be based on insufficient information but if a company has a crisis management plan and has built up a sufficient reserve of public and media goodwill, it can overcome the crisis successfully. Building social capital is important. Chemical, pharmaceutical, food, energy and building industries are most likely to be hit by a crisis. Add to it the possibility of terrorist attacks and you would feel that you have no choice but to prepare for crises and calamities. September 11, 2001 will forever remain a benchmark for unprepared-ness, and what the 9/11 Commission called “as a failure of imagination.” Varanasi shows that India is no better in this respect.

Strategic communication experts recommend some important steps for crisis management. For example, establish an early awareness system. Build worst-case scenarios in brainstorming sessions inviting not only senior leaders from different divisions of the company but also outside experts trained in crisis forecasting and management.
Dramatise each crisis to see its maximum impact upon various stakeholders and constituencies. Assess the probability of the occurrence of each crisis.
Prioritise stakeholders since the impact of a crisis will be different on different constituencies. For example, saving the lives of employees is more important in a terrorist attack than thinking about shareholders’ value or the company’s reputation.

Make crisis management an integral part of the company’s business case. Provide workshops and training in crisis management in a virtual environment and through simulation.
Create a crisis task force with command and control and clearly assigned budget responsibilities and accountabilities. Establish communications technology backup systems for data security. Develop a strong and trusting relationship with the media and with civic society activist groups. Do not forget to plan for legal liabilities.

Communication in crisis would depend upon what is at stake. In the case of a catastrophe, of course, human life takes precedent and communication strategy has to be different from the one when there is a product liability or sexual assault. The message and the medium of communication including face to face meetings, town hall gatherings, satellite conferencing, television appearances, newspaper interviews, company’s websites and blogs are equally important. In a crisis, the public hungers for every bit of information.

In a foreign country where the crisis has occurred, communications must be done through a local spokesperson, someone who knows the culture and has credibility. Although it is important that the company should speak with one voice, top managers should be familiar with the crisis plan and its proposed execution if the situation arises.

Defining the problem, getting and synthesising information from various sources to find the cause of the crisis, communicating with affected parties directly, and communicating with the media with as much openness as is necessary and as often as it is absolutely essential during the crisis are important steps that require the expertise of a seasoned corporate diplomat rather than a hired gun with the attitude of “Let’s nail them.”

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Coping with info deluge

The always on info world

The always on info world

ND Batra
Fron The Statesman

There was a time when production, distribution and processing of information, news and entertainment, existed in a state of balance. We consumed and assimilated what was produced. And then there was time for silence, for gossip, and for imagination. But that was before computers, microwave and satellite transmission created a deluge that seems to sweep away everything else from our lives. Some of us, especially of the older generation, raised on the logic of linear thinking and writing, can’t handle what we see as an information flood.

Others, especially of the digital generation, raised on computer games, cell phones, instant messaging, kids born to multitasking, revel on this new culture of incessant message swapping. I have not heard net-generation kids complaining that there is too much information swirling around them.

David Schenk bemoans in his book Data Smog that – thanks to a ceaseless development of computer technology – information and data production has become so abundant that it clutters our minds as “a pollutant.” We produce too much information for our own good, and so fast that our minds can’t assimilate it, he said. Of course, what is a pollutant could become raw material for something new in the future, only if know what to do with it. In other words, we don’t have enough information on how to turn pollutants into useful products. Perhaps we need even better technology to manage information.

Making a sweeping statement, Schenk says that the phenomenon of accelerated information production and data collection is of recent origin, only half a century old. “For nearly 1,00,000 years leading up to this century, information technology has been an unambiguous virtue as a means of sustaining and developing culture… Then, around the time of the first atom bomb, something strange happened. We began to produce information much faster than we could process it.”

He does not mean that the atom bomb triggered an unstoppable information avalanche, though there’s no gainsaying the fact that the dropping of such bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a kind of information explosion that could not have been handled by traditional means of information processing, especially in a manner that would have created knowledge and understanding of what man had done to man.

Like Luddites of the 19th century, who out of fear of loss of jobs and their traditional lifestyles, destroyed machinery rather than adopting and accepting it, Schenk too seems to be giving up instead of trusting that human mind has not come to the end of its development and evolution. “We have quite suddenly mutated into a radical different culture, a civilisation that trades in and survives on stylised communication… The blank spaces and silent moments in life are fast disappearing. Mostly because we have asked for it, media are everywhere. Television, telephones, radios, message beepers and an assortment of other modern communication and navigational aids are now as ubiquitous as roads and tennis shoes – anywhere humans can go, all forms of media now follow: onto trains, planes, automobiles, into hotel bathrooms, along jogging paths and mountain trails, on bikes and boats...”

True, we are living in a world of multimedia ecology, and for some of us information generated by ubiquitous computing and the Internet is too much. Sometime ago, the television sitcom Hope and Faith introduced a double episode about wife swapping, which in spite of its suggestive open marriage indecency wasn’t as naughty as it might sound. In fact “Wife Swap” was a separate reality show, where two housewives in culturally different states (red and blue, for example) exchange households along with children, but without sharing beds.

In a parody of the reality show, in the Hope and Faith episode of wife swap, Hope leaves her home in Columbus, Ohio, and moves to live with a family in Manhattan, New York, where she finds that the high-tech New York family members have all the cyber-age gadgets but they seldom talk with each other as a family. The worst culprit is the work-alcoholic father, Aaron, who in a delightful mockery of “always on, always available,” is always talking to someone on his hand-free cell phone. When he looks at his “swapped wife” Hope at the dining table, she thinks he is talking with her, but of course, no, he is talking past her, with someone else on the other side, a client. The Manhattan man symbolised the multitasking man of today, always in communication, always networking, always connected, except when it comes to touching someone emotionally and keeping relations on a steady keel.

The Manhattan wife-swapping episode ended with the cell-phone addicted Aaron deciding to give up his always-on wireless communication gear, sell his multimillion-dollar apartment and return to his family’s bosom and turn to simpler things of yesteryears. But running away from information age is no solution. We have to consider the evolutionary possibility that confronted with an ever increasing deluge of information, the human mind might evolve and adapt and learn to improve the signal-to-noise ratio; new technology might help us to see patterns in what is called noise and clutter.

History of human evolution has been a struggle to transform nothingness to information, from empty cave walls to primitive carvings and murals, from rags and papyrus to manuscript writing, from zero-and-one sheep counting to decimal system to binary bits and bytes. Tools that help us to create information would also help us to find patterns of meanings in the flood of information that we generate.