Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pursuing the American dream

Pursuing the American dream without racial preferences

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Senator Barack Obama’s rise in the US political firmament has been captivating global audiences, though it is too early to say that he will enter the White House. Many commentators see him metamorphosing American society in the manner of John F Kennedy.

His soaring eloquence sometime echoes Martin Luther King Jr, who audaciously hoped that one day the US would become a just society. But apart from idealism, there are other forces at work. An open democratic society like the US, which thrives on innovation and marketplace competitiveness, needs the best to rise to the top to manage its affairs.

Discrimination on the basis of race and gender are handicaps to a merit-based society and they are becoming less important. No wonder the US is the place to dream impossible dreams and make them real.Everyone talks about the American dream, but what is it? The American dream is a heightened state of aspiration that drives a person to break barriers and achieve his or her goals, regardless of the background the person comes from. The emphasis is upon hard work, ingenuity and education. It is a challenge of the marketplace: to compete and create space for oneself as perhaps it has begun to happen in India to some extent.

You can see it in the life of a man like Andy Grove, who escaped the Nazis and the communists and came to the US as a refugee. He built a microchip empire, Intel, which runs the information superhighway and serves America’s global interests. But he did not do it through the benefits of affirmative action and racial quotas. Nor does Intel, of which he was the CEO, hire people based on quotas, racial preferences, compensatory guilt, or the need for diversity.

The American dream thrives on competitiveness, not on affirmative action.But don’t affirmative action preferences create a just society? It has been argued that the rise of General Colin Powell, who reached the top in the US military with an extraordinary record of achievements and served the Bush Administration as Secretary of State in a very difficult era of US diplomacy, wouldn’t have been possible without affirmative action. Affirmative action might have opened the door for General Powell, but it did not push him to the top and make him one of the most esteemed Americans living today. In his book, My American Journey, he wrote, “Equal rights and equal opportunity...do not mean preferential treatment. Preferences, no matter how well intended, ultimately breed resentment among the non-preferred. And preferential treatment demeans the achievements that minority Americans win by their own efforts.”

Consider the achievements of stage-screen actor and author Bill Cosby, pop culture’s global icon Michael Jackson, basketball’s most glorious athlete Michael Jordan, and golf’s incomparable Tiger Woods. Their rise was powered by their guts and talents. Such remarkable achievements would be diminished if they were associated with racial preferences and quotas.What Americans ask for is a level playing field to build their dreams on. As General Powell said, “If affirmative action means programs that provide equal opportunities, then I am all for it. If it leads to preferential treatment or helps those who no longer need help, I am opposed. I benefited from equal opportunity and affirmative action in the Army, but I was not shown preference.”General Powell rose to the top on the strength of his character and intelligence in an institution ~ the US military ~ that thrives on these qualities. But what about those who live in ghettos, inner cities and poor rural areas? “If a history of discrimination has made it difficult for certain Americans to meet standards, it is only fair to provide temporary means to help them catch up and compete on equal terms. Affirmative action in the best sense promotes equal consideration, not reverse discrimination,” wrote General Powell.In spite of the spectacular rise of Mr Obama, race and religion do matter in America.

Prejudice is widely prevalent; sometimes it is the colour of your skin, not the content of your character or merit, which determines where you live and work; and how a policeman treats you in the middle of night when he sees you at a street corner; or when you go to the airport and you are “randomly selected” for special inspection because you look like a Muslim. But these are the imperfections of a dynamic society.

Decades of affirmative action policy, which in reality amounted to creating preferential quotas for minorities, have not created a colour-race-gender blind society. No wonder affirmative action has been falling into disfavour as public policy. In 1998, California voters ended preferential treatment based on race and gender for public employment, education and contracting by approving a ballot initiative.

The University of California, Berkeley, and other top schools of the California higher education system no longer admit African-Americans and Hispanics by lowering admission standards. For a long time, the dominant mood in the country has been: end racial preferences because they create reverse discrimination.Why is diversity ~ of race, religion, and opinion ~ important?

Diversity is socially desirable because it breeds new ideas that enrich society; and, moreover, it encourages tolerance and the acceptance of the idea that the US is increasingly becoming multicultural and multiracial. The challenge is to use limited affirmative action to give some deserving people a headstart without creating entitlements, to make possible the rise of people like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and General Powell.

But look at millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. They do not ask for affirmative action or preferential treatment. All they ask for is a chance to work and build a good life for their families and in the process they add to the US’s wealth.That is what Mr Obama has done. He hoped and believed in the essential goodness of the US and is now generating new hope in the hearts of people.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Indians lagging behind in corporate social responsibility

From The Statesman

ND Batra
Last week BBC World News carried a report on how in the midst of plenty hundreds of thousands of children in India are dying of malnourishment. The dinnertime videos of wasting children in Madhya Pradesh were heart-wrenching. The same day, The New York Times published a report about high-towered, gated communities in Gurgaon and other places in India rising amidst sprawling shantytowns. You wonder where the 9 per cent annual growth has been going.

With food and oil prices going up every day and the spectre of starvation rising in many poor developing countries, the governments cannot talk about gross domestic product (GDP) without assuring the public that it is being distributed equitably. Nor can global corporations keep themselves aloof from the sufferings of the people. They cannot afford to look after only shareholders’ interests. Some global corporations have begun to realise that their social responsibility goes beyond profit-making.

Addressing a shareholders’ meeting last week, Mr H Lee Scott Jr, the chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores, said, “People’s expectations of us ~ and of corporations in general ~ changed…. It is clear that today people look at Wal-Mart as a solution. And we want to be seen that way. We want to act that way.” Society will hold Mr Scott’s feet to the fire on his promises.

The global retailer ~ which generates sales of $374.5 billion ~ buys cheap and sells at low prices. It was perceived a few years ago as a damned sinner, one of the worst global exploiters. But today with its avowed mission of protecting the environment and with a $4 prescription healthcare drug plan its image has improved along with its profits.

That’s how Reliance and the Tatas should be judged, not only because they grab MTN or bring Jaguar/Land Rover to India and fulfil the fantasy of the elite about India becoming a superpower.

“Regardless of who wins the election in November ~ and what party they are from ~ we stand ready to work with the new President and the next Congress,” Mr Scott told shareholders. Have you ever heard Indian corporate executives talk with such confidence about their companies’ social responsibilities? Corporate social responsibility is a form of business to people ~ diplomacy, an effort to win the hearts and minds of the people, which is essential in an open society.

A corporation’s report about its social responsibility, which can stand public scrutiny, should be the goal. Some corporations use their social responsibility activities as a means of building social capital and goodwill. If a company has a code of ethics, it should be known to the public how the company is following the code. Of course, every corporation should have a code of ethics.

The European Union (EU) might seem a loosey-goosey congeries of states, but when it comes to dealing with US global corporations like GE, Microsoft, Apple, for example, or an export juggernaut like China, EU takes a united stand. One should not underestimate the growing power of Brussels in spite of the recent setback when Ireland voters refused to ratify the proposed governing treaty. Instead of getting help from Washington, US global corporations have been developing their corporate outreach programmes to be seen as people-friendly.

All major corporations, Boeing, Microsoft, Google, for example, have their own corporate diplomats who use the same tools and talents as political diplomats do in dealing with international crises. Many of them are retired ambassadors, state department officials and military officers; and they know how to communicate with global stakeholders. In The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy, Mr TR Reid wrote, “The Europeans were concerned with bigness itself ~ the fear that a company with an overwhelming presence in certain markets would use its sheer size to drive out competitors, and then drive up prices for consumers.”Since some crisis or the other is likely to hit a global corporation, what kind of corporate policy will work?

Instead of pulling out in a huff it is better to lie low and wait for the situation to improve. Even in Venezuela, the fifth largest oil-producing country, some oil companies have decided to stick around, hoping that the situation will get better. In some countries, for example, KFC and McDonald’s outlets have been set on fire, demolished or boycotted by anti-global activists; nonetheless, business operations on the whole have continued. Instead of quitting altogether, holding back further direct investment or even curtailment may have a salutary effect. At the same time a global company should do what Wal-Mart has been trying to do in these economic distressful times ~ become part of the solution.The home government’s backing is important but help should be sought only when all other avenues have been explored.

Global companies should develop their own diplomatic resources, including relations with the local news media and coalition-building with local interest groups. Europeans, like Indians, are very sensitive to US government interference on behalf of its global companies.

Although an early awareness system could help predict many problems before they turn into crises, not every catastrophic event can be predicted. No one thought the long simmering Tibet problem would suddenly erupt when China was getting ready to shine on the world stage as an upcoming superpower; nor that an earthquake would devastate an entire province. Such events fall into the category of what Mr Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the “Black Swan”, nevertheless, if a corporation has built enough social capital, people are likely to support it in a crisis.

Sustainable growth, affordable healthcare and poverty-reduction are the chief concerns of society, which corporate leadership cannot ignore. Perhaps there is money to be made in reaching out to people at the bottom of the pyramid, in slums and shantytowns, as Mr CK Prahalad and other management gurus have been saying.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gathering Wisdom from Web 2.0

Mining wisdom from Web 2.0 collaboration

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The wisdom of the government is limited by its hierarchical structure, which restricts free flow of ideas, thus creating myopia. That is perhaps one of the reasons for recurrent man-made catastrophes, for example, terrorist attacks. Every time there is an attack, the government makes the same analysis and comes to the same conclusion.

If the government were to seek information from all available sources, not only from its officials who are segregated into departments and agencies but also from the people at large, intelligence, forecasting and decision-making could be better and problem-solving more socially satisfying. That is equally true of large corporations and institutions that have a top-down power structure, which may be good for command and control but is destructive of creativity.

In a knowledge-driven, networked world, creative ideas can arise anywhere. An innovative solution to a problem could be the consequence of collaboration among a dispersed group of people working on a project or the work of a genius. Wikipedia is an example of how collaboration can create a pretty good compendium of knowledge. A similar collaborative platform could be created for predicting future events, for example, a market bubble or a terrorist attack.

The most important point in the age of social networking and collaborative problem-solving is that geographically dispersed people and those who traditionally worked in isolated dens now have the means, such as constantly evolving digital platforms, to work together and enhance innovation, creation of knowledge and engage in cutting-edge scholarship. This is what is called Web 2.0, the next evolutionary stage of the Internet that makes social and collaborative networking such as Facebook, YouTube and blogging possible. Keeping in mind that crowds can be fickle and unreliable (vide Julius Caesar), it is still possible to tap into the collective wisdom of a large group of people for problem solving.Of course, we need both higher-level creativity and routine knowledge-creation and innovation. The modern world of globalised business cannot survive without higher or lower ends in the knowledge supply chain. We need the wisdom both of experts and of the masses. While you have to pay for experts, the wisdom of the masses can be mined via Web 2.0 collaborative platforms. In their own interest, many corporations are facilitating and encouraging their employees to build networks, share ideas with their peers and collaborate on projects even though they are divided by time zones, continents and cultures. Corporate blogging is one of the means of gathering grassroots intelligence.

In order to maximise innovation, collaborating organisations, governments and institutions need to break barriers of poor communication and insularity without which dispersed expertise cannot be leveraged to create new ideas that can be turned into products and services for marketing or increased organisational efficiencies.

In the digital age, poor communication occurs because of structural and bureaucratic barriers and because people who have expert power in one field fail to appreciate new ideas in others. One reason why intelligence agencies could not foresee the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US was poor collaboration. But that situation has been remedied to a great extent. Sometime collaboration fails because it is limited to very few people in partnering organisations, so if some key expert decides to leave, the network is weakened or collapses.

To build collaboration for innovation it is essential to make an inventory of individual expertise and figure out how they complement each other and bring them into an informal platform to share ideas.The challenge is how to integrate innovation activities and unique knowledge around the world as effectively as global supply chains integrate labour, raw materials, finance and marketing. Networking has the potential to combat inertia because a node (a knowledge group) cannot sit idle too long.

Collaboration need not be limited to regional or national organisations in the age of outsourcing, when it is possible to have a 24-hour workday with three or four knowledge hubs spread across the globe. Work must flow constantly across times zones, building on shared brainpower, each knowledge hub validating (checking upon each other’s errors) and adding value to the work done by the other, thus, hastening testing, vetting, shaping and completing the final project. In cyberspace, time zones can be turned into an asset.

Another challenge for IT geeks in knowledge hubs is to create a system that is capable of aggregating and accessing available sources of knowledge and mining all modes of information, whether audio, video, cartographic or textual in the form of a visual map, a landscape.And finally an IT system should be capable of customising knowledge as per individual or group needs. For example, an IT system should be capable of automatically converting a report about a disaster such as an earthquake or a terrorist act into various formats, such as newspaper, radio, television, as well as for mobile devices such as cell phones to which editorial value can be added subsequently. This is a way of bringing experts and non-experts together to utilise each other’s wisdom.

In the age of Web 2.0 globalisation, leadership success lies in exploiting and pooling brainpower within the organisation as well as outside and creating an environment of enthusiasm and participation for solving problems, whether of energy or insurgency.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)