Saturday, September 12, 2020

Partha System in your daily life

During my MBA at IIMK, I had been fortunate to do a Summer Training at Rajashree Cement Plant in Gulbarga, Karnataka. Though the project was about IT systems, my friend, Amitabh and I also got exposed to all aspects of the business. One interesting concept was the Marwari system of accounting called Partha. Essentially, it gave a single-page P&L snapshot on a daily basis. To put it in one sentence, it meant answering the question "Aaj Kitna Pada" or "How much did it cost to produce 1 unit of cement at a plant?". This deceptively simple-looking number sums up everything that goes on in a manufacturing setup.

Over the years of a completely unrelated work experience, this learning has somehow stayed with me. And I tend to deploy it in my own personal and professional life. Here's how you could do it too:

  • Didn't earn my "dehaadi" (daily wages) syndrome- At the end of some days, do you feel that you haven't earned what you are getting paid for? These days just go off doing useless stuff like incessant meetings that everyone knows will not deliver. When I feel like this, I seek out a piece of work that's been pending or something that could improve an unrelated business process. The same thing could happen at home too. If I can't do my share of dishes due to some meetings, I try to make it up before the day ends by doing something else :)
  • "Kitna pada?" or How many resources did I use to work today?- This is a measure of the efficiency to do your work. Sometimes, you feel you took much more time that usual to do something and it could be because of various factors like tiredness, disinterest or non-cooperative colleagues. A critical self-analysis of the situation gives you scope for continuous improvement. I love to see how I can improve my timing to do a repetitive task and that gives me important helicopter-view to be shared with my team. 

  • Staying grounded- Using a simple Indian system of accounting like Parta instead of the much-marketed internationally acclaimed systems speaks volumes about an organization's core values. As an individual, you can view your daily routine and separate the glamorous activities from the simple tasks. I believe it is important for you to do the non-glamorous stuff at least once a day to stay grounded irrespective of your stature in the organization. I have heard stories of CEOs like Tony Fernandes of Air Asia doing his staff's work once a month. Besides keeping you grounded, it spreads the most motivating message to the team.

  • Identify Bad News early- In the Partha system, individual business unit owners send a daily report that is analyzed for deviations from the normal. By keeping a keen watch on the deviations, the leadership is able to identify bad news before it's too late. In your professional and personal life too, you need to develop an eye for identifying small deviations. A sudden and unexplained absence of a key employee who is otherwise diligent or a sudden trend of losing sleep and feeling lethargic should raise an alarm in your mind.

I have become richer by trying to use these in my life. Traditional systems of management have much to learn from and today's managers would do good to know more about them.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Worried about teaching online? Here's how I did it!

With the Corona scare, a lot of teachers in schools and colleges are being asked to teach online. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for a teacher who has been in the habit of teaching in the classroom, looking at students' faces and relying on their body language to gauge their interest and then to improvise.

I have worked as an online tutor, teacher, mentor and trainer for a long time. In fact, as a small group of tutors engaged in tutoring middle school American children online, we would have been among the first ones back in 2005. The international media (Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Rediff) covered the pioneering effort quite well and the e-tutoring industry was born!

The current situation has pushed us into this territory and it is up to us to make the best use of this phenomenal education technology. The transition is challenging, more so for the teachers than the students. Our learners today are more online than offline- with their multiplayer games and social media activities. Students may have their own reasons for resisting a change to online classes but technology adoption is not one of them. A lot of teachers, on the other hand, become very nervous about the change. In my view, this resistance stems from two misconceptions:

  1. The technology is too complex for me to handle. I am a teacher, not a nerd!
  2. I can't have good interaction with my students in the online format.
Let's tackle them one by one. Firstly, the technology has evolved so much during the last 15 years that it is quite commonplace to do a video call on Skype, Whatsapp, Teams or Zoom. The internet penetration has reached far corners and you can see people using VoIP/ Video in villages as well. My 70-year old mother and a decade senior mother-in-law are also on Whatsapp and are quite comfortable in video-calling their grandchildren from their phones.

Our teachers have also evolved in their use of teaching technologies and mostly use a PowerPoint presentation in their regular classes. They are using the videos and websites relevant to their subjects to make their students understand a concept. They are just one step away from moving online in terms of technology and simply believe in their own teaching expertise and the ability to connect with their students. Technology has just become an enabler to continue doing "business as usual". In times like these, similar to wars, children are the most affected ones and lose a precious year due to the disruption.

The second point is a more concerning point. And continuing from my last statement, we need to make an effort to ensure that our students don't lose out. I will give some instances of how teaching online has been an (equally) rewarding experience for me and my colleagues:

- Sometime in 2005-06, in one of his Math tutoring sessions with a grade 6 student in the US, my fellow tutor asked how she would want to spend the One Million Dollar if she won it in a lottery. This was an effort in making small-talk in the context of dealing with large numbers. The child became emotional and said she would spend that money to search for her younger brother who had been living in an orphanage after the separation of their parents. That day my friend was moved beyond the geographical and cultural boundaries and felt connected to this student he was teaching for only an hour. He might not meet her again in a tutoring session but made notes for her next tutor about this incident. Mind you, we were only doing voice conversations in those days of limited bandwidth. Even a lack of video didn't stop us from making a "connection".

- We used to conduct a 20-Questions Exercise with our classroom students to bring home a point about paying attention to instructions and keeping one's cool in stressful situations. The students were asked to "do" 20 questions and some of them involved asking the neighbour's name, clapping, running to be blackboard etc. As you can imagine, the classroom would have been quite noisy and entertaining. Last year, I decided to do this online. Converting this to an online format meant changing a few questions to suit a student sitting alone in front of a screen as well as some students sitting in a class in front of a projector. I conducted this exercise after changing the questions and was pleasantly surprised at the cacophony of the sounds on my laptop! You can see the excitement in the session below:

- In the same session, I also shared a video about setting goals and it was immensely satisfying to hear one of the students saying out aloud "I can do this!". The energy transmission was complete!

There is virtually nothing that you can't do in an online format. Just go ahead and try it out. Do share anything that you have tried and if it worked or didn't work. We can all do this together and make the best use of this time to improvise.

Wish you all a great teaching experience and stay safe!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Cosy up to AI

Among the nay-sayers of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-ridden future, the popular refrain is that things can quickly get out of hand. Also, that AI can never beat the human brain and we can definitely live without it. Well, the dreaded animal is already living among us and kinda living cosily too.

AI has been around for decades now, snuggled into our cars with Google Maps. I often wondered how did it know if the roads were jammed or free without having someone (or something) to inform it from the ground. But that would be nearly impossible. That's where AI came in to help. Data doesn't distinguish between countries, cities or villages. For AI, it is just a set of data and it's power lies in how the data is analyzed. On a Sunday afternoon, I got stuck in heavy traffic because I didn't start Google Maps before departing. I am certain that this snazzy AI tool would have routed me through an alternate route and saved me half the time! There are two problems that humans can't handle:
  • Lack of information- I didn't have a mechanism to know the traffic situation through alternate routes (or, even the route I had taken) unless a set of friends had acted as my eyes on the ground.
  • Lack of interest- Even if I was provided all the information, would I be inclined to analyze it (assuming that I was a keen mathematician bent on working on the optimal-route-algorithm)? Why would I spend my time on such a problem instead of talking to my wife? (It could be a rather tricky question though!)

Of course, most of us humans wouldn't even have the skills to do that math. But I am inclined to assume that our generations are now coming "pre-loaded" with simple tech skills like operating a smartphone by way of Darwinian evolution. In future, a new-born might come pre-loaded with some analytical skills too!

A while back, there was news about a Hollywood film casting a dead actor (James Dean). That might seem gross or a marketing gimmick to most people. As expected, many actors came out against this concept and asked why a "living" actor was not used. To put things in perspective, let's look at a typical animation movie-making tool available today for your desktop. We have the facility to import pictures, videos, create animations with characters and use voice-overs. With more advanced computing power in future, we may have a real actor with the original voice instead of an animated one. While the scenario may not be very enticing to all, you only need to reflect on the reactions that actors would have given when highly real animation movies first came out of Hollywood.

AI empowers you to do amazing things and as with all great inventions, we are the ones who decide the good or bad usage. Let's look at another human-friendly application. A medical diagnosis of conditions impacting eyes, heart or even skin is now being considered to be a candidate for AI as it only needs data points to figure out the diagnosis. A simple app on a mobile phone can capture an individual's data and compare it with the huge database it has been fed. The lack of doctors is the single-most-important problem that the world faces, especially, the localities far away from the hospital areas. Arvind Eyecare is partnering with Google to use AI to screen patients for diabetic retinopathy and Cureskin does the same for skin by analyzing photos taken with a smartphone and running the data through a deep learning algorithm.

 With the enabling technologies like Smartphone (with an ever-increasing array of smart sensors getting integrated into it) and 5G, AI and deep learning will far outweigh the human capabilities. We simply can't turn our backs to it in the fear of losing our jobs and being overpowered by robots. The latter may not happen anytime soon and the job losses always happen with new technology and yet humans find alternative jobs. Just as a self-driving car makes a driver redundant, it will save our lives and the drivers (or, rather their next-gen counterparts) will get busy with managing and improving these cars.

I highly recommend watching the 9-part Youtube original series on AI featuring Robert Downey Jr  It may all seem like science-fiction but each one of the featured applications is currently operational! If this is the present, you can only imagine what the future beholds for us! Let's just cosy up to AI, I say :)