Management theory – just mumbo jumbo?

I am writing here after a really long time. During one of my train journeys between Chennai and Bangalore last weekend, I happened to re-read this article that I had saved for later reading on my mobile device – this appeared on The Economist six months back (read it here). The Economist argues that management as a discipline is similar to the Medieval Catholic church that was transformed by Martin Luther about 500 years ago (business schools = cathedrals; consultants = clergy; the clergy speaking in Latin to give their words an air of authority = management theorists speaking in mumbo-jumbo that only their peers can understand; and having lost touch with the real world).

The Economist avers that all management theory is about four basic ideas – consolidation across industries rather than competitiveness, fewer entrepreneurial success than celebrated in popular discourse; maturing organisational bureaucracies that slow down firms rather than speed; and the seemingly inevitable globalisation being reversed by trends (including ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Brexit’). A redemption is therefore called for. Let me re-examine the four trends in the context of Indian business context.

1. Consolidation rather than competition

There is surely a trend of consolidation in Indian industry. The telecom service business is a case in point – the entry of Reliance Jio has led to severe performance pressures and possible consolidation of the service providers (read here); SBI merging its associate banks and other possible PSB mergers (read here); or even the retail industry (read here). Is competition really going down? I think a variety of management theorists would say no. From high velocity environments and hyper-competitive environments in the mid 1990s through mid 2000s, the discourse has evolved to disruptive innovation in the late 2000s, to Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Big Data in the mid 2010s. The fads have changed, but the discourse has always been dominated by some fad or other. We management theorists have and will always seek to sustain our legitimacy by maintaining how difficult it is do business ‘today’ and in the near future. Has there been a time when a management scholar has said that “we live in stable times”?

2. Entrepreneurial failures

Yes, we live in interesting times. There are more and more firms founded, especially in clusters like Bengaluru (erstwhile Bangalore) and Gurugram (erstwhile Gurgaon). But as The Economist argues, there are more and more entrepreneurial failures that the media reports. And these failures come in myriad forms – simple shutdowns like the ones described in these articles (25 failed startups in 2016), or sellouts to larger competitors (see this list of acquisitions by Quikr).

3. Organisational bureaucracies

With so much churn in the ecosystem, we management theorists propound that business is getting faster. Yes, network effects allow for some businesses to scale faster than traditional pipeline businesses. However, given the ubiquity of such businesses  and easy imitation of business models, a lot of startup failures are attributed to these businesses not scaling sufficiently fast enough! Think Uber in China, Snap Deal in India, and other such startups. Scaling is easier said than done.

4. Rise of nationalistic tendencies

This is possibly true of most economies in the world today – rise of nationalism, and the ‘de-flattening’ of the world. Right wing protectionism is on a steady rise, and in some countries, it has reached jingoistic heights.

Time for redemption. What can management theorists do?

It is high time we redeem ourselves and the discipline. Given these trends, here is a callout for management theorists to make their discourse relevant to the business environment of today. We (as management theorists) need to get off the ivory towers and start communicating to the managers of today and tomorrow. While research output as measured by top-tier journal publications is important for an academic career, it is equally important for translating that research into insights relevant for the business managers. The Indian management researcher has very little options to publish high quality research in Indian journals. The quality of Indian management journals targeted at academics leaves much to be desired. Neither are there a variety of high quality Indian practitioner-oriented journals. And the circulation numbers of these journals amongst Indian CEOs? And where are the cases on Indian companies? The number and quality of cases published by Indian academics on Indian firms are too low to be even written about.

dilbertKnowledge

(c) 2017. R Srinivasan.

 

My platform business models journey

Writing this blog after a long gap. New administrative responsibilities at my school required me to invest some mindspace towards understanding the role, my team (and their roles), and setting up priorities and processes.

I am also figuring out how to respond to blatant plagiarism – some pages from this blog have been plagiarised (word by word, including my writing in first person!) and reproduced at another blog. For example, check this out: http://digiplus.runwise.co/network-mobilization-platform-businesses/ and how this page is different from the original post: https://srini108.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/network-mobilization-in-platform-businesses/. Another page that has been plagiarised is here: http://digiplus.runwise.co/building-platform-business-hard-work/, which is an exact copy of my post at https://srini108.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/building-a-platform-business-is-hard-work-not-for-lazy-people-a-response-to-prof-ajay-shahs-column-in-the-business-standard/. I have written to the supposed author requesting for removal of the infringing posts, but have heard no response. Plus, I have left comments at the bottom of the infringing blog pages that those pages were indeed plagiarised, but those comments are “awaiting moderation”. I have now learnt a lesson. All these pages now come with an explicit copyright assignment, and I am going to make it difficult to plagiarise with increasing use of personal pronouns.

Today morning, I was asked by our Dean to present the evolution of my research, teaching and consulting interest in platform businesses. It was an interesting exercise of thinking through the evolution over the past three years. In this blog post, I intend to capture a  short glimpse of the same.

A network of accidents

It all began with a network of accidents. Three accidents to be precise. A dorm-mate from over 20 years back invited me to his company (he had just relocated to Bangalore) for a short discussion on product design ideas. When I went there, I discovered that apart from him, there were enough members of his team who were my students at both IIMB and IIML. Which made the discussion interesting and lively. The “product” that they were developing was actually a platform for the FAs to serve their business process outsourcing customers. And we had a fruitful discussion on the economics of platforms, why network effects are important to understand, and how can the company monetise the efforts, if they chose to (subsequently, they chose not to monetise the platform directly).

The second accident was when a colleague of mine at IIMB could not attend an event his friend was planning. This friend was an entrepreneur setting up a business around pharmaceutical retail supply chain, and had invited his “Professor friend” to talk to his customers (pharmaceutical distributors). My colleague could not attend the event, and requested me to stand in for him. I travelled to Chennai, had an eventful breakfast with the founding team; and over a couple of aloo parathas (potato filled Indian bread), changed their business model from a SaaS model to a platform business model. The said breakfast meeting, I am told, is currently a legend in the company history/ water cooler talks.

The third accident took place (though not in the same chronological sequence as being reported) when another colleague of mine from the Quantitative Methods was leading an team writing a case on a firm. The case writing team felt that there were more strategic issues in the case, and invited me to join in one of the meetings. During the meeting, it was apparent that the firm was transitioning from being a product firm (selling boxed software) to a platform-based business, where product was just a hook for a variety of other services and value propositions.

Consulting and advice leading to case writing and research

These three accidents led me to document them as cases, and I began providing advise/ consulting to some of them. I got introduced to more firms operating platform businesses, and discovered that some of these entrepreneurs were actually making decisions about platform businesses, quite intuitively, without actually knowing the theoretical work behind the same. And boy, weren’t they successful! They have survived the dot-com bust, a series of recessions, and the growth of digital businesses. More learning talking to these entrepreneurs (academics call this as grounded theory). More cases followed, and I began to understand the economics behind the same. I initiated a series of projects around the same, got funding from IIMB and FAU for the same, and wrote a series of cases.

Evolution of the course(s)

As the number of cases bludgeoned, I was invited by the FAU (http://wi1.uni-erlangen.de/) to teach a course on digital business, and I latched on to the opportunity to launch a course on platform strategies. That one course led to another, and I offered an improved version of the same at IIMB immediately thereafter, and then as the number of cases grew, and I began filling in learning gaps, offered a larger version of the same at IIM Trichy. And now both the FAU course (http://wi1.uni-erlangen.de/teaching/strategies-platform-mediated-organizations) and the IIMB course (http://www.iimb.ernet.in/node/5610) have now become 5 ECTS and 3 credit (full thirty hours) courses.

This blog

As the courses matured, I began writing a lot of notes for myself. In fact, true to a business school professor, I would typically prepare for the class, get a lot of insights to share with the class, share a few in class, and the rest of them would remain in my notes. Some of my students continued to urge me (no, I am not substituting it with encourage) to write a blog. And I began this blog in April 2016 (once my course was over). My teaching assistant, who travelled with me to IIM Trichy and took copious notes of my classes was extremely helpful in ensuring that the information loss from the class discussion to the written notes was minimised.

Blog leads to more connections and research

Based on this blog, some of you came back to me seeking specific advice on setting up and running platform businesses; I engaged with a few firms, and more cases followed. The blog now has led me to more connections, and spurn on more research questions. In the meantime, a lot of my PGP and EPGP students have undertaken projects on specific questions around the platform business models (I will run a series on those projects in the next few weeks), and more insights and research questions emerged.

24-1-journey

The journey has been exciting, I have learnt a lot. And hopefully, things will continue.

(C) 2016. R. Srinivasan, IIM Bangalore.

Social Buffering – Is it lonely at the top?

 

Yesterday (24th August), I connected three dots. First dot: I met with a couple of my friends from 20 years back (we were batchmates) – one of them celebrated his tenth year of entrepreneurship this week, and another was taking baby steps into entrepreneurship in the last three months. Second dot: I read a piece on LinkedIn on why Samsung cannot be Apple. Third dot: I read an article in the Strategic Management Journal (SMJ) on executive anxiety. And tossing and turning on my bed, late in the night, the three dots connected. Voila.

Dot #1: The entrepreneurial fetish with fund raising

When two entrepreneurs meet with a business school professor, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to veer from business models to fund raising. So it did happen yesterday. The conversation was going towards evaluating if angel investing is better than crowdfunding, and we agreed that the money raised is much less valuable than the insight/ knowledge/ resources/ network the angel investor(s) would bring in. Isn’t that why those investors are called “angels”, as they have some magic wands in their hands? Slowly, bit by bit, I evaluated their business plans and broke the entire fund requirements to an amount that was so small that they would not take money from anyone other than one with an enormous network or experience in that domain. As entrepreneurs, it was extremely important that they realize that money from the right source is far more valuable than the denomination of the currency (or the balance in the bank). The value of the advice and mentoring the angel investors bring in is severely under-rated in today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Here’s calling all entrepreneurs to evaluate your list of mentors – what specific insight, learning & knowledge, experience, resources, network do each one of them bring in. Prune/ add ruthlessly.

Dot #2: Singularity

The drive back home from North Bangalore to South Bangalore in the evening traffic is not something I enjoy, unless I have some company or reading to do. Yesterday, I had both. The reading was this LinkedIn post by Anish Behera on Why Samsung will never be Apple? (read it here). If you have returned back to this blog after reading his piece, you know where I got the three dots idea from, right!

His primary argument is that it was important for Steve Jobs and the American culture to be autocratic and not suitable for Korea and Samsung. He argues that American culture of Singularity is more suitable for innovation than the Korean (in fact, he extends his argument to most of Asia as well) culture of Conformity. Though I am glad that he included Mahindra under the singularity dimension, I think it is a slight stretch. But that is a different debate and discussion.

The substance of his argument was that Apple ha(s)d both singularity (one person) and an opinionated (non-conformist) culture that fostered innovation. What it means for entrepreneurs of today is not so much to create a person who is as charismatic (and possibly maverick) as the leaders he quotes, but to have a singularity of purpose that guides decision making. Strong vision, broader search for alternatives, speed of decision making, and discipline in execution arise out of singularity and non-conformity. Both, together; not a preponderance of one over the other. Pure singularity without a culture of non-conformity would result in a narrow search of alternatives and may lead to phenomena like groupthink. Non-conformity without a strong purpose and direction would result in slow decision making and lack of discipline in execution, and may to phenomena like predictable irrationality.

Dot #3: Social buffering

A couple of weeks ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook asked, “Hey Siri, why am I so alone?”. In an insightful interview with The Washington Post (read it here), he talked about a variety of things including not being able to replace Steve Jobs. But what caught my attention yesterday was the statement that “running Apple is sort of a lonely job”. And when I read an academic article on the Strategic Management Journal (yes, that is my primary job) by Michael J Mannor, Aadam J Wowak, Viva Ona Bartkus, and Uuis R Gomez-Mejia titled, “Heavy lies the crown? How job anxiety affects top executive decision making in gain and loss contexts”, (SMJ, 37,9, Sep 2016) the dot #3 emerged. The heavy crown of leadership can lead to significant anxiety in top executives (so beautifully articulated by Tim Cook when he talked about how he prepared for a congressional hearing – have you not read the interview, yet?). An effective insurance against such anxiety is to surround oneself with a team that is supportive of one’s decisions, effectively buffering the executive from threats from the environment. Building such a supportive team, that shields the top executive from the external world without a risk of opportunistic behavior from the buffer themselves is what the authors label as social buffering.

The implications of social buffering (according to the authors) are three-fold. Higher the perceived threat from the external world (and therefore the anxiety of the top executive), more likely the social buffering behavior. Secondly, in spite of the social buffer, it is likely that anxious executives might be more risk-averse than others. And finally, in contexts that represent losses (rather than gains), executives would be more likely to build strong social buffers. For instance, executives leading firms in declining product-markets may build stronger social buffers than those in high growth contexts. To put this in simple terms, the more vulnerable the top executive feels about the environment, the more she will surround herself with supporting team members (who share the same thought processes); it will make her more risk-averse; and more so, when faced with losses (than gains). Given that loss aversion is more pronounced (executives worry more about losses than celebrate equal quantum of gains), this social buffering can become more and more pronounced in malevolent environments.

Connecting the dots

Find an investor who “has been there, done that” + Build a culture of singularity & non-conformity + Beware of social buffering

While it is important that you seek angel investments from someone who brings in a lot of experience, insights, expertise, and a network, it is also imperative that you build a culture of singularity and non-conformity in your organizations. If you do not pay active attention to these details, you may end up surrounding yourself with a social buffer, promoting and highlighting only those in your network who conform to your thoughts and beliefs while letting others go, you run the risk of running your enterprise to the ground with high anxiety, low risk appetite, and conformist thinking. Without an active innovation programme, replication and possibly fast following strategies are likely to dominate the organizational discourse.

Prescriptions

  • Seek out investments carefully. Do a proper due diligence of your investors’ resources and networks
  • Keep checks on how your advisors and investors encourage/ dissuade innovation and risk-taking
  • Make sure that you surround yourself with a variety of perspectives, and ensuring that your social buffer is not counterproductive to your innovation and external orientations

Cheers.

Building your brand

This is not a post about marketing, though it may sound so. This is a post about how entrepreneurs and leaders communicate. This is relevant for brands and firms as well. Read on.

I listened to a very insightful TEDx talk by Simon Sinek on inspirational leaders. Listen to it here. He talked about how inspirational leaders focus on the inner most ring of what he called the golden circle. In the inner circle is the why, followed by the how, and then the what. He cited examples of ineffective communication, when firms and brands and individuals focused on the what to drive the how and why, and how successful people and brands and firms focused on the why first, before highlighting the how, and what. If you have not listened to it yet, please do so, before you proceed.

19.1 Brand communication

As we see a tramline of enterprises biting the dust, liquidating/ selling off to powerful competitors/ selling off at a fraction of its past valuations to firms in complementary businesses, this message is becoming far more relevant. Couldn’t resist this contrast …

Yahoo is a guide focused on informing, connecting, and entertaining our users.

https://about.yahoo.com/ 

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

https://www.google.com/intl/en/about/company/

 

Just take a look at how these two pages are organised – Yahoo’s page flows like this – a statement of what they do – inform, connect, and entertain; how did they start, how is it to work for Yahoo, and what does it offer for developers, advertisers, partners, and research. Google’s page begins with the company overview (that includes their history), who they are (culture and locations), what they believe, and then what they do.

If your communication focuses on what problems you solve (why you exist), and then lead towards how you solve those problems, and therefore what products and services you offer; I am willing to listen to you. On the other hand, there are entrepreneurs and firms that begin with what they do. For instance, early this week, I heard someone talk about building the Uber of Indian tractors for farmers (if the one who talked about this is reading this, don’t take it personally). I had to probe deeper and deeper to understand what problem was being solved and why did Indian farmers needed a mechanisation solution in the lines of Uber.

Virgin’s Richard Branson also wrote today (11 August) about why successful entrepreneurs should seek problems, and create solutions (read it here). Begin with the problem and the opportunity; the business model and the solution will follow; and thence products and services.

So, whatever brand you are building – of yourself, your firm, your products/ services, please begin with the why, the how, and then get to what. Build a robust brand that stands for something, signifies why it exists, and speaks to the ecosystem on why it exists. Remember the arrow that connects A and z in the Amazon.com logo? Everything from A to Z.

And in today’s world, as firms simultaneously diversify and depend on a cluster of complementors to provide (each others’) customers with unique value, it might not be out of place to conceive of your brand as a platform. A simple platform (like how the automobile companies use the word) upon which your complementors and partners could build on, customise, co-develop, co-innovate, and co-create. Brian Monahan’s post titled “More than a promise: Brands are platforms” (read it here) develops this argument very well. Brian’s primary argument is that brands transcend the promise and should allow for other firms and its partners to shape the consumer experience. Imagine brand Android!

Borrowing the idea from Simon Sinek’s talk, leaders communicate why more than the what. How is your brand communication structured?

Would love to listen/ read/ hear about your brand stories.

 

 

Obliquity – muddling through in entrepreneurship

Through my travel to the other side of the world last week, I read a couple of books. One of them was Obliquity by John Kay. The subtitle of the book reveals more than the title – why our goals are best achieved indirectly. In this post, I intend to build on my reading of the book, adapt a few ideas, and draw implications for platform-business startups. This is not an exhaustive review of the book – there are a lot of them available online; rather this is a summary of my notes from the book, which I thought was relevant for entrepreneurs.

What do you pursue?

The book builds on an intuitive understanding that relentless pursuit of anything does not take you where you want to go; as much as reaching there obliquely. Happiest people do not pursue happiness, and are happy because they do not actively pursue happiness. They enjoy what they do – their work, their roles, their chores, and are even not sure their activities will lead them to happiness. If you have not yet seen the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, see it now. It is the experience that matters, not so much the outcome. Successful entrepreneurs startup to solve a world problem, at least something they faced themselves, and not make tons of money/ billions of dollars of valuation. Those that actively play the valuation game – yes I call it a game – do not optimize. Those who are constantly looking for exit options have not been successful. The book is replete with examples of firms whose intent to make money, and how they floundered.

Eudaimonia

Drawing on Aritstotle’s concept of Eudaimonia, Kay classifies three levels of purpose people and firms pursue. The lowest level is those of momentary happiness – like waving at a child smiling through the school bus window; the intermediate level may include a persistent sense of well-being, like a good holiday with family and friends in the Andamans (I have not been there, yet!); and the higher level of pursuit is what is referred to as Eudaimonia, something like the satisfaction of having a patent granted. Something that is fulfilling, achieving something that tells you that you have reached your potential. When I teach strategy introduction sessions, I draw upon vision and mission statements of a variety of (successful) firms to speak about how these statements are actually altruistic and ephemeral, conveying a larger sense of purpose. Consistently, firms that add shareholder value in their vision/ mission statements have faltered, to either rediscover themselves or bite the dust. So, entrepreneurs out there, what is your Eudaimonia? Appreciate that in ancient Greek philosophy (we are approaching the Olympics, right?), “the final end of action is realised in action, and is not a consequence of action. Eudaimonia is a goal set before each agent as soon as he starts to act; it is not chosen and cannot be renounced.” Define why you are in business, and what is your high-level pursuit?

Obliquity in problem solving

Okay, solve this brainteaser for me (cited in page 50-51 of the book). A man sets off walking a mile to his home from his work. As he starts, his dog sets off to meet him on the way, and when it finds him, licks his hand and returns back home. And continues do so (run towards the master, lick his hand and return back home) till the master and the dog reach home together. If the man walked at a speed of three miles per hour, and the dog at twelve miles per hour, how much distance did the dog cover?

You can calculate this distance using the principles of infinite series, but that would be a long-winded calculation. If any of you noticed, the dog was four times as fast as the master, it must have walked four times the distance the master walked in the same time, viz., four miles. This is what Kay refers to as oblique problem solving.

Oblique is simple, direct isn’t. What problems of your customers, partners, stakeholders are you solving? And how – directly, or obliquely? When Tally (www.tallysolutions.com) began selling computerised accounting solutions way back in the 1980s and 90s, their mantra was simple – keep the user experience simple, which translated into replicating the offline processes exactly in the online product. The trial balance looked the same, the ledger entries looked the same, and the end result was that every accountant was already familiar with Tally, when he finished his accounting degree. The “power of simplicity”, which incidentally is their corporate punchline, arose from their intent to not simplify the lives of the accountant, but to exactly replicate. Had they begun simplifying, I am not sure they would have attained this iconic status (and market share) amongst the millions of Indian small and medium businesses (SMBs).

Muddling through

People familiar with academic research on Organization Behavior would have heard of this term “muddling through”, first articulated by Prof. Charles E Lindblom in his seminal paper, “The Science of Muddling Through” (see the paper here). Kay concedes that obliquity is a (better) euphemism for muddling through, and elaborates on how goals, decisions, and actions are different across the direct and muddling through approach (see figure 7 in page 66-67 of the book). A quick summary for the not-so-academically inclined: muddling through represents a state where (a) goals are multi-dimensional and loosely defined; (b) goals evolve over time, in fact, even after the action has begun; (c) the external environment is complex – the structure of relationships is continuously evolving; (d) interactions amongst stakeholders is socially constructed; (e) the external environment is not known, and is uncertain; and (f) the range of events, and therefore the options available in front of the firm/ decision maker is unknown and uncertain. In such a complex and uncertain environment, decision makers engage in “successive limited comparisons of non-comprehensive actions”.

Entrepreneurs do engage in a variety of muddling through. We talked about pivoting and bricolage in an earlier post in this blog (Pelf). As the environment you encounter is uncertain and/ or complex, you are entitled to muddle through! However, do not lose sight of the higher level pursuit, your Eudaimonia. In the absence of the larger sense of purpose, muddling through will remain just that, and not lead you to your ultimate pursuit.

Ex post justification of random outcomes

Kay discusses in detail about how England footballer, David Beckham could “bend” the football, performing multi-variable physics calculations in matter of seconds as he takes a free kick (read a wonderful reporting about it in The Telegraph here). I am not convinced (like Kay) that David indeed did all those calculations, or did Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, the early exponents of reverse swing in cricket seam bowling, or even exponents of the ‘legal’ doosra or carom-ball deliveries in spin bowling. They had some idea, tried something, experimented, experienced a difference, persisted, perfected and professed (subsequently). Ex post justifications, all of them. A lot of entrepreneurial successes and failures are also subject to the same phenomenon. Now that a famous startup firm has sold out, all the arm-chair analysts will bring out their own analyses on why they saw this was coming. Search on the Internet about the merger of Uber China with Didi Chuxing – you will find a lot of ex post justifications on why this was waiting to happen. There are relatively very few insights/ posts of what that means for other competitors, and how Lyft, Ola, or Grab would feel the impact; or even why Didi Chuxing decided to buy out a competitor so small in size and give its shareholders a share of their own pie. So, when you encounter ex post justifications, just concede to randomness, reflect to learn (you use the rear view mirror of the car to drive forward, right?), and continue forward.

So, in summary, entrepreneurs of today, define what is it that you pursue, what are your higher level goals, and what is your Eudaimonia. Appreciate that obliquity in decision making is here to stay and be prepared to muddle through the environment and indulge in some arm chair ex post justifications of performance.

Shameless self-promotion

By the way, if you are in Bangalore and are available on Saturday, the 6th August 2016 forenoon (0950am onwards), you are invited to attend a panel discussion I am moderating on “Network Mobilization in Platform Business Firms” as part of the IIMB’s entrepreneurial summit, Eximius 2016. For more details, please visit http://eximius-iimb.com/4startupsnsrcel/. Free, mandatory registration at the website.

 

Reference class forecasting using pluralism: Fighting single parameter obsessions

Traveling around prestigious Universities and Business Schools in the US this week on an institutional assignment (this post comes from Chapel Hill, NC), one thing struck me in this society, pluralism. I read with interest my friend Suresh Satyamurthy’s piece in yourstory.com (link here) that uses a hangman metaphor for an investor review in the start-up world. In Suresh’s start-up world, the investor is hung-up on a single parameter – scale (pun intended). It set me thinking – any evaluation of performance (more importantly, assessment of future performance) needs to be grounded in as many parameters as possible. In this post, I will introduce Reference Class Forecasting (RCF) as a technique for fighting such biases like single parameter obsession. Drawing on research on behavioural economics, I attempt to provide guidelines for entrepreneurs and investors to make better forecasts of future performance.

Intent-outcome relationship

This is possibly the first and the most obvious starting point of any assessment. Start with what was the intent in the first place. If the stated intent of the platform was to transform the industry, please define what is industry transformation and measure those, and not start harping on profitability. Not every business needs to show the same kind of performance on the same parameters. Take the example of baby products company, firstcry.com. The founders’ motivation to start-up arose from the difficulty in finding products for their own children – availability, variety, poor quality, and certain international products/ brands not available in India (read their interview here). So, the best performance metric for assessing the performance of firstcry.com would be to see if they have been able to “make a wide variety of good quality international products and brands available to parents”. The performance metrics would therefore be (a) number of outlets – online and offline, (b) inventory size and variety, (c) number of brands, (d) number of products uniquely available at firstcry.com, at least in a specific geography, and (e) number of parents reached. Scale here would mean growth in number of customers, brands, products, and channels. Not GMV, not anything else. Yes, profitability is important, but not the first parameter of success.

Constructs, variables, and measures

Hmm, I may sound like a research methods teacher, but I think this is important to understand. Everyone (at least those reading this blog post) understands that everything could be measured in a variety of ways. A construct is an attribute of a person/ entity that cannot be observed or measured directly, but can be inferred using a number of indicators, known as manifest variables. For instance, entrepreneurial success is a construct that is measured by a variety of variables ranging from firm performance, firm growth, market power, firm’s influence in industry standard setting, pioneering innovation, to even investor wealth creation (or exit valuation) at sell-out to a large corporation. Each of these variables could be measured using different measures; see for instance, the number of measures we identified for firm growth in the context of firstcry.com in the last section. Can you see a decision–tree like structure here?

Indices

So, when I think of multiple parameters, I am reminded of indices. Indices like Human Development Index (HDI) as a measure of economic development, or a Consumer Price Index (CPI) as a measure of inflation. Each and every of these indices are prone to discussions and debates about what constitutes these indices and why; and in what proportion/ weights. Take for instance HDI that is a composite of life expectancy (personal well being), education (social well being), and income per capita (economic well being). Why only these? What about social and racial discrimination? What about ecological sustainability? Similar is the case with consumer price index (CPI), which is calculated using prices of a select basket of items, with price data collected weekly, monthly, or half-yearly for specific items. Again, why should tobacco products prices be included in CPI calculations? Or we could debate of how the housing price index is calculated for inclusion in the CPI. Does age composition of the household matter in calculating the CPI basket? For a relatively young family, would the basket of goods not be different than those families with more elders than children?

So, to cut my long argument short, please refrain from creating indices that just simply represent a mish-mash of parameters to evaluate a start-up.

My recommendation: Use reference class forecasting

Reference class forecasting (RCF), sometimes also referred to as comparison class forecasting is a method recommended to overcome cognitive biases and misplaced incentives. My favourite article on this appeared in The McKinsey Quarterly (see here). Let me elaborate the theory first.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work on theories of decision making under uncertainty is the starting point for understanding RCF. They described how people make decisions that are seemingly irrational while dealing with probabilities and forecasts using Prospect Theory (see an insightful class by Prof. Schiller, another Nobel Laureate, on YouTube here). Summary relevant to us: people are more concerned by smaller losses than equivalent gains; and people round off probabilities of occurrence to either zero or one, when it is close to either, and in between, exaggerate.

Let us understand how an entrepreneur could use this theory to manipulate his capital provider. She shows some initial success, and likens her business model to an already successful model somewhere else, in some other context; and gets the investor to exaggerate the probability of her success. For example, I know a friend wanted to build the Uber of toys in India. Why buy toys, just rent them, let the child play for a week, and return it back to the library next week to issue a new set of toys. Sounds exciting? Just that the economics did not work out the cost of damages to the toys small children could do, that would render it useless for the next borrower (like breaking one car wheel). The entrepreneur kept the rentals high enough to account for such losses, and soon her customers realised that the rentals were working out far more expensive than buying new toys, notwithstanding the child refusing to part with his toys at the end of the week. The entrepreneur continued to convince his investors to keep investing in her, luring them to wait for the economies of scale to kick-in and she could have enough bargaining power with toy manufacturers to directly import from the North of Himalayas, but that never happened and the investor exited the firm at its lowest valuation.

These biases manifest themselves in the form of delusional optimism, rather than a clear understanding and detailed evaluation of costs and benefits, even when hard data is available.

Steps in using RCF: A field guide

RCF helps forecasters and planners overcome these biases by situating the reference point outside of the subject being assessed. In order to forecast (or assess future performance) a business, investors need to identify a reference class of analogous businesses, estimate the distribution of the outcomes of those firms, and benchmark the enterprise at an appropriate point of the distribution. Firstly, the investors should identify appropriate reference class for the enterprise. These reference classes need to be identified using a variety of parameters that match the enterprise. The next step is to analyse the performance of the firms in the reference class and map them into a probability distribution. There may be clusters of firms that may emerge during this distribution-mapping exercise; there may be instances of only extremes of firm performance observed (say in winner-takes-all markets); or there could be continuous distributions.

The next task is to use pluralism in the parameters to position the enterprise in the distribution. Here is where multiple parameters would help in an reliable estimate of the position. For instance, an Uber for toys in India would only work when the marginal costs of renting out a car (wear and tear) is negligible compared to the fixed (sunk) costs of buying the car. Whereas in the toys market, the marginal costs of a child playing with the toy is a significant proportion of the market price of the toy, and therefore this enterprise would not be subject to the same evolutionary direction as Uber. However, if the enterprise was repositioned as a toy library (as my friend ultimately did), it would work – look at how the cost structures of library and toys work. It provided her a benchmark on only buying those toys that would be durable, held the customer’s attention for only short periods of time, and were very expensive to buy. Typical examples were multi-player games, which no child wanted to own independently (given the small size of families today), but would rent out during the weekends/ birthday parties for a small proportion of the cost of the game.

So, hers is calling entrepreneurs and investors to overcome such cognitive biases and forecast better.

Comments and feedback welcome.

 

Learning from the Network meeting of the Peter Pribilla Foundation

I had the privilege of attending the 10th networking meeting of the Peter Pribilla Foundation on the 5-6 May, 2016 at two wonderful villas around Rome, Italy. Thanks Kathrin Möslein for inviting me again to participate in this wonderful network meetings in picturesque villas. This is not intended to be a minutes of the meetings, but my own notes and learning.

Manfred Broy’s keynote on Digital transformation

Digital transformation today is being driven by multiple forces: technology push, infrastructure maturity, market pulls, and startups that can leverage these business model opportunities. As markets, technology, and competence come together to create new business models, the economy is flooded with startups that could disrupt our lives in more ways than what we can imagine.

The talk brought to the fore three observations in my discussion.

  1. Software is eating our lives

As the digital transformation evolves driving on increased computing power, trnasmission power (bandwidth), and programming; Governments are struggling to regulate these business models. For instance, Skype as a software disrupted the international telecommunication industry that relied on massive investments in hardware at the backend and the consumer end. Blockchain has created an entire monetary system with no involvement/ interference of the State.

  1. From Internet-of-things to Internet-of-systems

More and more devices are being connected to the internet, and more and more data is being collected about every part of our lives. The evolution of the Internet has followed the linear path from (a) http or internet 1.0 that connected computers in a network, to (b) web 2.0 that allowed for interactive content in the form of search and social media, to (c) a semantic web 3.0 that allows for semantic search, including images, videos and other references, to (d) the mobile internet, that focuses on the App Economy – hyperlocal and mass-customized content, to (e) integration of IoT devices and servitization applications that lead the Interactive Industry or what is called Industry 4.0.

  1. Moral questions on how these data is used

As more and more data is being collected and collated by corporations, that are mostly monopolies in their markets, questions remain on the nature of consumer choice on what and how their personal data is being used, definition of trust and transparency of these data banks, and how these changes are affecting our professional, personal, and social lives.

Four sub-groups deliberated on actions, competencies, infrastructure, and promises around digital transformation.

Peter McKiernan and Anne Huff summarized the discussion and left us thinking on two axes.

  1. Has all this digital transformation driven us towards so much personalization and customisation that we excelled in marketing to a segment of one; while we have ended up destroying the social processes that form the basis of creating vibrant communities?
  2. With all these investments in digital transformation, what social problems are we solving in the developed and emerging economies? What are our contributions to sustainable management of our ecological environment, alleviate poverty, and manage active and forced migration of people across national and continental borders? What can we contribute to the improvement of human development, fostering inclusive growth, and evolve meaningful networks of social and economic competencies?

Albert Heuberger talked about the need to integrate research on hardware, software, and open problems. He talked about the various projects that Fraunhofer IIS was working in collaboration with the FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg and the Bavarian Government. His view of the future was to sustain research on

  1. Power consumption economics, including battery technology, to power smart devices that need to be ‘always on’.
  2. Devices, software, and problems that help improve mobility through increasing the digital range of smart devices.
  3. Integration of data from intrusive and non-intrusive biological data like glucose levels, fatigue)
  4. Consumer applications of hyperlocal environmental data, like pollution parameters (COx and NOx)
  5. Long range imaging, including gesture control
  6. 3D displays for mobile phones (VR apps for end consumers)

Helmut Schönenberger and Dominic Böhler from the UnternehmerTUM briefed us about the TechTalents program where they have batches of students and entrepreneurs being mentored by experienced mentors.

Peter McKiernan summarized the two talks about the need for engaged scholarship in the context of business research losing practical relevance. I could summarize the day’s discussion and thoughts as an interaction of two triads.

Summary

Our second day began with Mitchell Tseng talking about his rich experience of how the world has evolved in his talk on leveraging individual expertise in the context of global cooperation. As the world moves from optimizing supply chains to global value chains, we need to build three related capabilities

  1. Actively manage the shift from reducing waste, focus on core competence, and being responsive to customer needs to increasing the customer willingness-to-pay, focus on the value communication and delivery, and be responsive to changes in customer value perceptions over time.
  2. In a world dominated by network effects, value providers could realize value from even customer indifference. The old chinese proverb says, “the wool grows on dogs, and the pigs pay for it”.
  3. Rapid prototyping in a globalized world requires organizations to embed the product concept into the prototype and be able to test it across different parts of the value chain and in different cultures.

Hans Koller commented that even traditional businesses like aviation (free flights for passengers paid for by advertisements/ shopping), renewable energy (freebies for consumers who allow for installation of solar panels on their rooftops), and healthcare (providing free healthcare advise/ services in exchange for data collected from patients through embedded devices) are embracing two-sided markets. He also added that such rapid prototyping may leverage modularity (as propounded by Prof. Charles Baldwin) in product design and development. Building modularity across global products and value chains requires well-defined international standards for interfaces.

Peter McKiernan commented that research on value creation from the eyes of the consumers (perceived value) could learn a lot from the research on cognitive psychology literature. The definition of business value creation has over the years evolved from (a) the traditional industrial economics SCP paradigm to (b) Porter’s industry attractiveness frameworks to (c) mass customization and value creation to (d) the experience economy of the 21st century.

Members and fellows of the Peter Pribilla Stiftung (PPS) shared their wonderful work, research, and experiences. Unfortunately, the notes are not part of this document.

The afternoon was centered around two sub-groups working on (a) how the research group could work together in joint projects and (b) designing formats for digital transformation. It was discussed that the network should be largely expanded to include people from outside Germany, maybe leveraging each others’ personal networks. The need to collaborate with each other in applying for joint projects from organizations like the EU was emphasized. The group on designing formats elaborated on the need for an agency that could act as a platform that would evangalize, educate, and build strong networks of organisations that enable digital transformation with those that need their services like the Government, Universities, Schools, non-proifts, and corporations.

The networking meeting ended with summaries by Anne Huff, Frank Piller, and Ralf Reichwald.

We have come a long way from when we started in the last ten meetings. Too much of our discussion was centered around white, middle-class caucasian world. We need to expand our focus to the globalized world that includes a lot of problem. The second problem is that we have been largely academic-centric. We are the product of a system that pushes us to be more theoretical, abstract, and less practical and working with the firms. It is imperative that we move more towards pragmatic application of our energies to solve the big bad world’s problems.

Dynamic capabilities is about how organization’s change and evolve over time. We need to adopt the same approach and ask ourselves, look at our own unconscious biases, shift from the technology level of analysis to the more micro-social levels, include people from more varied disciplines like Psychology and Sociology to educate us.

We have learnt a lot about technology, digital transformation, and new business models. We are so proud that we heard from our PPS Fellows. We have over 50 fellows right now working, and it is heartening to see them do so well in their research and careers.

Thanks to Claudia Lehmann and her team for the wonderful organization.

Comments, observations, edits, and additions welcome.