Business biographies

I was invited to speak at the Bangalore Business Literature Festival 3.0 (http://bangalorebizlitfest.org) yesterday. I prepared some notes, but true to my style, spoke mostly impromptu. It was a great opportunity to meet with writers I read regularly, as well as a lot of aspiring writers. No, I am not a prolific business writer, in fact, I have not written a single business biography yet. I wondered why I was drafted in as a speaker in the session on business biographies and management education. The moderator of my panel, my colleague Prof. Ramya Ranganathan clarified – I was in because I write cases and use firm biographies in my teaching and consulting. So, I thought I would begin by distinguishing between biographies of firms and biographies of individuals. Consequently, it is important to clarify these three words – biography, history, and a case.

Biographies of people and firms

In a panel before mine, a question was asked (to which the panelists had no answer, and it was part of my preparation!): in writing a biography, how do we separate the founder from the firm (especially in the case of a startup)? As a significant part of my classroom conversations, I separate the two explicitly. When you write and analyse a set of events in the form of a chronology, it is very difficult to separate the person from the firm. If you want to chronicle a firm biography, it is important to slice the narrative across specific decisions. Say a diversification decision could be narrated as a specific chapter bringing in the environmental context, how it was perceived by the leaders, how and what strategic change was initated, what were the implications of the change on the internal and external contexts, and if and when it achieved its intended purpose.

This way, writers can separate a firm biography from an individual biography, and highlight the idea that firms outlive (and outperform) people. As a strategy teacher, it is important for me and my class to focus on the firm independent of the strategist. And this distinction is critical to learning and application.

Biography, History, and Case

As a case writer (I want to believe that I have been prolific), I am continuously confronted with this distinction. And when I teach/ mentor colleagues on writing cases, I make sure I tell them that they are not writing a biography or history! So, it important to articulate the differences.

The purpose of a historical narrative is to recreate the context in the minds of the reader and inspire. Some exaggeration is acceptable; some glorification of the protagonist is expected; and therefore, triangulation of methods and validation of data are not that critical (though good history is based on well organized and validated data). The purpose is to present the reader with a interpretive representation of the context. The example that came to my mind yesterday was that of the imagery of the Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi. The job of a historian is to recreate an image of the Rani in the minds of the reader with his narrative. Every one (in my audience) may have heard of her, and having read the narrative/ heard stories about her, the readers would form an image of her in their own minds. It is inconsequential if she was right or left-handed; if she had 12 guards of 16; or if she indeed wore a saree as depicted in the imagery. What is important is to highlight the paradoxes – a woman warrier in a society and time when no woman fought in the frontlines; a saree-clad horse-rider; a lady carrying both a baby slung on her back and a sword in her hand; and the like. Symbols of bravery and obstinence. Period.

On the other hand, a biographer is expected to carefully validate all data and record them diligently. She is expected to present all aspects of the personality – the good, the bad, and the not so expected facets; from multiple perspectives, without judgement. The biographer cannot exaggerate, should not glorify, and should present the facts as they are without any interpretation. It is for the readers to make sense and take specific learning. It could be anything; like when Prof. V Raghunathan spoke yesterday, he said he picked up the idea that a man can do more work by sleeping only four hours per day, when he read the biography of Napolean (who apparently slept for four hours on horse back). Maybe, when I read the same biography, I would pick up something else, and you something totally different. No representations here.

A case is a decision-focused narrative. The purpose of a case is to emphasize how learning about a context can help students and learners from applying it other contexts. My colleague Prof. Rakesh Godhwani narrated a story yesterday. It was about the great imposter, Dr. Joe (made famous by the movie of the name: Catch me if you can), on how as MBAs we need to “fake it till we make it”. A member of the audience wanted to know the ending – did he get rewarded for saving lives, or did he go to jail for impersonation? As a case writer and management teacher, I would say, the ending does not matter. What matters was the criteria to make the decision, not the actual decision. Therefore, good cases do not need to be neat and complete. Then are non-comprehensive accounts of events and antecedents leading to a decision.

Therefore, the historian would create an imagery of the Rani of Jhansi, the biographer would focus on her valor, while the case writer would discuss the context of why she was at all required to fight (in the context of British India’s Doctrine of Lapse).

Celebrating the also-rans

I called the audience to write about firms that were also-rans. Success has many fathers; and these days, even failures have enough parents. In fact, I was proud of the fact one of my first cases as an academic was about India’s first ecommerce firm (way back in the year 1999), Fabmart.com; and in one of the panels yesterday the co-founder of Fabmart.com, Mr. K Vaitheeswaran was speaking about how the firm failed subsequently and his coping with that failure (read about his book, Failing to Succeed, here).

However, there is little focus on the also-ran firms. Since a majority of our students are also-rans who make their careers in also-ran firms, it is important to study them. It is important to study how these firms perceive the environment, adapt/ adopt, make strategic shifts, learn/ unlearn, pivot, take feedback, measure impact and performance, and go round and round in circles! Developing, what we strategy researchers call, dynamic capabilities. These bios are extremely valuable for the management researcher.

So, the next time you hear about a firm that is neither a success or a failure, remember that there is a lot to learn in terms of processes, routines, and dynamic capabilities from them.

Cheers.

(c) 2017. R Srinivasan.

PS: Edited Prof. Rakesh Godhwani’s coordinates and the name of the movie he referred to (Catch me if you can) on 11 Sep 2017.

Changed the featured image: 21 Sep 2017.

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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.