April 14, 2010

Extreme Konsulting

Some people look at the world around them and wonder why - Creative folks look around and wonder why NOT ? We have had corrossion resistant steel and pest resistant Bt-cotton, so why can we not have institutional systems that are corruption resistant by design ?

In my youth and childhood, when I was a consultant in an earlier professional avatar, I have had the opportunity to work with Indian and foreign companies and with some agencies of the government to design processes and systems that meet certain organisational goals. Some of our ideas were successful and some where not and when I look back on these assignments, the one common thread that spans across all successful assignments was the fact the organisation concerned, or at least some significant individuals, were committed to a successful implementation and worked with us to introduce the changes required for our ideas to be successful. Unfortunately this is not so in most government assignments.

Government agencies in India, both at the states as well as at the centre, are a consultants delight and, paradoxically and simultaenously, a consultants nightmare. Why delight ? because the processes are so obviously faulty that even a mediocre consultant can instantly locate areas of improvement and can, without much thought, suggest changes to improve matters. For example the simple action of using email for seeking and granting approvals can speed up 90% of all government processes. But then why the nightmare ? because this simple idea of using email -- that is widely used in most corporate organisations -- will not be accepted by the gerontocracy that has the final say in all matters. Government thought processes are so archaic and arthritic that change will be resisted to the last drop of red ink -- or the last thread of red tape -- even if it is obvious that the change will be beneficial to society at large.

A normal consulting assignment assumes as a pre-requisite that someone, somewhere wants the situation to improve and a normal consultant is tasked to not only find a solution to the problem or issue but also suggest an appropriate change management mechanism to make the change palatable. An "extreme konsulting" assignment begins with the hypothesis that NO ONE wants the situation to improve and then goes around to devise a solution that not only causes an improvement but is also irresistible to all stakeholders -- especially those who have the power to block the change. Traditionally, this is what is referred to as a WIN-WIN solution but unfortunately it is easier to talk about such solutions but fiendishly difficult to actually craft one that meets this requirement.

But just because it is difficult to find does not mean that one should not look for one. When the Wright brothers flew their improbable contraption on a desolate beach near Kitty Hawk for a few metres, could anybody envisage that Armstrong and Aldrin would be standing on the moon in 70 years ? When starving Indians were queueing up for grain 'donated' under the US Public Law 480 in the 1960s, could anyone envisage that the Green Revolution would result in grains rotting in Indian godowns ? When the average waiting time for a telephone in India was more than 10 years, could anyone envisage that within a decade, the average telephone consumer will be beseiged by scores of telephone companies trying to sell him a mobile connection. The search for that illusive WIN-WIN solution that will be embraced by someone who does not have the slightest intention of finding a solution, or who may indeed be hostile to the desired change, is the ultimate professional challenge for the "extreme konsultant".

How does one go about executing such an assignment ? The trick is to find a solution that is not only useful but one that is enjoyed by all. In Bengali this is referred to as an ahaar-o-oshood, something that serves both as meal as well as medicine. Does such a solution exist ? Or more importantly can we craft one ?

Obviously it would be pretentious on my part to even contemplate offering a solution that fits this bill but let me draw upon on my limited sphere of knowledge and expertise -- information technology -- to outline the contours of a potential approach. Such an approach would provide hints at what the final solution, that obviously must go beyond IT, could look like.

Let us look at eGovernance that has been a subject of debate for over a decade. Consultants have made lots of money -- sourced from a variety of international funding agencies as well as generously provided by the Government of India -- in the planning, design, deployment and integration of IT solutions that would benefit the government and the citizen. Some of these assignments have been successful, most have been not and government institutions in India have continued to remain mired in the perennial cesspool of incompetence and corruption. Some transaction processing has perhaps been automated -- typically money receipt transactions -- but a visit to any government office would show lots of dusty computers lying idle or if operational, being used mainly for playing games. Email of course remains a sham. Nobody in government ever checks mail and getting a response is out of question.

But what if we could get everyone in the office hooked on Orkut ? Or something equivalent ? We in India have a great fascination for Orkut and thousands of people have voluntarily signed up for this, or similar, social networking sites. Of course this fascination is generally restricted to the younger parts of the urban population but even ageing gerontocrats are under seige from their children and grandchildren to get into Orkut. Net-net Orkut is something that people adopt on their own, not under the diktat of an employer. So a social network is ahaar ( or meal ) but can we convert it into oshoodh ( or medicine ) ? This would mean using Orkut as a platform for eGovernance and I have explained how this could be done in my earlier post.  If we adopt this approach, resistance to the usage of information technology will be significantly reduced and the possibility of a real eGovernance solution will be brightened considerably.

Orkut is obviously not a solution to India's problems,  but it is symbolic of (a) a class of solutions and (b) an approach -- that tries to leverage something that people naturally like to do and bend it into a solution to a larger problem. Identifying similar ideas and sliding them unobtrusively into public usage is TEKKA : The Extremely Kreative Konsulting Assignment.

Unfortunately those who can envisage a new reality are vastly outnumbered by those who cannot. Is there anyone in the Konsulting Kommunity who can try a TEKKA ?


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