Saturday, June 30

Friends, Romans & Sponsors

Oftentimes a drift from tactical to strategic management is, though stirring, more difficile than forseeable. Yeah, I'm sure there are ingenious likes of Johann Sebastian Bach's in the management circle who would be austere in saying "There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself." But it needs not much evidence to say for certain that most other mere mortal souls like me wished that strategic thinking process was a science. I think most of us, when faced with such decisions, often succumb to bondage of self-incurred tutelage.

One such instant which required a strand of strategic thinking process was here this week when Digital Empowerment Foundation, a Delhi based non-profit organization operating in the ICT space, approached us for sponsoring their Manthan Award 2007 initiative. This apparently notabe award is aimed to recognize e-Content practitioners for development at the grassroots level. With 14 award categories, 250 nominations last year and a projected 500+ nominations this time around, Manthan certainly seems to have come afar since its humble takeoff 3 years back.

It is interesting to trace the HiWEL- Manthan tryst over the years. In the very first year, we as an award nominee, did not end up winning one in any of the categories. It is kind of ironical that in the same year, we ended up winning the esteemed Dewang Mehta Award instituted by the NASSCOM foundation. Last year, we as a pioneer in the Minimally Invasive Education space, were approached by DEF to sponsor one of the award categories. This year, DEF recognises HiWEL as one of the leaders in the Computer Aided Learning space and wants to take the partnership to a strategic level in the areas of common interest.

Well, when the sponsorship is looked into in isolation, it surely seems to have a potential to contribute to HiWEL's branding in variety of ways - by creating brand exposure and from developing brand associations with UNDP and AIF. But, looking at the participant mix which has barely any skew on our customer base, i.e. state and corporate, the cost benefit analysis would indicate that any monetary sponsorship would not add much value. However, at times, given that we stand for innovation and leadership values in digital empowerment space, it becomes imperative that we be a torch bearer to other emerging players who rarely receive any recognition or support in their journey.

As of now, we are contemplating on having a HiWEL member on the jury board and therewith sponsor the entire jury process. We are looking into areas where we could involve HiWEL staff throughout the entire award process. I think the event would provide a platform to both mobilize HiWEL organization internally and demonstrate our technology to other players in the field. But the affiliation effect is yet to be carefully penned down.

Apparently, this is one occasion where I get a chance to use the frameworks -brand identity, brand relationship spectrum and brand architecture - that I professedly crammed in the Branding class. How I wish I was wide-eyed in the 8am sessions and, with all due respects to fellow section mates, not listened up to those gibberish, ad infinitum CPs. Some of the CPs (Courtesy: Major) still reverberate in my mind and hardly make any imperceptible sense :)

... Santosh

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Wednesday, June 27

Is this how the government really works?

On Monday Abhishek and I went along with N and L to meet some government official at the Ministry of IT. I was quite kicked and excited! I had heard multiple (mostly not very positive) anecdotes on how it can be do deal with the government. So here I was all ready to see it in action!

Over the last 8 years or so we had set up a number of our learning centers at 6 locations throughout Delhi. Unfortunately, only 1 exists today. The other 5 had lost their funding and hence were shut down. The one that was still standing was on the verge of being closed because the payment on that was overdue. The 'buyer' was (of course) the government. The Ministry of IT had initiated the meeting because they were considering reviving the 5 learning centers that were shut down. At our end, we had an additional agenda of collecting the late payment that was overdue.

So we drove to the Central Secretariat where the Ministry of IT resides. While Abhishek and N parked the car, L and I went to the reception to get passes made. There were 4 women there, 2 of which had their heads down and were sleeping! After getting the passes we wandered through the building onto the 9th floor to meet the official. The official met us 10 minutes late but he acknowledged that he was late and apologized. I was quite surprised considering that many people never bother apologizing for making others wait. So I instantly liked him.

Anyhow, the official's conversations were mostly with N. The rest of us just took a back seat and observed and chipped in once in a while when necessary. The official was quite bright. He definitely seemed like a guy who cared to make a difference. I was sitting there with a very positive attitude of him and the government in general.

We started talking about our learning centers but soon the conversation wondered off to another project the Ministry of IT was close to implementing. It had to do with setting up 50 computer centers across Delhi. These computer centers would cater to the youth in marginalized communities. The goal was to engage the youth into doing something more productive in order to deter them from entering into a life of crimes. So the computer centers would impart some sort of vocational training. So N and the official dug into this idea deeper. N tells the official that other states, including Rajasthan, have implemented similar ideas but were not successful. The official was a little taken aback by that and asked N to please explain why they were not successful. So N continued to tell his views and what he knew about this.

The whole time in the back of mind I'm thinking, is this government official serious? Did him and his staff seriously plan the launch of 50 centers without any market research? We should not have had to tell them of other states or organizations that have implemented this idea. We should not have had to tell them about the (wrong and naive) assumptions they were making about their idea. We should not have had to tell them them whether this idea has been successfully (or not successfully) implemented anywhere. They should have done thorough research and helped alleviate our concerns that we raised with the idea. How can they put so much money into implementing something they don't even have a business plan for? Forget the money, they don't even know if the program will have the intended impact it was designed to have?

Now we know where a decent amount of our tax rupees goes - in poorly planned but well-intentioned projects.

And oh, about reviving the learning centers and paying our dues - that's something the official said he'd follow up with us in 2-3 days (max).

~ Raina Read more on this post...

Tuesday, June 26

Government is so different !!!

So it was me among four of us who traveled first. It was kind of quaint coz all along I was hoping to stay put in Delhi initially while others traveled. It just so happened that N asked specifically me to accompany him to Jaipur for the JMC project. And i guess the dual purpose was to introduce me to JMC- CEO for the Jaipur project. Jaipur project is going to be the most critical project if we want to survive this year without further losses. I got my visiting card an evening before. It was happening too fast for me.

After a 6 hour journey, we arrived at Bodh ( an education NGO). Shri Yogendraji who runs Bodh is an amazing personality and thorough gentleman. In last 35 years, Bodh has done a solid grassroot level work in Rajasthan under the leadership of Yogendraji. They run many Bodh schools in slums of Jaipur. I was really impressed with how they produced the numbers off the top of their heads. The discussions were good and we got some crucial discussion going about the engagement with Bodh for the Jaipur project.

The meeting with JMC CEO and before that with an RAS officer proved that this project is a high profile project for Raj government. We not only got our first payment but were assured of personal supervision by CEO which was absolutely amazing.

I attended my first meeting with government officials. Some experiences-

  • The boss says – XYZ ji, khade ho jayiye, naam bataiye aur introduction dijiye ! ( as if XYZ was a 4 year old !!!)
  • The accountant barges in and says that bank account can not be opened due to unprecedented nature of this transaction. After half an hour of heated discussion, we cannot reach any agreement and leave office not knowing when and whether we will get our account and after that our payment. Downstairs we enter the bank to ask for the bank account opening formalities. We are taken by surprise when bank manager tells us that bank account already exists and shows the signature of all the people that we were fighting with to get the bank account opened. Apparently everyone forgot after signing the papers or worse still they didn’t know what they were signing on in the first place ( I feel like talking to the accountant again about the rules etc but I guess I know better that that !!)
  • Noticed that RCEE ( apex org for elementary education in Raj) had 10 project director since 1998. 10 transfers in 7 years!!!!
  • In most of the meetings, despite having been introduced as the project lead for HiWEL, I did not get much attention. Clearly, there is an image that goes with a project lead and 30 year olds definitely don’t fit that. L What is the solution? A beard? Change of attire? J

I returned to Jaipur after 20 hours of nonstop travel and meetings.

We have loads of work to do within next 15 days. The construction of PLCs, installation, site search, MoUs with Bodh etc are some of the things that will need to happen simultaneously.

~ Abhishek Gupta

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A tale of -28 degrees, Kids and HiWEL learning stations

Kashmir for an official trip?

Well, it’s been difficult to explain to friends that I am visiting Srinagar on a business tour. But the fact is that Rajouri, Poonch, Kupwara, Drass, Leh, Kargil are some of the 28 places in J&K where HiWEL stations have been installed. Astonishing, isn’t it? But that’s what we do. Reaching the kids in the remotest places and letting them have a go at computers. And do these kids grab this opportunity? You bet. The excitement and the enthusiasm in kids who queue up at learning station make all the efforts and cost worth it.

Back to my Srinagar visit, we have met SPD-Sarv Shikha Abhiyaan.

J&K government has suo motto proposed to double HiWEL presence in J&K so there is nothing much to do except for routine follow up for our bills. We have really high expectations from J&K next year. Some PLCs need minor repairs and one of the centres in kupwara had its shelter damaged due to heavy snowfall. I have noted all of it.

While enjoying kababs in a shikara at Dal Lake, I and N had free flowing discussion on HiWEL and the key thrust areas if we wanted to scale up from present levels. We need to concentrate on reducing our costs, outsource more. There is no Business development happening. We need to get it going very quickly. African countries, Eastern European countries are big potential customers and I have a feeling that we just have to approach them and business would be all ours. BD is the name of the game as of now.

~ Abhishek Gupta

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Wednesday, June 13

City of blinding lights

It's now been almost a fortnight since we hit the capital city at the zenith of broiling heat and blinding sunlight. Abhishek and I have found apartments in Sarita Vihar, which professedly is near-at-hand to our Okhla office, while Raina has managed to find a PG in the ritzy Defense Colony. Rashi however drives down and somehow muddles through her way from North campus to our office in the south-east. Given how bemused and vulnerable she is, I must say it's nothing short of a stunner that she manages, time and again, to outlast the horrific drive on the Delhi roads. Sometimes I wonder whether her family is making desperate attempts to get rid of her. 25+ years of bearing with a mortal like her must understandably have been onerous indeed!

Though, on a drawn-to-scale Eicher map, Sarita Vihar occurs to be in the vicinity of Okhla, there is apparently a godforsaken railway track parting the two neighborhoods, which as luck would have it, remains closed for eternity. So this abridged passage of about a mile is now an enduring ride of about forty-five minutes along the annoying stretch of 10 Kms. It's only a nightmare come true for a cruise biker like me to race past in this hot spell; As they say - while some choose to drive like a wind, only a few choose to drive with the Loo. Well I guess for a guy who can susbsist without an Air-Cooler/AC at home in these dog-days, this traverse is just another banal challenge.

More on office and worklife in the next blog.

.... Santosh Read more on this post...