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Flexibility Is The Key strategy

The book’s strengths – the depth of research, the scope of the project, and an unabashed championing of the story of contemporary Indian entrepreneurship – outweigh these quibbles over the nature of strategy, and its contextual limits

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It is, perhaps, only human tendency to frame the times that one lives in as exceptional in the flow of history. And writing in business and management anyway tends to valorise change and novelty, with just a dash of exaggeration. So, it is not surprising that management writers have taken to the phrase ‘Vuca’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) with such zest. The term, which originated in the US military, has been adopted in a wholesale manner by business leaders, gurus, and observers to describe today’s business environment. If today’s environment is truly Vuca, one wonders  how one may characterise the aftermath of the OPEC oil crisis in 1973, or – for Indian executives – the tumultuous decade starting with the MRTP Act in 1969. Be that as it may, the authors of the intriguingly titled Riding the Tiger: How to Execute Business Strategy in India ask themselves, what can we say about strategy execution that explains success (and failure) in the ‘Vuca’ world of contemporary India? That’s an interesting question, and the authors – who strive here to organise their work in terms of the strategy frameworks proposed by Michael Porter (‘What is Strategy?’) and A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin (Playing to Win) – seek to provide the reader insights into the art of ‘riding the tiger.’

There is a lot to like in this book.  The impressive credentials of the authors – Wilfried Aulbur is managing partner in India of global consulting firm Roland Berger and Amit Kapoor is a management educator and thinker – are reflected not only in the array of CEOs and executives interviewed for this book but also in the depth of individual cases. The case studies are detailed and absorbing, with thoughtful quotes from senior executives, and cover a truly diverse set of enterprises in India including multinational subsidiaries and Indian firms, diversifying old economy businesses as well as startups of the digital era, and emerging multinationals as well as domestic giants.

I also found rather fascinating the detour into a discussion on how the label ‘Made in Germany’ transformed from a signifier of shoddy craftsmanship in the 19th century to a marker of global quality in the early 20th century.

Most importantly, the book seems to point to the crucial importance of operational effectiveness in setting the stage for sustained superior performance.

The need for operational effectiveness is, of course, undeniable. However, as Porter has argued forcefully in his 1996 article in the Harvard Business Review, operational effectiveness – important as it is – is not strategy. Instead, strategy resides in the delivery of unique value to customers through a business model that is defended by tradeoffs (for example, you can’t be both a full-service airline and a low-cost airline) and fit (for example, if you are a low-cost airline, you probably are characterised by quick turnaround at airports and a no-meals policy, and both aspects fit with each other). In Riding the Tiger, the authors seem cognizant of this point in their discussion of Bajaj Auto’s focus on the premium segment of motorcycles dominated by their Pulsar brand. However, for a book explicitly grounded in Porter’s ideas about strategy, a disproportionately high number of the book’s pages remain preoccupied with operational effectiveness. Perhaps, this preoccupation could also have something to do with the authors’ belief that “Indian consumers are value for money devotees”.  This presumption is problematic and can be handily questioned using examples from within this book (Bajaj Auto and its Pulsar motorcycle) as well as from outside.

Consider the phenomenal rise of Fabindia (In 2016, the company emerged as the largest retail brand in the country) on the back of its core range of handloom garments. These garments, sold at multiples of the price prevalent in Khadi Gramodyog stores, have never wanted for customers.

In turn, this contradiction also raises a broader question for an understanding of effective strategy in the Indian context. Is it really possible to reconcile the Vuca world of Indian business (as the authors characterise it) with the static, positional view of strategy developed by Porter?

The authors assert that “strategy frameworks that look at a 10-year planning horizon may not be applicable to emerging markets in general and India in particular”. Yet, bewilderingly, they organise their thinking in term of Porter’s framework which, in Porter’s own words (from the aforementioned 1996 article), assumes a “horizon of a decade or more, not of a single planning cycle”.

Nevertheless, the book’s strengths – the depth of research, the scope of the project, and an unabashed championing of the story of contemporary Indian entrepreneurship – outweigh these quibbles over the nature of strategy, and its contextual limits, and mark the book as necessary reading for anyone interested in the remarkable evolution of the business landscape in India since liberalisation.

cracking the code

Unlike in the past,  Millennials are plagued with the problem of plenty. The sudden opening of many career avenues is confusing. The problem is compounded further by the regular inundation of “follow your passion” advice. One should rejoice the availability of diverse options to align one’s interest and skills, but in reality, anxiety seeps in to choose the right one from the plethora of choices. Career Rules: How To Choose right and Get The Life You Want (HarperCollins) by Sonya Dutta Choudhury, tries to help the students and early stage professionals in choosing not only the right career but also suggests them how to switch in between if it is not of interest.

Kudos to the author for covering around 14 professions in a condensed form knowing very well that now days our attention span has also shrunk. Under each profession, she has provided a brief narrative from a couple of people, followed by details about that profession. The inspiring journeys of around 40 professionals are quite interesting, and some of the professions are not very common.

The author could have extended the book to identify a few personality traits in each journey for the reader, as soft skills also play key roles in one’s career. It could have been better if professions related to basic sciences were also added, as after a long gap, basic sciences are regaining importance. 

The second part of the book talks about various career hacks, which should not be avoided as it provides some beautiful insights into the importance of internships, tips on building resume and preparing for interviews. There are also internationally renowned personality tests that match one’s natural trait with a subset of professions, which author has covered briefly in one of her career hack sections.

One thing which stands out in this book is the resource list to go along for a career. This helps the reader avoid wasting any time in navigating through the maze of information.  Indirectly the author is also encouraging the reader to develop a habit of reading, watching and following the trends through her resource list.

At a time where everything is fast and quick, this book provides an easy read to bootstrap one’s career.

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magazine 1 oct 2017 khadi

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