Monday, July 27, 2009

Musings on Religion and Globalization

One of the perks of being a globally mobile employee of a multinational is to visit and observe evolution of cultures at across continents. This past weekend I spent some time at Houston’s Hindu temple, Meenakshi Devasthanam, at the suburb of Pearland in Texas. Architected in a typical South Indian style, replete with stone arches (Gopurams), the temple is well maintained giving visitors a sense of serenity.

I have been raised a Hindu, and though not deeply religious, I subscribe to the general Hindu philosophy and thinking, or at least my little understanding of it. This is not unique for South Asians, for many of whom the separation of religion, society and life is blurred. And I guess this is true of rest of mankind too.

Case in point is Pope Benedict's Encyclical Letter, issued earlier this month. This 144-page and over 30,000-word encyclical letter of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI to “all people of good will” is was supposedly more than two years in the making. Tyler Cowen, in a Wall Street Journal essay says

“full of critical comments about commerce, the profit motive, banks and businesses. . . . It is true that the encyclical registers many complaints about commercial society. It says that current economic arrangements create inequalities and injustices. It laments that people pursue self-interested goals without the broader community or the prospect of transcendence in mind. It says that "today's international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise." It warns against "lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country's international competitiveness." And it argues that "the continuing hegemony of the binary model of market-plus-State has accustomed us to think only in terms of the private business leader of a capitalistic bent on the one hand, and the State director on the other."

Though I will not claim to understand the intricacies of Pope’s Encyclical Letter, the comments in the media and translations for laymen like me make us reflect on religion and globalization: is globalization making us less human? . . less sensitive to fellow humans?

One can flip around to other extremes of globalization: Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who personify wealth creation by globalization have in recent years shifted gears towards charities and issues impacting humans. If one takes their biographies as a blueprint: is it better for us to continue the path to globalization and AFTER we have reached the peak of Self actualization (ref: Maslow’s hierarchy_of_needs) reflect on bigger issues?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Globalizations: Pillsbury Doughboy™ takes on a Desi (South Asian) Avatar in America

This month I have been traveling across cities in Anytown, USA more than my usual quota. It is for an interesting consulting engagement we are doing for a client in Houston that also has offices in Cincinnati, Ohio. While on the road, I try to keep my culinary urges in check, preferring to go for known brands of chains, generally large fast-food brands. I am vegetarian and it is interesting how large chains have at least one or two good entrée for folks just like me. Given my South Asian/Indian heritage, I also like the occasional Desi (Indian) dinner.

After a busy day of meetings I don’t always want to head to a sit-and-eat restaurant I prefer to pick up some Ready-to-eat Indian food at local Indian grocers in Anytown, US. I guess I am not alone: an entire micro industry of Indian Ready to Eat cuisine (both of frozen and pre-packaged variety) has taken off in the past decade catering to both the Indian Diaspora, Non Resident Indians and also busy working-couples in India. Even with the limits on H1, L1 and works visas and Green Cards being issued by American government, sufficient number of Indians, Indian Americans and South Asians seem to be criss-crossing the continents to make the business of Ready to Eat cuisine viable.

What is really interesting about the pervasiveness of Asian/Indian Ready-to-eat food is that global giants like General Mills have taken their uniquely American brands like Pillsbury Doughboy™ east, to India, built market share, and are also "importing" back some local hits. For instance, General Mills in India has been expanding their Pillsbury wheat (Atta) brand into the pre-cooked, ready-to-heat-and-eat rotis and Naans (Indian breads). These brands, including the frozen variety are now being “exported” back to Indian grocery shops across North America and Europe.
While this would make an excellent case-study or white-paper on globalization with a mix of supply-chain management and cross-cultural sensitivities, for now I am content to sample and enjoy the by-product.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Why Has Globalization Led to Bigger Cities? Software Factories

During this long-weekend surfing through blogsphere, I came across an interesting post by Prof. Edward L. Glaeser on NYT blogs titled "Why Has Globalization Led to Bigger Cities?"

Prof. Glaeser makes an interesting observation of how the Cities continue to grow larger in spite of the flattening world (and possibly because of globalization). Taking Bangalore as a case-in-point he builds an interesting argument. While Prof. Glaeser’s observation, especially of Bangalore’s astronomical growth is right on target, the reasons he quotes are a bit sketchy.

Prof. Glaeser over-simplifies his argument by saying that a programmer might as well live in "Vale of Kashmir"or elsewhere in India and not necessarily in Bangalore. This is like arguing how Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems can continued to live the life of a recluse in Aspen while his brainchild thrived in the Silicon . Well, this misses the simple point that most IT workers are not Bill Joy. Much of the work in the IT industry does not involve innovation but sustenance or incremental development.

The fact is that even with all the networking in the world, an engineering graduate, just out of school in India, or for that matter even most of the experienced programmers cannot hope to make a decent (and steady) living just being wired to the internet. You could argue that some of the innovations come from individuals working in the proverbial garage or parent’s basement, but those are too far between and few. The market for software talent in India continues to be concentrated in Bangalore, and increasingly in Hyderabad (a.k.a Cyberabad), Pune and even the National Capital Region and suburbs of Delhi: Noida, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon

Think Software Factories

Most of us in the business of software and services realize that the flattening of the IT world that Thomas Friedman eulogized in his book is more about shift of jobs from software factories, mega-IT-shops of Fortune 500/Global 2000 companies in the west to similar software factories in India and elsewhere.

Look at it this way: Years ago, American Express had the majority of its IT operations in Phoenix, Arizona. Quest had an army of programmers in Denver, Colorado and World Bank had a concentration of its operations in Washington DC and Geneva; British Telecom in London, Deutsche Bank in Anytown Germany. Each IT shop probably had upwards of 5-10,000 people working in one or two locations. The "flattening" has meant that Indian Software firms including Infosys, Wipro, TCS, (Mahindra Satyam) and their western counterparts IBM, Accenture, Deloitte et al have outsourced some of the projects, maintenance of systems (and jobs) from their clients to their IT centers in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Shanghai.

Bottomline: The past decade-and-half has seen the movement of “software factories” and development centers from the west to a few key cities in the east primarily in India but increasingly to a few cities in China. While located in the west, these large operational centers were spread across metros in the US, UK, Europe and elsewhere but have now got concentrated into a few cities in India.
Could this be the explanation for Prof. Glaeser’s observation "Why Has Globalization Led to Bigger Cities?" It is certainly is one (though major) factor.

ps: I realize that even I am over-simplifying the concept of software factories or IT centers moving and being outsourced.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

America vs. Western world: Healthcare template, Global perspective and "The Cost Conundrum"

During the past decade-and-half, I have lived and worked in several western nations including UK, Canada, Switzerland and of course the US, where I took on Permanent Residency. In the countries I have lived in, I have been fortunate to either be eligible for the state sponsored health insurance (since I was paying taxes) or insurance supplemented by my employer.

Every western society has its share of healthcare challenges: including British loathing NHS (Guardian, BBC) and Canadians complaining about inordinate delays in getting access to rationed healthcare and similar cribs elsewhere. But would any other western country trade their system for American l lazzi-faire healthcare, which also happens to be the most expensive in the world? On the contrary, Americans and U.S lawmakers are debating a large re-haul of the current insurance-provider-healthcare system to include cover '47 Million Uninsured Americans'

Numbers floating around for the American healthcare reform are mind boggling (President Confirms $1 Trillion for Health-Care Reform)

While the lawmakers debate insurance and coverage, another viewpoint that is emerging is the burgeoning cost of American healthcare that has been spiraling out of hand. Among the widely quoted articles for this argument is the essay by Atul Gawande published in New Yorker (The Cost Conundrum). The article has been analyzed and quoted by the media during the past month, and even President Obama and staff are supposedly made it a must-read. The article is compelling since it brings in an analytical perspective to highly subjective and sometimes emotional debates.

American healthcare debate is an extremely complex affair. Most of us are easily swayed by arguments made by healthcare-professionals and other “experts” and before we form an opinion either the law is going to be debated and passed or come crashing down. While lawmakers debate the merits of insurance, payments etc, it may be a good idea to review what western countries in the rest of the world are doing (after all Americans are no healthier than their cousins in Canada, Europe and elsewhere; are they?). A sampling of interesting links:

Bloggers on Atul Gawande's writeup