Monthly Archives: November 2012

Why A Hasty Approach May Derail the Direct Cash Transfer Scheme Completely

The UPA government has announced the Direct Cash Transfer (DCT) scheme, with an eye on the elections. As expected, the opposition has cried foul,  terming it “bribe” to the voters.

That is politics. And not really the topic of discussion here. In fact, this piece is not even about the economics of it. Economists agree that it is more efficient to pass on the benefits to the deserving directly through cash transfer than indirectly through subsidies. In any case, the government has been talking about it for quite some time. The Budget Speech in the last two years have referred to it explicitly. Many studies internationally have shown that they have, by and large, had a positive effect.

The points that I raise here are not about the politics or economics of DCT but the implementation hurdles that remain. Because even with this limited rollout, it could be the world’s biggest such project. Rushing in to implement may create problems that could shake off people’s confidence on the scheme. This could lead the opponents to project it as a faulty idea per se.

So, here are some of the issues.

1. What about those without the bank accounts? India has less than 25% of people in rural areas, who have access to bank accounts. How will they get the benefit? Does it mean that some of them—those who have bank accounts—will get it and others will not get it? That will be as anarchical as it could be. And the backlash could be severe.

2. How will subsidies and DCT co-exist, even if for a limited period? The government says that the scheme will be fiscal-neutral as it will replace subsidies. Practically, how will that happen, especially in fuel (kerosene), food, and fertilizers? Till all the people are in a position to get the benefit of DCT (today, those who do not have Aadhaar or bank account will not be able to get it), the government cannot touch the public distribution system. Which means it cannot effectively cut  subsidies. So, the mechanism has to be in the point of contact (ration stores and the like) to ensure that some beneficiaries do not avail both the benefits, which is next to impossible, as of now. So, the government will continue to run both for the foreseeable future. And surely, it will not be fiscal neutral.

3. What are the alternate channels of supplies? While it is good to say, on paper, that by getting the money directly, the beneficiaries, can opt to buy the products from anywhere, no one is clear what is that anywhere. In many areas, no alternative supply and distribution channel exists. So, how will cash help them?

4. How do you ensure that the money is spent on those products and services for which is intended? How does the government ensure that the money is spent on the products and services that intends to subsidize? In some countries, these subsidies are conditional and are given to women. There is no such plan in India. So, in many families, where men spend a lot of earnings on alcohol and such things,  more cash means more money to get drunk. The possibility is very real in India.

The issues raised here are not meant to argue against the implementation of DCT.

But the fact remains that changing the entire subsidy regime requires a lot of thought and preparation. The government started on the right note by appointing a task force to suggest the ways and means of implementing this.

The task force, headed by Nandan Nilekani, Chairman, UIDAI, submitted a detailed report, recommending creation of what it called a Core Subsidy Management System (CSMS) to implement the new subsidy regime.  The task force foresaw the gap that exists in the payment system reach and recommended this

Since it may take a while for the payment systems in the country to gear up for direct transfer of subsidies, an intermediate step may be considered where the subsidy difference is transferred to wholesalers/retailers in the first phase, and only later on to customers.

But the government has disregarded it and has announced DCT right away. Also, there is no news on where the rollout of CSMS has reached.

With all its good intentions, the government will have only itself to blame, if the whole idea backfires.

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Filed under Digital Economy, Inclusive India, Indian Economy, New Governance, Policy & Regulation, Uncategorized

Why Indian Software Product Companies Need More than Ideas and Funding

There has been a lot of discussion around why India, home to some of the world’s largest IT services firms—and often dubbed as an IT superpower—has not been able to produce even one large independent IT product company.  Companies which have built some products have either remained small, closed down, sold themselves off, or have switched to services to sustain themselves.

Some of the reasons that have been offered as explanation are as follows.

Indians are not good at innovation. This is the most superficial explanation that you hear, usually from those outside the IT fraternity, with a limited understanding of this industry. This is flawed because of two reasons.

One, it makes an inherent assumption that building products require innovation while providing business solutions as services companies to enterprises do not require  innovation.

Two, by labeling Indians as not good at innovation, it fails to explian how Indians have built extremely successful product companies in the United States and how they have excelled in product management and other so called innovative functions in large non-Indian technology companies.

Indians are risk-averse. Well, there is some truth in the statement. The services business worldwide, because of various reasons, is  fragmented and that gives a chance to smaller companies to remain small and still make money. Usually, not so with product companies.

After the success of TCS, Infosys, and Wipro, many smaller companies in India positioned themselves along similar lines and started offering services using cheaper manpower. Since the demand was high, they managed to survive, without taking too much of risk. Since the major investment often were done after winning a contract, it was fairly de-risked. The presence of large number of such companies in India has given an impression that Indians do not take risks and and follow something that is tried and tested. But let us not forget that it is because a few companies took the risk initially, others could cash in on the wave.

In any case, while the statement does manage to explain, to some extent, why too many companies have not entered the product business, it still does not explain why those who have, have not been able to succeed much.

There is no ecosystem. Most of those who have tried their hands in creating products believe that India does not offer a supportive ecosystem. They are not exactly off the mark.

India does not offer any major incentive for creating IP. The demand from local market is not very strong, unlike in some other countries. Further, the services branding is so strong that few VCs/investors back a company which wants to play long term in products. If many of them do invest in some product start-ups, it is for quickly selling to large technology companies.  They are always pushing the start-ups for maximizing revenues in a short time, not always a great way to create long term value.

All these factors have created some hurdles for product companies, feel those who want to change this. I think they are right.

But to be sure, it was the same scenario when services business started. Indian government has always been late to step in, if at all. The local demand was absent. And there was little funding. In addition, there was no skilled manpower. But Indian companies started at the low end by tapping the Y2K opportunity and slowly climbed up the value chain.

So, while it is true that a supportive ecosystem would absolutely help the growth of India as a product hub, it is difficult to believe that itself would kickstart the product revolution.

Indians are not good in marketing. Many believe that Indians, in general, lack in marketing capability and products require far more marketing skills than services, which survives on cold calling and sales efforts.

I am not sure whether I agree with this statement.

Some Indian marketing ideas now serve as global case studies. Further, assuming, for a moment, it is true I believe, it is too tactical a thing to offer as a reason for  lack of product success stories from India. Indians are not exactly known for following systems, processes and standards. But Indian IT services companies lead the world in quality, standard practices, and creating systems and processes. Something like this can always be learned.

There have been laudable efforts in recent years such as NASSCOM Product Conclave and the formation of ProductNation. I am sure they cam surely address some of these gaps such as lack of ecosystem, help the companies in marketing and market the idea that India has everything to offer world class products that it has already done in a few areas such as banking. In core banking, for example, a majority of top providers are either Indian or have an Indian genesis.

I have my own reason to offer. Again, I would like to clarify that I offer it as yet another reason and would not claim to be the only/principal reason. I call it lack of user/product centricity.

If we look at history, we would find that while India was the place that was home to great ideas/abstractions/philosophies/sciences—such as concept of zero, algebra/geometry, astronomy, Ayurveda. Our neighbor China has always been known for inventions and discoveries of tangible things—such as magnet, tea, paper, silk.

Is it just co-incidence? I don’t think so. Our domination in modern days—India in services and China in products—stems from the same differences that existed a few hundred years back.

And you can tell this from your experience. During one of my flights from San Francisco to Seoul (some time around 2005-06), I met the owner of a  small Californian garment manufacturer, who had outsourced to a unit in China. He had come to India once to do preliminary survey but went back a little confused. What he told me can be a pointer to possibly what we do not have. I will not use the word “lack”. It is just a different way of looking at things.

He told me when he went to China and started talking to prospective partners, the discussion steered towards the type of garments he manufacturers, who they are meant for, quantity of manufacturing and so on. He was perfectly comfortable with those  queries.

In India, he was asked questions about how many people he would like to employ, what is the cost of production there, what is the saving that he is expecting, even before they asked him about his users/products. He did not have clear answers about many of those questions and left confused.

When I met him, he did not have any concrete plans for India but he had not given up on the idea. He had hope that he would come back one day. For some reason, he believed, Indians could do it better. The only tangible reason I could gauge from the conversation is this: if they are designing so well for Bollywood, they can do a great job!

I think we all have faced similar situation. If you talk of a new business idea, the discussion here steers more towards business models, funding, marketing challengers. Rarely do we go into things like users and and the actual products!

Frog Design, owned by Aricent, a company with Indian genesis, opened a development center in India, but decided to open its design studio in China. The reason was the same.

This is also what separates an application development for a client and a product development. While the technology and development process are similar, in a typical ADM project, the client briefs the specification. The same is the case with outsourced product development, where Indians have succeeded significantly. In a commercial product, the firm has to do its own user research to decide the features.

One may debate on whether a Steve Jobs of way of deciding for the user or a Nokia/Samsung way of detailed user research is better, but the commonality in both is that the user is foremost in the minds of the designers. Without that, creating a great product may only happen as an accident, once in a while!

Many would argue that B2B product development is different. I would disagree. While B2B means the user research cycle may be a little shorter, it  nevertheless requires the same user centricity that  any B2C product requires. You are finding about the user and designing accordingly. You are not designing to a specification.

The difference is subtle but crucial.

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Whatever Its Algorithm, Klout Must Fix Its Basic Technical Issues

There has been a lot of debate about Klout, its score and its relevance. While some are addicted to it, many others dismiss it outrightly. Most of the criticism has been about the way it measures influence or its algorithm;  its non-transparent mechanism; and its scant respect for individuals (you have a Klout score the world can see and all your information with Klout, even if you have never heard of it).

There has been some good articles on what exactly is wrong with Klout. Here are a few. Why I quit Klout, Why You should too… and The Problems with Klout. You can find plenty of such posts and articles and you may tend to agree with many of those concerns. Others argue that it is still experimenting and should be given some time before it is dismissed. This is especially true about the criticism Klout draws about its presentation of the topics of influence, which sometimes are more than funny. I myself am supposed to be influential about  games. I still cannot figure out ABC of games that my six year old son plays so dexterously.

But, most of the criticism about privacy, transparency and efficacy of its algorithm are subjective. The disastrous measurement of topics of influence, which many argue, is a proof of non-efficacy of its algorithm, can probably improve as it is something that is a first in the world.

But what I cannot digest at all is that something that claims to measure the influence of the entire populace of the world is struggling to get some of the basic things in place.  I am talking of its interface with Facebook. While Twitter updates and interactions get updated in 48-72 hours (And you think that is too slow?) the Facebook interface is pathetic. And I am being polite. Sometimes, it takes a FB interaction 7 days to show up as moments in Klout, sometimes it takes 10 days, sometimes more. As of today (9th November), my last FB interaction that shows on my interaction page is of 25th October and that shows on my moments page (which presumably goes to make up the Klout score) is of 23rd October.

What is more, it is not a complete list. Anywhere between 20-50% of those interactions never show up. After I double-checked that they were public interactions, I wrote to them and they admitted that, it was a problem. “We are working on this issue currently and hope to release improvements soon,” I got the reply on 9th October. That is exactly a month back. I am not being judgmental on the time they are taking. But what I am absolutely worried about is that in the meantime, they continue with presenting the score to the world, which by their own admission, is not based on correct data. One can keep arguing about the algorithm. But there is nothing to argue if your data captured itself is not accurate.

In the same mail, they tried convincing me that it is only display of moments  that is an issue and the FB interactions are still being captured for calculating the Klout score. When I wrote back refuting this claim, I got a single line reply that they are investigating it and “have taken note of your account”. This was on 10th October and nothing has happened. In the meanwhile, I have tried disconnecting and reconnecting Facebook and still have faced the same issues.

The problems that potentially arise from this are multiple. One, the Klout score is based on only partial and haphazard data of users. That puts a question mark on the basic offering itself: the score.

The delay also is an issue. If there is a uniform delay in Twitter, FB, and other networks, one can still justify it saying it is a delayed feed. But imagine trying to create score from your activities and interactions on Twitter on 1st, on FB on 15th and Google Plus on 30th and combining them to create a score. What will that denote? And how will you relate that to any offline/online events? It becomes a useless number.

While many dismiss Klout, I am still of the opinion that it should be given a chance. But rather than trying newer things and fancy toppings, it must get its basics right. There is no excuse for basic technical issues. I would say proceeding further without getting its data integrity right will be a dangerous path for Klout.

 

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