Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (VUCA spells doom for managers and their mantras; why is ear worth much less than eye? One person who took down a country), Technology (The Splinternet of Things threatens 5G's potential; Tech that could seriously change the game in 2020), Personality (How to lead a conversation between people who disagree), and India (India's Great Slowdown: What happened? What's the way out?)

Published: Jan 4, 2020 08:15:26 AM IST

g_126009_shutterstock_1016846785_bg_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (VUCA spells doom for managers and their mantras; why is ear worth much less than eye? One person who took down a country), Technology (The Splinternet of Things threatens 5G's potential; Tech that could seriously change the game in 2020), Personality (How to lead a conversation between people who disagree), and India (India’s Great Slowdown: What happened? What’s the way out?). 

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended January 03, 2020.

1) VUCA spells doom for managers and their mantras [Source: Livemint]
When an employee joins a new company, he is often given pages to fill up. The principle guiding this exercise is management by objectives (MBO), a tool developed by Peter Drucker, often described as the “founder of modern management". The organization’s goals are broken down into smaller and smaller goals as one went down the pyramid until they reached the employee, at the bottom of the managerial food chain. All employees had to define (or were given) their key result areas (KRAs) and set targets, against which they would be judged at the end of the year.

But, this is changing now. When the author of this piece enquired about the same, his friend said, “MBO is gone, KRAs are gone." So what’s in now? “A lot of companies use OKR—Google, Microsoft, all the top firms," he said. OKR stands for objectives and key results. OKR was developed at Intel Corp. in the 1970s by its legendary CEO Andy Grove. John Doerr, today one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful investors, learnt it at Intel as a young engineer. As an early investor in Google, he introduced the founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin to it. Since then, OKR has spread like wildfire.

Most importantly, while MBO decides compensation, OKR is only loosely tied to raises and bonuses. The world is only going to get more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) in the 2020s. And managers will need to scramble to make sense and cope. And all the new rules will be finger-scrawled on the beach even as the tide comes in.
 
2) A severe economic crunch in India may be inevitable—and beneficial [Source: The Economist]
The Indian economy is going through a rough phase now. An increasingly panicked government has responded with a barrage of solutions across the economic spectrum. What little money can be extracted from shrinking tax receipts is being thrown into those companies which claim their demise will do the greatest systemic damage, starting with banks (through capital infusions) and cars (through expedited government purchases). But none of these efforts is likely to revive India’s business environment or rekindle animal spirits, because they fail to address the root cause of the decline.

Although a collapse brings no joy to India Inc, it nevertheless creates an underlying sense of optimism for three unrelated reasons. The first two stem from global economic trends which are running in India’s favour, if only the state would get out of its economy’s way. The third reason has to do with India’s politics. Many believe that only a powerful jolt such as an economic crisis can force India’s clamorous democracy, and its bureaucrats and protected industries, to accept reform. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a sweeping victory in May and the opposition has no economic ideas of its own, besides another debilitating version of socialism.

A chief obstacle is that no one in the BJP is seen as capable of opening up the country’s stilted markets or even understanding what is required. Yet there are no illusions at the top about the need for a prosperous business sector to generate the tax revenues necessary to fund social programmes. The coming year would be tough for the Indian business environment, but it’s filled with promise.    

3) Why Ranchi symbolizes India’s unmet hopes [Source: Livemint]
In this elaborate piece, the author highlights how Ranchi (Jharkhand) has dramatically changed over the past two decades. Where once there were single-screen theatres, now stand multiplexes and malls. While the population has gone up in these 20 years, it faces the same malaise that many other small Indian cities do—a crippling lack of industrial activity that can create jobs. As the Economic Survey of Jharkhand points out: “There have been 28 new industries established under the Jharkhand Industrial and Investment promotion policy-2016, with a total investment of Rs18,117 crore, generating employment for 18,057 people."

As Ranchi has developed manifold, so has its worries. Ranchi now also has a ring road to ease traffic congestion within the city. But despite this, the traffic within the city has grown leaps and bounds. As Anshuman Anand, who grew up in Ranchi and now works in Bengaluru, puts it: “It never used to take more than 20 mins to reach anywhere in Ranchi. Now, it may at times even take 2 hours." There is still scope for improvement on this front. In September, ‘Ranchi’s first lady’, Sakshi Singh Dhoni, had tweeted about constant power cuts. Interestingly, 12.2% of households in the city still do not have access to a power connection nearly two decades after the city became the capital of a state.

Things seem to be improving for the better slowly. In the Ease of Doing Business rankings, the state stood 4th in 2017, after having stood 3rd in 2015. The outgoing chief minister Raghubar Das wanted to make Ranchi a textile hub. Ranchi also has a software park (STPI). Having said that, the IT industry in Ranchi is at a very nascent stage. Like many other Indian cities, there is a proposal to build a smart city in Ranchi as well. But on the whole, like many other cities of its size, Ranchi remains a purely consumption-driven city economy. This basically means that the best still leave the city in search of better opportunities, like they used to in the 1990s.

4) Why is the ear worth so much less than the eye? [Source: The Economist]
Businesses have each and every part of our body. Today we have products for every part; watches for wrist, necklaces and tie for neck, etc. But, ear was abandoned for long. Not anymore though. Apple caught the trend early. The number of its AirPods, mocked for looking like broken Q-tips when introduced in 2016, is estimated to have doubled to 60m pairs this year. They have spawned a wave of imitators, from Amazon’s black Echo Buds to Xiaomi’s Airdots (popular in China) and Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds—which creepily link directly to its Office software, including PowerPoint.

Industry executives contend that audio is undervalued—especially compared with video. As Spotify’s co-founder, Daniel Ek, said earlier this year, time spent on each is about the same, but the video industry is worth $1trn versus $100bn for audio. “Are our eyes really worth ten times more than our ears?” he asks. But, audible content is undergoing a mini-revolution. For the third year in a row, revenues from recorded music in America grew by double digits in 2018, largely thanks to subscriptions to Spotify, Apple Music and the like. Podcasts have grown both more numerous and more compelling.

The proliferation of digital-streaming devices has spawned the growth of other listening formats. This year, for the first time, the Audio Publishers Association, an industry group, reported that half of Americans listened to an audiobook, a trend it said was boosted by the popularity of digital-streaming devices, as well as podcasts. Audible, owned by Amazon, is the market leader. Maybe after so many years, ear is getting its share of acceptance from the brands.  

5) The Splinternet of Things threatens 5G's potential [Source: The Economist]
The two essential technologies speeding the IOT’s arrival, inexpensive sensors and super-fast networking kit, are advancing fast. Gartner, a research group, predicts that the global number of devices embedded with sensors will leap from 8.4bn in 2017 to 20.4bn in 2020. The second enabler is 5G, a telecoms-networking technology superior to today’s 4G mobile networks. Hans Vestberg, chief executive of Verizon, an American telecoms giant, has restructured his entire firm around 5G’s potential, arguing that it will bring many benefits beyond blazing-fast speed.

Alas, the once-bright prospects for a speedy global roll-out are turning into a tale of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good news is that several big markets will see 5G networks deployed at scale in 2020. The bad news is that the usefulness of all this will be limited at first. Unless consumers spend a fortune on the latest 5G handsets, they will not be able to enjoy super-fast downloads. The ugly aspect of the 5G story involves geopolitics. A decision to ban Huawei from America’s telecoms networks and to deny it access to vital intellectual property from American suppliers has dealt a severe blow to the market leader.

Frank Appel, chairman of Deutche Post DHL, a giant logistics and package-delivery firm, warns that if information cannot be exchanged easily between different networks, “we have to go back to paperwork and print and input into the system…I don’t know how we will manage.” Verizon’s Mr. Vestberg observes that 5G would then be a step back to 1G and 2G, which used network standards that did not allow seamless global connectivity. Vincent Peng, a board member at Huawei, warns that this could result in a disastrous “digital Berlin Wall”. Unless a political settlement is soon reached between China and America on 5G, 2020 will be remembered for the arrival of the Splinternet of Things.

6) How to lead a conversation between people who disagree [Source: Ted.com]  
Many a times we disagree with our counterparts on various topics. So, in a world deeply divided, how do we have hard conversations with nuance, curiosity, respect? Veteran reporter Eve Pearlman introduces "dialogue journalism": a project where journalists go to the heart of social and political divides to support discussions between people who disagree. They brought 25 Trump supporters from Alabama together in conversation with 25 Clinton supporters from California. They brought them together in a closed, moderated Facebook group that they kept open for a month. What they wanted to do was to give them a place to engage with genuine curiosity and openness.
 
So in the two years since the launch of the California/Alabama Project, they've gone on to host dialogues and partnerships with media organizations across the country. And they've been about some of the most contentious issues: guns, immigration, race, education. And what they found, remarkably, is that real dialogue is in fact possible. And that when given a chance and structure around doing so, many, not all, but many of our fellow citizens are eager to engage with the other.

Too often journalists have sharpened divides in the name of drama or readership or in service to our own views. After they closed that first Trump/Clinton project, about two-thirds of the women went on to form their own Facebook group and they chose a moderator from each state and they continue to talk about difficult and challenging issues.

7) India’s Great Slowdown: What happened? What’s the way out? [Source: hks.harvard.edu]
This paper from Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman, professors at the Havard University examines the pattern of growth in the 2010s. Standard explanations cannot account for the long slowdown, followed by a sharp collapse. Their explanation stresses both structural and cyclical factors, with finance as the distinctive, common element. In the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), two key drivers of growth decelerated. Export growth slowed sharply as world trade stagnated, while investment fell victim to a homegrown Balance Sheet crisis, which came in two waves.
 
The first wave—the Twin Balance Sheet crisis, encompassing banks and infrastructure companies—arrived when the infrastructure projects started during India’s investment boom of the mid-2000s began to go sour. The economy nonetheless continued to grow, despite temporary, adverse demonetization and GST shocks, propelled first by income gains from the large fall in international oil prices, then by government spending and a non-bank financial company (NBFC)-led credit boom. This credit boom financed unsustainable real estate inventory accumulation, inflating a bubble that finally burst in 2019. Consequently, consumption too has now sputtered, causing growth to collapse. As a result, India is now facing a Four Balance Sheet challenge—the original two sectors, plus NBFCs and real estate companies—and is trapped in an adverse interest growth dynamic, in which risk aversion is leading to high interest rates, depressing growth, and generating more risk aversion.
 
Standard remedies are unavailable: Monetary policy is stymied by a broken transmission mechanism; large fiscal stimulus will only push up already-high interest rates, worsening the growth dynamic. The traditional structural reform agenda—land and labour market measures—are important for the medium run but will not address the current problems. Addressing the Four Balance Sheet problem decisively will be critical to durably reviving growth. Raising agricultural productivity is also high priority. And even before that a Data Big Bang is needed to restore trust and enable better policy design.
 
8) The hacker who took down a country [Source: Bloomberg]
Can one person take down a whole country? Surely, Daniel Kaye, a hacker, has proven this. The attack against Liberia began in October 2016. More than a half-million security cameras around the world tried to connect to a handful of servers used by Lonestar Cell MTN, a local mobile phone operator, and Lonestar’s network was overwhelmed. Internet access for its 1.5 million customers slowed to a crawl, then stopped.

This attack was done by Mr. Kaye. And he was hired by Avishai “Avi” Marziano, Cellcom’s chief executive officer to take on Lonestar. In 2015, Kaye and Marziano discussed using DDoS attacks to slow down Lonestar’s internet service and irritate its customers into switching. Kaye started small, using a website called “VDos Stresser” that bombarded other sites with traffic for a fee. Leaked messages from a VDos database show an individual using the name “bestbuy,” likely Kaye or an associate, asking about the service on offer. “I need quite a lot more power,” bestbuy wrote.

There’s really nothing stopping other hackers-for-hire from using DDoS for corporate espionage or chaos. It’s proved to be a cheap and effective way to hobble a rival. Since the Liberia attack, the ranks of internet-connected devices have continued to grow rapidly, including cars, medical implants, even beehives. When Kaye is released in early 2020, he’ll face court-mandated restrictions limiting his access to phones, computers, and encryption software, though he hopes to continue his career in online security. Until then, he spends all day in the prison kitchen, chopping vegetables.

9) How the Internet Killed Feminism [Source: jezebel.com]
This piece dives deep into feminist blogging and from where it started. Feministe was the first of the five major feminist blogs to arrive in 2001—Feministing, Shakesville, Pandagon, and Jezebel followed. There were plenty of Asian American racial justice sites, but feminism was deemed a separate issue. By 2004, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 66 percent of men and 61 percent of women used the internet. Time reported that the majority of bloggers were women. That was probably news to anyone outside the blogosphere since the blogs admitted into the mainstream were overwhelmingly political and almost exclusively run by men. While feminists considered the personal political, apparently no one else did. Monica Roberts at TransGriot, Anna John at Sepia Mutiny, Miriam Zoila Pérez at Radical Doula, they were considered little more than diarists.

The feminist blog wars didn’t kill the feminist blogosphere. No one the author of this piece spoke to could really figure out why it just kind of petered out in 2009, with the exception of a few stragglers like Feministing and Shakesville and Jezebel, which is currently owned by a private equity maniac. Shakesville was gone by August, followed by an expose by The Outline about its questionable approach (McEwan did not respond to multiple interview requests) and Feministing hasn’t posted in months (the Times recently reported that the site will close soon). Besides social media being the more effective tool for feminism, smith thinks that its amplification of the drama led to burnout. As Peterson said, “The internet runs on beef.” And even that was co-opted.

Despite being individually overlooked, the legacy of bloggers like Angry Black Bitch’s Merritt is bolstered by descendants like Mikki Kendall, whose activism is firmly entrenched in Twitter. In 2013, Kendall started the viral hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen after Schwyzer admitted to targeting women of color to get ahead, and white feminists who had supported him failed to own their complicity. “It was intended to be Twitter shorthand for how often feminists of color are told that the racism they experience ‘isn’t a feminist issue,’” Kendall explained in The Guardian. “Feminism as a global movement meant to unite all women has global responsibilities, and–as illustrated by hundreds of tweets–has failed at one of the most basic: it has not been welcoming to all women, or even their communities.”

10) Tech that could seriously change the game in 2020 [Source: Mashable]
Technology has really changed the face of the world. You can almost do anything and everything with today’s technology. Every year the tech industry brings something new for the consumers. And 2020 won’t be different. Here are few techs that could be launched in the coming year. 1) Affordable 5G phones and more expansive networks: Carriers like Verizon are already advertising their 5G networks on TV, even though very few devices even support it in the cities where it's available. The worst part is you can't really get a 5G-compatible phone for less than $1,000 right now. As more companies hop onto the bandwagon, this might change soon. People could start downloading entire seasons of TV shows off Netflix in minutes on their phones, all while they're walking around outside.

2) PlayStation 5/Xbox Series X: Though details are still pretty scarce, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have both been officially announced for holiday 2020. These would reduce/eliminate load times.  If you play console games, think about how much time you spend waiting for things to load. Imagine not having to do that anymore. 3) VR hand tracking: If 2019 was the year real VR became financially accessible, 2020 could be the year that accessibility extends to pure usability thanks to two little words: Hand tracking. If Oculus and other VR manufacturers are able to nail hand tracking in 2020, it could open up a whole new world of design possibilities for VR experiences.

4) Microsoft Surface Duo/Neo: We saw a decent amount of foldable tech in 2019, but none of it really made a splash aside from dominating Twitter for a day or two. You might be able to watch Netflix on one screen while chatting with a friend or writing emails on the other. 5) Cloud gaming: Cloud gaming feels like a boom-or-bust proposition. If it works, you might see some people decide not to buy those beefy new consoles we talked about earlier because they can play high-end games in a web browser or on a Chromecast for way less money.

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