Monday, October 17, 2005

Feel@Home: The Long Term Competitive Advantage !




One Way To Feel@Home, Palm Meadows In..Ahem..Bangalore
(Pic Courtesy:Abhinav Agarwal)

The three foreigners in the table next to me are having a good time. There is beer, cigarettes, loud laughter and generous high fives. They appear to be speaking in French. Behind, me an older couple converse in more hushed tones, they could be American. And right across, a youngish English lady is dining alone, sifting through some papers as she picks off a modest plate.

From my vantage seat in the ground floor coffee shop, I have a sweeping view of the lobby and I see men and women walk through briskly, lots of east Asians; Japanese, Korean and maybe even Chinese. Its late evening and they are dressed in business attire, men with their neck ties pulled loose. They must be returning from a day at work. This scene could be Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore or any hotel in any part of the developed world. Actually, this is Bangalore. And it’s a small, well-managed but almost non-descript 3-star hotel.

A few years ago, one would have associated this sort of property with small town businessmen, traders and mid level executives of companies. They are still there, but seem outnumbered by what now is clearly an international clientele, of extremely business-like, business travelers. Going by the front office staff reactions, many of them were obviously on long stay here.

The Economic Glue

Its another interesting facet of the Indian technology story, of how the Garden City has accepted and assimilated not just multi-national companies but also multi-national cultures. It’s the story of how Bangalore has over the last few years firmly become another stop in the global network of technology centres, not just for the work that is done here but the sheer cultural comfort and perhaps even connect that visitors from world over appear to have.

That, in this writer’s reckoning, will be the biggest glue for the long term economic story, not just for Bangalore, but also India. Because only when a place feels like home will you will keep integrating, returning and re-investing, whatever be the economic story of the day. It’s a different spin on the same thing, but its warmer and touches the intangible part that people often know but are unable to put a finger on; its Feel@Home, the new economic competitive advantage !

Large MNCs have been here longer than you and I, some for centuries and stuck around, despite some very challenging economic odds including the fact that we were a closed economy for three decades or more. And yet, culturally, for all their market commitment, very few individuals working in them have really assimilated with the land and its people, except for the occasional Indophiles. They’ve worked hard, brought in money, technology, systems, created wealth, repatriated it but never really felt at home. Thus the organisations too have stayed somewhat distant, there to see but never entirely. Hindustan Lever, HSBC are exceptions that come to mind.

Being present in market to mine the opportunities presented and feeling at home are two different things, I would argue. Being present, you manufacture, trade and sell goods and services for the good of the parent elsewhere. Nothing wrong with that at all but when you Feel@Home, you go a step further, you integrate your local environment with others in the rest of the world, you initiate a high level of engagement between people all around, all because you feel you want to bring business and prosperity home rather than because its economically imperative for the parent. Globalisation triggers the first sequence of events, Feel@Home the next. And that’s what we are seeing in cities like Bangalore.

What Feel@Home Isn’t

Sure its tough to quantify. Not too many people will tell you they don’t feel at home. Other’s will, but privately. And yet, you can see it on their faces, you can sense it in the way they talk, walk, act and react. Some make themselves comfortable wherever they are and look as much. Its not very likely though that we would meet too many of these in a normal work environment. Thus, its about the environment reaching out to you as much as you try and perhaps not try to reach out to it.

Feeling at home does not mean you spend the rest of your life in that location. It’s a place you feel comfortable, your family relates to the ecosystem as do you, you establish a cultural connect with the people and the values that goes beyond formal lunch and dinner sessions. But most importantly, there is a intellectual connect that enriches you at work and outside it. Many successful techies have felt at home in the Bay Area in San Francisco, even if they moved away subsequently.

Bangalore’s eco-system is fast approaching (some would rightly argue that it did so a while ago) what I would call the evolved Bay Area Feel@Home status. R Govindarajan, co-founder and CTO of Aztec Software, a product technology company told me the other day that he feels at home in Bangalore. “The eco-system is there, the techies are there and most importantly, the people you want to connect with for guidance are there.” Gobi, as he is called, has done time in the Bay Area but wanted to return to India.

Feel@Home, Not Globalisation, Induces Cutting Edge Innovation

There are scores of such stories in Bangalore. Sure Bangalore has almost always had a Valley like eco-system for technology, aptitude among locals, institutions of learning and a climate that at least used to be nice. And yet, the integration with the rest of the world only happened much later.

Parts of America arguably create the ultimate Feel@Home environment, attracting, retaining and constantly nourishing the best talent in the world, across a wide variety of fields. Examples are countless, but this is my most recent. Two months ago, I met Padmasree Warrior, a smart, somewhat scholarly looking lady in her early 40s.

Warrior could have passed for an (educated) housewife in Bangalore, a top ranking official in a Infosys or a Wipro, a principal of a college or even a senior government official. That’s if she had stayed in Bangalore. She moved many years ago to a place where she could feel intellectually and professionally at home, she is now Chief Technology Officer at Motorola and drove the highly successful Motorazor mobile phone project.

Look at it this way, its because many talented people (including at Microsoft, Intel, Infosys, Wipro, Adobe, SAP and GE), often Indians, feel at home or created a Feel@Home situation in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Gurgaon, there is a world class innovation environment. One that works equally for local and overseas companies. Globalisation will not automatically induce local or regional innovation, only a multi-cultural, multi-talented environment does. Cities and towns in many parts of the world have done that for decades, now the likes of Bangalore are following.

A Global Citizen At Home

As a corollary, feeling at home is not just about foreigners visiting India, its as much about people from other part of the country. Bangalore is a more recent host in that sense, after Bombay, Delhi, Chennai and so on. Walk into most modern work places, not just in IT but also in consulting, tax and so on and you will find more than 80% of the staff from outside Bangalore. Even in a city like Bombay, its unlikely that you will find such a large percentage of people from outside the city in an average workplace.

Does this mean expats will flood Bangalore ! Unlikely, because the competitive advantage lies in having local people run most services operations. And yet, as the value add component increases, cutting edge R&D for instance, the movement and location of people (regardless of number) will be driven more by the necessity of being in the right environment than by cost arbitrage.

This has been structurally attempted in the past; technocrats in Bangalore have spoken of and attempted to build a Bangalore-Singapore corridor of sorts. And while technology (product and services) as a whole has led the way, the challenge is to see how and whether other industries follow suit.

On the flip side, Indian states and cities attempting to bring in investment should work simultaneously on understanding and building a multi-cultural Feel@Home environment. Somehow, this is always interpreted as more five star hotels. But that's not it. Feel@Home is making the ordinary expat feel like an ordinary citizen, safe, secure and comfortable. And of course, giving him or her the confidence to want to move out, see the sights, appreciate the local culture and enjoy it. Or to have a plain good weekend. Some of it is about infrastructure but not all of it. Bangalore is intrinsically warmer, other places will have to work on being so.

And yet, as the assimilation levels rise and outsiders integrate with the local environment, as they do the same things you do, visit grocery shops, department stores, movies, the pub and so on, the longtime local resident must learn to embrace the new order. This is the tough part. Most (though not all) western democracies are used to this; appreciating and living with the vibrancy of a multi-cultural environment. And remember, we are talking highly paid, visible people, not tourists who come and go or migrant labourers who work behind the scenes.

Bangalore has done it admirably so far. Yes, this is despite all the infrastructure problems and so on which one shall pass for this piece ! The challenge is to stay this way even as it makes life for its now global citizens, permanent and visiting, better than what it is.

Hi All. For those who wandered in and actually wish to do so again, you can access this website by just keying in www.datelinebombay.com. And for those desirous of prolonging their agony by engaging with this writer, you could do so by writing into govindraj@datelinebombay.com. Cheerio !

7 comments:

chez on 1:38 pm said...

Maybe you should try enabling signed posts to avoid all the spam posts you see here.

Someone there on 8:15 pm said...

just wanna say hi! :)

Dusty on 4:58 am said...

Govind, you forgot the little urchins on the road, who are also not from Bangalore but are trickling in. I was shocked to see a street fight between three street kids and they all fought and spoke in Marathi.

Chandan on 12:38 pm said...

Bombay, Delhi have been there and done it before, agreed. But Chennai ? gimme a break, its parochial and full of tamil jingoistic nonsense. Chennai is a backwater compared to what Bangalore has become and has lightyears to go before an outsider and Feel@Home there.

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