So, what are Coffee Sessions?

August 1, 2006 2:33 am 0 comments

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People who know me well are familiar with Coffee Sessions. They are a great way to discuss strategies.

When you are sitting and having coffee with the right set of people, you can often perform very detailed analysis on open-ended questions. Moments of pure enlightment are often found as knowledge is shared, knowledge is created, and insights are born.

Coffee Sessions for the moment are essentially just posts where I look at some public news from within Pakistan’s New Economy and business environment, and analyse it; or where I post some open-ended questions for you to chew on based on some common issues I’ve faced or experienced.

But the real strength of coffee sessions will come from your comments to those sections and questions. By checking each others logic, arguments, examples and proofs, and simulataneously learning from those discussions, we will eventually be both more enlightened.

I dont consider myself to be a thought leader in any means, but I hope to provide exploratory analysis which attracts the true business experts in Pakistan to ‘teach’ all of us how they have approached such issues. 

I will be beginning these posts based on industries that I can provide some commentary for – operations ; telecom ; real-time systems etc. Eventually, I really hope, other contributors will also volunteer to post in this blog on other industries, and thus our evolution of knowledge will begin.

For a much deeper and more relevant reason for starting this blog, read the rest of this post after the link.

The rest is a very good example of what a Coffee Session looks like. Note: it’s pretty long.

I am dividing the rest of this post into three Acts. These three Acts form the basis of Coffee Sessions. Boy, I better refill my cup before starting.

Act I : “Unity…”

There are many real business challenges that are now threatening to reduce growth in a number of industries in Pakistan — volume-dependency and low-ARPU numbers in the telecom sector ; local creation of supply-chain strategies for manufacturing ; Intellectual Property representation in high-tech, investments and pharma industries ; micro-asset regulation for media, just to name a few. These are often caused by the dynamics of the consumer markets themselves.

Added to this, there are also significant operational challenges faced because of certain unique ‘dynamics’ of our professional environments. This encompasses the entire breadth of issues such as growth of the value of human capital ; retention ; old-vs-new management ; marketing strategies ; account management ; risk analysis ; management innovation. These are caused often both because of lack of depth in management at firms, as well as lack of insight in the workforce.

The evil cherry on top, I believe, is the rapid evaporation of morality and ethics that is taking place in society which removes forces that could have otherwise created some sort of natural balance.

We all know about these skeletons in our closets. Even though there are always efforts underway in good faith by PSEB, PASHA and other business leaders to create best practices for the industry, I think these efforts may be too slow just because of the traditional work model applied.

I believe that with web-based tools such as blogs and wikis we can create another avenue for Pakistani business leaders (of the New Economy) to provide thought leadership to openly and objectively discuss the industry-wide concerns, and address them with new ideas that specifically suit the Pakistani environment, and thus inevitably help their own selves.

When our thought leaders unify on open and evolving platforms for best practices, we get closer for our industry as a whole to work efficiently.

These “thought experiments” need to be informal and almost casual, yet sober and constructive. Rather than approaching these with the assumption that we have all the answers, the sessions should attempt to ask enough open-ended questions that the session can see birth to new ideas. Rather than planning agendas, we should just let concepts evolve.

This would almost be like a group of friends casually sipping coffee in a winter evening, discussing how the world around them could affect their lives, and letting the conversation flow.

Act II : “Faith…”

Consider this trend : look at the vendors in any of the following industries in Pakistan : electrical power manufacturing ; rapid prototyping ; risk analysis ; mobile network operators ; advertising ; marketing ; media-production facilities. You may notice a very similar trend.

We usually see that there are only 4-5 players in all in the market, and a few dozen much smaller players that exist only from a symbiotic relationship with the bigger ones.

So we are not just limited volume markets, we are limited vendor markets as well. Let’s leave for some other day my thoughts on why a limited vendor market is potentially not healthy.

For now, I’d like to claim that we are just too small in the bigger petri-dish of our industry to be competing so agressively to claim the limited set of customers in the market. This holds especially true for export-oriented firms.

If our issues are largely common, then instead of hiding the solutions from each other in the name of competitive advantage, it may be more advantageous to share. By helping each other to implement best practices, we ensure that all of us are capable of delivering quality results to our clients.

National clients will see evident improvements in quality, and will also see reduced price points on your products because of improvement in your efficiencies. This will in turn attract more national clients.

International clients will see consistency in the performance of the Pakistani delivery engine. This will in turn attract more clients to each person in the industry.

So, by objectively leveraging all of our collective experience, and having faith in the standards that evolve, we may be able to find that despite agreeing on standards to solve common problems, we can still have unique competitive strengths in other areas of the value-chain.

Act III : “Discipline…”

Thomas Freidman’s best-seller last year, “The World is Flat”, was an almost definitive look at changing trends in the world, and how they are “flattening” the global playing field for businesses.

[Sidenote: I do wish Thomas had visited Pakistan before writing some of the sections on this country. I hope our blogs will open his eyes further to what is happening here.]

Nevertheless, he made some very compelling arguments and the book makes for a fantastic read. One of my favourites is his observation that the amount of value that customers are expecting to be created for them is impossible to deliver from one company itself. So instead of vertically-integrated silo-based organizations, the Flat World / New Economy demands companies to focus on horizontal value creation.

Horizontal Value Creation means that we essentially build one large product together, or offer one large end-to-end service together, by leveraging each other’s strengths. This also means that instead of competing with one another, we start focusing entirely on niches, and eventually specialization in a specific set of expertese.

The best example of such a national unity is no farther than China. Back when outsourced manufacturing was merely only an low-voume emerging opportunity for Chinese factories, these companies had a choice: they could either all attack the opportunity together, competing with one another and each claiming to be able to do it all ; or they could take this as a chance to win the world.

What they did is almost breath-taking. Massive factories, hundreds of square feet, would each specialize in high-volume manufacturing of the smallest of widgets, e.g. ‘lug-nut factory’ or ‘door handle #6654 factory’. Then, content aggregators such as Global Sources made themselves the ‘sales-desk to the world’, making all of China’s manufacturing sector just one big company.

Yet, despite this great example of discipline, every time I visit a micro-manufacturing unit in Pakistan — a 500 sq ft shop with 8-10 employees — I still see 1 of many different types of machines, which effectively limits their order sizes but ensures that they can manage the entire scope themselves. Many small-to-medium IT and consulting shops — sometimes 10 to 20 employee firms — make exorbitant claims on their websites, offering to solve every IT problem known to man.

In an ideal world, I would wish that our companies commit to micro-specialization (with cross-vendor support given until they do) and being able to execute projects with on-demand partnerships across the experts. Yes, I know, its a fools paradise.

In this world, however, I still think we can explore how far we can go in order to jointly offer greater value to the global business market, which by the way is flat enough now that you can even succeed.

Conclusions : So… what really is a Coffee Session?

All of the (very lengthy) observations above give us an idea of where we would like to be. A fully engaged community of thought-leaders solving industry challenges is wonderful, but we can’t build that over-night. Still, Coffee Sessions are a way to start on the way there.

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