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Million vs. billion paradox
Shombhit Sengupta
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Historically, Western management know-how evolving from Caucasian innovative capacity, marketing attitude and social norms has influenced the business practices of emerging economy countries. This know-how does not take into account, conform to, or seamlessly mesh with, the societal aspects of the billions in developing economies.

The scale of a million people and their way of functioning is very different from the billion population scale. An airport or railway station of a sophisticated developed country which is populated by millions not billions is large, almost like a nearly vacant exhibition gallery. In contrast, in such functional zones in billion-peopled India or China, the crowds will not allow you to see any free space. A million people country has sharp focus and discipline akin to the military. Their ‘million-mindset’ is unidirectional in approach. A billion people country has the ‘billion-mindset’ that takes care of many small aspects, and so becomes multidirectional.

Living and working in both million and billion people countries I have realized that a million-mindset person looks at those in a billion people country through his own million-mindset perspective. When the billion realization hits him, its nuances go beyond his capability to comprehend. Not having understood the logic makes him feel inadequate at not being in total control of the situation. Generally, he would find it difficult to integrate with the billion people culture.

In contrast, being able to adjust is a major characteristic of billion-mindset people, like the Chinese and Indians who live in USA. Just imagine, if the same number of Americans were to stay in China or India, would they be able to flow with the social and business norms there? In a reverse BPO (business process outsourcing) location, would Americans have the capacity to learn to communicate in perfect Indian or Chinese languages without an American accent?

If you are the manufacturer of the world’s fastest train, the TGV in France, or the rapid German ICE train, your commercial coup can come from commuters in a billion people’s country. But you need to customize the million-mindset innovation for usage in a billion people country. This means incorporating the billion-mindset numerical as well as their psychological, sociological, geographical and economic requirements. Have you designed for overload? Is the seating flexible to accommodate more? Can the entry point count people? Does a red light come on when the passenger limit has been crossed, as in an elevator? If your sophisticated technology has these parameters it can be applied for the billions.

The billions in India and China have different cultures, but both carry thoughts and actions relevant to the billion-mindset. They are very tolerant of the varied others around them. They think in terms of adjustment and family, instead of taking independent actions as people in the West are prone to do. In both India and China demands for new management techniques are now getting created, either for their masses or to provide support services for the sophisticated world. Budding new techniques of addressing the business culture of the billions will give a new direction to handling business in emerging markets.

The emerging new management knowhow for the billion-mindset will indicate the changes in work culture that the West has to adapt to. The Eastern mindframe of wholesale imitation of all Western management practices must also change. I have coined a term ‘Jalebi Managemet’ to indicate this new organization culture. It distinguishes the million and billion-mindset platforms in tomorrow’s global business.

On a chilly November day in 1973, three days after I had landed in Paris with just $8 in my pocket, I was walking down the street, hungrily savoring my new surroundings, when suddenly, what did I see? A pyramidical building block of jalebis in a North African sweet shop.

In that entirely new Parisian culture I had jumped into, with new food habits, no language to express myself, suddenly discovering jalebis was like a dream.

I impulsively strode in to ask the price. Could it be 15 French Francs (Rs 30 in rupee value then) per jalebi? Or did I mistakenly read 1.5 Francs I wondered, reminiscing my art school life in Kolkata when samosas and jalebis were standard affordable fare wherever we went for sketching. The shopkeeper indicated ten open fingers with both hands and again five open fingers. I lost my prestige on the spot, as I couldn’t afford a 15-Franc jalebi.

After two months, I got a sweeper’s job in a lithographic print shop where the owner kindly paid me 500 francs from his personal account as I had no formal work papers to receive the minimum 3,500 francs wages. An Algerian called Djamal became my first friend at work. We communicated through gestures and hand drawings. It was my big pleasure to take Djamal to buy a 15 franc jalebi with my first month’s salary.

Anticipating delicious taste, I bit into the jalebi. Sweet honey syrup trickled into my mouth. It was indeed a very strange flavor, far too sugary for my enjoyment. That’s when I understood that a jalebi is so unique that not only are two jalebis different in shape, but the jalebi changes its taste and appeal from culture to culture.

Since my first Parisian jalebi experience to my three decades of my management experience in developed countries, I have understood the importance of being as unique as a jalebi while operating in the established environment of global business norms.

In most economically emerging countries, there exists a hierarchy of business castes. There is top management and several layers of workers who function in silos as though firewalls of status exist. For personal growth, an employee tries to satisfy different management layers. This becomes his most important job.

Indian companies sheltered from global markets up to 1991, theorized from Western management books, listened to erudite Western professionals to get readymade solutions. But deeper understanding of the breadth of the billions escaped them. Trying to carbon copy the culture and processes followed by developed countries will never work in India because Indians have not been exposed to every step of the West’s industrial revolution and evolution.

To become globally competitive, India can use extreme discipline and customize the world’s best management practices for its multi-diverse people. But the discipline and work culture must be uniquely billion-mindset driven. Collectively Indian business houses need to undergo wholesome struggle to displace nonproductive old values and achieve the ambition of becoming world famous, aspirational, innovative and growing powerhouses.

The author is an international growth strategy consultant for top management. Founder of Shining Emotional Surplus, his practice has 4 business divisions: Corporate Transformation, Sensorial & Scientific Product Design, Branding & Channel Ownership and Retail Addiction
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