Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My recent trip to India was intense. Our NYU ISIS project was not successful. We told our client ultimately that our engagement had failed, and we are re-evaluating future deliverables. Beyond that the internet at my hotel went down 2-6+ times per day, and I had a hard time keeping up with everything going on back in New York. Resigning myself to circumstances that couldn't be successfully mitigated, I focused on enjoying Bangalore and my classmates. It was a very different India than when I had traveled without an agenda back in 2003. Youtube Videos & Picasa Album. What follows is a post-trip evaluation for the coursework.

Specifically, what did you like most about your overall experience in India (including your overall time in India and immersion in the culture, interaction with partners and their stakeholders, team members, site visits, etc)?
The most enjoyable component of our visit hands down was our discussions with the three Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB) professors, and by far and away professor Sourav Mukherji was the most enlightening. It was fascinating to hear how social enterprise is attaining a foothold in India. His research and colleagues are focused on the central problems of social change enhanced through entrepreneurial endeavors.
During our consultation with our client we heard very little emphasis about the work’s positive social value. Our client was focused on the engineering and entrepreneurial components of the work. Understandably, they were not in a place to focus on the social aspect because they didn’t, yet, have a successful business model. Perhaps that will come in time.

On the other hand, what did you like least?
Our team struggled with our client since nearly the time we had been assigned in November. Communication was probably the biggest shortcoming of the engagement. We did not have a sustained rhythm at any point; prior to the onsite component, at one point, our team had agreed to request to be re-assigned to another entrepreneur; coincidentally, at that exact moment, one of our better communication intervals began, which led to some hope on our part that we were turning a corner. Not only had we failed to turn a corner, we were in for an even bigger challenge, which was lack of focus. We failed establish and maintain a cohesive scope for the duration. In fact the scope of the engagement changed nearly six times in the period leading up to and during the two-week onsite visit. Ultimately, we had to quit our client because it was not a valuable use of our time switching from broad strategic problems with thoroughly uncorroborated information to last minute problems such as tactical business model development.

In what ways did the experiential project-based work augment your previous knowledge, education, and experience?
From the outset our project was appealing to learn more about energy production; our client’s focus on biomethanol gas and fertilizer production was completely new to me, and the prospect of converting waste, generating power, and providing fertilizer to create more food is an elegant closed-loop system. Much of our first week onsite was spent pouring over material on how this process works, learning about the engineering principles of the biogas plant itself, and then trying to understand the Indian context and how this might work as a business concept. Interestingly, most people we people we spoke with in India regarding this concept not least our entrepreneurs were focused on whether it was a sustainable business model. Social enterprise is by no means pervasive in India, more specifically Bangalore, more specifically the people we interacted with. Only about 5% (or an actual 1 in 20 outside of those involved with ISIS) had a similar appreciation for the possibilities social enterprise could offer for the booming growth India is currently undergoing.
To a certain degree I became further aware of the opportunities and challenges Bangalore is facing. With my sick time I read quite a lot of newspapers and there were several features reviewing the city’s shortcomings to fuel unlimited growth. Infrastructure is amongst the biggest challenges, as anyone that has sat in gridlock traffic would know. Ideally, the impending the open of the first metro tracks within six months will aid in alleviating some of the burden. Hopefully, that will not be a signal to all that have been holding off on an automotive purchase to dive in. If I recall correctly the city had several million two-wheelers as it is. Coincidentally, when I was in Delhi back in 2003-4, they were closing in on the launch of the subway there as well. Had it been open, I would have gladly ridden as mass transportation is one my favorite modes of travel; I appreciate the efficiency and loathe sitting on the road breathing exhaust.

What were the major challenges you faced in India and in working with your India partner? How did you address those challenges?
Traction was definitely our biggest challenge. We found developing a consistent story in our project to be exceptionally challenging, and our questioning often prompted changes in direction. The other significant challenge we found with our partner was accessibility. Unfortunately, the direction we chose to pursue relied on a single point of contact that was not regularly available to impart substantial background and context. Given the circumstances we made determinations, which were disregarded after some considerable time or effort had been expended. Following several of these changes in direction during our two-week onsite, we ultimately concluded the engagement with our client. It was by no means the desired outcome; however, at a point it was overly frustrating to establish a foothold in the project. Our team deliberated thoroughly and landed on a decided course of action with all of us aligned.

How did the overall experience in India differ from what you originally thought it would be?
There was far more interruption than I had anticipated. I have often remarked to my colleagues at my software development firm in New York concerning consultants, “I wish I had two weeks to focus on nothing but…” With that time dedicated in this instance, it was totally stop-and-go the entire time. I genuinely wish it had not been that way. As we explained during our last conversation with the client, four MBAs dedicated entirely to their needs for six months with two weeks onsite to do nothing but serve them, and we couldn’t establish a basic project – that was unfortunate.
I didn’t go into the engagement with high expectations; it was not a business environment I knew very much about, so it was hard to say that I was going to do this that or the other. Again, doing this, that, and the other and the other was the challenge. Our team was tasked with creating a Letter of Agreement to state the purpose of the engagement, a defined scope. Perhaps had we completed that exercise we would have stayed the course better than we ultimately managed in the moment, or perhaps it would have just been the stick in the sand that we ran away from the entire time.