Thursday, March 29, 2012

Scammed - Confessions of a Confused Accountant

Book Review

Anonymous. (2011) Scammed - Confessions of a Confused Accountant. Bangalore. Grey Oak Publishers. Pages 175. Price: Rs 175/-

Auditing and business consulting cannot be combined just as oil and water do not mix. The reasons for this are simple. Auditing is retrospection. It deals with hard, cold facts. It advises against adventurism and advocates conservation. Caution is its watch word. On the other hand business consulting is prospective in nature. Optimism is its mantra. It functions in uncertainty. Its principle is gung-ho adventurism. It favours exploration of new ideas and new markets. ‘The only safe ship is the ship in a port’, business consultants wryly quote! Therefore the twain cannot meet. The split and demise of Arthur Andersen LLP is attributed to the firm’s overweening ambition to ride the dichotomy between auditing and business consulting at the same time. Eager to compete with its (own) business consulting arm, Andersen Worldwide in revenue generation, Arthur Andersen compromised on accounting standards, as a result of which Enron, the Texas-based energy firm sank. Along with it the original accounting firm Arthur Andersen broke up and its regional fragments merged with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, KPMG, three of the ‘Big Five’ Accounting firms (which included Arthur Andersen) and Grant Thornton. In order to ward off the stigma attached to the name Andersen, Andersen Worldwide is now renamed Accenture.

However auditing firms jockeying into business consulting is not new. James Oscar McKinsey a Professor of Accounting at the Chicago University founded McKinsey & Company in 1926. McKinsey was hired to turn around Marshall Field & Co a company manufacturing and marketing readymade garments that ran into the doldrums during the great depression of the 1930s. Many decades before words like ‘downsizing’ were heard, McKinsey proposed that Marshall Field & Co do exactly that to turn the company around. Unable to implement his radical suggestions the company brought him in as CEO and charged him with implementing them. McKinsey was initially successful but because of his overbearing nature, made potential enemies. As he ventured into areas he knew nothing about and his mistakes caught up with him, the pressures of work finally got him and at the age of 47 McKinsey died of pneumonia.

If we delve into the history of businesses and accounting firms, we are likely to come up with many more such cases. Do we learn any lessons from these stories? The answer is ‘no’ going by the experience of Satyam Computer Services Ltd. (Satyam) and its auditors PwC – well, the Indian ‘member firm’ of PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited (PwCIL) anyway. The two were charged with fudging accounts for several years and a partner of PwC along with the Founder Chairman of Satyam and some others of the two firms were arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy to defraud the public. The charge-sheet ran into 55000 pages. Did the story of Satyam and PwC inspire Anonymous, the author of Scammed ­to write the novel? It possibly did. The setting of the novel is Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam. (The British, who could not pronounce Visakhapatnam, made it Vizagpatam and then shortened it to Vizag. For several years now the state has reverted to its original Telugu pronunciation but the author seems to have not noticed it. He insists on calling it Vizag). Its characters speak with a thick South Indian accent’! (What else would you have them do?)

There was a time when literary critics in the West dismissed fiction by authors like Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace as pulp fiction, meaning really not serious literature. This of course leads to the question whether literature should really be as sombre as a Russian novel to be considered serious literature. While authors like Somerset Maugham were hailed by critics in their life time, others like Jane Austen achieved this distinction only with passage of time. Although Indians have been writing in English for a long time it was only in the last few decades that they have really made it big on the international scene. At the same time the Indian approach to learning, writing and speaking English has been dramatically changing. There was a time when people who could speak and write grammatically and idiomatically correct English were in a minority. The purists lament that as the numbers of English speaking and writing people multiplied, there has been a dilution of standards. There is less exactitude with regard to grammar and syntax. Fastidious adherence to the ‘English pure’ gave way to colloquial Indianisms. This is because the curriculum of English teaching in the country has also been changing. Instead of studying Shakespearean plays, Milton’s poetry and Johnsonese, students are taught, what has come to be known as business communications in English - writing letters, advertisements and notices etc.

In the literary arena, it all started (perhaps) with Shobha De who introduced Hinglish in her writings. She was not taken seriously (or kindly) by critics at first. But as her novels acquired popularity – from those readers who did not have a stomach for more serious authors like Nirad Chaudary, V. S. Naipaul or Salman Rushidie – her publishers recognised her as a saleable author. If one can say De marked a turning point in Indo-Anglican literature, she opened up the market for more authors who catered to the needs of a certain type of burgeoning English-speaking class.

The explosion of communications through the IT, ITES and off-shoring of jobs truly Indianised English and there is no looking back. Employees of the Business Process Outsourcing Centres (BPOs, popularly known as ‘Call Centres’) have created their own patois - different of course from what they were expected to speak with their customers outside. In short, the expansion and proliferation of the English-speaking elite (?) has resulted in a ‘dumbing down’ of standards. Shobha De did not have serious competition for maybe a decade and a half till Chetan Bhagat debuted. He found a winning formula by precisely identifying his target audience. If the (Indian) English-literature consuming market is largely populated by the information technology guys (and girls) why not directly address them? This he did and was an instant success.

Scammed is in the Chetan Bhagat mould. Its setting is the accounting / business management industry. Its protagonist Hitesh Patel was entrusted by his accounting firm to audit a motor car company in Visakhapatnam, where he espies a lot of white-collar crime and siphoning of funds in it. While making a report of it to the principal board members he finds himself making some useful suggestions for the expansion of business. To an outside observer his formula of forward integration may not be very appealing. For example if a motor car company wishes to diversify into car-hiring business is it necessary that it should confine itself to cars manufactured by the parent company, unless it was for captive consumption? Be that as it may, the director was so impressed with the idea that he offers him a job at five times his salary to implement it. As fate catapults Hitesh into the big league of five figure salaries, five star hotels and of course beautiful girls he also willy-nilly gets sucked into a vortex of organisational politics, political intrigues and financial wheeling-dealings and finally financial offences. The novelist seeks to paint Hitesh as a self-righteous manager with only a weakness for a few girls. How else could he plant those steamy scenes so essential in a formula novel?

In Indish, the adjective ‘homely’ has a cultural connotation, quite different from what the word means in general English, and qualifies a woman as dutiful, home-loving and not coquettish. Therefore high-paid eligible bachelors look for ‘homely girls’ in matrimonial advertisements. In this story too after Hitesh had had his flings with attractive but unfaithful girls he finds succour in his ‘homely’ personal assistant Payal, whom he had ignored for long. As she dotes on him as a mother-hen he finally finds his soul-mate. She lends him a shoulder to cry on when he is down and generally offers him solace and succour. The characters are too linear and colourless but the book may be a good travel companion in a short journey. The novel could have done with some editing and proofing - its Indish notwithstanding. But the last two chapters seem to have been written by a more professional hand.

This review is part of the Book Reviews programme at 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dynamics of Change & Cultural Inertia

There is an interesting relationship between organisational culture and management of change. Organisations which were able to gear up cultural changes within, to changes in the environment benefited while those which could not overcome cultural inertia suffered. This article examines the relationship between cultural inertia and the dynamics of change in organisations.   

The rapid economic, political and technological changes at the global level affect the business environment by increasing competition manifold, reducing lead times, customer demand for high quality and low prices. It is therefore imperative for organisations to develop an appropriate customer focused culture in order to achieve sustainable competitive edge

John Frain defines culture as a “set of key values, beliefs, understandings and norms of behaviour, which prevails within the organisation.” (Introduction to Marketing, Fourth Edition. International Thomson Business Press. London. 1999. p. 93) Organisations have to cope with culture in three different contexts. The first of these relates to the buying behaviour of consumers whether individual or the decision-making units (DMU) in case of business-to-business operations. The second is when they transact business with or operate in different countries/geographical locations. The third and - perhaps most important - cultural context organisations have to cope with is, within the organisation itself. Culture influences organisational structure, strategies, control systems and operations.

In his book, Frain quotes the researches of two teams, Dale and Kennedy in 1982 and Baker and Hart in 1996, which proved that culture has a major effect on the success of a business. The Baker and Hart team analysed a sample of successful and less successful firms in a cross section of growing and declining industries. They found that some of the critical attributes of successful organisations (e.g. entrepreneurship, ‘lean and mean’ structures etc.) were found in less successful organisations also. This led them to conclude that what makes some organisations more successful is not what they do, but how well they do it - culture and commitment are the key determinants for the success of an organisation. Organisations will have to audit their culture as the first step to manage it. The questions to be asked are: is it functional? or is it dysfunctional? And if it is functional, will it support the organisation’s projected goals?

To illustrate his point, Frain cites the example of the acquisition of Goetze the well-known German manufacturer of piston rings by T&N the British components and specialist-engineering group. Goetze had severe financial losses for three years when T&N took over the company with the objective of acquiring a significant share of the German market for piston rings. When T&N analysed the German company, it found the company was steeped in the culture of the rich in its arrogant behaviour towards customers. It had a bloated management structure, with ten layers of management and seven tiers of secretaries. The company was not able adopt new technologies because of a deeply entrenched cultural inertia. T&N decided that it needed to change Goetze’s culture of hierarchy. The result of restructuring, rationalisation of work force and pruning inefficient production lines resulted in a sharp lowering of costs and the company returned to profits in 1994.

The Goetze case is not an example of the imposition of an alien culture but a release from inertia triggered from outside. What happens when there is no external trigger? How does an organisation bring about changes that are necessary for fostering long-term customer relationships? It is not easy to bring about cultural changes because of an innate human resistance to change. There is always a conflict between the driving forces that seek to bring about change and resisting forces that seek to preserve the status quo. Managers refuse to see that ‘change’ is real and continue to work as before. If they find that they are not able to function as before because of their denial to see changes within the organisation and the environment, their denial gives way to fear and energies are diverted to politicking.

Organisational Impediments to Change

Nigel F. Piercy (Market-Led Strategic Change. Third Edition. Butterworth Heinmann. Oxford. 2002.) identified four kinds of managers who can block change. The dangerous enthusiasts go about trying to change everything without understanding the goals of change. The “Yes…But”s understand the need for change but are not inclined to change. In fact their “Yes…But” is a polite way of saying “No”. If pushed to implement change they turn to malicious obedience only to wait for things to go wrong when they can point out: “Look I have done what you asked me to do, but see what happened!” The Dinosaurs simply do not want and won’t change.

Piercy gives some amusing examples form Royal Dutch/Shell the world’s second largest oil company to illustrate his point - of resistance to cultural change.

Executives of Shell were encouraged to suggest three alternative courses of action for the implementation of strategies with the result that they always chose the middle path, as they felt, it was the safest.

Shell executives have buried expensive exploration equipment in Gabon, as they did not want to face the bureaucratic hurdles in relocating it to another country.

An MD noted that the company believed that fourteen signatures on an official note made it look better!

The company driver who picked up an executive from a delayed African flight was driving him for a meeting at a sedate thirty mph speed as the car had a speed governor on it and could not be driven faster. When questioned by the exasperated executive as to what he would do in an emergency, the driver replied that he would take a taxi!

Piercy noted that a conscious effort to bring about a culture change helped IBM to turn back on the endemic losses of the late 1980s and return profits beginning1993. Lou Gerstner who came in as CEO, created the ambience for a “strong customer-needs focus, leading to the development of integrated technology solutions drawing on all of IBM’s R&D, product, service and software skills.” Executives who tried to resist were weeded out.

Philip Kotler describes a study by the Stanford researchers Collins and Porras, which they published under the title Built to Last. The researchers identified two companies each in eighteen industries and designated one as a ‘visionary company’ and the other as a ‘comparison company’Visionary companies (e.g. General Electric, Hewlett-Packard and Boeing) were the recognised industry leaders: they set ambitious goals, communicated the goals clearly to their employees and most important they had a higher purpose other than making money. They outperformed the comparison companies (e.g. Westinghouse, Texas Instruments and McDonnell Douglas) by a wide margin. 

The visionary companies had three common features. First, they held a distinctive set of values from which they did not deviate.  IBM’s values included respect for the individual, customer satisfaction and continuous quality improvement. Johnson & Johnson’s believes that its first responsibility is to its customersits second to its employees, its third to its community and its fourth to its stockholders.
The second common feature these companies had was they expressed their purpose in enlightened terms. Thus Xerox wants to improve office productivity, Monsanto wants to end hunger in the world. According to the researchers the core purpose of a company should not be confused with its business objectives or product list.

The third common feature of the industry leaders is that they have developed a vision for the future and worked to implement it. Thus IBM is now working to establish leadership as a network-centric company and not simply as a leading software manufacturer.

The first step to induce change is to allay any unfounded fears that the change is likely to cause in the minds of its employees, rather than pressuring for change. The issue that organisations face in the specific context of developing a customer-led culture is that customer interests are regarded as concerning only the marketing function. In many organisations, the other departments see marketing as alien to the larger organisational interest of making profits. Therefore there is always a conflict between marketing and other departments.