Monday, 29 May 2006

Leonardo Inc.

NO doubt, one of the biggest moneymaking schemes of recent years has been the success of the novel The Da Vinci Code. Written by American novelist Dan Brown, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide, and has been made into an action movie boasting a cast and crew of Hollywood’s elite.

I will not attempt a theological or even historical critique of the book here, for so much academic material has been written about it by experts and scholars who were not amused by the many liberties that the author took in embellishing his story to assure its bankability (in the literal sense). More importantly, I am an expert in neither field.

I would rather like to see the book as a symptom of what now seems to be an enduring sign of our times—the money syndrome. In the name of making money and amassing a lot of it, we are allowed to do whatever it takes.

Even amateur writers like ourselves are always observant of the cardinal tenet of our craft—intellectual honesty. We do not knowingly write with intent to deceive, and if inadvertently we have declared something to be true and later discover it not to be so, we immediately and unconditionally apologize for our mistake.

The now millionaire author of the best selling book, unfortunately, can hardly be described as being intellectually honest.

Writers are allowed to express their opinion, in whatever fashion they choose to, without having to be censured or censored for their views. Free speech is a sacred right, and should be enjoyed by everyone, without exception. But no one has the privilege to willingly distort facts and established knowledge, and pass it off as “the truth.” Anyone who does so is not being honest to one’s readers, and especially to one’s self.

I am not a conservative Christian by any means, but as a writer, I find Brown’s arrogance in appropriating historical fact, erroneously twisting them to suit his agenda, and passing them off as “truths” to be indefensible.

Many people have come to the writer’s defense, saying that what he has written is fiction, but Brown himself has lost his own case. In a brazen declaration of either intellectual bankruptcy, hubris, or both he claims as fact (in the opening pages of his book) many historical events that even amateur historians can readily see as being inaccurately portrayed.

But not to worry, he is simply writing fiction.

It is easy to dismiss the furor as much ado about nothing. However, it is a sad social commentary of the times we live in—when morality and truth have become relative instead of being absolute standards, and when we are forced to respect each individual’s interpretation of the truth and their own version of reality. Welcome to The Matrix.

The problem with this is that every charlatan with a sensational idea now feels it is within his right to spin it into millions of dollars in book rights and movie royalties. No matter if the materials on which the fortune is made distorts historical facts and misrepresents established institutions.

What riles me most with the book and the author is not that it attacks religion and religious institutions. For me everything is open to criticism, without exception. What I cannot forgive, however, is the author’s blatant intellectual dishonesty and his arrogant attempts to defend his “facts” on their own merit.

Dan Brown, in writing about something he considers so sacred, has, in fact, committed the biggest sacrilege against his own profession.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Monday, May 29, 2006 (

Saturday, 20 May 2006

Lost in translation

Common. Cost-saving projects are now common in most business organizations. In all probability, a number will be running in one form or another—within a typical business—at any point in time.

The reasons for these are evident. In a global marketplace where information flows freely across borders, pressures on corporate earnings are greater than ever before.

Once sheltered industries operating in near monopolistic situations are finding themselves more and more vulnerable to foreign competition, not only from within their region but also from far-flung locations.

The rise of China as a low-cost source for almost anything to anywhere has changed the configuration of many industries forever. Today when designing new products or looking at the cost of getting products to markets, China almost always has to figure in the equation. No business anywhere today can operate without consideration to what its competitors in various parts of the world are doing.

Hence cost-saving projects have become even more important components of any company’s commercial strategies.

Realizing that profits cannot just now be met by growing the top line, companies have increasingly looked to the middle to ensure a sustainably healthy bottom line.

To be fair, the Japanese had already realized this inevitability some time back, hence many of the processes and practices employed in this area today are borrowed from them.

As with all change management programs, not all cost saving projects are equally effective in their delivery of the desired results. Most probably never live up to the initial expectations. Clearly, this is not the most motivating outcome for both management and project implementers alike, and is only bound to cause even more stress and friction within an organization.

But what distinguishes a successful cost-saving project from the next failed one? Has anyone ever nailed down a failsafe formula that delivers every time? Is there a tried and tested Holy Grail out there that all businesses should latch on to and model all their efforts after?

Unfortunately not, is probably a more likely answer.

Systems like kaizen and 5S, borrowed from the Japanese, have produced fairly good results for those who have tried it. But lifted from a foreign culture and originally tailored for that culture’s business mentality, their implementation has sometimes been “lost in translation” and produced less than the ideal outcomes.

Having come through a lot of these projects of late in my own organization, my observation has been that although structured systems and processes, such as those of the Japanese, can and do work in many situations, there is still a very important element that in the end determines whether a project succeeds or falls down, and that is all to do with people.

As cliché as it may sound, people and their total involvement in any organizational commitment is still the good old difference between success and failure in any organizational undertaking. Japanese or German, Asian or American, any process of change will only be as successful if the people working for it are committed for success to happen.

More on this next week.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, May 20, 2006 (

Saturday, 13 May 2006

Need to know

In military organizations, the principle of “need to know basis” is widely operative. Soldiers and officers are told as little as possible of details of any plans or operations, and just enough to enable them to carry out a task as planned.

The primary consideration, of course, is security and secrecy. One way or another, word about an operation may reach the enemy and compromise its success. In recent times, this has become a very real threat with the increasing proliferation of information outlets like Internet blogs and chatrooms. So-called “military bloggers” have been known to have wittingly or unwittingly compromised the safety and security of military personnel by revealing details of what and where their colleagues were doing in the battlefield.

Another consideration is the minimization of dissension within the ranks.

“Ours is not to question why, Ours is but to do or die.” Military mantras like these exemplify what rigid organizations prefer in terms of how their personnel follow orders and commands—unquestioning obedience and loyalty.

Understandably, this is to be expected. Military operations involve not only the lives of soldiers and servicemen, but also the security and safety of whole communities and nations. Security, therefore, is paramount above all else, and that includes whether or not soldiers are actually 100 percent happy about being asked to do a certain job or not.

Most organizations operate like rigid military outfits. Everything seems to be clandestine and hush-hush, with only a select coterie of individuals being “in the know” about things. Employees are only informed of things that they “need to know” to be able to do their jobs. Their opinions are not solicited and they are not consulted at all even on matters that may have a direct impact on their jobs.

Sounds familiar about your own organization? Well, that’s because most are run in this fashion. Consultation down the ranks on major decision of significant impact to the business is not a commonplace practice, except in very few progressive companies. Usually, the chief executive officer only consults the senior management and his assistant, senior managers confide with their subordinates, and so on down the line.

As a result, decisions become a bit predictable, and lose their creativity and innovation. This is logical because they all come from the same group or groups of individuals always acting in concert.

Imagine if many others were involved in the process. Or, at the very least, if there was a way by which the ideas of many others can be incorporated in the decision making process. Would this not give more alternatives and, therefore, ensure more relevant and effective decisions to be taken?

There was a time when managers held a monopoly on business wisdom. In the olden days, employees did not have as much education and training as their bosses, who were therefore held in very high regard.

These days are past—the acquisition of knowledge is now a more level playing field. The increasing accessibility of fora like the Internet, improvement of general education and the increasing mobility of the workforce has meant that there is a lot of potential in any organization to gather innovative and creative ideas, if only we knew how to get them.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, May 13, 2006 (