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Beware the boycott

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-03-2017 Siddharth Pai

Kashyap Kompella, a former colleague, has always struck me as a cogitative person. He likes to reflect before giving voice to his thoughts and it is natural for me to give him great attention, since he also sometimes provides excellent fodder for this column. I always come away from our conversations having gained more than I have contributed, and our last conversation was no different.

One of the phenomena we discussed was the current “hyper-nationalistic” ethos that is taking over the world. An interesting by-product of this ethos is the increasing use of the boycott as a powerful political bludgeon. As we know, Mahatma Gandhi was the first to use the boycott with great effect. The Mahatma’s “swadeshi” model broke the back of the English textile mills, which were using Indian raw materials, and of course, the vast Indian market, for their growth. His boycott was in the pursuit of a greater good than corporate profits, and captured the minds of most Indians, in turn leading to its quick and effective adoption.

In India, we have recently had celebrities like Aamir Khan, who have faced calls for their movies to be boycotted because of their political leanings or for what they might have said to the press. To add to this, they have found themselves having their endorsement deals cut, purportedly for having taken a stand in public on issues that trouble them personally.

Meanwhile in the US, departmental stores that have dropped lines of clothing bearing brand names related to the current political dispensation have faced calls for a boycott of their stores. Whether these boycotts have so far been successful is moot, but the fact that boycotts are again being encouraged as a political tool can mean significant economic harm to the boycotted firms if the issues presented by the boycott are not handled with finesse.

What worries me is the possibility that Indian firms may be under-prepared to be at the receiving end of such boycotts as the temperature of the nationalistic fevers running in the US, Great Britain, and across most of Europe soar to levels that might cause febrile convulsions. Thankfully, the fact that most of India’s IT and BPO majors sell to other large businesses and not directly to consumers lessens the impact of boycotts, which are usually mass movements that individuals are cajoled or inspired to participate in, but it is certainly possible to engineer boycotts within boardrooms. Cutting endorsement deals like Khan’s are boardroom level decisions.

Let us also not forget that not all Indian firms operating abroad operate solely in their customers’ boardrooms. There are now quite a few Indian firms that are attempting to capture the hearts and minds of the local populace in countries far afield from India, in textiles, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, telecommunications, and so on. Indian heritage firms would do well to spend some time thinking right now about how they might respond should the boycott tactic be used against them.

I would suggest three modes of preparedness: The first would be to simply acknowledge that the probability of a boycott occurring, fantastical as it may seem, is not as infinitesimally small as it was just a couple of years ago.

The second would be to find people of local descent who can serve as leaders in the countries that these firms operate in. It is not enough to hire a low level local media spokesperson while persons of Indian descent serve in all leadership positions of significance. We have had a lesson close to home: Nestlé had not had an Indian boss in India for 16 years when the Maggi Noodles scandal broke. After the faux-pas, the company’s India chief Etienne Benet was recalled to the company’s Swiss head office and Suresh Narayanan, who is of Indian descent, was appointed in his stead. It is conceivable that had the company retained a person of Indian origin in the corner office for at least some of those 16 years, the impact from the controversy could have been minimized, since an Indian chief might have had a better handle on the on-ground situation.

The third suggestion would be to extend the planning cycle beyond just the next quarter’s numbers. The incessant march of technology has caused us to now think of time in ever shorter cycles. A book named The Change Book by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschappeler that Kashyap suggested I peruse had a point to make about planning horizons in one of its chapters. Many digital calendars now divide our time into 15-minute intervals, while businesses at large tend to think in quarters, and many human beings think in terms of 12-month long years. Hence the ballyhoo around festivals like Holi, which roll around once a year. As a result, most humans, who already have difficulty in downsizing our yearly planning horizons to quarters, are now even more frazzled as our time gets divided up into ever smaller chunks.

The book quotes a gentleman named Christopher Patrick Peterka, who has engineered a novel way to change our thinking about time. Rather than finding productivity tools to better manage the smaller time segments that scheduling software is forcing us into, Peterka suggests that we start thinking of our time in five-year chunks.

That would mean that a human being who lives for 80 years, would think only of 16 discrete planning cycles, as would a company over the same 80, instead of the 280 million 15-minute chunks that current time scheduling technology is forcing us into.

And in most democracies, five years is about how long it takes for a government to change.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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