Does Math Have a Context?

Basic MathThroughout my engineering days as well as professional life, I always liked math. It has a certain cleanliness to it that I could not find elsewhere. Of course there came a point where it took more effort than I intended to put in to understand the intricacies. However, everything I learnt before that is still close to my heart.

So, when I decided to indulge in a newfound passion to create masterpieces for the mobile world, I naturally turned to math. The idea was to create something that would help kids understand, enjoy and excel at basic mathematics. The more I researched in this field, the more confused I got.

I realized that our learning process for different subjects is different. We learn the best when we learn within a context. Language is taught to children using action words which they can easily identify with. Right up to our learning in professional lives, our learning all comes with context. However, math is still taught in a very abstract way.

We are taught that 2+2=4. This is a “fact”. We are taught the process of solving this problem and how to extend it to other problems. However, there is no context. There is no storification. No wonder that children who do not immediately identify the beauty do not really like the subject even if they are good at it. A food for thought article I read from PBS prompted me to write this.

Can anything be done about this? Can math be storified? Can we create a context around basic math to stoke the imagination of children? In fact, does math have a context?

What do the 9-to-whatevers think?

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Carrot & Stick

Since time immemorial, I can imagine, there has been a need to motivate people into the “right” behavior.

The first crime ever committed was probably soon after the first settlement was settled and somebody stole a goat from their neighbour.  This resulted in a verdict of “Thou shalt return the goat to thy neighbour; thine goat shall then be cooked for all”.

Punishment was probably easy to implement.  It produced results, was flexible, was (almost) costless and allowed for control of masses within limits of the available technology and philosophy.  However, it must have soon been realized that something was needed to prevent the crimes from occuring in the first place.  Also, there was something needed to make people do good; not just stop them from doing bad.  And this was a gap in the punishment theory.

Bang!  Religion was invented.  Punishment, already invented was included by default.  However, rewards for good behaviour were also included.  This allowed people not only to encourage good behaviour, but also define the parameters of that good behaviour.  Means were very limited though; the rewards could not be distributed freely.  The solution was to provide these rewards in the afterlife (or next life).  This meant no accountability and no feedback.  The required faith also ensured that any gaps in the theory could not be questioned.  A brilliant solution to the motivation problem!

Fast forward to the corporate environment.  The situation does seem to be similar here.  Punishment is easier to implement, easier to execute and requires a lower level of imagination and ability from the managers in-charge.  Loss of employment has always been a credible threat (and remains so today despite the changes in the competitive and HR landscape).

But, how does one motivate good behavior?  This is pretty much a requirement for any organization, not only to thrive, but just to survive in today’s world.  Tools similar to religion were used; lifelong employment, retirement benefits, etc.  This provided the returns on a perennial basis and enabled ‘faith’ and trust in the organization as well as employee.  As the landscape became more competitive, organizations decided they could not afford the largesse.  Individuals also found it more lucrative to sell oneself to the highest bidder in the market.  The lifetime contract was buried once and for all.

So, the conundrum becomes quite accute for the managers of today.  Motivation has become a very complicated field.  Gone are the days when motivation was limited to monetary gains and job security.  Employees as well as organizations concentrate on non-monetary methods.  Also, the expectation of the employees are keeping up with general social trends (they are the same people, are they not!) and demanding instant gratification – and that is if they are not demanding things as incentives before they perform.  Today, the concept of an annual bonus may not make sense due to this.  Even the annual appraisal is being shelved in some brave organizations in favor of a more continuous process.

What is one to do?  In order to succeed themselves, managers (ably led/supported by HR departments), need to break the mold and do things that were unthinkable a few years ago. We need to make the benefits more short term, more flexible (based on the need of the individual). We need to make them more realistic and of real use to our staff. Only then will they give 110% (defined as more that we demand). These are active thoughts in new gen companies such as Google, but for the vast majority of the corporate landscape, the answer continues to be “this will not work for us?”.

Then, the question is what will? Until we redefine the “Carrot” and continue to adjust to the needs to today, we will not be able to get the newer generations to continue working for us. It will take us, the 9-to-whatevers, to open up our imaginations, our biases, our assumptions to really make the worker of today feel Welcome!

Do We Want to Know?

Knowledge Management is everywhere. In discussions, blogs, corporate strategies, individual minds, etc. If one is unaware of or not convinced about the benefits, there is an army of consultants and vendors who can change that. I am a convert without needing any more help.

For evidence, one needs only to look at traditions passed from one generation to the next. The artisan/farmer/xyz made sure that the next generation understood and learnt the sum of their knowledge so that it may be built upon and improved. This was actually necessary for survival. Today, organizations are fighting for survival/success in a way they have probably never fought before. Every asset is being analyzed in order to increase the efficiency of usage. Knowledge is one such asset which is underutilized and can provide significant returns. The question then is, why is knowledge underutilized? To use any asset efficiently, the nature of the asset needs to be understood; the asset transformed to be usable in the manner desired; the asset used in an optimal manner; the asset maintained in a usable/relevant state and measurements of the benefits coming out of this. Let us apply this to knowledge.

The nature of “knowledge” has been well studied and classified and is constantly being refined. Most of the literature I read today relates to the transformation of knowledge into a usable state. Tools to capture explicit knowledge are widely available. There is also good direction on how to start capturing implicit knowledge; direct interaction and collaboration between the haves and have-nots being used to speed up this process. Curation and maintenance of this “library” is also an oft-touched upon topic. But what about the users of this knowledge? When there is a need for context based answers (typically quick problem-solving type things), people do approach other people. However, a large part of the problem is around re-inventing the wheel and re-learning lessons. My experience has shown me that the not built here syndrome continues to exist in this space. Large swathes of the organization (including and specially managers) do not believe that solutions created and lessons learnt by other people apply to them. Their problem is always different. (Code re-use & Service re-use anybody?). What is done to change this attitude will decide the pay-off from any KM strategy. Another issue is training. While internal corporate providers can play a just in time game with knowledge, vendor organizations and service providers need to be on the bleeding edge. They need to prepare people with knowledge in expectation of its use, not after they develop a need.

I have seen multiple organizations repeat mistakes or re-invent things because people do not want to talk to the people with the knowledge. I have also seen different groups at different levels of preparedness with knowledge (within and across organizations) which they know will be needed. Unfortunately, this depends on the attitude of individuals. We need to work on the culture to spread the “correct” version of the attitude.

We know that Po’s father would confide the secret ingredient to him at some point. But, we need the whole organizational kitchen to know it. What can be done to make it happen? Any thoughts from the 9-to-whatevers?

What is Customer Service?

There are multiple aspects of customer service; and they are not necessarily aligned.

So, here goes a recent conversation I had…

Ring, ring…
Me: Hello!
Oper: I am calling from xyz mobile company. Can I speak to Axxxx
Me: Nobody by that name here
Oper: Is this 9xxxxxxxxx?
Me: Yes, but the name is Aviral
Oper: Please go to the store at location x and submit your documents
Me: I did that 2 days ago. Can you please get this fixed?
Oper: Sir! This is a welcome call. I cannot do that. Please take your documents to location x
Me: (in my mind) What are you welcoming me to – bad customer service?

Unfortunately, experiences such as this are not limited to Telecom companies. In the city that I call home, customer service often takes a back seat. This is true in stores, restaurants, and even in the professional organizations.

This led me to question why we put up with it. I did an (extremely) unscientific survey and came up with the following observations:

  1. People tend to pay more attention to what they receive than how they receive it
  2. People tend to avoid thinking about what they will do when/if something goes wrong

This led me to thinking about the various facets of customer service. My thoughts, incomplete on hindsight, identified customer service as what I got from people – sales, queries, complaints and the ilk. I was completely ignoring the initial quality of the product as an element of customer service.

I now agree that the best customer service is one where one never needs after sales support. However, this is not realistic and companies need to cater for the other parts also. This is especially true for places with forced interaction such as restaurants – food quality is necessary but not sufficient.

So, the unanswered questions in my mind:

  1. What is the right balance as far as the definition of customer service goes?
  2. What are the drivers for organizations to achieve this balance?
  3. As consumers, how much and how can we impact these drivers to get the right balance necessary for us?

For us 9-to-whatevers, the question translates into how much we think about the customer vs. the product as we perform our duties…

How Strict are You?

This question is about reactions we have in our daily lives.  The breadth of these reactions can range from being overjoyed to being really upset.  For the purposes of this blog, I will concentrate on things that produce negative reactions in us.

Negative reactions are generally produced when we are disappointed in the results of an action – more often actions done by others which we are dependant on.  The level of this reaction (internally) is directly proportional to the degree by which the desired result is compromised.  The question is how it gets represented externally.

These situations can occur anywhere – with our family/friends (specially with the kids), with our service providers (domestic help, vendors, retail establishments, etc) as well as in the place of work.

When we have a negative reaction, we have multiple ways to express it.  First of all, we must decide whether to express it at all.  If we do, it could be done as a positive (you tried your best!), negative (how could you do this?), negotiation (what would it take to do better next time?) or coaching (you may want to try it this way!).  The decision on how to do this has to be made relatively quickly (until you subscribe to the count to 10 theory) under stress and has to take into account the history of the subject in question – is this result an exception or the norm with this subject, etc.

Each reaction causes a different counter-reaction.  The expression of this disappointment should be done in order to generate the appropriate counter-reaction.  Keeping this control goes a long way in being a good parent, manager or whatever other role you are playing at that time.  Also, the level of expectation should be internalized to evaluate the situation correctly.  High levels of expectation can be difficult to achieve and cause a higher percentage of disappointing results.

A person who maintains high level of expectations consistently is typically labelled strict.  So, is being strict really bad?  Not if you are are able to generate the correct counter-reactions.  These need to be based on the history of the task at hand, history of the subject as well as the criticality of the result.  But if carefully controlled, they can allow the subject to be motivated in the right direction.  Leading by example, and performing at the same level as your expectations will also allow you to use this in a positive manner.

Parents are the easiest example to observe for this behaviour.  If you look around you, you will find parents with this skill in all shades of gray.  You will also observe that there is no right or wrong, but that finding the shade of gray which suits the parent and the kid best, will produce the desired result.  So, the question remains: How strict are you?  and maybe more importantly: How comfortable are you with that level of strictness?

Contrasting Election Stories

Elections – what reaction does this word evoke in you?  For me, it brings out the words participation, self-determination, leadership.  But, that is too individual a thought.  From a larger perspective, this is about a mass movement, actually multiple mass movements all trying to outdo each other for success.

What does this mass movement consist of?  This, normally, belongs to a single political party.  The hierarchy begins with the senior party management.  Then come several levels of party leadership as the structure goes from the national level to individual constituencies.  At the constituency level, come the party workers.  They are the people who consist of believers, supporters, leadership wannabes and are the day-to-day touchpoints for common folk; the people who spread the ideology and belief; the people who eventually garner and mobilize the vote.  There is no successful politician at any level who can ignore this fact.

So, let us talk about contrast.  Is the election process identical everywhere?  Definitely not.  What follows is a comparison of the process that is used in India to what is prevalent in the USA.  Let us see what we can learn from these observations.

In India, the decision on who gets the ‘ticket’ in an election is through an interesting process.  The party high-command publishes a list of the winners!  What is this decision based on?  Winnability should be the sole criterion for party success.  But, rumors (maybe they are fact) sometimes point to familial, financial, quid-pro-quo or other similar instincts which on a pure analysis level, do not help the larger organization.  The base of the party – the workers, may or may not be consulted or satisfied through this process.  This process is not necessarily autocratic, but there is surely room for more transparency.

In the states, anybody can throw in their hat into the ring for an election.  The candidates then run a campaign to be elected.  However, this election is from multiple candidates within the same party – they are fighting to become the nominee for their party in the general election.  This process is called a primary.  The layers of party leadership along with the local party workers can show their partisanship by supporting their desired candidates.  However, the result is driven by the ballot, which is cast by the registered party workers or the general public (depending on the party constitution).  Given the transparency of the process and the involvement of the mass movement, this process is necessarily not autocratic.

What is the difference?  By being necessarily not autocratic, there is an involvement of all levels of the party in the decision on who will be the final candidate.  This improves the winnability of the seat for the party and benefits the larger organization.  Interested in examples?

How many of you really think that Mr. Obama would have run for president from the Democratic party without the primary.  His lack of experience and his color would have been huge barriers.  However, the primary allowed him to showcase his abilities which guaranteed 4 years for the party in the White House.

In India, Mr. Khanduri has resigned as the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.  This was because the party workers did not believe in his leadership which resulted in no efforts during the Lok Sabha elections on the party’s behalf.  The BJP failed miserably in the state due to this autocratic appointment.

Is the solution perfect?  Nope.  But it is an improvement in my belief, and a very important one at that.  But, then again, this is not a political column.  What can us 9-to-whatevers take away from this?

How many strategies have you either created or seen come down from senior management?  How many of these have been pre-synced with the people who need to implement them?  How many of these have met the original estimates of success?

We forget too often, who our “party workers” are.  We take our believers, supporters and executors for granted.  Strategies which have buy-in from them will always have a greater chance of succeeding.  This is because their inputs will ensure that the strategy is grounded in day-to-day realities which they are much closer to.  This is also because the commitment to the cause and motivation to succeed increases with their involvement in the decision.  We could try to be more necessarily not autocratic.

What do you think?