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Article by Mohan Babu


The barber shop philosophy

The implications of changes in technology and IT are profound for most businesses. MOHAN BABU shares the text of a recent talk he gave at a technical university on IT’s role in business transformation

During a recent trip to my local barber shop, I witnessed a change which most managers are perhaps very familiar with: It involved personnel turnover. I had been visiting this neighbourhood barber for a few years and had an opportunity to observe a young apprentice of his turn into a craftsman in his own right. During my periodic trips for haircut, the young barber used to chat with me as most barbers are wont to, and the elder master would be busy managing the shop which was always milling with customers. During this trip, however, the young guy was missing and I asked the owner about him. With a crestfallen look, he explained that the youngster had moved on to setup his own shop a few blocks away. He went on to ask if I was surprised at this change. You bet I was! This, even though we are used to such change during every working day.

While waiting for my turn, I began thinking about how familiar this story sounded: Junior employee turning to be a master craftsman and eventually a competitor is not new. Businesses have, for ages, experienced the movement and turnover of employees. However, from an operational standpoint, the master-barber was really disconsolate because the business model that he had worked hard to cultivate was abruptly shaken up.

A story familiar to most managers: a key member of his team had suddenly disappeared. Most of us like a sense of equilibrium in our day-to-day dealings and find it hard to comprehend changes wrought by others, especially if we don’t have a stake in the decision-making. Managers like to be in ‘control’ and work hard to cultivate and nurture their resources. This is true of the software industry, just as it applies to any other services business, including managing a hairdressing saloon.

This move by the former-apprentice-turned-competitor is something we see in the business-world all the time, and shouldn’t really have surprised me. Many times the former employee turns out to be a really formidable competitor. Case in point includes Tom Siebel and the founders of one of India’s largest software services companies, who moved away from the shadows of their employers early in their working lives to found remarkable organisations (Tom Siebel was with Oracle before starting Siebel Systems, and the founders of Infosys were with Patni Computers before co-founding their company).

It is debatable if either of these entrepreneurs would have done as well under the shadows of their former employers; however, I guess it would be fair to speculate that their transition would have involved a lot of introspection. Needless to say, their decision must have wrought some unexpected change at their employers’ end, just as the junior employee’s departure shook up the barber shop.

The job scene in the West, at least during the past couple of years, has been lacklustre and not many brave souls have taken the plunge towards entrepreneurship. However, the same is not really true of India where entrepreneurship in the tech sector is growing at a tremendous pace.

Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and technology sourcing units and companies are mushrooming. Many of the entrepreneurs founding these units are employees of established companies, which were themselves founded not so long ago. Organisations in this industry employ highly replicable business models, and the industry itself has few barriers to entry. Talented employees—techies, architects, and managers—sometimes realise that their real calling is in entrepreneurship, and feel that they would be happier being free agents. After gaining some confidence and learning the intricacies of the operations, employees sometimes don’t hesitate to take the plunge. Applying the best-practices of their employers, coupled with some of their personal learnings, these fledging entrepreneurs move on to manage their own organisations and customers.

Back to my barber. On asking how he would manage without his junior, he just shrugged his shoulder, pointed at two teenagers and said philosophically that he would just have to train them and hope they would pick up the trade soon. Not very different from the line of thinking of managers at BPOs and IT outsourcers who are honing the skills involved in turning fresh crops of apprentice trainees into productive employees—faster than the outflow of skilled workers—into an art.





About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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