Further info and resources from my website

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Better late than never! Vargas Llosa receives the Nobel Prize for Literature

The blogger's personal collection of Vargas Llosa books
Exactly twenty years ago, while doing my master's at the University of Georgia I visited a childhood friend of mine who was teaching French Literature at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and, while book browsing in a bookstore, one of my favorite hobbies, he recommended buying La tia Julia y el escribidor by Peru's greatest writer, Mario Vargas Llosa (MVL.) Although I didn't speak Spanish then I said, "why not?" and bought it. Little did I know that less than four years later I'd be living in Spain, learning the language and finally getting to read the first Spanish book I bought. And boy was I in for a treat: switching between the daily life of an 18-year old writer-to-be, clearly modeled on the author, and between stories that seemed to have nothing to do with the main storyline, I was fascinated by the power of his writing, the sights, sounds, emotions, family drama of living in Lima, Peru, and beyond that Latin America. And when I reached the "aha" moment, when the link between the seemingly disparate stories and Varguitas' life is suddenly understood, it was quite an epiphany.

Ever since that moment I was hooked on MVL's writing. Not only the comedies such as La tia Julia or the brilliant satire of Pantaleon y las visitadoras (the description of a brothel business run by the government for its military, couched in bureaucratese language is hilarious) but the more politically engaged ones such La ciudad y los perros or La fiesta del chivo. The latter is one of the best books, novel or non-fiction, ever written on power, in particular the autocratic variety: it dissects the mechanics of a dictatorship and how a tyrant, in this case infamous Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, manages to hold his power on a whole country for so long. A fast-paced historical novel, it is a fascinating read which I'd recommend to anybody interested in Latin America, politics and fine writing. Read it and you will understand more about autocratic power than any lengthy academic tome. (A decade later I would find myself lost in thoughts across the Presidential Palace in Santo Domingo reflecting on the people and events described by MVL) 

With such a record, it had been a mystery to me that the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee could still ignore such a giant. But, then, have they not ignored Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Jorge Amado and Graham Greene? And have they not awarded the coveted prize on unknown writers such as last year's Herta Muller, a German-Romanian I had never heard of - and being half Romanian myself I should. Or Le Clezio, a French writer also unknown to me: yes, although I was born in France with French as my first language and a voracious reader of  the country's literature I had never heard of this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. And I'm not mentioning the countlesss other obscure ones, nor the puzzling choice of Barack Obama last year as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize: not only had he done nothing noteworthy in the pursuance of peace but he's managing two wars (true, he didn't start them, but neither has he brought them to an end yet.) You get my drift: awarding a Nobel prize is a hit-or-miss thing and I was gratified that this year was a vintage one with unanimous applause for the choice of MLV.

The only debate now is which of he or the other great Latin American writer, Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is the greatest? One can say that MVL is more intellectual while Gabo's language is more poetic, but also that if you were to pick one single book of each writer, Garcia Marquez will win with One Hundred Years of Solitude which is one of the best novels of the 20th century and is therefore a more uplifting read than any single book written by MVL. However, if you look at the overall output, MVL has written more satisfying books than Gabo. So it's probably either a draw, or a slight advantage to MVL.

At the glittering ceremony in Stockholm this month, MVL made an acceptance speech that is already considered a classic. A PDF is available from the El Pais website. For non-Spanish speakers let me translate (approximately) some highlights of a profoundly intelligent, humanist, courageous, beautiful and emotional speech entitled "In praise of reading and fiction."

     Flaubert taught me that talent is a stubborn discipline and long patience...If I were to call up all the writers in whose debt I am, their shadows would throw us into darkness...Just as with writing, reading is a way of protesting against the inadequacies of life...We invented fiction in order to be able to live the many lives that we would like to live while we only have one....

     Literature creates a brotherhood inside human diversity and hides the frontiers that ignorance, ideology, religion, language and stupidity put up between men...I never felt I was a foreigner in Europe, nor in reality anywhere else. In all the places where I've lived I felt at home. I carry Peru in my guts, because that's where I was born, grew up, was trained, and lived those childhood experiences which molded my personality and created my vocation: there I loved, hated, enjoyed, suffered and dreamed....Peru is the whole world in a smaller format. What an extraordinary privilege for one country not to have one identity because it has them all...

     I hate all forms of nationalisms because they make a supreme value of the pure random circumstance of one's birthplace... 

     I was 11 when I lost my innocence and discovered loneliness, authority, adult life and fear. What saved me was reading, reading good books, taking refuge in those worlds where life was exciting, intense, one adventure after another, where I could feel free and become happy again. And it was the fact of writing, in hiding, the way one yields to a shameful vice or forbidden passion. Literature stopped being a game. It became a way of resisting adversity, protesting, rebelling, escaping what was intolerable, it became my reason to be alive... 

     It has always fascinated me to imagine the uncertain circumstances in which our ancestors, barely different from animals, having recently developed speech to allow them to communicate among themselves, started, in caves and around fires, during nights full of danger - lightning, thunder, beast grunts - to make up stories and tell them to one another. That was the crucial moment of our destiny, because in those groups of primitive beings hanging by the voice and imagination of the storyteller, started our civilization ...

     That is why, we have to repeat it incessantly until we convince the new generations: fiction is more than entertainment, more than an intellectual game that makes your sensitivity more acute and develops your critical sense. It is a vital necessity for civilization to continue to exist, renew itself and preserve the best of our humanity...And because a world without literature would be a  world with neither desires nor ideals, a world of robots shorn of what makes a human truly human: the ability to grow out of themselves into somebody else, somebody molded from the  clay of our  dreams.

(All of Mario Vargas Llosa's books have been translated into English. I am using here the original Spanish-language titles since that is how I know them but here are some English-language titles: La Fiesta del chivo was translated as The Feast of the Goat and La tia Julia y el escribidor as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.)


Monday, December 13, 2010

The pros and cons of being an IT early adopter

One of the trickiest issues faced by a company about to select a new business software (HR or otherwise) is the early-adopter dilemma. Imagine that you have a favorable view of your IT vendor, probably because of a long association or due to a great rapport with your account manager whom you have come to trust over the years. When a new need emerges (say, you are expanding into a new country and need to manage and pay the local workforce) you naturally turn to your vendor who had already provided you with a payroll engine and the "legs and regs" (local rules in our HR tech jargon) for your home country.

Like all IT vendors, yours will tell you through an enthusiastic sales rep, "no problem, can do." Except that there is a little snag: that local payroll is still being developed (if work has started on it at all) and there is no customer live...yet! Actually they are offering you the great honor of being the first customer, or "early adopter" in softspeak. In plain English, they want you to be their guinea pig.

If you have followed a  strict software-selection methodology (such as the one I advocate) you'll probably pause for thought: Shall I do this? Can I trust them? If nobody's bought it yet, or they haven't developed it, maybe there is a good reason for it. This is not an academic question: Oracle, to take one example, developed in the early 2000's a French payroll and failed to get a first customer to use it since the market had serious doubts about the quality of the product. Not even Oracle France was willing to "eat their own dog food" as the phrase goes!

The above are all valid questions and don't let your account manager brush them off as if they were insignificant specks of dust. Not weighed carefully, these issues may well make all the difference between success and failure in your software project.

If you've had a long association with the vendor and like your account manager, shouldn't this be enough? These are helpful points but should not sway you unduly: after all, the account manager can leave the next day and be replaced by an indifferent or incompetent executive. (That is if they are replaced at all - I've seen customers left with nobody to manage the relationship for years!) And just because your vendor was good at one offering is no guarantee that they will be good at another one: many recruitment vendors have lousy learning features and vice versa.

On the plus side, there is one key advantage which the vendor's sales rep will probably be trumpeting high and low: as a first customer, you get to drive the direction of the product, ensuring your needs are covered. "Your requirements, your whole  requirements, nothing but your requirements," your account manager will be waxing lyrical (and commercial.) And who can deny the appeal of having a customized product built as a package system? Doesn't it sound like the best of both worlds?

Maybe, unless the vendor is less than forthcoming with you and is using you just to test the waters. You need to be convinced that after the initial release the product will not be shelved, as it has happened with several products under so-called "controlled availability." Sure, there is no guarantee of eternity in the IT industry (just ask PeopleSoft customers), but you need to factor that in as part of your due diligence. In particular make sure that the vendor has done their market research adequately and that they're in it for the long haul so that, should the first customers trickle in at a snail's pace, the vendor will still stick by the product and not fold it after a couple of disappointing sales quarters.

One thing to check is the vendor's historical credibility. Are they close to their customers? Have they consistently developed according to plan ("the roadmap" in our lingo.) Is this new product of theirs a key area for which you can expect them to make every effort to be successful, or is it just one among a huge portfolio? If the latter, then the risks are definitely higher. And look at yourself in the vendor's larger business scheme of things: are you a major customer? You don't have to be  a global one, but be clear eyed as to the place you occupy in your industry or geography. To remain with another example of a French payroll (successful this time), are you like Société Générale, a major company, in a  major industry in a  major market? If yes, then chances are that the vendor (in this case it was PeopleSoft and the first country extension of their new Global Payroll) will go to great lengths to deliver as promised. (For how to deal with a software vendor bent on reneging on their commitments - apologies for hawking my book - you may find useful Chapter 7 "Going 'Glocal' " of  High-Tech Planet: Secrets of an IT Road Warrior, on the politics of arm-twisting to get what, after all, you've been promised and have already paid for handsomely.)

Another criterion you may want to take into account is the fact that there is a difference between being asked to be a guinea pig for for a new product covering a mature function (such as the abovementioned payroll) and one which deals with a newish area, such as onboarding.  In the former case, the market requirements are generally well-understood and the only doubts are about the vendor's ability to translate them into bytes and pixels. In the latter, the risks are multiplied by the still fuzzy understanding of what will be automated. In particular, pay attention to the internal resources the vendor is committing to the product.

Although personally I don't believe in the concept of co-development between a vendor and a customer (there should be only one development organization, and its place is within a vendor's walls since that's their business) you as a customer should be quite vigilant about what goes on within those walls. Otherwise you may come to regret having traded the peace of a "laggard" for the excitement of an early adopter. The software graveyard is littered with the bodies of early adopters who ended up being the only adopter.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lula wins "third" mandate but is it for "presidente" or "presidenta"?

The blogger in the World Heritage Portuguese
town of Oporto the day Dilma Rousseff was
elected. Even the Brazilian community
in Portugal voted for her in similar
proportions as back home
When Ronald Reagan ended his second term with high approval ratings, since the Constitution prevented him for running for a third one ("an infringement on your right to choose your leader" the Gipper told he American public) he campaigned for his heir, his vice-president George H. Bush, who duly won the election. It was said then that was Reagan's third electoral victory. This week's victory by Dilma Rousseff as Brazil's first female president, can be considered even more so as Lula's victory (he is on record as saying during the campaign that "my enemies [from the PSDB party] will not defeat me" as if he were on the ticket - which, in some fashion, he was). It was his astonishingly high approval ratings (over 80% after eight years in office, something Obama can only dream of this week that saw him repudiated in the mid-term elections) that allowed him to pick his successor. Dilma (according to Brazilian usage, celebrities, especially politicians, are referred to by their first name) had never run for office, let alone won any, and although a competent administrator, was not a political force in her own right - unlike neighboring Argentina's Cristina Fernandez who, before succeeding her husband as president, was a powerful senator.  It is a testament to Lula's popularity and charisma that, first, he imposed Dilma on his Workers' Party as their official candidate and, then, campaigned relentlessly for the Brazilian people to vote for her. But Brazilians are more politically mature than one might think, and they forced Dilma through a runoff before giving her the presidency. And her share of the vote (56%) was much less than Lula got in 2006 (60%) itself slightly less than he got in 2002 (61%). The trend is unmistakable: it reminds me of the Socialists in Spain in the 1980's/90's. Under Gonzalez they had an overwhelming majority which shrank and shrank until they became a minority having to resort to an alliance with regional parties (from Catalonia and the Basque country) to remain in power before the opposition finally got a majority of the vote.

My prediction: in 2014, provided the economy is still purring along (when I look at the 80% real estate price increase in Rio de Janeiro's posh neighborhoods, I wonder about a bubble in the making) and the World Cup is not a disaster, Dilma may scrape through with just over 50% in a second round of voting. 2018 will see the opposition come back to power, never a bad thing after almost 20 years of same-party rule.

In the meantime a first controversy awaits Dilma: will she be known as "Presidente" (the masculine form in Portuguese) o "Presidenta" (the female version)? (Also, I have yet to see her referred to as "Dona Dilma" the usual form for Brazilian first ladies from the days of the monarchy until now.) One of Brazil's most respected newspapers has already made up its mind: the Folha de São Paulo  has decided it will be "A presidente", but Dilma in her first speech after her victory referred to herself as "presidenta."  (In France we might have a similar issue in 2012 if a woman runs for president, many people, especially conservatives, insisting that a female leader is "Madame le président"; in the Hispanic world the feminine is used: Cristina Fernandez in Argentina is known as "la presidenta" as Michelle Bachelet was in Chile.) When linguistics and politics meet, things rarely remain dull.

UPDATE: The following picture (from May 2012 in O Globo daily) summarizes the previous issue quite well.

The event organizers gave her the title she wants:
the feminine "presidentA" but "O Globo" has decided
it is the masculine "presidentE" that matters
(The blogger has a second home in Rio de Janeiro where he spends part of the year. When the blogger is not in residence, his penthouse can be rented. Check out the Airbnb listing, also available on TripAdvisor/Flipkey and Homeaway. You can also rent it straight from the blogger)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who Will Inherit PeopleSoft's Crown?

Spending a few days in the fairytale Czech capital where I presented the DOs and DON'Ts of HR technology projects at the HR Directors' International Summit, I was surprised by how many of the 150 attending HR leaders asked me which vendor I saw most likely to inherit the mantle of HR technology leader now that PeopleSoft is slowly but steadily fading into the sunset. Here is my list of pretenders to the crown of industry leader.

The official heir apparent, Fusion, touted by Oracle as the successor product, can safely be ruled out since it has yet to be born (meaning it hasn't been shipped), has no customers live on it  and from what has been shown at various events and leaked, is missing many ingredients of a global Human Capital Management-HCM (payroll, localizations, recruitment).  Could the other ERP behemoth, SAP, take over? Its qualifications are indeed stronger as they include a higher number of customers around the world and a proven HCM system which, for all its faults (overly complex, not particularly user friendly, expensive) is now well established. However, to be recognized as the undisputed HCM leader as PeopleSoft was for a good decade, requires to be a visionary and trendsetter, something nobody has ever accused SAP of being - and let's face it: most SAP customers don't choose it for its HR offering, but usually for other business functions such as Finance and Manufacturing and then adopt HR which SAP still gives the impression of having developed as an afterthought.

What about the latest kid on the block: Workday? Although they are still missing  recruitment and learning modules and are pretty thin on the localization front, they have unmistakably provided the kind of innovation not seen since the PeopleSoft days. And I'm talking here not only about their SaaS architecture (nobody has ever tried a SaaS payroll before) but also about their unique customer orientation which has all the marks of transforming the industry. However, it's still early days to say whether this promising young prince has come of age to claim the crown.

These three previous contenders are all ERP vendors (or integrated business systems to the layman.) What about HCM-only vendors? After all, when PeopleSoft came to the market it was an HR-only product which, even after it morphed into a full-fledged ERP, remained its flagship product. Could the new king come from the rank of pure HR players? In the US, Ultimate and Kronos, while established vendors with solid products, cannot be seriously considered as they  fail on both the talent-management front and globalization. Neither can Lawson, too, whose half-hearted attempts at becoming a global vendor have been met with matching results.

Could it be that the next leading HR vendor would come from the Old Continent? After all, this is where SAP hails from. Spain's Meta4 was once upon a time close to being anointed as official heir with a revolutionary object model, full HCM offering, various localizations, a visionary knowledge-management approach. It had all the makings of a king in waiting until it f(l)oundered on a string of acquisitions, buyouts, management shakeouts from which it never recovered, happy to live off its established customer-base maintenance. IBM's high hopes in France-based HR Access never materialized  and it sold it off to Fidelity which, eight years on, is still unable to develop it in its own home market of the US (Meta4 wasn't more successful there, either), and it remains mainly a payroll provider with limited HCM functionality and an old technology focusing on some European geographies. 

What about outsourcing vendors? Taking a (smaller) leaf from the Oracle book, ADP has been beefing up its offering with various acquisitions, but it still remains to be seen how it will all play out and for the time being the Grand Old Lady of Roseland can only be considered as a long, long shot in the race to the top.

Casting our net wider in our search for this elusive king maybe that some talent-management vendors, the fastest growing segment of the HCM market, could grow into a mature HCM offering with all the thought leadership required to become the industry's leader. There are indeed some amazing products in this space. Will New Zealand's Sonar6 show that the sun indeed rises in the East? Although its performance product is one of the most innovative (with a truly impressive user interface) and the company one of the most creative around, it is way too niche to ever blossom into a full-fledged HCM offering, the key prerequisite to be considered as the leader. Only integrated talent-management vendors have  the wherewithal to reach the throne, or at least the steps leading to it. Taleo? Could be, if it manages to integrate successfully its newly acquired learning offering and decides to develop an HR administration module. Will it bring something altogether new to the industry?   

And here's the rub: none of these HCM suite/integrated talent-management vendors has really brought knock-out innovation, with the exception of Workday on the delivery model and, to some extent, customer relations. Here are some ideas that current or prospective vendors could consider:

1. What about a vendor that will rearchitect their offering, or build a new one, around a new HR data model that will bring a new way of managing employees, organizations, jobs and positions? Provide the flexibility and depth of functionality along with the ease of use required by 21st-century companies?   Will SuccessFactors, a clear leader in the talent-management space (but still without a learning system)  develop such a product that would be a marked enhancement on the old data design of  "SOP" (SAP, Oracle and PeopleSoft)? 

2. What about bringing to the market a full HCM solution built along the lines of a social network? Just like when PeopleSoft introduced release 8.0 with a full internet interface: since most people were used to working with a browser why not give them an HR tool based on such an interface, was the thought then. Following the same thought process, wouldn't it be great to have an HCM solution that looks like Facebook or LinkedIn? After all, many key HR processes such as recruitment or career paths, are better done now using social networks than any other tool. (I'm not talking here about the collaboration features slapped by some vendors on their offering more for show than for substance, but of a full-fledged social HR)

3. Or a user experience ( à la Sonar6, say) or quality of service/support that will at long last reconcile vendors and users? There is little doubt in my mind that whoever manages to reinvent the long-broken dialog between software provider and users will be offered the crown by legions of enthusiastic customers disillusioned by years of poor service and lousy support. 

4. What about open-source HR? So far, the only vendor that has gone down that road with some visibility has been OrangeHRM, but it still remains a very confidential offering and success for this model is far from assured. Or using Google  features (such as Google Search Appliance) for a recruitment tool whose database is the whole internet: after all, most CV's are now available for anybody's perusal on the web. Wouldn't it be great to just enter some key words in your Google search box and you get a list of relevant candidates?

5. Maybe "mobilizing" HR:  with a workforce increasingly mobile, maybe the market is ready for the first fully mobile HR offering. Again, as with social networks, I'm not talking here about redesigning a few screens so that users can fill their timesheets or do their expenses on their iPhone or Nokia (something which already exists), but having the full application written for smartphones. Just as people are spending more and more time on social networks so are they getting glued to their cell phones (even accessing the former through the latter.) What would be better than to give them the HR tools they need on their device of choice? 

6. Anything else that my limited cognitive abilities have yet to envision?

It is obvious that an indisputable leader has yet to emerge and convincingly claim PeopleSoft's crown. The King is dead, long live the King...if we can find one!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Colonial towns: Brazil's hidden gems

The Imperial Palace, former homes of  viceroys, kings and,
when the country was a monarchy, the Emperors of Brazil 
Ask most people what images they have of Brazil, and the four S's are conjured up: sex, sand, sun and soccer. While there's little doubt that the long Brazilian coastline is among the most beautiful ones in the world, that Brazilians have elevated the Beautiful Game into an art form and that the obsession with physical beauty is translated into perfect bodies galore (arrived at through nature or science) which  in turn mean a constant incentive to engage in Brazilians' favorite other sport, I would claim that there is a fifth S which is often overlooked, even by Brazilians: hiStory. That is a shame because throughout the five centuries since Brazil was conquered and settled by the Portuguese, they have dotted the continent-sized landscape  of the country with beautiful palaces, squares and churches which remain well-preserved to the day, thanks to Brazil never having had big wars fought on its territory nor particularly destructive natural disasters.

Since most visitors to Brazil are likely to enter through Rio de Janeiro, the country's gateway, let's start here, as I did in January 2003 leaving  behind me a snowed over Paris. (It was a historic date since Lula was being inaugurated as the first Brazilian president to hail from the country's majority poor people) Most visitors tend to congregate on the southern city beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema not realizing that just a 20-minute drive north, downtown Rio is packed with vestiges of its ancient past as colonial, imperial, royal and independent capital.

The Candelaria church stands its ground
amidst Downtown Rio's highrise buildings
The Renaissance-cum-Baroque Candelaria church is a splendid example of colonial Brazil, and one of its most opulent churches. It was initially built by a sea captain to express his gratitude for having survived a shipwreck, which explains the large panels above the nave. Nearby is the Paço Imperial or Imperial Palace with a long and distinguished history. Originally the residence of the Portuguese governor of Brazil (when Rio became capital of the colony in the mid 18th-century) it became in 1808 a royal residence when the Portuguese court, fleeing from Napoleon's invading armies, was transferred to Rio lock, stock and barrel (meaning King, Government and bureaucracy.) For the first time in history, a colonial city became the capital of the empire it belonged to. It's as if at the height of the British Empire, Queen Victoria had decided to move her court and the British Government to Toronto, Cape Town, Cairo or Hong Kong. This was the first and only time that a European monarch ruled from the Americas as well as from a colony. And when Brazil became independent in 1822 under the only local monarchy ever to exist in post-Columbian Americas,  Rio remained the capital city of the newly independent country which, unlike the nearby Spanish possessions which splintered off into separate states, remained a unified country under Dom Pedro I who ruled from this Paço Imperial. It was from the Palace's steps that Dom Pedro I's granddaughter, Princess Isabel, proclaimed the Freedom from Slavery Act in 1888. That enlightened gesture didn't bring her family good luck as the next year saw the monarchy abolished and the establishment of a (undemocratic) republic. The palace is now a museum/exhibition center, bookshop and café. Landmarks from royal rule in Brazil  abound in the area, incongruously mixed with modern skyscrapers in a  typically Brazilian disregard for architectural harmony. Particularly charming is the cobblestone street known as Travessa do Comércio lined by beautiful two-story colonial townhouses and which is accessed from the Palace through an arch known as Arco de Teles. For those fond of literature, many of the books written by Machado do Assis, Brazil's greatest writer, are set here as is, more recently, Era no tempo do rei, by Ruy Castro, a contemporary Carioca writer/commentator/journalist.  Between Old Rio in the Downtown area and the southern beaches (known to locals as Zona Sul), remnants of colonial life can be found. One of my favorites is the exquisite church NS da Gloria  (Our Lady of Glory) which commands lovely views over the sea-reclaimed Flamengo park.

Glorious church in Gloria

The Lapa Arches and Viaduct on top of which
runs the Santa Teresa tram known as the "bondinho"
The hilltop church, one of the finest examples of religious colonial architecture in Brazil, dates from the early 18th century and was the favorite of the Royal Family upon their arrival in 1808.  Seeing it suddenly emerge as you drive by, or magically lit at night, is quite eery.

Another great landmark is the Arcos da Lapa or Lapa Viaduct which gives the delightfully shabby  neighborhood of Lapa its distinctive air. Weekend nights are traffic free and the bohemian atmosphere of the area where students, artists, working class and posh Cariocas mix freely, is quite a heady mix, with or without the help of a caipirinha and to the accompaniment of  frantic samba rhythms.

I could spend acres of prose on the Marvelous City as Rio is known to the native Cariocas, so I'll stop here and move 200 miles southwest, towards the stateline with São Paulo. Here lies a jewel of a place: Paraty. Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to the American continents, said, when he spotted this shoreline of jutted peninsulas and secluded beaches, "If there were paradise on earth, it wouldn't be far from here."  And that is no hyperbole. Until recently the only way to get to Paraty was by boat; the scenic road winds along emerald-green mountains and takes about four hours between Rio and Paraty where I arrived in the last days of 2008 in less than glorious shape, bending over and relieving myself of my breakfast from where I had absorbed it: I had forgotten to take my motion-sickness pill. That was the only bad memory I have of the place. The pousada where I stayed was well located: a few minutes walk from both the old town across a narrow river, the Perequê-Açu, and a dazzling beach with pristine water. The views from my room on the bay and the town were breathtaking: few things beat sipping a caipirinha (the local cachaça or sugarcane liquor from which the drink is made is quite famous and I must say rightly so.) Its geographical seclusion meant that Paraty remains to this day both a great colonial relic and beach paradise, still safe from the horrendous hordes of mass tourism. But for how long? I'm pretty sure that in my lifetime Paraty will go the way of Dubrovnik, Prague and many other Disneyfied places. The town's irregular cobblestone streets are known as pés-de-moleque (street urchin's feet) and are often washed clean by rains or high tides, giving the city a tropical Venetian look. You can tell tourists from locals easily: the former tend to watch their feet as they negotiate the irregularly-shaped stones to avoid any mishap, whereas the natives just walk indifferently and never miss one. "How do you manage it," I asked them?

And they explained that you shouldn't step on the stones, but rather slide on them until your heel gets a firm grasp of the interstice between two stones. Then you shift to the other foot and repeat the same exercize. It takes a little while to get the hang of it, but after that you can just go about your business, enjoying the beauty of the place without ever risking to stumble.

Town view from the Perpetual Defensor Fort rebuilt in 1822, the year Brazil became independent
What makes Paraty so beautiful is not so much the architecture itself which, attractive as it is, isn't dazzling, but the homogeneous nature of it, the building's earthly colors and texture that magnify the natural beauty around it.

Let's now cross this gigantic country and hop 1,400 miles north towards the equator, towards Recife and Olinda which I visited over Christmas 2007. Recife, a  friend recently told me, has the largest colonial area of all Brazilian cities. It may be so but the day I spent there what I found overwhelming was the poverty and filth of this industrial city so by the mid afternoon I hailed a taxi and got back to Olinda, the sister city a few miles away.

Recife looms in the horizon from Olinda

The town's historic center sits on a hill overlooking the Atlantic and Recife.The twisting streets of colorful old houses and a plethora of scenic churches in various degrees of repair and decay make this well-preserved town a charming place to visit.

NS do Carmo church built in the late 1500's but rebuilt, like most other buildings, after the Dutch burnt the town down in 1631 

With New Year's Even upon us with a group of tourists I met we complied with the Brazilian tradition of seeing the New Year clad in white, as you can see in the picture where Dominique (a French teacher) and I are sipping from a coco gelado. Reveillon is a much tamer affair in Olinda than in Rio whose New Year's Eve bacchanals are as famous. (Olinda's Carnival, though, is considered as the second best in Brazil after Rio's.) By 2 am the streets were largely empty, which suited me fine as I was flying out the next day and needed some rest.

The Blue House, just down the street from the pousada where I stayed
Ceiling from St. Francis Convent in Olinda
Salvador's Pelourinho district
Of all Brazil's major cities, Salvador is the one with the largest and best preserved colonial neighborhoods (São Paulo, established almost at the same time time as Rio, has quite a few vestiges of its past in its old town dwarfed by the sheer size of South America's largest city.) Salvador's Pelourinho, with its African heritage, beautifully preserved houses, upper and lower towns was  immortalized in Jorge Amado's book, Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands which saucily and vividly captured the sights, sounds, smells and sensuality (another four  S's!) of Brazil's first capital city like nobody else - and it was adapted in a great movie made in 1976 with Sonia Braga. (I still cannot believe that he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, when so many obscure and mediocre writers have.)

In terms of sheer density of beautiful colonial towns, nothing beats the state of Minas Gerais in the Brazilian hinterland which I visited earlier this year.  Scattered across the state, colloquially known as Minas (and from which hails Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's soon-to-be first female president ) are exquisite towns of wich the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly Ouro Preto. The City of Black Gold reached its heyday in the mid-18th century with a population of 100,000 people (New York then only had 50,000) before the gold boom petered out. The town, a UNESCO mankind heritage landmark, was the state capital until the end of the 19th century and still regains symbolically that status once a year when the state government moves there for a day. Being downgraded was a blessing in disguise as it helped the town preserve its colonial splendor.

NS do Carmo church on top of the hill,and to the left the Grand Hotel, the only 20th century building in Ouro Preto, by Brazil's most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer who at age 102 is still working

Ouro Preto is cut by deep ravines and divided into several hills upon which narrow, crooked streets have been built. The gradient on some of these streets is so vertiginous that one can almost speak of vertical streets. Almost every hill is topped by a church such as the NS do Carmo across from which I stayed in a pousada occupying an old home. Since not all slopes of a hill have been built up, this with the surrounding mountain lend a unique and soothing bucolic atmosphere to the town. You feel, you are, in the countryside, as well as in a town with all urban amenities.

Church of NS das Mercês seen from my room at the Pousada Chico Rei
A close up of NS das Mercês

The Church of St. Francis of Assis is considered as one of the most important pieces of Brazilian colonial art, the work of prodigy artist Aleijandinho who carved the soapstone medallion to the cannon waterspouts and the military two-cross bar on the façade.

Fountain on the way to Santa Ifigênia Church. The long, vertiginously high way I should add
Traveling through the colonial towns of Minas Gerais is no easy task if you're a solo traveler relying on public transportation. Inter-town bus lines are few and fewer between with a resolute attempt not to coordinate their schedules: thus to visit a nearby town may mean waking up at 6:00 am and not being back before 9:00 pm. So I rented a car service, at the expected extortionate rate, to take me on a rainy morning from Ouro Preto to   Congonhas, further south. Congonhas is a small industrial town which has been saved from complete obscurity by the extraordinary collection of lifesized statues of the Old Testament Prophets outside the local church. They are considered as Aleijandinho's masterpiece and to be able to walk around them and see them perform their miraculous ballet is worth the trip to the town.

Aleijandinho's Prophets in Congonhas reminded me of the outdoors  statues in Florence. And like Michaelangelo's David, they will soon be transferred under the roof of a nearby museum. I was lucky to be one of the last to see the originals where they stood for over two centuries. just as I was lucky to see the Lions of the Sacred Way in the Greek island of Delos before they were removed to an indoors location  

One the 12 items that make up Brazil's best known work of art. When he worked on them, Aleijandinho was old, sick and crippled. Fingerless, he had his tools strapped to his hands  
Late morning saw me resisting my driver's entreaties to drive me to Sao João del Rei (at another outrageous rate) and asking him to drop me at the local bus station where I knew there should be a bus within an hour for my last destination, which I reached a little around two pm, heading straight for the Ponte Real, the town's only 4-star hotel. Of all the colonial towns of Minas, SJDR is the only one that has managed to grow a modern city that sits next to the old one in a complete symbiotic relationship. (It is also the home of the powerful Neves political dynasty)

Church of NS do Carmo designed in 1732 by Aleijandinho (Brazilians seem to be lacking in creativity when it comes to church naming) 
Baroque St Francis of Assisi, south of the canal. Aleijandinho did the sculpture of the Virgin  above the door. 
St. Francis is a gem. The church's oval shape, which can be seen both from outside and inside, is stunning, as well as well as the polychromated wood sculptures. I visited it one afternoon under a scorching sun. 

Typical Aleijadinho cherub with
chubby cheeksand wavy hair

A Beetle passes St Francis
Ten miles down the valley from SJDR lies one of the prettiest towns I have ever seen. Smaller than Ouro Preto, its quaint colonial houses stand against a dramatic background of Serra de São José mountains and, when lucky as I was, stunningly blue sky. They sure don't make pretty towns like Tiradentes anymore. And to reach it is on a  par with its quaintness and charm. You board a rickety, smoke-billowing 19th-century train which chugs its way along a beautiful bucolic scenery.

Despite the less-than-discreet presence of sundry antique stores and whimsical boutiques, the town retains a powerful allure.

St. Antony's Church named after the town's patron saint. The frontispiece is by (who else?)
Aleijandinho. The church has an stunning all-gold interior
At the end of what was by all accounts a lovely day marred by only a mediocre lunch, I took the chugging train back to SJDR and the next day I was back in Rio, closing the loop on what had been the most comprehensive and satisfying of all my "colonial" trips. Visit Brazil and miss these urban and historical gems at your own loss. (Another loop was also closed as Lula, after an amazing 8 years in powers in which the country surged to big-power status, economic prosperity, lesser income inequality making him the most popular elected leader in the world with an astounding 80% approval rating, was about to stand down)

(The blogger has a second home in Rio de Janeiro where he spends part of the year. All the pictures were taken by him. When the blogger is not in residence, his penthouse can be rented. Check out the Airbnb listing, also available on TripAdvisor/Flipkey and Homeaway. You can also rent it straight from the blogger)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Glocalization" or the five pillars of a localized software offering

In Brazil where I am assisting a customer in their post-PeopleSoft strategy (among the choices confronting us: keep the global system or go with a local one?), I am constantly reminded of what it means to have an HR system localized for different markets, especially when the product is initially American. And time and again I can't help but witness how far HR systems have to go before becoming truly international - contrary to vendors' claims that they are "global." Indeed many US software firms suffer from the "build once, run many" syndrome believing that "if it's good for the US, it's good for the rest of the world."  You can safely bet your HR project budget that most vendors attending the HR Technology Conference in Chicago later this month will have in their glossy product brochures, slick demo presentations and sexy websites the words "international", "global" and "localized," purporting to cater to the needs of customers hailing from different regions of the world. You can also safely bet the same amount (actually even more) that most of these boastful claims are based on anything but the truth. Why? Simply, because to have a truly global (or international) system you need to localize (or adapt) your product to the country-specific needs of the markets you want to enter: what I call a "glocal" approach, term which I created five years ago when I was at Oracle and recently used as a chapter title in my book High-Tech Planet: Secrets of an IT Road Warrior (available from Amazon).  However, and here's the rub, a truly "glocal" system needs to cover five areas without which it fails its purpose. Call them the five pillars of a localized HR offering.

1. Translation:  Since of all a company's functions, HR (maybe along with Finance) is the most parochial (all those mystifying national rules), it is a no-brainer to say that an English-only system will fail miserably in countries where it is not the native language or widely used as a second, business language (such as India or Africa.) In countries where English is, at best, a third language (such as the one I'm currently in, but also China, most Spanish-speaking countries, the Arab world, Japan, a good portion of Europe) users will not even bother to look at your system, let alone use it to complete a new-hire process, calculate employee overtime or evaluate their annual performance. That English-only software will remain pure shelfware. Now, some smart vendor might think that the emergence of online translators (such as the Google tool) can help them save on their translation budget. Not  a chance. I have seen the results of automated translation in HR software and it is appalling: inconsistency, inaccuracy and incomprehension are the inevitable results of any translation carried out on the cheap. But, even with human translation, issues abound.

For one thing, let's say you have decided to enter the Brazilian market and happen to have a native from  Lisbon, Portugal, on your payroll. Good, he'll do the English-to-Portuguese translation for me, you might think (actually, a true situation I saw at PeopleSoft in the late 1990's). Well, to paraphrase Churchill, Portugal and Brazil are two countries separated by the same language. Portuguese as spoken and used in Brazil varies markedly from the one used in Europe: administrative, legal, business terms are quite different, even more so than between Britain and the US, or between Spanish-speaking South America and Spain. The users will be so mystified that their chances of using your system are going to be very limited.

Second, remember that translation should take into account industry terms: your system may refer to "employees" as the people in your system, and in France if the customer is a private business, "salarié" would be fine; but if they are a government organization, "fonctionnaire" or "agent" will be the norm. The same thing applies in other Latin-based languages.

Third, if you think that you can get away with translating just the data fields and labels along with some reports, think again. Even local reports (for instance, those required by one country such as the Bilan social in France) will have to be translated: what will your (English-speaking) Australia-based Global Head of HR make of a report she can see but can't understand? What about those error messages that still pop up in German for UK users of SAP? And , please, have some respect for your customers: avoid mixed-language screens with some fields translated, others not. Of course, if your system's technology isn't Unicode-based, your customer won't have any other choice but see those maddening hieroglyphics ("Does it mean I have promoted or fired this one?") And, last but certainly, not least, don't forget user's manuals and online support. So many vendors fail here, by producing poorly translated documents that make using the software quite an arduous task.

2. Local data: Translation is necessary for the success of your HR system, it is hardly sufficient to ensure it. Every country, and sub-division within the country (such as American states, Spanish regions, Canadian provinces) need to track data that are unique to them. For some perverted reason, data that need to be tracked in one country (say, ethnic background in the US or religion in Germany) is forbidden in others (France.) You have to make sure that all the statutorily required data is available but only viewable by the right users, based on locale (or legislation, depending on how your system partitions data.)  Even data common to all countries (think ZIP codes or Social Security numbers) are structured and formatted differently from one country to another (digits in the US, British-inspired alphanumerals in neighboring Canada). Although I'm making this paragraph short (in comparison with the previous one on translation) it is the most complex one: do a lousy job of it, and you ruin your chances of having a decent system and ensuring user adoption. I remember in the mid-2000's being mystified by the fact that at Oracle we had spent several million dollars to localize the HR offering for the Italian market, and yet a dozen Italian customers didn't use it: they would just license the core HR system and then build their own Italian localization. When I asked them why, the answer was: "Your Italian version misses so many of our requirements that we prefer to build it ourselves." The lesson for vendors is simple: don't skimp on this. Make a comprehensive list of all data needed to sell in your target market. Hire local people, preferably have them be based in that market you want to enter, make sure they interact with locals (such as sales, customers, opinion leaders, consultants) to ensure the data  reflect most of the requirements expected from that market.

3. Localized rules and processes:  If you've decided to enter a market with your own payroll product (versus a partnership with a local vendor), this pillar needs to be built, as payroll rules vary from country to country, and their level of complexity may be such that changes to your core payroll engine may have to be considered. In some Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, a customer (especially from the public sector) may require a lunar calendar of 30-day months (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar used  elsewhere), something most systems can't deal with. But even without payroll, some other modules in your offering (HR Administration, Benefits) may need to be adapted to some local rules. Again, rules and processes need to reflect the needs of a country's decentralized system of government. For instance, PeopleSoft claims to have a localized payroll for China, but in reality it includes in its "vanilla" product only the earnings and deductions for the Beijing, Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou) provinces. What about the other 19 provinces with their hundreds of millions of employees? Completely non-existent in PeopleSoft's world view.

4. Local reports: I mentioned earlier the case of a local report that needs to be viewed by an international HR executive. If there is one thing where labor lawmakers have in common all over the world it is their "creative" output: the number of reports that have to be filed with the Tax Office, the Labor Department, the Equal Opportunities Commission, Social Security etc. runs in the hundreds ...per country! -  and each has its own reporting and formatting requirements. A nightmare when it had to be done manually - not less of one when you have to build it as part of a standard software offering. The success of a global system is directly correlated to whether, and how well, local reports are made available. One reason why local HR systems still dominate their markets versus the global vendors is due to their strength in this area.

5. Look and feel: Last but certainly not least is the weakest link in the "glocal" offering. Every culture has a unique way of interacting with systems, figures and data as well as doing business. A US-made software largely reflects the way American users work, not that of a European or South American or Chinese or Arab user. Since we know that a major reason for HR technology project failures is user rejection, why don't vendors do a better job at this? Examples of what is needed go beyond date formats and numeral separators. It can be the number of screens needed to complete a transaction (in some cultures, people would rather have a longer screen than several ones to toggle through.) That this is still Work in Progress is obvious from the fact that if you look at SAP, Oracle, Meta4 and HR Access in English (and without knowing which is which) after a few minutes you'll be able to guess that the first one was made by German engineers, the second one by an American company, the third is clearly Spanish and the last one's French flavor is unmistakable (despite having been owned for the past 15 years by American companies IBM and Fidelity.)

One last comment: you may sometimes hear in HR softspeak that a localized feature has been globalized. This is more than semantic quibbling. The way localized software has been traditionally delivered is though a specific patch. You buy the core system, install it and as you enter more countries you decide to turn on the UK features or the South African ones. Well, unless said features have been globalized (that is put in the core system and therefore open to all users) you'll need to install the specific patch that includes that country localization (that feature is said to be localized.) The problem is that often a patch is only valid with a particular release, meaning that you may have to either wait until the next upgrade (in the meantime, how are you going to pay those thousand new employees you have in Argentina?)  or proceed with a new installation, both unpalatable choices. Vendors don't share with you these little "details" when they sell you their "global" solution.

Localization can sometimes become a question of life and death. In Quentin Tarantino's World War II movie Inglourious Basterds, a British undercover agent tries to infiltrate a group of Nazi officers  by pretending to be German. He befriends them in a Paris café and everything is going hunky-dory until he orders three drinks. What gives him away is that he holds the wrong set of fingers, exposing himself as a fraud (and losing his life in the gun battle that ensues.) Although he spoke perfect German, he had not "localized" his behavior sufficiently well. Hopefully, the consequences with badly localized HR software don't have to be as tragic.

(A list of which countries around the world have been localized by the major HR vendors is available from www.AhmedLimam.com - Vendor Localization Footprint)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The case for a different labor-market reform - not PELMAR

Read the mainstream economic press (by which I mean The Economist, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal et al.), listen to pundits from the establishment's think tanks and international organizations (OECD, IMF etc.) and you always hear the same litany again and again: to grow your economy and create more jobs you must reform your labor market. And the reform they have in mind is always the kind that curtails employee rights and benefits, never employers' - let's call it for what it is: pro-employer labor-market reform (PELMAR). With the current economic crisis, which has thrown millions of workers out of their jobs in the developed world, it is time to stop and ponder. Is this medecine the adequate one? Does it guarantee any success? Has it been responsible for increased worker participation in the labor market in the past? How does it dovetail with our Western notions of social progress?

So desperate are the current times that here in Spain (20% unemployment rate), a Socialist government has decided to abandon one of its tenets of employee protection (something not even its conservative predecessor dared consider) and reform its labor market in the sense demanded by the conventional wisdom: relaxing rules on firing employees in the hope that it would encourage companies to hire more easily. The logic is impeccable: if I can fire 'em when I want, why not hire 'em when I want? Before you jump to the conclusion that there is no other solution, it's good to look at the past. When I lived in Spain 15 years ago, unemployment was even higher than now (23%) and yet neither the Socialist administration of Felipe Gonzalez nor its conservative successor under José Maria Aznar embarked on PELMAR, even though European Commission, IMF and World Bank reports all encouraged them strongly to go through the same tired old song of making life even more miserable for employees (but brighter for the bosses) in the hope that more jobs would be created. Well, the next decade and a half saw Spain growing tremendously and the unemployment rate go down from 23% to 8%, even better than France. And this without any PELMAR, with employee rights maintained as intact as before. Now, you might say, OK, Spain is a one-off case, the exception that proves the rule, coincidence is not correlation or causality, they were just lucky.

Well, let's cross the Atlantic and check out Brazil, a country I know well since I spend several months a year there. Brazil's labor rules and regulations are even more stringent than Spain's: many employers consider it a nightmare since, once hired, an employee is almost unfirable (or, to be more accurate, it is costly to do so), and if you do and are taken to court in 90% of cases the labor tribunal will rule against you. And yet, Brazil's unemployment rate has been coming down steadily for the past decade. Yes, just like Spain, and without any need for PELMAR. 

You want a third case? Well, let's take our pilgrim stick and travel up north, to the world's most powerful and wealthiest country: the US of A, the cradle of PELMAR before PELMAR even existed, corporate paradise and worker hell. Living in the States in the early '90s I was somewhat shocked to see that in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave people could be fired instantly with or without a cause, that many had no health insurance and had to toil double shifts at two jobs just to make ends meet. Sure, employees could go to court in case of wrongful termination but astronomical legal fees make this option all but an impossibility for most workers. Of course, you could (I dare not say "can" anymore) get a job not too long after having lost the previous one, but even this cannot hide the pain involved with stressfully looking for a job over the weekend because you were let go on Friday and needed something on Monday. Not to mention that any new job also means a period of uncertainty, adaptation and learning the ropes, making new friends among new colleagues. But at least the US unemployment rate was half that of Europe, so, you might have said, it evens out. Well, not any longer - if ever. With both the US and Europe facing the same economic crisis, the US unemployment rate has crept up to the same levels as in my native France, home of the 35-hour workweek, 8-week paid vacation, universal health care. Who is now better off? The US worker or the French one?

Still a skeptic? Let's look at the UK, right across from France, and yet in labor matters so close to the US. (Only when Tony Blair came to power was a minimum wage finally adopted.) The British unemployment rate is more or less at the same level as France. But, I'll be generous, I'll consider this current figure a statistical outlier and use the figure of better times, say 5% against France's 10% (higher than the current one, but I said I wanted to be generous to my detractors.) Since both have similar labor sizes (let's say 30 million) let's make a comparison. If France were to implement US/UK-type PELMAR (free firing, no minimum wage, little paid vacation, limited unemployment benefits, curtailed employer-paid health care plan, well, the works) it would see its unemployment reach the UK/US ideal level of a jobless rate of 5%. In other words, in the old system 3   millions French employees (10% of the working population) were miserable (because unemployed) but 90% that is 27 million were happy (because employed and protected). In the new, PELMAR-inspired scheme, only 1.5 million (5%) would miserable, but the 95%  (that is 28.5 million) would now be worse off because, sure they still had jobs, but could be fired at a whim, had fewer vacation days, limited benefits etc. What logic is that that in order to make 1.5 million people better off (and there is little doubt that a job, no matter how badly paid, is better than no job at all) we make 28.5 million worse off? The logic that says, "who cares about employees, as long as somebody else  is going to be better off": the employing companies - and the shareholders who hide behind. (Have you noticed how you always hear calls for labor-market reforms, but never for management reform? Although the financial crisis and the ensuing recession, along with the destructions of companies such as Enron, WorldCom etc. were all because of incompetent, dishonest and irresponsible management, governments, who are in hock to, when not in cahoots with, business, will resist every effort to reform management - we are seeing it now with attempts to water down the restructuring of banking management.)

Are we to go back to Dickens' England and child labor and 20-hour workdays? Have we decided against the idea of progress? If yes, then we have decreed the end of democracy, because a democracy is a system where governments arbitrate among competing interest groups in society. Once you decide that the majority must suffer so that a few can thrive, we are straight back to an ancien régime system.    

The examples I have shown from varied countries show that what drives the unemployment rate up or down is the state of the economy, not labor regulations, so there is no justification to engage in PELMAR. I can see some of you smirk and point to other culprits. One would be the state of public finances: "we are broke, can't afford it." Well, have you considered shifting budget resources from unproductive areas such as defense to more productive ones such as education? The G8 and G20 and GXX leaders love to meet on a regular basis in exotic locations and issue platitudes in their final communiqués. Why not for once do something useful and agree that all will reduce their military arsenals by half, thus liberating resources that could be put to better use for PEOPLE. We could thus finally cash the "peace dividends" that have eluded us since the end of the Cold War.

Other skeptics will then point to another culprit by saying, "Can't do anything about it anyway, it's globalization. If your costs are too high, jobs will flow to India and China." Well, not so fast. The globe-trotter and international person I am is the last one to rant against a globalized world. I am for a win-win globalized system where everybody wins, but not for one where the same old types increase their profits and the others are all worse off. I am also instinctively against government expanding its reach with too much regulation (I've always believed that a good government is a small government, if not no government.) But, if anything, the current financial crisis has shown that too little government regulation can create a worse situation.  (There is also a case to strengthen and enforce government rules against bullying in the workplace, the plague of modern business, which is inflicting untold daily misery on millions of employees all over the world.)

Let's not forget that the aim of public policy and economic growth is to enhance PEOPLE's lives. If economic growth is going to come at the expense of PEOPLE then it's time to question this economic growth. So, Yes to a global system where we all trade freely, where good and services and people can move freely, but where basic PEOPLE's rights are protected. And  No to a globalized PELMAR system  that throws us back to the Middle Ages. What next? Rediscovering the beauty of slavery, the ultimate labor-market reform?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Great Expectations: ADP acquires Workscape to contend more seriously in the Talent Management space

It is one of the worst-kept secrets in the HR tech/services industry that ADP, the Grand Old Lady of our business, has been on the prowl for a Talent Management (TM) product to add to its already impressive portfolio. After plugging the recruiting hole in its offering with the acquisition of Virtual Edge (and Employease) in 2006, it was soon obvious that the Grand Old Lady of Roseland, NJ, was leaving more than small change on the table as many of its customers were buying from other TM vendors what they couldn't get from her. Hence, its  partnership with CornerStone OnDemand last year. Now, these partnerships have been around from Day 1 of our business and they mean only two things: (a) we don't have a viable solution, (b) we have a viable solution. Because of the ambiguous nature of these partnerships, they last only long enough for the weaker party (here it is undoubtedly ADP, not CSoD) to develop its own offering. PeopleSoft did it with ADP in the late '90s when it (PeopleSoft) was staggering in the dark towards a global payroll strategy. Workday has recently done it with Mr Ted while it builds (if ever!) its own recruiting solution, and ADP has been doing it on the TM front with CSoD until now.

What is Workscape bringing to the table? If ADP's goal was to enhance its compensation offering it sure got the prettiest bride around: Workscape is widely considered as having the best compensation tool in the industry. If it was more the performance management space that was the aim, this is still WIP since the Performance Management module is new (launched in 2008) with new modules around assessment expected by beginning of next year. However, there is no recruiting or learning capability - nor is there any talk of adding it to the roadmap. Another acquisition in the offing to plug this hole? Well, crater is a better word since these are two key features that no self-respecting HCM offering would be caught dead without.

Will Workscape help ADP grow internationally as some observers are claiming? I strongly doubt it in its present form. If ADP tries that, it would be a case of the blind leading the blind as Workscape is as parochial in its business (give or take the odd customer in Europe) as ADP. Sure, ADP has good name recognition in France (through the acquisition of GSI decades ago - still branded here as ADP/GSI) and Germany, but International still makes up for less than 15% of ADP's business.  So it will take more than this to make ADP the strong global player that it could become, but has so far shied seriously from.

Three major challenges await ADP as it embarks on this new adventure: integration, image and product rationalization. First, even if the jury's still out on the Virtual Edge integration, so far no major disaster in the form of product failures, strategy inconsistency or customer stampede towards the exit has been noted, so the omen are not too bad. Second, ADP has the dusty image of a vendor whose main business, payroll, is a bit passé. I've always looked at ADP as an old lady, who once upon a time was quite pretty but whose better years are now behind her. No amount of rouge, mascara and lipstick can hide the lines on the face. What she needs is a full facelift to enter the brave new world of 21st-century HR. Third, and to help overcome the second challenge, some product rationalization is in order. ADP is rather unique in the market (except for Sage) in that it is a collection of disparate payroll and HR products serving different market segments and geographies. While this has undeniably been responsible for ADP's success, especially in the US, it has reached a point where it becomes too complex to manage. Some streamlining and product retiring are inevitable. A product like Workscape that can be aimed at different market segments (although not the lower end of the market) and geographies (provided localization is available beyond the UK) could help ADP on that front.

In summary, it seems that our Grand Old Lady has emerged from her nap and, surprise, surprise, she's still kicking. Whether she relapses into her torpor or is reinvigorated will depend on execution on this acquisition  and the next moves she embarks on.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sarkozy: "La France, c'est moi"

Three hundred years ago France reached the height of authoritarian political power with Louis XIV famously saying, "L'Etat c'est moi:"  what a US president would, much later, adapt as "the buck stops here." Actually the Sun King refined his political theory under one tagline, "un seul roi, une seule loi, une seule foi":  One king (guess who), one law (his), one faith (who else's?).

Fast-forward to the 21st century and you could be excused if you wondered that so little has changed in the intervening centuries. The republican monarch presiding over the French acts as if neither time nor the little episode known as the French Revolution have occurred. Let's just mention  three recent events.

First, after their disgraceful behavior at soccer's World Cup tournament in South Africa, the French team returned home last week to widely felt opprobrium. The President immediately summoned their captain to the Elysée Palace for a dressing down, and you could tell that, had we lived in earlier time, the firing squad would have been lined up. What made this even more shocking was that on that same day, France went through a crippling strike protesting the public pension reforms the Sarkozy administration had launched. With millions of protesters on the streets (I could hear the deafening noise from my apartment by the Bastille) doesn't the President, people wondered, have other more pressing matters  to attend to than to admonish the national soccer team for a dreadful performance? 

Then, his only reaction was that those reforms were made even more necessary by the economic crisis and that people should accept a reduction in their incomes and purchasing power until the budget deficit was brought under control. Nothing wrong with that idea, except that it never crossed Sarko's mind that he could apply that maxim to himself: after all did he not increase his salary by 172% when he became president, one of the first decisions of his presidency? Of course not: as Louis XIV would have said, there are two sets of rules: one for me (summarized in that old principle that "the King can do no wrong") and another one for all other mortals.

Finally,  when France's most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde (our response to The New York Times), announced it was up for sale and bids started coming in, Sarkozy thought nothing of summoning the publisher to tell him that he was dead against a triumvirate made up of Bergé (Yves St-Laurent's partner) and two other businessmen buying the paper. Some of the President's advisers must have reminded him that Le Monde was an independent paper operating in a country with nominal  press freedom. He probably brushed their concerns away, convinced of his (God-given?) right to run the country like his personal possession. 

Have we degenerated to such an extent that we have become a banana republic (without the bananas) run by the latest avatar of Idi Amin Dada or Saddam Hussein? I was delighted to hear yesterday that Le Monde’s staff (who are entitled to choose the new owner) went straight for... exactly whom the President hated. There is hope after all. All it takes is a few courageous men to stand up to the bully-in-chief. A heartening message a few days before Bastille Day, I reflect looking at the column symbolizing the end of dictatorship on Place de la Bastille. We have doubtless come a long way - but there is still a long way to go.