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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy 75th Anniversary, "Gone With The Wind"

This rare 1938 one-volume French translation
was the 269th edition by publisher Gallimard
barely two years after  the book was published
in the U.S. It became the blogger's property
when he inherited it from his grandmother
who had bought it in Paris in the late 1940s
In my early teen years I tried a couple of time to read GWTW since I had heard so much about it. Every time I failed to go through the first chapters as I quickly lost interest. Then, I must have been 13 or 14, I caught a bad cold and had to stay in bed for several days. I ransacked my parents' library for reading material, and again came across the 1,400-page, two-volume set of the French-language version of Margaret Mitchell's  Autant en emporte le vent. Third time lucky! The first 100 pages were a bit tough, full of descriptions and moving slowly but, suddenly, I was hooked. Scarlett and her beaux. The Cause. Rakish Rhett. Aunt Pittypat and her smelling salts. Mummy and Prissy. Tara surviving through war. Atlanta in flames. Damn Yankees and Carpetbaggers. No sooner had I finished the first volume than I rushed to pick up the second one and stayed glued to it until I finished it. Do I need to add I was drenched in tears when I reached the end? At that very moment my mother entered my room to check on me and seeing my tears she thought my condition had worsened and would have called the doctor if I hadn't told her there was no need, pointing at the book. "Oh, you've been reading GWTW!" she exclaimed.

Then I realized the movie was even more famous than the book and couldn't wait to see it re-released at a nearby theatre. When I first saw it, I was even more transported and fell under its Technicolor charm and the beauty and talent of Vivien Leigh. How many times had I watched it in movie theatres, on video, DVD, streamlined, pirated? Lost count, but must have been more than twenty. My whole family are big fans, even the bathroom in my mother's family home in Romania had a huge poster of Leigh and Gable's famous embrace splashed on the wall under the title, Per aripile vîntului.

The blogger in the lobby of the Fox Theatre, affectionately
known to Atlantans as the Fabulous Fox, on Dec. 15, 1989
exactly 50 years after the movie's premiere in the same city
I was particularly gratified to find myself studying towards my master's at the University of Georgia in December 1989 as the movie's 50th anniversary celebrations were being held nearby in the city where the premiere took place half a century ago. Now (then) in my twenties I found myself  equally impressed by watching GWTW again at the Fabulous Fox  in Atlanta. And gawking at the cast members still alive, getting autographs and taking pictures galore.

I always laugh when I read in the press, or hear the younger generation boast, that Titanic or Star Wars or Avatar are the top box-office hits of all time. If I remember correctly, the highest-grossing of these movies has not brought in more $1.5 bn when GWTW, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has brought in more than $6.5 bn. And  remember that in the late 30s the movie market was really limited to the wealthy parts of the world, that is North America and Western Europe. and the world's population was much smaller. Actually it took more than a decade for GWTW to come to France, because of the war, something unthinkable these days when blockbusters often open on the same day around the globe. GWTW's popular success is therefore quite stunning. I think that at one point in time half of the whole US public had seen the movie which, as far as I know, is unequaled.
The blogger's' autographed copy of the
book by Herb Bridges, the world's
leading auhority on  GWTW

Among the surviving cast members at the Atlanta "re-premiere",
Butterfly McQueen is fondly remembered for her "I don't know
nothin' 'bout birthin' babies" scene. And, yes, she's
wearing the very dress from the famous scene which she
reprised on the stage for us. 

An interesting piece of trivia  is that of the four main stars, only one is, as of today, still alive. Olivia de Havilland's longevity is a nice echo of the movie's enduring appeal and how it has stood the test of time. Ironically, she is the only one of the four main characters to die in the movie.

As a more mature adult now, and being able to compare it with other great movies I had seen since, what do I make of GWTW? Would I consider it as one of the top 10 movies of all time? As a tribute  to the great picture, which celebrated last week its 75th anniversary, I decided this week, after many years without watching it, to sit again through  its four hours.

Verdict? Still terrific, especially the first part. That wide-shot of the railroad tracks with the thousands of wounded ending with a torn Confederate battle flag flapping  pitifully remains as powerful as ever. I found Vivien Leigh's performance as the feisty Southern Belle as impressive as before. Present in almost every scene of the movie, the British actress is its heart and soul. I still feel, though, that the book is clearly superior, as so often happens with literary adaptations to to the silver screen. One major flaw is, toward the end, when Bonnie Blue and Melanie die in such quick succession giving the movie a soapish air. Always found that too melodramatic. And, sure, it romanticizes the Deep South too much, although I am not one of those who criticize the movie for its depiction of slavery. After all, it was written from the perspective of the plantation owners, and at that time slavery was the norm. Can't judge a story set in the 1860s with late 20th century eyes.

The blogger's admission ticket to the event. 

But the sets are great, some of the great lines made it into the movie, I can still hum Max Steiner' s score, most of the characters (to the notable exception of Leslie Howard's Ashley Wilkes) were exactly as I had imagined them when I read the book (Vivien Leigh, of course, but also Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel). The cinematography is still brilliant in that gorgeous Technicolor, and it is impossible to believe that three different directors worked on the movie as it seems to be the work of just one single mind. Which it is, but not a director's. GWTW would, of course, not have existed without the single-minded obsession of David O.Selznick.

GWTW was not the only film masterpiece to be released in 1939, which may have marked the beginning of a dark chapter in human history, but is probably the best cinematic year ever. Audiences were regaled with an astonishing number of superb films: The Wizard of Oz (by one of the GWTW co-directors, Victor Fleming), Stagecoach, Lubitsch's Ninotchka ("Garbo Laughs" said the tagline), Wuthering Heights, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. Actually, there have been FULL decades where fewer quality movies were produced than in that single vintage year.

(2014 also saw two of my favorite movies celebrating a major anniversary. Both My Fair Lady -incidentally by George Cukor, one of the GWTW co-directors- and Mary Poppins turned 50. The former is undoubtedly the wittiest musical every produced, although Audrey Hepburn was miscast; the latter, the first movie appearance by Julie Andrews who had been bypassed for the My Fair Lady role which she had created onstage, is still my favorite Disney movie, and the first film to blend live animation with real movie characters. I keep watching both again and again, and never get tired or bored.)

NOTE: All the pictures were taken by the blogger except, obviously, the one he appears in (but taken with his Kodak camera). All rights reserved. No use of the photos can be made without express written agreement by the copyright holder.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Of Switzerland, the country, its HR practices and technology landscape

Lake Zurich became the blogger's temporary home last August,
and many a weekend were spent crisscrossing
this eminently bikable town
(Picture by the blogger)
I have been visiting the Alpine country for a good decade and a half now, with a strong focus on the French-speaking area around Geneva and Lausanne. In the late 1990s I was a frequent rider on the Paris-Lausanne train visiting a client, La Suisse Assurances, to help them move to a package HR system (that ancient insurance company is no longer, its parent company, Swiss Life, having decided to fold it several years ago.) I still remember vividly my favorite restaurant, le Vieux-Lausanne, at the foot of the cathedral, for its delicious food. Then, in the early 2000s, I would become a frequent traveler to Geneva, where Oracle's European headquarters is located, for internal meetings and customer presentations, especially at UN agencies; I dedicated a full chapter to Geneva in my book, High-Tech Planet.

The German-speaking part, though,was largely unknown territory to me until last August when I set up camp in Zurich to help Credit Suisse, the country's second largest bank,  on their new HR system. This more intense exposure to the country has given me further insight on what is one of the most original countries on earth.

Politics: Swiss exceptionalism
For someone used to the continental size of the US or Brazil where, despite the huge landmass and population, a single language prevails, diminutive Switzerland with its three main languages (German, French and, in one state, Italian)* can be puzzling. And yet, despite ethnic, religious and linguistic differences, Switzerland is a haven of peace, prosperity and serenity (and also, let's face it, at times stultifying dullness) unequaled anywhere else on earth. A lot of it has to do with its unique system of (semi-)direct democracy, which those of us who suffer from renewed gridlock in the US or stagnation in France under the most incompetent and despised president in history can only envy. In Switzerland, no topic is too important not to ask citizens to vote on it. This month, the question is whether the country's central bank should increase its share of assets held in gold from 8% to 20%. In any of the mock-democracies of Europe and North America, the decision would have been taken by a politician or an obscure committee behind closed doors. Not in the Helvetian Confederation where the people are asked to vote on what may sound as too an arcane topic to most. I always wondered why I never see political protests and demonstrations in Switzerland. Now I know why. Who are you going to protest against? Yourself? Your neighbors? Most decisions are made by citizens directly, you can't blame anybody but yourself if you aren't happy with the results. (I have always been a keen advocate of direct democracy, those interested can read my post,"Technology-enabled Democracy 2.0.")

Global business: punching above its weight
Except for the Netherlands, which has twice its population, no other small country in the world boats such a roster of successful global companies: Roche and Novartis (pharmaceutical), Nestlé (food), UBS and Credit Suisse (banking), Adecco (staffing), Swiss (airlines) are world class champions. This success lays to rest the cliché about the Swiss excelling only at clocks and chocolate, although some of the challenges facing the banking industry with the looming end of banking secrecy will have a not insignificant impact on the overall economy.

Rules-based engine
Another key feature of the Swiss national psyche is the strong, almost obsessive, adherence to rules. Peter Ustinov, the great actor/director/writer, who lived many years in Switzerland, once said, and quite accurately so, "In Switzerland, everything is either mandatory or forbidden; nothing is optional."  Woe betide you if you dare cross the street with the red light still on, even if there is no incoming traffic for as far as you can see. I mischievously jaywalk from time to time just to see how many Swiss will get a stroke at the heinous crime I am committing. And don't you even consider being late at a meeting; I know of an employee who was fired for his tardiness. For the Swiss punctuality is up there with cleanliness, motherhood and apple pie. It also helps that their public transportation system is amazingly efficient and in this town trams, buses and trains run on time. I have yet to witness a tram that didn't pull into its stop at the exact time advertised on the monitor. In comparison with another country I know well, Brazil, Switzerland is the anti-Brazil in every respect. Whereas a Swiss takes their job very seriously (the worst insult you can throw at a  Swiss is, "You are not professional!"), telling the same thing to the average Brazilian will elicit nothing more than a hearty laugh and a shrug.

Small wonder then that managing Swiss companies requires quite complex HR rules made even more so by the decentralized nature of the country where every state (or canton as they are known here) is quasi-independent and sets its own rules.

Small country but specific requirements
Of all Swiss statistics, one figure stands out: the traditionally low unemployment rate which, in 2014,  is around 3%.  Labor-market tensions are not going to improve with the greying workforce since more workers are retiring than are being replaced by young arrivals. This explains the high proportion of foreign workers in Swiss companies, and not only in border areas, but all over the country. Another reason for the strong reliance on foreign workers is the presence of many multinational companies (along with international governmental organizations such as the UN in the Geneva area) and the fact that Swiss mid-sized companies tend to be  strong exporters.

  • As part of an HR system multi-assignment/contract is a key requirement: somebody can be working in a canton hospital, teach at university and  oversee a small business. All these jobs will have to be tracked and, when fed into a payroll system, the latter will have to split the relevant taxes.
  • The French-speaking area tends to have more of a focus on competency management than the German area where companies tend to spent HR and HRIT investments on regulatory aspects of HR.
  • Make sure that your HR system covers work permit extensions by date along with alerts and reminders. Local state offices are as efficient in granting work permits as they are stern when it comes to non-compliance with reporting requirements.
  • The Swiss take their data privacy very seriously, even more so than other Europeans, and certainly more than the US.  Any foreign company doing business in Switzerland will need to take into account this Swiss variant on work-life balance.
  • If you are expanding to Switzerland and need to manage your Swiss workforce as part of your global HR system, check that your vendor is Swissdec certified. It'll ensure that HR and payroll data are stored and sent to government agencies in the required format and scope.
  • Several reports are key such as the Beschäftigungsstatistik.
  • Support for SEPA bank format has become a recent requirement as well, although Switzerland is not part of the euro area.You may be puzzled by the fact that you can easily wire funds into a euro-denominated account abroad but not not the other way round. 

It is worth specifying that although Switzerland is not part of the EU, most of its trade is with the EU, many of its workforce comes from EU countries, as mentioned earlier, especially neighboring Germany, Austria and France.  As part of an agreement with the EU, there is a free movement of labor between Switzerland and the EU (it remains to be seen how a recently held referendum will jeopardize this arrangement).

HR vendor landscape
Although Zurich hosts a prestigious technology university (ETH) and  is a research hub for several technology firms such as Google, Switzerland has not sprouted strong local software firms. Actually über-technology firm Amazon is not even present in Switzerland since its small size, difficult terrain (all those mountains are a transportation nightmare) and prosperous citizens do not justify the investment. As can be expected, neighboring Germany's SAP,  reigns supreme, especially in the German-speaking majority area. The only Swiss software firm of note is talent-management vendor Haufe (based in St-Gallen, home of another prestigious university) whose Umantis offering is one of the few, if not the only one, in Europe to have been developed organically.

The Google campus in Zurich, on my way
to/from the Credit Suisse office
(Picture by the blogger)

This most conservative of countries is moving its HR systems to the cloud at a glacial pace as legacy vendors are finding out. Oracle's Fusion implementation at banking giant UBS has been beset with product-quality issues that have delayed the go-live date several times. Workday, on the other hand, a virtual unknown this side of the Alps, without even a local presence, has managed to  sign up a couple of local companies including well-known travel firm Kuoni.

As we move into the second half of the decade it will be interesting to see how Swiss on-premise customers migrate to the cloud and, in doing so, which system they select. So far, no single unchallenged winner has emerged, so the market is still up for grabs.

*Actually, there is even a fourth national language, Romansh, spoken by a small minority. Speaking of languages, it is interesting to note that whereas Swiss French is quasi-identical to the one spoken in France, Swiss German is a dialect that differs markedly from standard German (Hochdeutsch). Adding to the complexity, Swiss German (Switzerdeutsch) is only spoken whereas standard German is the one used in writing giving a sense of Swiss schizophrenia

NOTE: It goes without saying that the opinions expressed in this post are the blogger's only, and do not reflect the position or  policies of Credit Suisse or any other Swiss company I have been/am associated with.

Monday, July 21, 2014

No SaaS please, we're bankers!

As traditional, on-premise corporate computing moves relentlessly to the cloud, especially its more sophisticated version, SaaS (software as a service)*, one business sector seems impervious to the march of History: the banking industry. Since banks spend more on IT than any other business, it is worth discussing what is holding up bankers (no pun intended) and wondering whether it is a question of time before the industry moves with the times, or will it remain as a quaint on-premise island in a sea of SaaS-based systems. In this post I'll focus on HR systems, since that is the corporate IT sector I have more experience in.

The changing landscape of international banking and how it will affect HR
Following the financial meltdown that started in 2007, banks are facing some unique challenges:

- More stringent regulations in all developed countries, though so far the bark has been worse than the bite. European banks have been faster at adopting so-called Basel 3 rules, thus giving them, counter-intuitively, an edge on US banks because, once the latter are hit, they will find their European counterparts better prepared. 

- Some of the new rules, especially in Europe,  have to do with bankers' compensation. Senior managers will have to learn to focus on profits (see below comment). One of the challenges of HR leaders will be how to enforce a new culture where greed is no longer good, and where other aspects of performance are taken into account, rather than the obsessive focus on revenue.

- One such regulation has to do with block leave (or garden leave) which mandates that during a certain period of time employees have no access to email/systems/phone in order to restraint heir ability to engage in fraudulent activities. (Of course, I still receive email messages from some senior executives who are on such block leave - and I'm talking here about their their bank email!)

-  Increased use of technology, such as complex trading algorithms, which means that many jobs formerly done by humans  are now done by machines which do not threaten to leave you for the competition nor demand exorbitant compensation.

- The days of unlimited profits are gone, and that will have an impact on IT budgets. This would be a driver to move to the cloud since costs can be reduced substantially when your HR system of record is migrated from on-premise to SaaS.

- Most of the global investment banks are retreating from their global operations and closing businesses. This deglobalization will affect all players, with global powerhouses shrinking their global operations, and the size of their workforce, and a larger number of regional/domestic banks will become even more local in nature. The challenge for all banks will be to trim fat without cutting muscle.

- In emerging markets, such as Brazil, Turkey, China and South Africa, local banks will matter even more than the global one, a trend not really new as I witnessed myself when I started spending part of the year in Brazil and was shocked to see that  the local HSBC subsidiary had little in common with the European parent company. It was quite surprising, and humbling, to see that Premier status, despite HSBC's marketing slogans, meant nothing there. In that market, as in India (think ICICI) local talent prevails and is giving the global banks a run for their money, if that is the phrase. If global banks want to survive, they will have to learn to fly the right talent on the right opportunity, say from London or New York, to São Paulo or Singapore, close the deal and then back home. The type of skills necessary will be markedly different from what we currently see.

Better be safe than sorry
There are various reasons why bankers are reluctant to move to a SaaS HR system of record (note that for other HR functions, such as recruiting or learning, the move to SaaS started a while ago.)

First, HR systems of record, along with  core banking tools, tend to be particularly sticky here. This most conservative of industries tends to favor status quo systems, stressing their advantages ("We've been using them for so long") while drawing attention to some problems associated with  the cloud. The financial crisis, which revealed banks' boldness, has put the brakes on many innovative ideas. The cloud suddenly became particularly risky, and it is a brave HRIS leader that will push for it. Rarely does a banking head of HR even bother about it, feeling s/he has more urgent battles to fight.

The banking industry also has a long history of home-made systems, in use next to packaged software, the latter often customized beyond recognition, thus adding another strong incentive to stick to legacy systems longer than other industries. And yet the complexity of their  legacy systems will eventually force the banks to move forward and start considering SaaS more seriously.

Security, for obvious reasons a predominant concern with banks, has them look at SaaS with particularly watchful eyes. And NSA snooping has not helped the SaaS movement, especially in Europe, where banks are not particularly keen on having the integrity of their core HR data  compromised along with privacy concerns. It is safe to say that SaaS vendors are losing 10% of their potential revenue in Europe because of this issue.

As everywhere else, moving to SaaS entails cultural change that banks are not finding easy to make. A bank 's IT department with an army of PeopleTools or ABAP consultants will be reluctant to consider that it has a problem, and that it may not need these skills anymore. Often, HR does not have enough clout to stand its ground and insist on having its own technology.

Leading by example...where there is no clear example
HR departments in the banking industry tend to display pack mentality. There is a lot of hand-wringing, indecision and wait-and-see among HR/IT leaders, with everybody watching their counterparts in other banks to see who will take the plunge first. (Interestingly, their brethren in the insurance industry didn't have such qualms and have moved to the cloud much faster.) As the following graph shows, there have already been a couple of banks that have made the move to SaaS HR (adopting mainly Workday) but they tend to be tier-2 banks. None of the global behemoths have pulled the plug on their legacy HR (usually PeopleSoft), although several are looking at the SaaS model seriously.

Whatever the geography, on-premise HR rules the roost

Action items for a successful transition
Any successful move from legacy HR to cloud HR in the banking industry will need the following:

  • Display bold HR vision from determined HR leaders. When considering the challenges facing the banking industry, this is a golden opportunity for HR leaders to lead change and transformation and try to show their value. The move to SaaS is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to do so.
  • Ensure that new rules are adhered to. The example I gave above of block leave is a good one. So far none of the heavyweight software vendors can cover that functionality satisfactorily which explains why many banks are not in compliance.  (Even Workday covers this requirement only partially)
  • Identify what needs to be available for a successful cloud implementation: Is the SaaS model good for us? Can the vendors' service level agreements meet our needs? Will they understand our way of doing business? If we, a European bank, select Workday, how confident are we that they will protect our data? I heard Workday's Aneel Bhusri the other day reiterate that HR data is safe because the customer can decide to have it stored in any of the regional data centers outside the US. That is simply not true. Even outside the US,Workday is still an American company, subject to US law and jurisdiction. If a US court orders it to provide the data stored in its data center in Ireland, will Workday refuse to comply? And if it complies,  what guarantees will a European bank (or any customer, for that matter) have that the data will not be subject to NSA abuse? No American vendor can provide any such guarantee.
  • Find the budget for the new investment. Considering the vast amounts banks have traditionally spent on IT, you might think that that should not be a problem. But with profit growth going south HR leaders need to beef up their ROI and make a more compelling case than in the past, something which, as mentioned earlier, they should be able to articulate cogently...if they know how to do it!
  • Realize that the move to a SaaS model requires a mental recalibration of people and organizations, along with revisited processes. That spaghetti environment that HR systems in banks have become over the decades should be disentangled and streamlined. What better opportunity than a move to a new next-generation system?

Banks should remember the unique characteristic of an HR system: it is the only IT system in a company where every employee is a user. Provide them with a rich interface and a modern user experience, and you are suddenly increasing your current and future employee engagement. Just as an earlier generation moved en masse from mainframe computing to a cloud-server environment, what are you waiting for, bankers, to move to SaaS?

No SaaS? You must be bonkers!

*For those who are confused about the terms "SaaS" and  "cloud", mainly because some  less-than-wholesome vendors use the two interchangeably, let me clarify some key differences. When a company's IT system no longer runs on its own data centers but is hosted by a third-party vendor, it is said to be "in the cloud" whether that IT system refers only to the hardware (network, for instance), the technology (database, OS) or the application (say, HR system.) When your application runs in the cloud, and the hardware and infrastructure are also managed by the same vendor, then we are talking about SaaS, the most advanced cloud offering. For software purists, as your humble servant is, you then have true SaaS (such as Salesforce, Workday, SAP's SuccessFactors) or faux-SaaS, a term I coined to refer to those products (such as Oracle's Fusion and the numerous legacy systems masquerading as SaaS) that were developed as an on-premise offering and then ported to the cloud, often in a single-tenant environment. True SaaS, on the other hand, is always multi-tenant, with a single line of code, is not available in an on-premise deployment, and only requires a browser to access the application.  In other words, a true SaaS product is always in the cloud; the reverse, however, is not true.

(Although the blogger, in his capacity as advisor-cum-consultant, has been involved with two banks on their legacy-HR-to-SaaS projects, the ideas defended in this post are his only, and do not reflect neither the banks' opinions nor their particular situation)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Curse of Spanish Monarchs: Never to die on the throne


It was from this rebellious and republican city that, two weeks ago, I heard the momentous news. I had just landed at Barcelona's splendid airport (the only one I know that boasts an outdoor section in the transit area, thus allowing you to breathe fresh air and bask in the  sun) and hailed a taxi to take me to my hotel. I had barely sat in the back seat when the taxi driver asked me, "¿Qué le parece?" (What do you think?)

"¿Qué me parece qué?" (What do I think about what?) I asked.
"La abdicación." (The abdication) was the curt answer.
"La abdicación, ¿de quién?" (Whose abdication?)
"Pues, ¡del Rey!" (Well, the King’s) the taxi driver replied before turning on the radio.

I was stunned. As I explained in my blog post "My 20-year affair with Spain" I have known only one Spanish monarch, Juan Carlos, and have always been a great admirer of what he had achieved for his country (Note: I am NOT a royalist, read my April 2011 blog post "Abolish the monarchy or reinvent it"). Sure, the last few years have been quite difficult, in no small part due to the economic crisis which had triggered a popularity loss for all political institutions in the Western world (never high in the first place, anyway) and it wasn't so inconceivable that the great man would bow out. But still, once it happened, it was quite a shock, even in independence-minded Catalonia.

As fate would have it, I find myself back in the same city just a few days before the coronation of Felipe VI. A lot has been written in the press and commented on TV and in the blog sphere, in Spanish and English, about the meaning and consequences of the abdication, but I haven't seen any historical perspective on the topic, namely that unlike British or even former French monarchs, Spanish ones have a long tradition of losing their crowns.

The first Bourbon king, Philip V*, who came to the throne in the early 18th century, abdicated in favor of his son only to climb back to the throne a month later when the new king died unexpectedly. If you want to go back even further, the first king of a united Spain, the legendary Emperor Charles V, the most powerful monarch in his time, ruling over most of the Americas and a good third of Europe, voluntarily renounced his throne in the mid 1500s and finished his days in a remote monastery in western Spain.

But let's just go back two centuries. The early 18th century saw Charles IV** deposed by Napoleon who, ever the family man, put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. With Napoleon himself deposed in 1815, brother Joe (known to Spaniards as Pepe Botella*** for being too partial to alcohol) was removed and the Bourbon dynasty was restored with Charles's son, Ferdinand VII, on the throne. Ferdinand lost his job twice but managed to die with his crown on. His daughter and successor, Isabella II, didn't fare any better. After 30 years on the throne she was overthrown; and so disgusted was the country with the Bourbon dynasty that they plucked an Italian prince to come over and become their new sovereign. 

Barely three years into his reign, Amadeo was forced to abdicate and pave the way for the First Spanish Republic which didn't last more than a couple of a years (interestingly, the first  two presidents were both Catalan) and in 1875 the monarchy was restored not with Isabella, who remained in exile, but with her son, Alfonso XII. Young Alfonso was to be the only Spanish king in both the 19th and 20th centuries not to abdicate or be deposed. However, his succession was far from assured since it was one of those rare cases where, upon his death, it was impossible to announce, "The King is Dead! Long Live the King!" The reason? Alfonso had no children; but his wife, Maria Cristina, was pregnant. So Spain had to wait until she was delivered of a baby to know whether they had a posthumous king or queen; it was a son, who became on his birth King Alfonso XIII. 

Alfonso 's reign was an utter disaster: it started with the American-Spanish War of 1898 when Spain lost all its remaining colonial possessions. In 1931, Alfonso XIII (current King Juan Carlos' grandfather) lost the rest of his kingdom when he fled the country and  the Second Spanish Republic was established . Worse was to come with an early version of the Syrian conflict, the Spanish Civil War (another similarity with the Syrian situation was that many foreign fighters rushed to Spain to fight for the Republic). 

Alfonso died in exile, just like his grandmother Isabella, and his son Juan (who carried the title of Count of this city where  a major avenue bears his name) never ruled because dictator Franco wouldn't relinquish power in his favor. For reasons only known to the Generalisimo (or Caudillo as he was also called), he decided that upon his death Juan Carlos, Juan's son,  would succeed him, thus restoring the monarchy in 1975.

With King Juan Carlos following in the family tradition of regnum interruptum, if I may coin the phrase, it is a fair question to wonder whether his son's won't be an even shorter reign, maybe the last one of a long line of monarchs. He is already off to bad start, through no fault of his, though: with Spain, the ruling world soccer champions, having lost humiliatingly their first World Cup game to Holland 5-1 two days ago, many Spaniards are equating Felipe VI= V-I and wondering if worse disasters are yet to come. But Spanish kings have an uncanny knack for survival: after all the  civil wars, rebellions, foreign invasions, forced abdications and other  upheavals, they have managed to transfer the crown from grandparent/parent to child/grandchild for 1,000 years within one single family line. **** 

*Apart from the current monarchs, I am using for the historical ones the English names under which they are know, thus "Charles" for "Carlos" and "Philip" for "Felipe". 

**No mistake in the numbering. Although belonging to the same dynasty, the Hapsburgs (known in Spain as the "Austrias"), Charles IV did come after Charles V. The reason? Charles V was also Holy Roman (that is, German) Emperor and the number  "V" was his number as Emperor. As Spanish king, he was Charles I; but even in Spain he is widely referred to as Charles V, as evidenced by the roundabout in Madrid known as Glorieta del Emperador Carlos V.

***Pepe is Spanish for Joe and botella for bottle. No relation to Madrid's current mayor, Ana Botella.

****Even when the dynasty name changes, because of a female marrying outside the dynasty, it is still the same family. Thus, the first Bourbon king (Philip V)was also the grandson of the last Hapsburg king (Charles II) through his daughter Maria Teresa who had married the famous French King Louis XIV. The three houses of Trastamara, Aragon and Hapsburg, who ruled in succession in the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance, were actually a grandmother (Isabella the Catholic), daughter (Joanna the Mad) and grandson (the aforementioned Emperor Charles V.)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Could the last executive leaving SAP turn off the lights, please? UPADTED Dec. 2015/May 2017

On-premise revenue is dwindling much faster
than cloud revenue is increasing. How much
longer can SAP afford to dither? 
When it rains it pours, they say. It sure felt that way this week at the world's largest business-software company where a wondering workforce watched as one top executive left after the other. Two and a half years ago I wrote a blog post questioning SAP's acquisition of SuccessFactors ("Acquisition #13: SAP's $3-billion cloud(y) adventure") which I then updated when SAP announced its new cloud HR strategy.
Since then I have been very vocal, both in private to my clients and in public in various forums, about the many issues that SAP is still grappling with on its way to cloud nirvana: to wit,

  1. A reluctance (inability?) to build a payroll based on the SuccessFactors technology (along with other functional holes it needs to plug),
  2.  The confusion raised by the availability of its legacy product (Business Suite) in the (private) cloud as it thus competes with SuccessFactors,
  3.  An absence of how a fully integrated cloud ERP will be developed from the various bits and pieces acquired here and there. 

Customers who already felt confused about the lack of a compelling strategy could be excused for being at their wit's end when watching the accelerating speed at which top executives are leaving the company. The move started exactly a year ago and has been gathering pace since the beginning of the year (see below graph).

And then there were none
(Updated Dec.2015/May 2017)

Nothing wrong per se about a top executive deciding to leave their company for "personal reason" as the hackneyed phrase goes. But what SAP is going through is a flood of Noahesque proportions. I cannot remember any other software vendor that has gone through such churn in such a short period of time. And this is happening at the same time when co-CEO Jim Hageman Snabe is relinquishing his post (but staying on as board member.)

DEC. 2015 UPDATE: It is only fair to mention that some of these departures have been made up for by the arrivals of well-known executives  Mike Ettling (poached from partner NGA), Thomas Otter (from Gartner and to cover for Dmitri) and my former PeopleSoft colleague Yvette Cameron. Yvette was enlisted clearly as a desperate attempt to plug the hole of Dmitri's defection which will be sorely missed since he had become the public face of the SuccessFactors product, in particular the Employee Central development efforts.

MAY 2017 UPDATE: Mike Ettling throws in the towel. I have little respect for the job-hopping, mercenary corporate apparatchiks so prevalent in the software industry who bring little value but do a lot of damage, if only by stalling and maintaining status quo and stagnation (those who read my book, High-Tech Planet, will remember Frank Dupont, based on a character many have recognized.) Mike Ettling is a notable exception. He was instrumental in bringing SuccessFactors in the Core HR mainstream, and also reduced the gap with Workday in many respects. The fact that he didn't manage to close the gap and, under his stewardship, SAP lost many marquee accounts to Workday (e.g. Airbus, Walmart and a global car manufacturer whose name I cannot mention since I am currently helping them move from SAP HCM and SF to Workday) may be ample proof that the SAP ocean liner is too hard to turn around. Or to use a phrase I have made popular, the dinosaur is dead but is not aware of it. Adam Kovalevsky's departure is another hard blow and will slow down SuccessFactors' catchup efforts with Workday.

SAP has always been quite unique in the software industry for its two-CEO structure which it brought to an end in 2009 when Leo Apotheker was named sole CEO.  Less than a year in the office he was fired and SAP reverted to its dual management structure. Now, it's back to just one CEO.

For how long?

A software product is not built or sold sui generis. It is the result of decisions made by senior executives, some who become strongly associated with it (like Sikka with HANA) or are the face of it before customers. Every time a software vendor changes the head of a product line or a business customers are justify to wonder what new directions to expect.  It is increasingly obvious that the once great company which brought integrated business software (ERP)  into the mainstream, no small achievement, is adrift with an unclear strategy and a lack of continuity which only stable management can provide. To many observers SAP appears like the proverbial rabbit caught in the glare of (cloud) headlights and doesn't know which way to go. And how to get there.

Should customers be worried? Especially those I deal with on a daily basis: HR buyers? Of course they should. And for three reasons: First, some of these executives had direct responsibility for the HR offering. Second, an overwhelming majority of SAP customers bought the HR module as part of their ERP project. Anything that can affect the ERP product will therefore affect them. Third, SAP's cloud business is still in its infancy and therefore fragile: why should customers adopt SuccessFactors when there is no guarantee that it will be the preferred cloud platform in the future?  An HR buyer wants to put his/her implementation dollars where SAP puts its development dollars. So far, SAP has failed to clarify how it will move to a cloud ERP future. Maintaining and developing multiple platforms is unsustainable in the long run and, until and unless SAP makes up its mind, customers will be very cautious before selecting SuccessFactors.

Or staying with the on-premise solution.

Time for SAP to become bold and display vision and thought leadership. Or face gentle decline.

Could it be that SAP is already dead? And just doesn't know it?

(The blogger is spending a good part of the month in London, the UK being the most advanced cloud HR market in Europe. During his free evenings, he indulges his taste for the theatre and strongly recommends the following two plays: King Charles III, an astonishing Shakespearean political-fiction production; and Blithe Spirit, a Noël Coward farce, starring a sprightly Angela Lansbury. The audience did not seem to be particularly concerned about the fate of SAP - or any other software vendor, for that matter.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Work-life balance, French-style: No after-hours work email

If you liked the 35-hour workweek, then you'll love the ban on after-office-hours email which has become law in France this week (actually it is an agreement between business and union which as such as the force of law.) Since there is little doubt that many employees are overworked and stressed out  anything that could restore a healthier work-life balance can only be applauded. Few people realize that France, supposedly a worker's heaven, is also home to frequent corporate suicides.

There is clearly a cultural bias here. Whereas in Europe in general, and in France, the country of la joie de vivre, in particular, work-life balance is seen as enhancing workers' rights, in the United States, the country of 24 x 7 business, it is considered  a cost on business.

First, let us clarify what this new policy is all about. It does not apply to all French employees, only to those working in consulting and technology companies, therefore at most one million employees. Actually, when you take into account executives (cadres) who do not have a strict work schedule, probably just a few hundred thousand employees will be impacted by this law. Of course, nothing can prevent the current administration from extending the law to all French employees, say, before the next election, when it is desperate to emerge from the abysmal approval ratings it has sunk into.

Second, enforcing this law is not going to be easy. Actually almost impossible. There are so many ways to circumvent it that one wonders why they even bothered to adopt it. For example, even if you are one of those employees prevented from sending email after 6 pm, nothing can prevent you from copying  on a thumb drive any documents you need, go home, work from there and then shoot an email from your private email address. People have been doing this for years, and will now be encouraged to do it even more.

Then, there is the case of those road warriors, especially when traveling across time zones. It may be 6 pm in Moscow, but because France is a couple of hours behind it means you still have a few more hours to shoot that criminal message before your email server goes dead.

And, of course, nothing can stop you from writing zillions of messages offline, and the next morning, as the email server wakes up, it'll find itself busy dispatching tens of thousands of messages which  will create even more anxiety, pressure and workload on the recipient workers.

So, why is the government (in France no labor agreement happens without the state's blessing) bothering about a law which for all practical purposes will not protect burnt-out employees, but can work as a disincentive for foreign investors in France? The problem is the disconnect between politics and business/technology. No matter how fast you adopt a law, it always lags behind technological advances which are so much faster.

Controversial or pioneering? France goes where others fear to tread

If government bodies had any idea of what the business world REALLY looks like and how disruptive technology can be, they would not stop at email. What about social media? Government should also stop corporate employees sending business-related tweets, or updating information on LinkedIn. And yet, none of this is contemplated.

And what about business software? A lot of the work that people do now is done through ERP-type systems many of which can be accessed via the cloud anywhere, anytime. As a manager, you can still finalize a performance appraisal after having served dinner to your children. You could check on the recruitment status of some job vacancies in your team after having watched your favorite TV show. Again, the law does not  even seem to realize that such technology use is even more prevalent than email and can impact a worker's work-life balance even more significantly.

Worse, as I mentioned earlier, this new policy could have an adverse impact on workers by reducing the number of jobs available to them. Just as I have never known in my adult life France with a balanced budget, I have rarely seen an unemployment rate lower than 8% or 9%, it usually hovers around 10%. This new law is not going to encourage companies to hire more workers in France; and, honestly, what kind of work-life balance are we talking about here when we know that without work you don't have much of a life?

In summary, this new law won't change much. It will just add more compliance costs to companies, deter foreign ones from hiring in France and put even more pressure on employees to do more within the 9-to-5 work  schedule, thus achieving the exact opposite of what it set out to do.

Oh, mon Dieu! I am posting this business column on a Sunday. I am in full violation of French labor laws that forbid work on  the Lord's Day. If you don't hear from me in the next couple of weeks, that will mean that the Labor Inspector has knocked on my door and I am languishing in jail for contempt of the laws of the Republic.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

America and France: Two countries united by failed military payroll

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” ancient Romans
used to say. It is not only good to die for one's country,
but payroll software requires you do it for free
Last month saw France's president pay a state visit to the United States. Among the various topics on offer for Presidents Obama and Hollande  one could mention the drop in foreign investment in France (due to the French government's idiotic policies), the impact of the NSA spying scandal (due to the US government's idiotic policies), both leaders' marital woes (alleged in Obama's case, true in the case of Hollande who regaled the nation with two First Ladies, one official, one hidden), the various crises around the world (Syria, Ukraine etc.) However, there is one topic which the two leaders probably didn't get to discuss: how their respective military failed spectacularly in implementing a payroll system for their armed forces.

The U.S. tries first... and fails first
As in so many other cases, the U.S. was a pioneer in the use of package software to run its HR and payroll operations. In the late 1990s it adopted the HR software leader of the time, PeopleSoft (which had developed a specific Federal product) to integrate over 90 different systems into a state-of-the-art HR/payroll system. Several hundreds Department of Defense (DoD) contractors  and employees worked on the project which was supposed to go live in 2006. I will spare you the the details of this soap opera which comes with epic cost overruns and deadlines missed, but suffice it to say that in 2010, that is TWELVE years after project kickoff, DIMHRS (Defense Integrated Military HR Systems as the acronym goes) was announced dead on arrival (the system integrator  was Northrop Grumman.) Oh, and it only cost $1 billion, by the way. Quite a lot for a payroll system that was never used.

The solution was...to go back to the 40-year old system (written in Cobol) and it did not fare markedly better as it results in countless payroll errors for many of the 2.7 million active-duty personnel: many soldiers get shortchanged on their pay, others get overpaid and then have to do with abrupt paycuts as DoD recoups the monies, which is hardly the best way to motivate troops who put their life on the line all over the world. In some cases deserters continue to be paid for years. Retirees who are rehired to find themselves in a bizarre situation: a glitch in the system often results in retiree records being updated to "dead" with condolence letters sent to the  family of an otherwise quite healthy soldier. This happened to none other than the U.S. Army Chief of Staff.

It is quite mind boggling that an organization like the Pentagon which uses the most sophisticated technologies in the world can be defeated by something quite humdrum as payroll software.

Where the US leads, its oldest ally, France, follows
The French military is smaller in size than its U.S. counterpart (300,000 troops half of which in the Army) but it is proportionately as maddeningly complex, if not more. As in the US every branch of the military uses a different HR/payroll system, each originally custom-built and with pleasant names such as Concerto, Rh@psodie, Symphonie. Starting around 2005 each branch decided to move to a package software based on SAP. As the below diagram shows each branch had its own version of SAP HR which was interfaced to Louvois, a new custom-made payroll system, to be replaced in 2016 by ONP, an HR Access-based payroll system for all French government employees. Unfortunately for French servicemen and taxpayers Louvois, like its US counterpart, was an unmitigated disaster. Costing north of half a billion euros, with several hundred million more in overpayments, compensation paid to tens of thousands of military families who got shortchanged and additional implementation/maintenance costs to fix the issues, the French military will probably end up paying even more than the Pentagon for the same result: a failed payroll system. At least we French have one consolation: in one area, failed military payroll projects, we outdid the Americans.  The French Minister of Defense had to recognize the failure since it was on such an epic scale and promise to build a new payroll system by the end of next year before it was to be replaced by ONP. Even the CEO of Steria, the IT company which built the system, appeared on TV for a prime-time attempt at damage control. And now the bombshell: I have it from confidential sources that even the ONP project  will be scrappped: another half a billion dollars are thus being simply thrown out the window with this second  project failure by the same government. Two spectacular HR IT  failures two years in a row. Who can say that we in France don't do things better than in the United States?

What went wrong? 
- Too many obsolete payroll and accounting systems which do not communicate with one another and HR systems. This issue has more than academic results: for instance, a soldier who is the beneficiary of payroll errors is wounded in Afghanistan and sent back to a hospital back home. According to the rules he should be forgiven all debts related to payroll errors. Except that since HR systems take for ever to be updated and when they are they are badly interfaced to payroll, our soldier finds himself without a "wounded warrior" status and he and his family have to go through unjustified financial hardships. Hardly the best way to reward someone who almost lost their life for the country.

- Absurd number of manual workaround and paper-based processes: staff data has to be written on a form, then physically sent to another location where it is manually entered into another system, by yet another employee.  In 2014, when organizations are moving their HR operations to the cloud such an antiquated way of doing business is unbelievable

- The complexity of rules, pay levels and status types in both countries is mind-boggling. In the US the multiple basic pay/entitlements/housing allowance/re-enlistment bonus often results in a soldier's pay changing several times per day. The creativity of French legislators and bureaucrats is no less astounding: for instance, the Navy pays a €300 allowance to every single mother whose child has  been recognized by one of the Republic's sailors whatever port city in the world she can be found in. Many Navy personnel have recognized up to 10 children. A senior naval officer even told me that he knows of one case where a sailor owned up to ...20 children! The French government, ever understanding (and generous with taxpayers' money) when it comes to such shenanigans, coughs up. And every payment has to comply with the tax rules of every country the child was born in. Only a particularly robust HR and payroll system  can handle such complexity. It is obvious that some rules have to change, and Congress and Parliament will have to make the necessary changes. But many processes are not mandated by law: they are just the result of a decades-long practice of using paper and manual processes. These can be streamlined much more easily, and should have been done so. Why weren't they? Incompetence is one answer, and the vested interest that system integrators have in maintaining the staus quo: after all, the more complex the requirements are, the more need there will be for customization. Here, as we have seen in other industries, what is good for an SI is not good for the customer and, ultimately the taxpayer.

- The various HR systems used do not provide for an efficient way to track personnel and allocate them swiftly. The U.S. Marines are in an altogether different one. France, as shown in the previous diagram, replicates the madness: does it really make sense to have each branch with their own SAP implementation? Wouldn't have it been much more efficient to streamline HR processes first, arrive at a common set of requirements and then implement just one instance of SAP HR for all military personnel, something they will eventually have to do. And why spend years and hundreds of millions developing Louvois if it is to be replaced, upon implementation, by yet another payroll system? The strategy does not make sense at all.

- Change resistance by  a reluctant bureaucracy and competing priorities are not helping, either. Change management was rarely given the importance it deserves, and the decision-making process was at best byzantine with defense committees and appropriations sub-committees fighting for control: this is hardly the hallmarks of success.

What to do about it? 
Although some of the issues seem to spring from the unique circumstances of government organizations, most can be encountered in any industry, regardless of size or geography. Before some start  hysterical attacks on the wastefulness of government, they should be reminded that failed IT project (whether HR or ERP) are prevalent in all industries: I know several well-known brand names whose HR systems are a shame, so let the company that has never known a failed IT project cast the first stone. However, in the case of government's failed projects one difference stands out: we taxpayers are paying for it. If a private business mismanages its HR budget, well, it's only the shareholders who are losing money; when government does, it's all of us.

- Reduce the complexity of rules. Sure, government is unique, but do you think that multinational companies that track and pay hundreds of thousands of employees (for some) across several time zones/dozens of currencies/scores of different legislations are easier to manage? If they can, whey can't Defense? When reengineering your processes, trace every requirement to a law or a policy; everything else should not be in the system. Ensure that there is a single point of contact to facilitate decision-making. When too many cooks fight in the kitchen, the result is rarely a great broth.

-Beware of requirements creep: a tendency seen in all industries, but particularly prevalent in the public sector is, in the absence of an agreement as to requirements, to revert to As-Is which undermines the whole business process reengineering exercize. Using a requirement-tracking tool is another great advantage in enhancing the quality of the requirements, something that few defense organizations do comprehensively.

- Realize that unlike wine, Cobol lines of code don't improve with age. Documentation, when available is long gone, as are those who created both. It is high time to move to the 21st century.

- Go vanilla! Eschew customization, one of the greatest ills to have been inflicted on corporate IT. The decision to go with off-the-shelf software was the right decision, however the military organizations decided to atone for it by customizing the software out of recognition (especially in France) and in the case of payroll, and some other HR functions, even use home-made software. In both the US and France, going back in time and re-adopting the old custom-made system is another grievous mistake.

- Build up your resources: government organizations tend not to be the leanest organizations with the availability of high-tech skills lagging other industries. They should set up Centers of Excellence (CoEs) and transfer knowledge from HR/IT vendors as soon as possible so that by the time the system integrator is gone, everything does not go down the drain or deplete state coffers by resorting to expensive contractors.

- Improve planning and be fast: I know it is a challenge to circumvent government bureaucracies, but decision-making should be sped up as much as possible. Because technology changes much faster than government bureaucrats can countenance, try and break down these huge projects into smaller ones based on relatively easy to define HR processes and sub-processes.

- Develop KPIs about progress, success factors, user satisfaction and ensure these are measured adequately: all deviations should be explained and accounted for. It is nothing short of scandalous that when French Defense Minister Le Drian was asked who should be blamed for the fiasco, he replied, "it is a collective responsibility," meaning that since everybody was guilty, then nobody was. And so far, not a single head has rolled reinforcing the culture of impunity so prevalent in the public sector. Are key product features missing from the HR and payroll products? Then how come that we didn't ask the vendors to include them in their roadmap? And if we did, how come that SAP/Oracle/HR Access didn't deliver them? And if they didn't when they were supposed to, then how come they are not held accountable and being asked to pay the hefty penalties that should have been part of the contract? If the issue is one of configuration and customization, then all eyes should turn to Northrop Grumman, Steria, HR Access: did they implement the system according to specifications? If not, then they should be held accountable. Were specifications provided in a clear, thorough and timely fashion to the system integrator? If not, then government employees and contractors should be held accountable. And who took the decision to unplug the older systems which worked and replace them by the newer ones which ended up not working? As we all know, a new payroll goes live only after several parallel processes are run and all issues are fixed. Somebody must have taken that decision. Who? Why?

- Learn from others: Defense may be unique within every country, but since its roles and activities are replicated throughout the world, learning from others can yield great benefits, especially when comparing oneself with similar armies such as members of the NATO alliance.

- Start looking at the cloud: one advantage of being a laggard is that you can learn from others without paying the price of being a guinea pig. Some HR functions can be safely moved to the cloud with cost reductions and quality gains, others will require strategic product decisions by SAP, Oracle and Workday. So far none has seem ready to move their public-sector products to the cloud. A nudge from the customer would go a long way.

In summary, taxpayers, that is you and I, are right to wonder why in the private sector (well, the better managed businesses at least) to produce a payslip costs a couple of hundred dollars per year , whereas in the military the figure is closer to $1,000...when it works! How can our troops win the wars of the future (especially knowing that they will increasingly be IT-related) when they are defeated by a mere software? These are hard questions for which so far very few cogent answers have been provided.

Note # 1: As in all posts in this blog,  text, charts and diagrams are Ahmed Limam's intellectual property. They cannot be used without his written authorization.

Note # 2: The blogger's advisory and consulting experience covers all industries, including government, both national (such as defense)  and international (such as EU institutions and UN agencies- he worked five years for the latter in New York and Madrid.)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bereft of actresses and heroines, a sadder, poorer world awaits us

An article in this week's edition of The Economist made me hit the roof. The famous British weekly referred to Scarlett Johansson (pictured here) as a "Hollywood actor." I don't know this person intimately but I have seen her in enough movies to state with quite some confidence that she is a woman. In that case she should be referred to as a "Hollywood actress", right?

21st-century, post-modern Anglo-Saxon society, especially the American variety, is driving politically correctness (PC) to absurd levels. For the sake of sexual equality we are asked now to erase all signs of sexual differences, even in language. This is crazy. As there are boys and girls, cows and oxen, roosters and hens, so are there actors and actresses. What is wrong with that?

Gender-equality advocates, the looniest of PC freaks, make the case that here we are referring to positions or roles, and a position can be held by either a man or woman, therefore there should be just a single word for it. Otherwise we would be perpetuating the notion that some roles are still confined to a sex.

This approach is simply wrong for various reasons.

First, English is already largely a gender-neutral language. Player, director, dancer, executive etc. are used equally to refer to a man or woman in that role. This is the result of the language's natural evolution and gender-equality proponents should therefore be happy enough and shut up.

Second, why don't English speakers come out of their self-centeredness and check what is happening in other cultures and languages? Whether Arabic, German or Latin languages, over one billion people have a masculine and a feminine for all these roles. Actually, Latin languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese have gone the other way to further equality between the sexes: they are insisting that a word which traditionally only existed in the masculine form (French "Président" and Spanish/Portuguese "Presidente") now have a feminine as well since a woman can also hold the position of "President". We now have "Présidente" and "Presidenta", although there are still organizations that refuse to use the term (the French Academy, a refuge of old farts disconnected from everyday life, still insist that a woman elected to the highest office in the land  be called, absurdly "Madame LE Président") and Brazil's most read daily O Globo refers to Dilma Roussef as "Presidente" - check  my blog post on this topic). Sure, there are some languages such as Turkish which don't distinguish between the masculine and feminine genders, but English is not one of them, so why force-engineer a linguistic change which, let's face it, is not going to change facts on  the ground per se? It can't have escaped you that several Latin and Muslim countries have already had female presidents while the US is still waiting for one.

Third, PC freaks are so obsessed with their nutty crusade that they don't realize that their proposal for gender equality perpetuates the old male-dominated system when they insist that the masculine term should be the neutral one. If we wanted true equality, then we should say, "OK, from now on only one word for both. For words X, Y & Z it will be the masculine one; for words A, B & C it will be the feminine one." But no, they want everybody to become actors and heroes. If a woman can be referred to as an "actor" then why can't a man be referred to as a "heroine"?

Fourth, common sense has been completely lost in this fight. If  "ambassadress" has all but disappeared and "Jewess" is no longer used (which it was as some terms naturally become obsolete), "director" has always been the only form  for both male and female holders of that titles: are we going to rewrite history and refer to Russia's Catherine the Great as "The Emperor Catherine"? Should Elizabeth II, a monarch in her own right, insist that, for equality's sake, she now be known as King Elizabeth ? Most people would agreed that is absurd, and yet if gender-equality advocates value consistency they should propose this.

By the way, I have nothing against feminists. On the contrary. I believe that women (among other groups) have been historically discriminated against and that should stop. Yes, I believe in women's rights but also in the right of language to evolve naturally and not become deformed based on any lunatic group's ideals .

Can we come back to our senses? There are many more serious issues in this world (global warming, wars, drought, hunger, Aids etc.) Can we focus our energy on these and not waste our time on preposterous fights? We would do everybody, including good-prose lovers, a great favor.