Song of Africa

August 17th, 2011

Mapping the Fiber Revolution 

Most everyone interested in Africa’s connectivity revolution has seen the handiwork of Steve Song, a South African social entrepreneur who wants to make telecommunications accessible to more Africans. His iconic map of Africa’s undersea fiber optic cables is a visual narrative of the continent coming “on-line”.

When Song began the mapping exercise three years ago, his intent was to document the continent’s two or three existing cables in order to aid his work. Since then, the number of new undersea cables encircling Africa has burgeoned, and Song has faithfully revised his map.

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Ingenuity Born of Necessity in Kenya

July 17th, 2011

Nairobi Skyline

“This is the future of African technology, and if you blink, you’ll miss it.”  ~Erik Hersman

On the ‘Silicon Savanna’

Last month in Nairobi, Kenya, a conference called Pivot25 connected 25 promising mobile app developers from East Africa with investors and venture capitalists. Events like this one, based on the Y Combinator model, give aspiring developers a rare chance to pitch their ideas for possible seed capital.

What’s intriguing about Pivot25 is the attention that it drew from outside the region. TIME Magazine ran a piece about the conference from the standpoint of Nairobi’s contribution to global technology. CNN’s Global Public Square covered the event, too. Why so much attention?

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Summer Reading

June 1st, 2011

Two conversation-shaping books

Here are my Summer Reading picks for those who go for both engaging narrative and penetrating insight. I’m recommending two distinctly different books by writers who don’t want to merely inform their readers; they want to shape the conversation. Both authors accomplished what they set out to do.

Tim Harford | Adapt – Why Success Always Starts with Failure

“Today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt—improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and take baby steps rather than great leaps forward.” ~Tim Harford

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Contingency Thinking

May 4th, 2011

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”                                                                                      ~Dwight Eisenhower

Meta-planning

As information comes to light about the Special Ops mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan, we’re reminded of the value of effective contingency planning. Military analysts will one day reconstruct the planning measures taken by the JSOC team, and we’ll learn how the project specialists succeeded despite the challenges.

For now we can only speculate about the risks and uncertainties facing the planners at key decision points. But we do know that the mission’s tactical planners had to consider two big questions at every juncture: What can go wrong here, and what do we do about it?

These aren’t the only questions the planners had to pursue. They have to question the intelligence they’re using and they have to examine their own assumptions. Guarding against groupthink is a first order consideration. These “meta-planning” aspects of the exercise are as vital as formulating the action plan itself.

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Three Books on the Middle East

April 29th, 2011

If you’re absorbed by events in the Middle East and crave more information about the the region, here are three highly readable, essential books. Each provides a comprehensive view of a surprisingly diverse and increasingly dynamic part of the world.

The Middle East (1997) – Author Bernard Lewis is the senior dean of Middle East scholars. He’s a gifted storyteller with unparalleled subject mastery – a rare combination. Lewis makes clear sense out of complexity. This engaging primer is the gold standard of books on the region.

A Peace to End All Peace – The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and Creation of the Modern Middle East (2001) – David Fromkin toiled for ten years to describe the birth of the region’s nation states. This is the story of how the Western powers carved up the Middle East with little regard for the consequences. It’s required reading for anyone interested in understanding the forces that shape the region today.

The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War (2nd Edition) (2011) – This primer by Mehren Kamrava provides a sound historical context for the events of today’s Arab Spring. Kamrava updated the book in the 2nd edition, published earlier this year.  It’s recommended for anyone wanting to fill the gaps in their understanding of the region.

Planning for What’s Next

April 5th, 2011

Scenarios are the most powerful vehicles I know for challenging our “mental models” about the world and lifting the blinders that limit our creativity and resourcefulness. ~Peter Schwartz

Using a longer lens

It’s been twenty years since the publication of Peter Schwartz’s insightful primer about scenario planning, The Art of the Long View. In the book, Schwartz makes a convincing case for using scenario planning in approaching strategic challenges of various kinds.

Schwartz, who led scenario planning efforts at Shell, Motorola, and Pacific Gas and Electric, concluded that the technique could be applied to handling the emergent complex threats that companies were confronting in the 90’s.

Since then, the world has grown radically more complex, more uncertain. Globalization and the Internet have woven together our institutions so that a crisis in one corner of the world can spread virally with far-reaching consequences.

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Wicked Problems, A Defining Challenge

March 1st, 2011

Reverberating events

The uprisings in the Arab world are capturing worldwide attention not only because we’re witnessing history in the making, but because the changes are bound to affect us all. We live in a world that’s interconnected in ways that were hard to fathom only a few years ago. Interconnectedness is creating new challenges with social implications that traditional institutions and leaders aren’t equipped to handle.

The clashes across the Middle East and North Africa are only the latest example of unforeseen events that reverberate across regional boundaries. Before that, the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. sparked a deep global recession that affected more sectors than anything economists had seen before. As some economies began recovering during the following year, Europe’s mounting debt crisis triggered  a cascade of new problems in distant economies.

Today’s challenges, geopolitical or otherwise, are more difficult to predict, understand and handle than the kinds of problems we’ve seen until recently. As the world grows more interconnected, we become more exposed to what design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called “wicked problems” which are substantially harder to define and solve than so-called “tame” problems.

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Cairo Streaming

February 11th, 2011

Cairo on the Nile

The images streaming in from Egypt are stirring. It’s evident that this uprising will reverberate not only in the region but around the world. What comes next is hard to fathom, but what the Egyptian people have accomplished is admirable.

My appreciation of Egypt and Cairo, in particular, dates back to my first trip there in the 80’s. I recall most vividly the felucca boats sailing along the Nile — symbols of the city’s timelessness. After many assignments there over the years, I still find Cairo to be one of the most enchanting cities in the world — on par with Paris and Istanbul.

The pulsating energy of this city of 16 million people comes not only from its density but from the stunning diversity of its people. Cairo is the largest city in the Arab world, Africa and the Mediterranean, and has been a magnet that’s attracted people from each of these regions and beyond.

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Unleashing a Coalition

January 18th, 2011

High stakes, high pressure

As our society debates the need for more civil discourse, we’re underplaying the value of competing perspectives among our leaders. I’m a fan of rival leaders who can come together despite their differences to redefine their company’s mission.

For institutions grappling with deep change, there’s no better way to start than by assembling a coalition of leaders and entrusting them to set a new direction. When the stakes are high, a team of diverse, tough-minded leaders reaching a consensus can yield resoundingly productive results.

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The Generative Conversation

January 6th, 2011

In his insightful book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson tells the story of Kevin Dunbar, a McGill University social psychologist, who sought to figure out in the early ’90s how research scientists generate breakthrough ideas. Dunbar videotaped and interviewed researchers working in a variety of settings.

In tracking the activities and relative successes of his subjects, Dunbar found that the greatest number of breakthroughs occurred not when scientists were peering into their microscopes, as one might suspect, but when they were talking with one another at meetings.

Why? When chatting with their colleagues who worked on other projects, the researchers tended to re-conceptualize their own work to be understood. In doing so, new ideas emerged and, occasionally, some were fruitful.

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A Short List

January 1st, 2011

The New Year’s break is a timeout to reflect on the year before turning the page. In 2010, I enjoyed assignments in “frontier” markets which are becoming engines of innovation. With far-flung destinations that in mind, here’s a Short List of interesting books, music and travel experiences. Cheers!

Lessons From Emerging Markets

December 19th, 2010


Turning the page

Another interesting year is rapidly winding down. This year, I had the chance to work with many gifted business and tech leaders, but it was particularly satisfying collaborating with innovators in developing regions — the Sub-Sahara, the Middle East and South Asia.

It’s time for Western multinational companies — especially those in the customer-facing sectors — to enter developing markets where consumer-led growth is robust but capital and resources are in short supply.

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In Appreciation

November 15th, 2010

The Touch Points blog is three years old. I didn’t expect that this project would be such a valuable learning experience. Blogging helps me formulate my thinking and keeps me in touch with others who share my interests. I appreciate the thoughtful feedback from readers. Thanks for keeping this conversation going…

Africa’s Latest Asian Wave

October 28th, 2010

India’s top mobile carrier, Bharti Airtel, is bringing its ultra low-cost services to the sub-Sahara. Can it adapt its managed services model to penetrate  Africa’s under-served, low-income markets? What are the implications?

Out of the East

Asia’s growing influence in Africa is receiving worldwide attention. China’s investment in Africa will top $100 billion dollars this year making it the continent’s biggest trading partner. There are 800 Chinese companies with over 4 million Chinese people living and working there. China’s impact on Africa, as author Richard Dowden observed, is the biggest economic shift of the twenty-first century.

Now, the story of Asia’s push into Africa is being revised to highlight players from India. In June, Bharti Airtel, India’s largest mobile carrier – the 5th largest telecom in the world – bought Kuwait-based Zain’s operations in 16 African countries for $10.7 billion in cash.

Bharti has been eager to grab a piece of Africa’s growing mobile market for some time. In 2009, it tried to buy MTN, Africa’s largest carrier, but the deal failed due to regulatory roadblocks. Undeterred, Bharti pivoted quickly setting its sights on Zain.  By June, Bharti bagged its African trophy, though some analysts thought it paid too much for Zain’s assets.

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In Praise of Impalas

September 3rd, 2010

The swift and agile

A recent Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study revived the term “gazelle companies” to describe the young, rapidly-growing U.S.firms that are producing the majority of new jobs in the U.S.  The report recommends that policy-makers nurture Gazelles to stimulate job growth at a time when unemployment is high.

I’m interested in another class of companies—agile, well-run firms in emerging regions like the sub-Sahara. Like their Western counterparts, they’re creating a disproportionate number of jobs. But these young African companies are playing a more crucial role than gazelles do in driving market growth.

To belabor the metaphor, I call them Impalas, after the lean, swift gazelles indigenous to Africa. Impalas provide technology-enabled and outsourcing services to a growing number of multinational (MNC) service providers – mobiles, airlines and banks – in Johannesburg, Accra, and Nairobi, etc.  They share many of the characteristics of gazelles, but there are some notable differences.

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Focusing on Customers’ Needs

August 1st, 2010

In our practice, we help clients use visual maps of the “touch points” at which customers interact with the brand.  There are several ways of doing this but one of my favorite modeling tools is the storyboard in which is a narrative sequence wherein each touch point is identified.

This works well when facilitated, cross-disciplinary teams of employees explore customer scenarios from the customer’s point-of-view. The team considers the customer’s preferences (needs, wants and expectations) as they evaluate relevant system interfaces, business rules and work/information flows.

The facilitator’s role is to be sure the group stays on track and considers touch points from the customer’s point-of-view.  They must also help the group remain mindful of the big picture as participants can become preoccupied with particular sticking points.

In the process, participants are well-served to consider broader questions: What are our target customers looking for, and how has that been changing over time? Why do they choose our product over that of our competitor’s?  How can we further tip the scale in our favor?  What are the benefits versus the costs?

This simple exercise typically results in new insights about service processes that can be rapidly put into practice and supported by the larger organization.

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As always, I’d love to hear your perspective…

Africa: Sharp Contrasts Amid Diversity

June 9th, 2010

FIFA image

The World Comes to Africa

As the World Cup gets underway this week in South Africa—the first ever to be held on the African continent—the world media is turning its attention there.

Typically, coverage of Africa by the international media is limited to stories about intractable problems—disease, war, famine, and corruption. Many of the World Cup stories are taking a similar tact. Stories about the South Africa’s five new stadiums underscore the nation’s mounting debt while other pieces highlight its security concerns.

A lot of the coverage reflects the world media’s skewed view of Africa as a monolithic place that’s plagued with tragedy. Severe challenges do exist, but many African societies are quietly building their institutions and infrastructures.  It’s time the outside world views Africa through a broader, more accurate lens. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hat Trick

May 25th, 2010

The thrill of victory

One of the best things about my work is what my colleagues and I call the “hat trick”.  In sports like cricket and hockey, a hat trick is accomplishing a feat three times in a contest.  I’ll explain what a hat trick is in my world and why it’s thrilling to pull one off.

Our mission is to help clients enable their customers to enjoy richer, more satisfying service experiences.

A hat trick is when we not only help clients to better meet the needs of their target customers, but also enable them to increase customer loyalty and revenue. We do all this while also cutting service costs — sometimes up to 20%.  Almost every assignment offers hat trick potential.

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Remembering C.K. Prahalad

April 24th, 2010

Invest time in languages and intercultural awareness. Focus on becoming part of global citizenry. In exchange for the opportunity to participate everywhere/anywhere in the world you have the obligation to do something productive, which will improve the world.  ~C.K. Prahalad

Distinguished scholar and visionary

The distinguished business scholar, C. K. Prahalad, died unexpectedly last week of a lung ailment at the age of 69. His contributions to the pursuit of business strategy and innovation are unparalleled.  He’s had an enormous influence on my work and that of my peers.

Dr. Prahalad was more than a celebrated management guru, he was a visionary.  He redefined the way that a growing number of global businesses deal with developing markets, and he helped to shape a new economic paradigm.

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