Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Year’s wish

It is not self-flagellation that we need but what about an honest-to-goodness "examination of conscience” – if we are to turn over a new leaf? But aren't we being Christian-like precisely when we aspire to be "inclusive"? Whether it was the Baltimore Catechism or our prayer group that started us in our faith journey, it is common knowledge that even the Creator had to prioritize? And "to prioritize" is something we take for granted and consequently, "to focus" is missing likewise?

We joke about it but if we pause for a moment to figure out why economic development-wise we lag at least a generation, we may want to ask ourselves if "crab mentality" will help explain why we can't build and operate an international airport, for example, when practically every other nation has done it. And if we add our energy conundrum and how much we have outgrown our infrastructure in general and thus putting a strain on the environment and, not surprisingly, the elevated incidence of respiratory-related diseases, among others, the picture isn’t pretty.

And “pwede na ‘yan” isn’t the answer given that these are not brand new but rather an accumulation of shortcomings – and a manifestation of a structural weakness – and not surprisingly would require at least a generation to tackle? And that assumes we shall grow the economy at a consistent 7% annually. And as a senator reminded us, the question is, can we sustain it? We may be celebrating the recent fate of the BRIC countries (once favored by Wall Street) yet what goes around comes around. And precisely, these countries have had their own structural shortfalls that made those rosy predictions come to naught.

A recent Harvard Business Review article (Accelerate, John P. Kotter, Nov 2012) presents a model on how enterprises can cope in today's dynamic world and thus be on their feet. Yet to globally competitive companies the model is not new because it is simply fundamental. But what higher learning does is translate real-world solutions into a body of knowledge and present it as a model.

Kotter spells out the challenge of an enterprise as follows: “Perhaps the greatest challenge business leaders face today is how to stay competitive amid constant turbulence and disruption." And he calls his model the “Eight Accelerators”: (1) Create a sense of urgency around a single big opportunity; (2) Build and maintain a guiding coalition: (3) Formulate a strategic vision and develop change initiatives designed to capitalize on the big opportunity; (4) Communicate the vision and the strategy to create buy-in and attract a growing volunteer army; (5) Accelerate movement toward the vision and the opportunity by ensuring that the network removes barriers; (6) Celebrate visible, significant short-term wins; (7) Never let up. Keep learning from experience. Don’t declare victory too soon; (8) Institutionalize strategic changes in the culture.”

Not surprisingly, for example, Clinton translated his "It's the economy, stupid" into the "single big opportunity" of balancing the budget – because it’s simply fundamental? But we Pinoys struggle to prioritize and thus are unable to internalize the Pareto principle or the 80-20 rule? How can we focus on what matters and will give us the big and quick wins if to be “inclusive” is our overarching value – and unwittingly fall prey to crab mentality?

There is a "black hole" between plans that read right on paper and plans that are successfully executed that enterprises learn about from experience – i.e., "portfolio management" is a given. Every time there are a number of initiatives in a plan the 80-20 rule will most likely emerge. We need more than a New Year's resolution, we need to break the cycle – i.e., haven't we written great economic plans over the last 65 years or so?

And that is the New Year's wish we want to share with Juan de la Cruz.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Christmas wish

If we have one wish for Juan de la Cruz, it is change. One recent Sunday my wife and I attended the noon mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sofia, Bulgaria. We had few options after missing the English mass, and knew it would be in Latin. While we admired the recently reconstructed church (a casualty of WW II), we knew it would be a struggle to follow the celebration despite our subconscious putting a sprinkling of Latin words in our mouth from those pre-Vatican II days. And on the flight back to New York I happened to read an article about the growing number of churches reverting back to Latin. Didn't we say it was a dead language? But the article tried to provoke: Are Catholics recognizing that Vatican II was a catastrophic mistake?

Indeed the human instinct is resistant to change. Even globally competitive enterprises invested in "managing change" have realized that change, including those from bad to good, brought upheaval. And it holds true in the Vatican as well – where among the cardinals there is dissension too. The debate goes: if the church is committed to engage the "People of God," it ought to keep them truly engaged? How could one ignorant of the language be engaged in the mass, for example, even when the Eucharistic celebration is central to our faith? Blind obedience nurtures subservience, not faith – or character? Moreover, faith and institution are not one and the same? Which explains why despite errant church administrators the faithful remain faithful? Yet there remains a discomfort about change given the changes Vatican II has brought about that many are fearful of? And which is why the curia struggles to address change?

And similarly, the upheaval that accompanies change explains why we struggle to address change even when we acknowledge that we must – or why CCT is such an important piece of the national budget, for instance? And so we want to raise our competitiveness to give us a shot at lifting our economy? And indeed we're doing it in a prudent manner; yet it hasn't spared us of being witness to the ups and downs of our periodic rankings. And thoroughly addressing the individual yardsticks makes sense except that while we are going through our own exercises, other countries are not asleep.

How do we leapfrog our efforts? There must be a bigger or overarching value that we must aspire for not simply to raise our ratings in the various measures? What is the object of the exercise? Economic development is meant to move underdeveloped nations to developed-nation status. Clearly, there is a great distance between the two – and in our case that is at least a generation growing at a constant 7% annually – and thus there is a great chance of being lost along the way. Development like any undertaking demands investment. It is a journey that calls for time, talent and treasure as we know it in our faith journey. But what has been getting in our way?

Oligarchy and political lords both nationally and locally dominate our power structure and given our respect for hierarchy, we unwittingly are aiding and abetting the perpetuation of this sad reality? And have we misunderstood what “inclusive” meant? It is not synonymous to “crab mentality” or we shall keep repeating failings like land reform – which was bound to fail because it was not designed to be sustainable. Land as a resource must generate returns that are healthy in order to create a virtuous circle. It means, beyond distributing land, creating the requisite ecosystem. It is the lesson we learned from the “Parable of the Talents” – i.e., optimizing the returns from our God-given talents and resources means not being confined by boundaries, parochial or whatever else. And the converse, unfortunately, is oligarchic rule. And have we also misunderstood patriotism? Haven't the vulnerabilities inherent in poverty (while we've trampled on the environment) in fact exposed us to more and greater risks?

These are indeed great obstacles yet we have the God-given human spirit to rise above them. The challenge is for Juan de la Cruz to respond accordingly. And thus our wish is change and . . . a blessed Christmas and New Year to one and all!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Hopefully within our lifetime

A highly respected journalist reacting to the book I recently published (Learning to Reinvent Ourselves: How to Make the Philippines a Winner in the 21st Century) sounded hopeful but not exactly confident that PHL would in fact be able to right itself within our lifetime. How could we have taken such an uncertain path? Is it simply because we are in denial? Is it because of intellectual arrogance – as an educator-friend would opine? Is it because the status quo is so rewarding to the establishment – where we all belong save Juan de la Cruz? Or is it because we are a soft- and leader-dependent culture but our string of leaders haven’t crafted and articulated a vision for Juan de la Cruz? True leadership is credible and crafts and articulates a vision that the population in turn would embrace. When the way forward is crystal clear, people are able to demonstrate unequivocal commitment.

Can we, say, over the last half century, point to visionary leadership that articulated the future such that we in turn demonstrated an unequivocal commitment? Our claim to fame remains our OFW remittances and our rising foreign exchange reserves – and they serve a very narrow slice of the economy. Of course, those in financial services are cheering, but these are the same cheerleaders with eggs in their faces when the credit bubble burst? The axiom: money is not an automatic value-creator unless it is efficiently employed to add value – as in the parable of the talents. Still we are proud of our consumption-driven economy especially when the rest of the world has had a recession. Sadly, we’re far removed from the realities of the 21st century world where economic success or failure is measured by innovation and competitiveness – the true value-creator. China and Germany have been urged to push consumption but we aren’t like them, and don’t share their profiles. China is a low-tier GDP per capita nation but with over a billion people the aggregate economy is humongous. And Germany, while a lot smaller population-wise, has a GDP per capita in the top-tier. PHL has neither characteristic and so we should instead be benchmarking against our neighbors – poor nations once but have successfully elevated their economies. But we remain overly proud to accept the slightest imperfection? Or are we simply unable to step up to the plate – i.e., what we sorely need is investment and technology, full stop!

We may have a robust BPO industry and our handful of billionaires have made it to the Forbes wealthiest. And we may be enamored by our tourism campaign despite the deficiencies in our infrastructure. But the rest of the world has already moved ahead and in pursuit of the spoils they anticipate with the dawning of the Asian century. And we risk being swallowed by the competition if our best response to the 21st century world is our inherent fatalism and/or the oblique way (half-baked or “medya-medya” in the vernacular?) we employ to face our challenges? Incremental thinking – and gains – may be good enough for Juan de la Cruz but that won’t suffice in this day and age.

Thankfully President Aquino’s “daang matuwid” has grabbed the attention of the world community, and that is the good news. The challenge we still face is: what is the vision for PHL and how crystal clear is that to Juan de la Cruz so that he would then demonstrate an unequivocal commitment? We are trumpeting that we are open for business yet our actuations continue to confound foreign investment. Which priority industries are we supporting without equivocation? How do we expect to push over 50 industry road maps, for example? Are we unwittingly setting ourselves up to sub-optimized outcomes and compromises (e.g., with vested interests) if not corruption? Our definition of “inclusive” cannot undo the realities of Pareto’s econometric model. There is a continuing body of knowledge behind the principle, also known as “vital few.” The New York Times magazine (on 11 Nov 2012) featured the Spanish global retailer, Zara, explaining how it grew into the largest fashion retailer. Zara is about driving “fast fashion,” meaning a relatively few contemporary styles that move fast off the shelf.

Of course, beyond Pareto, there are success levers that must be present in the pursuit of critical undertakings: the product or service itself and the other elements of the communication mix, the resource mix and the execution mix (who will do what, when, where and how.) It is not about intellectual arrogance and complexity, but simplicity!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Developing a subculture

A British culture-management consultant was comparing notes as she was preparing for her workshop with a North American company for its team in Eastern Europe, which also had folks from Africa. MNCs are able to operate across cultures and markets because it is able to create a subculture – and it supports the conventional wisdom that necessity is the mother of invention? From within an MNC the perspective could be that simple yet from the outside it could be overly complex? For example, in the Philippines we’ve had a love-hate relationship with MNCs and expatriates? And that reality is reflected in the World Bank’s metric re “ease of doing business” – i.e., we rank number 138 behind our neighbors Vietnam (99) and Cambodia (133) as well as Indonesia (128), China (91) and India (132). Indeed we are fortified against the outside world, reminiscent of the old walled city of Intramuros? While quantitative analyses may say we are still a better choice for businesses than India, Vietnam and Cambodia, the prognosis may not hold true over the longer term. That is, if we remain unwelcoming of outsiders and fail to recognize that our inherent parochialism (which preserves our cherished hierarchical structure) won’t propel PHL to become a developed economy.

And while we’re preoccupied with our inward-looking worldview, the rest of the world is moving forward. After apologizing for being on the phone, a Bulgaria taxi driver explained what was going on: “Our Company wants to distinguish itself from everyone else in the business and so whenever I notice something that is undermining the effort, I offer ideas. I work directly with clients and they tell me what works and what doesn’t. We charge more than others yet Carrefour (the French hypermarket chain) signed a contract with us and we are the only taxi company allowed in their taxi stand. And we are in the process of signing up more firms like hotels. And so I was telling the dispatcher that the game is very simple and we must always be defined and perceived as the better choice, like no other.” This man was born and raised under communist rule – and ten years ago that was obvious from their crumbling infrastructure . . . and even beyond, especially in their “mentality” as my friends would explain.

The British consultant was discussing a culture-management conference in Tallinn, Estonia in the fall of 2013, and we were considering presenting our Eastern European experience. And if we do, I would talk about this taxi company and my Bulgarian friends. [Beyond the recognition as one of Europe’s best and fastest growing companies, they were feted on 6th December 2012 by the European Excellence Awards for a recent multi-country product launch alongside global brands Braun and Axe.] Thus it shouldn’t be surprising when I think about it, why in “ease of doing business” Bulgaria (66th) ranks ahead of the Philippines (138th). But should it prick a Pinoy’s ego?

I had always assumed that Bulgaria would rank worse than the Philippines given what I walked into ten years ago. And as my Bulgarian friends would relate, “Barbados, we found out, is not for us. It is perhaps British but definitely not Bulgarian.” They want something less organized and more rowdy. They have their version of Filipino time, for instance. They could create bottlenecks while driving – and thus can use basic road courtesy. And so it is amazing to me still that within its organization my friends have developed a subculture – of transparency, being vision-driven and focused and disciplined. It did not happen overnight. They struggled to migrate from their “Bulgarian culture” and “small-company” mentality. Indeed they were torn: they saw their initial successes as coming precisely from their culture and their entrepreneurial bias. But as the business grew, it became clear to them that the challenge has likewise grown beyond their comfort zone. They had to learn that an MNC, which they have become, as a matter of necessity, needed to create and articulate a subculture.

A business is an economic activity that must pass the test of time. And that is a universal need. It must be inclusive in the true sense (not our crab mentality), i.e., deliver benefits to an expanded and expanding clusters of constituencies beyond the short- and the medium-term and over the long-term. And world-class companies have demonstrated longevity beyond a strictly parochial setting. And they don’t have to be from the West; they could be once dirt-poor Eastern Europeans that are able to develop a subculture that has universal appeal. But is that asking too much of PHL?

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The JFC (Joint Foreign Chambers) are calling our attention for the nth time to our ambivalence re foreign investment. “During the 20 years since the important liberalizing reform of RA 6957, the Foreign Investments Act (1991) as amended by RA 8170 (1996), only two major changes have been made to the FINL (Foreign Invest Negative List): RA 8762, the Retail Trade Liberalization Act (2000) opening retail trade to foreign investors investing at least $2.5 million; and EO 158 (2010), the 8th FINL allowing 100% foreign equity in gambling in PEZA zones (by presidential proclamation).” [Manila Bulletin, 13th Nov 2012]

Is it about “Pinoy abilidad" – we open our economy some and keep it shut at the same time? Do these two measures (RA 8762 and EO 158) address the need of an underdeveloped economy – or that in fact they represent the investment policy that we badly need? Retail as an industry (is basically brick and mortar with practically nil value-added) generates 3% to 4% return versus manufacturing’s double digits. Ergo: where the multiplier effect or the economic reach is larger is obvious without even going through the arithmetic. And gambling is easy money but fraught with ethical issues . . . but not a problem: we see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil? Or is the RH bill the greater evil? What about the inability to put to good use our God-given talents – and because of abject poverty poor Juan de la Cruz has long been dead in spirit? And how does gambling drive innovation and competitiveness – or retail, for that matter? And when we read that one of our largest conglomerates is yet to move beyond retail and demonstrate competitive advantage (and the others are in a similar boat?) that in fact tells us where we stand as a nation and as an economy: economic laggards yet rewarding to oligarchy that is laughing their way to the bank?

And the zarzuela goes on? “Flag carrier Philippine Airlines is in negotiations to acquire as much as a 50-percent equity in the national airline of the Cayman Islands in what could be the long-awaited solution to the downgraded aviation safety status that has hounded local carriers since 2008.” [Philippine Daily Inquirer, 13th Nov 2012.] It is not surprising that our largest enterprises mirror what we are: we side step a problem and then thump our chest because in the process we gain something even better?
All the Wal-Mart Moms, who never really understood that whole Cayman Islands bank account thing marking Romney not as the poster child for the 1 percent, but as the poster child for the .0001 percent of the 1 percent.” [Morris Daily Herald, 14th Nov 2012.] Cayman Islands are a red flag even to supposedly materialistic, greedy Americans! But do we recognize how circuitous a route we like to take instead of addressing our challenges head on? It’s the laws of physics! We can’t unwittingly water down the counterweight to a force especially when it is destructive. And it explains why we have become synonymous to sub-optimization? It is the kinder and gentler way of saying “synonymous to compromise” – ergo, corruption? And that is an inherent weakness we must address if we are to ever become a competitive economy – the direct way to address underdevelopment and thus poverty?

In the meantime, this is the kind of news we will wake up to in the morning: “Unemployment grew in the third quarter, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) said in a new report, reversing a steep fall seen three months earlier.” [Jobless rate up anew, Business Mirror, 15th Nov 2012.] “The latest rate of 29.4% -- recorded in an August survey and up from May’s 26.6% -- is equivalent to 11.7% jobless Filipinos."

It’s important to feel positive yet we can’t mirror a cellar-dwelling team taking for granted that they would get into the finals? No way Jose! Even the talented Lakers had to fire the coach!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Critical of the model that we love

When all is said and done, ours is a borrowed page: the US trickle-down economics? Admittedly there are aspects of it that we hate and those that we unwittingly love? The dichotomy wasn’t lost to Mahathir when he spoke at UST sometime ago. And in his case the one thing that he learned to love is their capacity to invest and bring technology. Simply, Mahathir urges us to discriminate instead of shooting ourselves in the foot? He dislikes the West, particularly George Soros who raided the ringgit, but he craves their wealth and technology . . . and can use them.

We inadvertently subscribe to US trickle-down economics and thus miss that the condescension – or American arrogance – that comes with unfettered free enterprise mirrors our cacique structure? We had the 1% anomaly even before Occupy Wall Street dreamt of it? The human condition, as in greed, travels with ease and so even Europeans, long critical of US-style capitalism, succumbed to it thus aiding and abetting the collapse of the global financial system? And worse, their banks were more vulnerable than US banks.

And it makes Mahathir truly prescient; and being a doctor it was not surprising given his training in cause and effect? We may not be unanimous about the role of government versus that of the private sector in economic development. But we ought to be more perturbed about our failure in power generation; we appear nonchalant because the private sector (or our favorite big boys) would do what is good for Juan de la Cruz? PSALM wallows in debt. Does that mean we’re getting closer or farther away from fixing our energy dilemma? Our neighbors, on the other hand, knew that government had to provide leadership in economic developed as exemplified by Singapore and Malaysia? And both Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir bin Mohammad offered us unsolicited advice.

The problem with US trickle-down economics when applied to PHL is that we don’t have the infrastructure and the ecosystem of a developed economy like the US. And thus the flaws of their model don’t represent our own challenges. The issue of inclusiveness in a US environment versus ours is not the same. Our inclusiveness challenge is largely due to our underdevelopment. [Yet we have produced billionaires that have dominated our economy and thus its lopsidedness. And because of their influence – that could be owed as much to our acceptance if not embrace of a hierarchical structure – we have become party to protecting oligarchy via the closed economy that has characterized PHL and thus starved of foreign investment and technology.] We ought to be comparing ourselves to neighbors that were once poor like Thailand: they have appreciably reduced poverty simply because they are more developed than we are, i.e., their GDP per capita (at purchase price parity) is $9,500 against our $4,100. [And poverty to us means making less than one or two dollars a day. In the US poverty thresholds are used depending on the size of the family and the ages of the members: for example, in 2012, a family of five, with two children, their mother, father, and great-aunt, has a threshold of $27,010; and the family is classified as poor if it misses said threshold.]

When we compare apples to apples, our concern must be to drive our economy. Simply put, we have to focus on building our economy like our neighbors have done. And it starts with basic infrastructure – from power and beyond – and prioritizing the pursuit of strategic industries and their requisite ecosystem or clusters as economists would call them. For example, the seven strategic industries identified by the JFC (Joint Foreign Chambers) must be our concern, meaning we must set up the support industries that will make these strategic industries viable. Agribusiness is one of them. Beyond talking about a “comprehensive agrarian reform program,” we must be focused on making agribusiness a viable economic undertaking – from the inputs to the outputs and ensuring that throughout the process they are efficient, productive and competitive.

Because of our inability to step up to the plate, we’re confusing our challenges and not surprisingly are in a maze that shouldn’t be there in the first place: CCT, land reform, minimum wage legislations, etcetera have not made a dent in our poverty efforts! Why? We keep taking our eye away from the ball!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Where we stand if we pull out a GPS

The global financial system is not starved of investable funds and with more and more economies showing signs of feebleness, people in financial services, now that the era of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, China, and India) countries is stalling, are looking at growth markets where they could park these funds. “Park” means investment is single-minded – it is driven by returns not friendship or even favored-nation status. [And while our CB folks are beaming given our elevated foreign exchange reserves, economists are livid as the peso remains fairly strong, a negative for our exporters; while our importers/retailers are salivating, reinforcing our consumption economy.] Says Euromonitor International, "[The] N-11 or next eleven are: “ Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam; all 11 countries demonstrate population growth rates above those of Western developed economies, indicating greater consumer market potential; large populations represent a wide potential pool of consumers for businesses to target, while high growth rates mean that this market will expand rapidly, providing proportionally more potential customers." How do these countries make hay?

We just did an investment guide with my Eastern European friends following the inclusion of Hong Kong and Singapore in their list of new markets. How should they prioritize investments in the Asia-Pacific region? The object is to compete and win; and that demands investing in product development and innovation and people and market development and, fundamentally, a manufacturing and technology hub. In short the ecosystem. [To prioritize, compete and win are inherent to investors. It means investing in the ecosystem (“sowing”) and thus expanding economic reach (“reaping”). It is what “inclusive” is as opposed to paying lip service]. Looking at 15 countries, from Australia to Vietnam, where do we stand? We are number twelve, ahead of India, Vietnam and Cambodia, but still in the bottom rungs. And it brings to mind why Ford relocated to Thailand and why some Japanese companies doing business in and rethinking China opted for Indonesia over us. And simply, our economic profile does not sparkle compared to many of these countries. And it is but a repeat of what we saw after 1992 (Asean integration) when we lost some MNC manufacturing to our neighbors. Our large population base is negated by our poverty levels and our fractional GDP per capita compared to our neighbors. And when one factors in our infrastructure deficiencies and the absence of an ecosystem that can support strategic industries, our economic muscle needs to be toned.

We must fix our problems . . . and fix them fast and faster! We got to do what we got to do! “What you see is what you get” is the rule of thumb for investors. Everyone knows power is a fundamental problem in PHL. We now know that tourism will take years to develop because of our infrastructure deficits. We are working on over 50 industry road maps yet the seven industry winners called by the JFC (Joint Foreign Chambers) have yet to fly, beginning with mining. [Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize.] And while we're pursuing export promotion and development we must likewise move beyond the nascent stage of defining what innovation is. [Practice. Practice. Practice.] Unwittingly, we are falling back on traditional exports (or our comparative advantage like bananas, i.e., we have the soil and the climate to grow them) but they don’t necessarily generate high-margin revenues as in higher value-added products – which translate to competitive advantage . . . And even Ayala Corp., one of the biggest conglomerates in the country, has been generating a negative or low income from its international businesses . . .” [Manila Times, 2nd Nov 2012] . . . And so where will our competitive advantage come from? Our MSMEs are low-cost industries and as Poland, Spain, Greece and Portugal have learned, in the 21st century world, an economy needs more than that: a nation needs to be competitive . . . which comes from moving up the innovation learning curve.

If the BRIC nations were no slam dunk, will we be able to figure out why we’ve had a “boom-bust” history? Unfortunately, it appears we’re between a rock and a hard place: the inertia to take things for granted [vested interest masquerading as love of country?] is powerful and even worse is our speaking from both sides of our mouth [do we/don’t we like foreign investments?] either because common sense [the parable of the talents?] is in fact a rare sense or closure is not us – “kuro-kuro” is us?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On whose terms?

People invariably demand that they see the world on their own terms. And despite their blind spots our neighbors have zoomed pass us becoming First-World nations even. Thanks to their leaderships – they made the difference. And thankfully too, because of President Aquino, the international community is today warming up on PHL.

Before the president’s "daang matuwid" it was not uncommon for us to justify our nonchalance about corruption, for instance, because every nation can't be clean? In fairness we’ve come out with loads of prescriptions on how we could move forward. But unwittingly we may have accepted that we are a badly engineered machinery and thus in band-aid solution mode, meaning that we’ve been sidestepping the roots of our problems?

The European Union Commissioner for Transport . . . told . . . Vice President Binay that “when it comes to air safety, we don’t have friends” and the EU remained non-committal on the possibility of lifting the ban on Philippine carriers . . .” [Manila Standard Today, 2nd Nov 2012.] [The] CAAP head . . . said only two out of the 22 actionable items identified by the US FAA as safety concerns remained unresolved, namely the lack of qualified safety personnel and the absence of an integrated IT system to modernize the sector’s database.” But these are run-of-the-mill issues – not rocket science – and which is why Business Mirror, 2nd Nov 2012, screamed: “Leadership problem caused CAAP failure.”

The administration of President Ramos saw the dire situation in our power supply. Decades later, in 2012, shouldn't we be reaping something more tangible than: "The draft Power Development Plan for the Luzon Grid for 2012-2030 of the Energy Department . . ." [MST Sunday, 3rd Nov 2012.] The operative word is draft? And beyond that is a sprinkling of "indicative projects." It says we simply don’t get major projects done timely and right? We are not operating in a vacuum. Friendly nations are competition – for investment and technology and thus innovation, talent, products and markets. And so "daang matuwid" is criticized because the test of the pudding is in the eating? But is the continued poverty or destiny of Juan de la Cruz in fact in the hands of powerful local cliques?

The Philippines may be “open for business” . . . But if the business is cornered by the powerful local cliques . . . then that particular sector is locked shut, whatever the consequences on the investment climate and the national economy,” writes Jojo Robles, Manila Standard Today, 1st Nov 2012. “An international consultant working on the aborted $1.5-billion investment package from Qatar and Kuwait has confirmed . . . that the visiting emir . . . personally ordered the Bank of Qatar to abort the transaction in a fit of royal pique . . .”

And the biggest local players don’t even have to excel globally. Our business model, “to monopolize and/or dominate local market,” is dated and a confirmation of our cacique structure. Reports the Manila Times (2nd Nov 2012): Ayala Corp., one of the biggest conglomerates in the country, has been generating a negative or low income from its international businesses . . . during the past few quarters . . . [The] Strategy and Development Managing Director said . . . that while their core businesses are doing well, their international businesses are relatively failing to excel” . . . The bottom line: Even our largest enterprises can’t be operating on our own terms as Poland has realized, Unless Poland turns itself into an innovative, knowledge economy, it risks heading down the same path as Spain, Greece, or Portugal,” Reuters, Poland stumbles on journey from low-cost to hi-tech, 28th Oct 2012.

Those countries mirror some of our ways. And in the case of Poland they too pride themselves in their BPO expertise. My old MNC employer established its European shared-services center in the country and it has emerged as a best practice model that they will replicate in other regions. "Poland has thrived on attracting low value-added businesses such as television assembly plants and off-shore accounting and call centers . . . The statistics show just how poor Poland is at innovation. The country spent 0.74% of GDP on R&D in 2010, much less than the 2% on average in the EU . . . [The good news] is the government is doing something about the problem. [It is not] a civilization leap, but regulatory and systemic changes will allow Poland to surprise many countries. This requires five, maybe 10 years."

Friday, November 30, 2012

Prescriptions and more prescriptions

With PHL going through its challenges – Asean integration and the Mindanao peace accord, among others – prescriptions running the gamut are in abundance. And I am reminded of the stack of research materials that I had to read through to assist a PhD candidate. We’ve been in development mode for decades yet are stuck in square-one – i.e., poverty has long defined us as a nation? It’s a tough nut to crack because the human condition gets in the way? For instance, hierarchy, something we saw with our Spanish colonizers, has remained a characteristic of our culture. And in Marcos we saw that on top of hierarchy, to perpetuate power one must reject transparency. And transparency is not how we would describe governance in PHL? But a US Appeals court has seen through it and handed Imelda and Bongbong an unfavorable judgment? And given that these characteristics are inherent to the human condition we would be unable to deal with them until we learn to be a bigger person – no different from what Occupy Wall Street was demanding? Greedy bankers may not, but can Juan de la Cruz prove to be a bigger person?

Clearly our underdevelopment poses fundamental challenges. But even countries ahead in the development curve like Poland (with a GDP per capita at PPP five times ours) can be faced with daunting challenges. "The biggest economy in Eastern Europe . . . is one of Europe's least innovative economies . . . Universities do not cooperate well with business . . . It has thrived on attracting low value-added businesses . . . That type of economy depends on low costs . . . To compete in the future, Poland will need to replace its low costs with innovation . . . It filed 8 patents per million citizens in 2010 ... compared with an average of 108 in the whole European Union and 266 in Germany . . . Poland has a long way to travel if it is to catch up on its more innovative competitors . . . Unless Poland turns itself into an innovative, knowledge economy, it risks heading down the same path as Spain, Greece, or Portugal . . . Those countries experienced rapid growth but failed to shift in time the structure of their economies away from low-cost industries." [Poland fails to move to high tech, Business World, 29th Oct 2012.]

Poland can use a mutually reinforcing relationship between industry and academe. In the US, for example, the academic community has the big advantage of being right next to global enterprises – i.e., they could be privy to real world challenges and how industry deals with them in the here and now even before a case study is available. But in developing countries, as another once mentee (who had received a PhD in economics) explained, the two worlds of academe and industry are not necessarily Siamese twins – i.e., the “shallowness of industry” is contrary to academic rigor?

In the US this supposed divide has been bridged in many cases. For instance, a Korean company had sent a group of managers to attend a program at an Ivy League institution many years ago and a major part of the program had the Koreans visiting R&D centers in the U.S. And one in particular was my MNC employer and we welcomed the Koreans with open arms. And the Koreans could not believe the openness of a US company to the academic community: “It would have taken us an inordinate amount of time – if we would even be spot on – doing research to gather what we picked up here in one afternoon.”

Developing countries can learn from this aspect of Western practice. A couple of weeks ago I sat through the successful thesis defense of an Eastern European friend. As the mentor I read through the stack of research materials that she assembled and I remember the first exercise we did was to develop an outline for the dissertation. As a practitioner (the subject was measuring brand loyalty) it was natural for me to separate the wheat from the chaff. And in the real world, there is no such thing as the ‘silver bullet.’ And hence I was glad my mentee immediately agreed to define the limitations of the study, the algorithms notwithstanding. And in the end it was a simple outline that she used and which she was able to test via the paper she published – a prerequisite before moving into the dissertation proper – following the green light from her professor. She added: “I would have approached the dissertation from a different perspective if no one kept reminding me that the test of the pudding is in the eating.”

Monday, November 26, 2012

From virtuous to vicious circle

PH poverty reduction remains dismal says UN.” [, 28th Oct 2012.] The Philippines’ performance in meeting its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has remained dismal with barely three years into the deadline to achieve the objectives set by United Nations member-states . . . The UN report on the MDGs disclosed, among others, that the Philippines was years behind on most of its development objectives.”

Of the seven MDGs, the country got failing grades in four – eradicating extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and sustaining maternal health . . . The UN described as “regressing” and “no progress” the Philippines’ performance in education-related objectives, and “slow” in dealing with anti-poverty reduction, child mortality reduction, as well as maternal health problems.”

We may be doing fine in three of the seven goals but poverty will continue to define us. And so CCT (to address poverty) is a major piece of the administration’s agenda . . . and we assumed it was to be a virtuous circle? We’re not alone in the instinct to intuit or in our “pakiramdam.” Even the legendary Steve Jobs demonstrated “pakiramdam” and opted to pursue alternative medicine when he first learned about his illness. Many of us ‘born again’ Christians that have done discernment exercises and/or discernment training arguably would see discernment as not necessarily supernatural – i.e., that the sciences can’t be dismissed when human challenges clearly say so.

Visiting a museum in Ukraine [and sadly they seem unable to leave their totalitarian tendencies behind] many years ago, my wife came back with one of the most vicious stories in the history of that country. Their anger would still seethe through decades later recalling why despite being the breadbasket of the Soviet empire countless of them had to die to fight for crumbs of bread. The insult had come earlier, being convinced that their food ration was confirmation that the system was indeed a virtuous circle.

Over the last ten years a group of Eastern Europeans (and they have become friends) have experienced the reality of what a sustainable economic activity ought to be. And I wonder what, when, where and how would Juan de la Cruz experience a similar reality? Our problem is that we are proud being long a free market and have assumed that ours is a virtuous circle . . . and so what is there to change? [On the other hand, extreme critics remain radicalized precisely because they’ve witnessed the shortcomings of this supposed virtuous circle. There is no perfect system and ours is not the model to crow about – because it is lopsided yet serves the purpose for many of us. Radical groups make a valid point but they are, because of “pakiramdam” and/or ideology, also jaded?]

We can learn from our architects and builders – and they are world-class – about how they are able to design, build and create a system that is functioning. [We can’t be ever driving our economy on the backs of our Christian charity. ‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God which are God’s.’] It was like yesterday when my Eastern European friends wanted to figure out how a functioning system comes about. And it is beyond “pakiramdam.” And ten years later I sat amazed in their budget reviews for 2013; it was as though I was in a time machine – sitting once again in a business review in a Fortune 500 company headquarters, not perfect but world-class.

These once socialist folks have learned to anchor their thinking in some higher order – to stay ahead of “global trends.” They’ve realized that if they were merely to replicate the product ideas of MNCs and sell them at a cheaper price they could not sustain the undertaking. It was a reminder that their once celebrated food ration was unsustainable, a disaster waiting to happen.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Asean integration

. . . [T]he Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) of the US has remained non-committal if it can come up with another package for the Philippines but instead urged the private sector to do its share by investing more,” Manila Bulletin, 19th Oct 2012. Another Manila Bulletin article that appeared on the same date reads: “Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corporation (PSALM) extended transition supply contract (TSC) with Manila Electric Company (Meralco) will be expiring this December . . . [I]f PSALM will not take calculated steps on how it will market or treat its un-contracted capacities, it could be a risky option for consumers as increased spot market exposure could trigger price hikes especially during the summer months . . . “

Are we ready for Asean integration? We know how similar initiatives unfolded in North America and Europe, and even in Asean after 1992 – when we lost some MNC manufacturing to our neighbors. Economies of scale make MNCs locate manufacturing facilities where they would yield the optimum if not maximum benefits; and in an integrated Asean, the most cost-efficient country would always win out. [And we still don’t have a coherent energy plan?] It is beyond friendship, it is about economics – “business is business.” Unfortunately, PHL is indeed Shangri-la (quoting American friends) and who would want that quality of life changed? And so Juan de la Cruz is simply cool? And that’s not necessarily a problem. The problem is when we take a challenge for granted.

Now that the Asean integration is around the corner, the alarm bells are ringing louder. If even our largest banks – and for many years we saw them as paragons of success – are now admitting they would be dwarfed by the integration, what more of our much smaller enterprises? Still, blogs like this are a pain in the neck: nobody wants to be at the receiving end of unsolicited advice. And which is why I find myself learning a lot from my Eastern European friends. Their desire to seek ideas and experiences from the outside says they’ve understood and accepted that they could use help – yet they remain proud as a people. They saw value in the efforts of the West to assist them in their accession to the EU. Still just like what the MCC said, the private sector had to do its share of investing. And this especially applies in the case of PHL given that we’re lagging in investments. And to be hardest hit in the meantime are our much smaller enterprises – which “employ 70 percent of the population,” writes Florangel Rosario Braid, Manila Bulletin, 24th Oct 2012.

Small enterprises thrive when the ecosystem is geared to innovation and competitiveness. In the Japanese or Korean model, for example, major enterprises sought to become global players and the smaller enterprises they spawned (as auxiliary industries) developed an innovation culture given their symbiotic relationship with the former. In contrast, our small enterprises are more like livelihood undertakings. The challenge goes beyond the conventional support to MSMEs that we may be familiar with. We need to create that larger ecosystem that has the requisite infrastructure – from power generation and beyond – and an industrial base of strategic industries that is sustained by investments, innovation and competitiveness.

In the meantime our industry worries that populist legislations supposedly to protect workers would create a bigger problem not only for them but eventually for the workers themselves. (Similar to the fallouts we saw in land reform and the unwitting bias of minimum wage legislations to unskilled as opposed to skilled work?) Not surprising, again, because our industry is meant to market to poor Juan de la Cruz and thus low or affordable price is the mantra. And precisely because of this paradigm we have yet to develop the inquisitiveness that spurs innovation and competitiveness. And our efforts in raising our competitiveness rankings to date are still at the level of “ease of doing business” – where the real barriers include the absence of a culture of efficiency and productivity, our hierarchical culture that feeds on cronyism and corruption and the restrictive economic provisions in our charter – and have yet to move up to the heart of competitiveness, that is, of innovation.

Indeed we must ring the alarm bells. Asean integration will not be easy – our optimism notwithstanding – given the outmoded paradigm and model we see as virtues?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The self-actualized Juan de la Cruz

Is the status quo in fact our be-all and end-all because it serves our purpose? And that we weathered the Great Recession while the rest of the world tripped? More so since we believe that our faith holds the keys to heaven? Yet the status quo is also the reality of hapless Juan de la Cruz who can’t call the shots? [Thousands of miles away, while sitting through 2013 budget reviews, it wasn’t surprising that some of my Eastern European friends would reveal their inability to visualize the future – given their dark past – even when many of them have already benefited from the continuing education their leadership has put them through.]

But back to PHL: The good news is global finance types are talking about us as the next tiger, thanks to "daang matuwid.” Yet we ought to be circumspect given how they also saw Russia as part of BRIC, the supposed tigers? People in this part of the world who know what Russia is like take that BRIC label with a grain of salt. Russia is still very much driven by oil and Putin, and when oil is over $100 they are prosperous, and Putin is a hero – but not to the protesters in Red Square. What about PHL? Indeed we must be circumspect about being the next tiger. Fortunately we have "daang matuwid" instead of a Putin. Yet we can't take the status quo as our ticket to truly becoming a tiger, precisely why we needed "daang matuwid." We can't be like a house that is built upon the sand? And our elders drilled into us what that meant. In the hierarchy of needs, for example, they preached that we must recognize that a roof over our head comes before a car. [And which my wife repeated to our daughter after she got her driver’s license and thus had to make do with what was available in the garage, going against the American convention.] Of course in the modern era that has been supplanted by the credit culture peddled by bankers . . . until the bubble burst and plunged the world into the Great Recession. And my Eastern European friends would remind themselves that indeed there are risks in being roped into the credit culture of the West – as they witnessed how a property boom could turn into a bust.

But bad credit comes in different forms. And the Dutch have become the classic example of what is now known as the Dutch disease. And the best way to explain that is our OFW remittances have kept our consumption-economy humming; and we think its manna from heaven. And this has been reinforced by our half-a-dozen dominant entities that continue to prosper principally due to these remittances – and the simple arithmetic is reflected in our local economy being more than twice our export receipts. And we’re proud of it, making it our Dutch disease?

And that house upon the sand becomes glaring given the absence of something as fundamental as basic infrastructure. Add to that the absence of an industrial base of strategic industries that have a greater multiplier effect than our consumption-driven economy. And because our export history is one of third-party contracting, the sad reality is innovation – which directly impacts competitiveness – is a major gap in our capability as an economy and as a nation. And we gloss over this reality and look at an economy either as consumption- or export-driven. While nations that are steeped in innovation and competitiveness generate greater wealth; and why international agencies are preaching innovation and competitiveness especially to developing countries. On the other hand we like to think that our handful of dominant enterprises are great models failing to recognize that they are such not because of innovation and competitiveness but rather in our parochial society they are dominant in a market that is fairly large – of 100 million consumers. And thus we've remained poverty-stricken. To be parochial, as the last 50 years bear witness, can't make us a developed economy or raise our per capita output 10-fold. Meanwhile our neighbors who took the outward and global view developed their competitiveness and simply left us behind. 

And which brings us to the status quo, which in this day and age is not what we must preserve? What we need is to build our house upon a rock, one that has its basic infrastructure in place as well as its strategic industries that are sustained by continuing investments and innovation. We have no choice but to learn the ropes and move up the learning curve. We can't be an island unto ourselves, especially as we discourage foreign investors, the surest way to perpetuate hierarchy and oligarchy (and turn back the hands of time) like they do in Russia.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

An escalator to the moon

There was none . . . yet Kennedy driven by the risk of giving the Soviets the confidence that could have led to greater adventurism on the part of Khrushchev set for the Americans a commitment to get man on the moon within a decade. The reality was even the scientists were uncertain how it would be done.

The Eastern European representative of US AID on the ground was selling me the idea of coming back after my one month commitment; and it so happened it was the US Thanksgiving Day and there was a celebration in the office for the handful of American consultants, including myself. [To the Eastern Europeans I am "Amerikanska," and spoken in Russian-like accent.] And one guy said he was jealous because he was not being asked. I took it as a joke: "Vensi, there, he just solved your problem." That night the Americans and their spouses celebrated Thanksgiving in a fancy restaurant that later on we would learn was not recommended for expatriates – to be expected of naïve Americans! The buzz was it was the favorite of the "local mafia" – former communist commissars that had controlled the transition to free market and taken over major industries like power, telecommunications, media and the like. Sounds familiar?

"We need to rapidly develop our fledgling enterprises especially because in 5 years we expect to be in the EU, but even today MNCs have already set up shop in this country. They will eat our lunch. And in your industry there is this one company that I believe has the best chance to successfully compete against foreign companies. They are begging if you'd give them a few minutes to present themselves. They asked me to have you try some of their products.” And as they say, the rest is history. But the point to make is that these people had no clue what they had to do other than the aspiration to succeed in a globalized world.

It's been well over a decade since the Ramos administration had to first deal with our nagging power issue. And we are in a better position that Kennedy was simply because power generation is not an unknown challenge. But it requires a Kennedy-like mindset. For example, we have to think outside the box, literally outside the Philippines and put out a project brief, something like: “From the outside one would see a market of 100 million consumers. Given this market size and the population and economic growth rates and per capita GDP, how would the market look like in 10, 20 or 30 years? Given those fundamental parameters as well as the characteristics of an archipelago and the distribution of the population and commerce and industry, what is the ideal energy mix that this country should have? They must deliver sustainable power supply as well as competitive rates, the object being to spawn other economic activity, i.e., attract foreign investments and pave the way for the establishment of strategic industries and beyond. What will the transition scenario be like from a supply and rates standpoint? More importantly, where are we, where must we be and how shall we get there?

Assuming a globally respected energy enterprise with a track record of success globally is presented this market, will they find it attractive? Only capable global entities will be prequalified to pursue the project; they can partner with local players when the latter’s facility or facilities fit the overall project design and objectives and thus would satisfy the supply and rates parameters envisaged. And they must spell out the mechanisms that will be put in place to ensure failure is not an option. Given the risk of cronyism and corruption, what is the ideal mechanism that will ensure a best-practice project management model? How can the process be made transparent including creating a totally independent project management team that will report to an oversight body (headed by a Warren Buffett-type) that will in turn be responsible to the Philippine leadership: the president, the energy secretary and the cabinet's economic cluster? How will the project managers interact with the relevant government agencies, the public at large, etc.? What communication mechanism must be in place so that there is absolute transparency; and what safeguards must be in place to ensure efficiency throughout the process and until project completion?”

Imagine Juan de la Cruz is putting a man on the moon; failure is not an option! It’s not about me and myself!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why “pwede na ‘yan” won’t cut it

America’s leadership in several areas has eroded much more rapidly than most Americans think. They (the authors of Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage, Robert Atkinson and Stephen Ezell) are right to argue that classical economists are often blind to the fact that innovation is the product of ecosystems rather than individual companies and that ecosystems are fragile,” How not to be left behind – Why America cannot see that it is losing traction; The Economist, 13th Oct 2012.

If it could be argued that Americans (and classical economists) could be blinded, what about PHL? Of course we are proud that our resiliency was once again proven through the Great Recession. But is that to crow about? In today’s globalized world we remain inward-looking. In an age where innovation is valued and rewarded because it drives progress, we continue to reward hierarchy and the lopsided economy it yields. But we’re well-informed and proudly prescribe cures which could indeed be state-of-the-art. Yet we ourselves are missing something? We have yet to visualize the ecosystem that will create the climate conducive to transforming our efforts into a virtuous cycle? [Forward thinkers have realized the contributions of da Vinci, Einstein, Edison, and Jobs, among others, in the discipline and art of visualization, and made them confident as they pursued innovation.]

We are still touting the over 6% GDP we registered in the most recent reading but that is the outcome of stepped up spending by the government following the criticisms from last year that “daang matuwid” was choking the economy. And that GDP number does not represent bringing us to a virtuous cycle. We’ve recognized that basic infrastructure, for instance, is an imperative if we are to create that ecosystem. But while we read about new PPP initiatives to be sent out for bids, we have yet to make a dent on PHL’s very basic infrastructure needs. But because of “pwede na ‘yan” we’ve patted ourselves in the back, especially as we’ve addressed and are moving forward in the competitiveness rankings.

Those efforts are laudable, but if we are to move closer to creating the ecosystem that nurtures competitiveness, we have to start looking outward. Our enterprises, including banking services and property development, remain parochial targeting OFWs wherever they are in the world. Ergo: we have yet to look beyond our local market and our own people being especially proud that we are satisfying their needs – that as marketers we are constantly fine-tuning our target market and that we are successful businesses because we are focused on the market that is our strength.

But what is the reality in today's globalized world? That parochial bias is already accounted for by the $20 billon in OFW remittances absorbed by our economy each year which while incremental is at best a manifestation of incremental thinking – and as President Ramos says, “the pie is too small.” We are not creating a virtuous cycle that comes with moving up the learning curve in innovation, for example. How can we then prescribe cures though state-of-the-art when the platform of our economy remains backward: infrastructure-wise, strategic industry-wise and investment, technology and innovation-wise, for instance.

How do we create that ecosystem that will elevate us to that desired state of a competitive economy – and move from incremental to quantum-leap thinking? Otherwise we simply fall back on our old paradigm: OFW remittances and the same half-a-dozen entities that control our economy? And which is why it’s called spinning wheels – i.e., we would remain stationary (e.g., poverty levels) and fall behind the rest of the world as well – even Vietnam, Cambodia and who else?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Peace Accord

The Mindanao peace accord is a confirmation that “daang matuwid” will move us forward as a nation. Still we must be guardedly optimistic especially when individuals and/or parties remain skeptical if not opposed. And the administration would do a world of good to keep them engaged. Deep-seated concerns don’t just go away. And personal interests could indeed derail collective progress. But sincere efforts to engage disgruntled elements would minimize if not eliminate the downsides.

Transition efforts no matter how sincere would take some doing as experienced by Eastern Europe where to some it is taking a lifetime. But still we can’t afford not to capitalize on the Mindanao peace accord. People, like consumers, can’t be fooled. For example, “daang matuwid” must come down to the barangay level. Nature is hierarchical and why local bosses come about. It takes the civilized man to overcome nature’s hierarchy. (And why the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini was critical of the Vatican, being 200 years out of date.) In Eastern Europe to be tsar-like is rewardingly intoxicating. And in the US we have our “hot dogs”!

But hot dogs don’t necessarily build a culture of innovation, which is what the 21st century world is about. For instance, how does the West overcome the loss of manufacturing to China? The US cannot simply harp on their history of successes. And unfortunately financial engineering is not the way to go. Many years ago when derivatives first hit a bad patch it became clear that creating tangible value is key, not some mirage or financial mambo-jumbo. And later on the Eastern Europeans, after the initial euphoria with the stock market, had to learn that the stock market ought to be founded on enterprises that create value. And in the small countries in Europe the bias must be to become regional if not global players. This was on top of going through a property boom that went bust.

The good thing is their country’s leadership is accelerating infrastructure development while attracting technology enterprises from the West to make them a regional hub. And to their credit, they have built a modern airport with the requisite fly-over access to the main avenue and the city center; and the new subway system is well on its way to completion. They have the highway network to their seaside which attracts loads of tourists from the West practically done, and they are busily – in a more accelerated fashion – working on the highway to the border in the south that will ease travel to their mountains. They attract skiers from the West. This is the kind of mindset we can use in Mindanao and beyond especially the discipline . . . to prioritize.

Yet my Eastern European friends can’t ignore the imperative of creating a culture of innovation – beyond being activity-driven they must attain that desired state. Technology is a great leg to develop yet the object is the ability to create tangible products. Fortunately they’ve already overcome the first hurdle by looking beyond cheap products their compatriots could afford – which they realized had dictated their inward-looking bias. [And which we Filipinos have yet to realize: low-priced products may generate volumes and yield margins but the greater benefit from innovation comes in higher valued-added products that will find a broader international market and spawn corollary industries locally thus realize their multiplier effect.] And they’ve become globally competitive, developing across their four businesses products for a wider world. And with Asia a new addition to their geography, erecting facilities there is on the drawing board. But the excitement comes in the thinking and the discipline that undergirds the pursuit of the next generation of products. Instead of creating hot dogs they’ve created cross-functional teams that are moving up the learning curve developing higher value-added products, not by chance but via a virtuous cycle.

These people went though very tough times, and our folks in Mindanao could say something similar, and many are still pessimistic. And both need forward-looking leaders that will lead them away from primitive times and into the civilized age, where value-creation or innovation is rewarded, not hierarchy – because of its attendant poverty.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

“Keeping it simple”

It is arguably a trait manifested by leaders and could be as rare as leadership? Supposedly high-end supermarkets in the US have had to recall their own store brands because of salmonella illnesses, a job for the leadership? The Clinton speech during the Democratic convention was credited for giving Obama the “convention bounce.” He keeps things simple and his exposition of ideas comes across, even to the opposition, with ease and grace because of the poetry in his prose – even when extemporaneous. In contrast, Obama’s performance in the first debate with Romney was unpresidential. Supposedly the most powerful person, briefed on major national and global issues on an ongoing basis not to be in command of them makes his leadership suspect?

The trait is ever present in the corporate world. At GE, for instance, the succession plans Jack Welch had and his ultimate choice of his successor confirmed that GE is a great school for leaders – as those who didn’t get the job became CEOs themselves in similarly high-profile companies. I’ve seen it during my years with an MNC and how senior executives would readily identify managers we would move around the world. And the next question would always be: who do we assign in her place. And across the board the leaders that were groomed for senior jobs were clear thinkers. They could “keep it simple” – and truly lead their organizations knowing where and how to get the people focused, on the right things.

And in the Philippines this reality is present too; whether it is “Tatang” Sy or Ramon Ang, head honchos like them come across as clear thinkers. And it brings us to the saga of the North Rail! Not again! Where is the outrage that we are once again going to the international arbitration court? We haven’t resolved NAIA 3 yet! We have become so callous about incompetence that we can’t even get biddings of projects done right? And so projects are left in limbo! Is corruption behind the incompetence and so it is in fact incompetence by design?

Could leaders be clear thinkers because there is integrity in their thinking? Which means they won’t simply compromise? And isn’t corruption a product of being unhinged that opens the door wide open for compromise? Unfortunately, when we call for compassion or inclusive or nuanced or whatever, the downside side is it opens up more not less compromise and sooner than later corruption has already reared its ugly head? "P101.8B lost to graft," blares the Manila Bulletin, 5th Oct 2012. "COA lists 19 government schemes to siphon off taxpayers' money."

On the other hand we believe libel in the cyber law is a priority – a clear and present danger? – but couldn't hide our bias against the anti-money laundering legislation? Indeed our society is dictated by the aims of our elites – and that to be a paid lackey is not uncommon that even senators talk openly about it? Is poor Juan de la Cruz ever to worry about libel or which foreign account to keep the less than $2-a-day he makes? In the meantime we keep pointing an accusing finger at others and hidethe embarrassment of being economic laggards yet when one comes down to it, PHL is about a hierarchical society that lends itself to abuse and finding solace behind the skirt of Christian charity?

We must capitalize on the new look foreign investors are giving us (thanks to “daang matuwid”) if we want those potential new investments to materialize? And we must have clear-thinking leadership to move critical infrastructure and strategic industries forward? Unfortunately, major projects are in limbo? Or power: should RE be in our portfolio to address (a) power shortage and (b) costs? Whatever it is, as a legislator laments, vested interests are fighting to preserve the status quo! With the world moving forward, the status quo means PHL is kept behind – as our laundry list of challenges expands. And that is a very bad sign because it is moving us farther away from economic development while perpetuating a lopsided economy – with poverty and oligarchy representing two sides of the same coin.

We have our job cut out for us; we can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot and face the world from a position of weakness – that we are a small underdeveloped nation. We can't pigeon-hole ourselves as such which, unfortunately, we carry because of our hierarchical culture? We are what we are because of decades of missteps that we must correct. We can’t be forever young?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Change and innovation

". . . Because our leadership elite are addicted to the powers and privileges associated to that past it is perpetuated," writes Mario Antonio G. Lopez, Changes, Business World, 1st Oct 2012. "Many would keep the pie small because they have control of it rather than make it grow and lose their power even when it promises greater personal and national benefits." His bottom line: we are "mired in the past."
And it explains our resistance to change and by extension our inability to innovate. And in one universal measure, i.e., patents, we lag and, unsurprisingly, in competitiveness too. What about our neighbors? Consider the latest rankings from IFI Claims Patents Services: IBM and Microsoft are in the top 10; Asian firms account for 25 of the top 50 U.S. patent-grant recipients for 2011, while US firms captured 17 slots; IBM wins the most patents for the 19th straight year with 6,180 patents. [Network World, 11th Jan 2012.]

There is an argument that patents can impede innovation. And it came up again in the Samsung and Apple patent conflict. Fortunately or unfortunately, for the Philippines, we’re not there yet. We must first walk before we run. We must first develop an innovation bias before we consider that patents impede innovation. And we can’t develop the bias if we are mired in the past – and find solace in the status quo. Our longstanding challenge is underdevelopment which demands change and innovation, unfortunately not second nature to us. And they are not going to come so long as our way of life preserves “the power and the privileges of the leadership elite.”

Change and innovation are inherent in developed economies because they reward progress which in turn spurs competition. It is what an egalitarian society ought to be. In a hierarchical society like ours, dominance by the powerful is what is rewarded. And thus when Eastern Europe broke away from the dominance and power of Soviet rule, the West wanted to rapidly share with them the elements of free market – and how to pursue them. They had to recognize that the free market does not mean gratis. They would have access to what the West had to offer but they also had to build their own economic base. As I write this blog, I am in the heart of Eastern Europe where for the last 10 years I have become part of that effort. While they are creative people, they still had to learn the thought process of creative thinking – and to this day the learning and the relearning continues and is a big part of their planning process.

My Bulgarian friends have no patents to their credit – yet – but that is not the object. They are about developing and sustaining an innovation culture and thus are constantly pursuing innovative product ideas (across four different but related businesses) that they then market in over 20 countries and counting. And not surprisingly, in 2011, the European Business Awards recognized them for being one of the best and fastest growing companies in the EU. [Theoretically big companies can bully smaller ones but the reality is smaller enterprises are faster on their feet. In fairness, IBM shares with clients their patents for the latter to build on and for their own benefit, i.e., patents don’t have to shut out innovation.]

And that innovation culture should win my Bulgarian friends their share of patents in future. They also draw inspiration in the thought that P&G, their model marketer, currently owns over 35,000 active patents.” [] And fairly recently they hired a scientist from a local university to head R&D of their latest business unit. They remember the story I shared with them that it was a small group of scientists from a renowned US university – working with our pharmaceutical subsidiary – that helped develop a breakthrough technology that earned my MNC employer a US patent and contributed to achieving 45% share of the global market for the brand. On the other hand, “Pfizer’s revenues fell 7 per cent from a year ago . . . as sales of Lipitor fell 71 per cent . . . during the quarter; the impact of the end to the Lipitor patent.” []

The bottom line: we can’t be mired in the past and the status quo if we are to pursue change and innovation – and thus accelerate economic development and appreciably reduce poverty.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The realities of foreign investments

The first reality is we have the least ability to attract them when compared to our neighbors. And that is reflected in how we are reacting (emotional is an understatement) to the news that Manuel V. Pangilinan would retreat to Hong Kong. There are those who believe we pissed him plenty. While others think he was flexing his muscle knowing full well the country needs every dollar of investment.

The second reality has been articulated by President Aquino, thus: “We must have a level playing field.” And in pursuing an undertaking we can't be half-hearted if we are to succeed. And the fact that as a people we are still ambivalent about foreign investments, we are thus into this arena of global competition with our hands tied. We unwittingly are in a shrinking world of our own creation with very few options to overcome the demands of the 21st century? What is that world? Despite lagging in gross investment, the PHL economy is skewed to the same half-a-dozen entities: it is consistent with our cacique-paternalistic model and thus comes with CSR as well as livelihood and poverty-alleviation programs? Thrown in is land reform, farms-to-market roads and stepped-up PPP? And for good measure we have adopted economic stimulus as a tool like they’ve done in the West only to complicate affected infrastructure projects from a finance, audit and legal standpoint, to paraphrase Boo Chanco. [The Philippine Star, 28th Sept 2012]

The reality is a developing economy doesn’t need an economic stimulus per se unlike developed economies – where the economy is efficiently functioning yet in a recession may be unable to sustain demand. A developing economy needs a coherent development plan by definition – i.e., to invest in the requisite building blocks of an economy like basic infrastructure and strategic industries. [Coherent simply means that; our inability to address basic problems like power, NAIA, MRT 3, among others, speaks volumes. There must be something we’re not doing right? It takes a big person to accept his shortcomings, to paraphrase FDR?] We are like a car without the requisite four wheels and so we need more than “fill ‘er up.” A developed economy has all four wheels and filling up the tank makes it run.

The next reality is that foreign investments are not an act of charity. They are a business proposition. In primitive times man’s reflexes were dictated by nature – and so in the hierarchy the lion was king – thus the big guys would bully and exploit the small guys. In the 21st century, man is more civilized and in pursuing a business proposition, the object is a win-win partnership. For example, when the West responded to Deng Xiaoping’s call for “money and technology,” it was meant to be a mutually beneficial undertaking. Was the West stupid (like those of us who responded accordingly) for supporting China only to see China today bullying the small guys? Man can always choose evil over good. But it does not mean that man doesn’t have the capacity to seek the common good – which is not to say it is a cakewalk. Man’s choice then is to dig deep into the human spirit or to rationalize that it is pure naiveté?

First Pacific, which Manuel V. Pangilinan represents, is one of over a dozen entities of Anthony Salim. They are constantly fine-tuning their portfolio of business interests in many parts of the world. And so they have explored partnerships (for instance, like with our group, though it didn’t go forward, more than 20 years ago) and separately acquired and/or sold businesses over the years because each was meant to be a business proposition that contributed to the object of their enterprise. Can they pull out of the Philippines? If the Philex environmental disaster would put their investments at risk and if the graft cases filed against Ongpin, et al re Philex shares would drag them into a PR disaster and beyond, they don’t need that. They had a bad experience in Indonesia surrounding the ouster of President Suharto. They have been burned before and have learned their lesson. [Anthony Salim’s come back…, Businessweek, 3rd May 1999]

Which brings us to our ambivalence about foreign investments, and unwittingly have restricted our options to our favored few and thus are finding ourselves hanging by a thread? We’ve created our own shrinking world and if the consequences still aren't clear, we can only be paying more? But we won’t skip a beat because: (a) it's the price of patriotism or (b) it's a Christian community we live in or (c) it serves our purpose?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Like in tennis, advantage can shift to the competition

Vu Tu Thanh, Vietnam representative for the Washington-based US-ASEAN Business Council, said Vietnam has lost the reputation it enjoyed a few years ago for being among the most attractive destinations for investment in Asia. Would-be investors, he said, want the government to push through large-scale economic reforms that will weed out the most inefficient state businesses,” Time World, 24th Sept 2012.

Been there done that? For years we’ve lagged the region in foreign direct investments, and would-be investors wanted us to push through economic reforms. Those who have done business in Vietnam would be the least surprised they would shoot themselves in the foot. For the moment they still are ahead of us in terms of accumulated FDIs and hopefully if we keep our noses clean the advantage would shift in our favor.

Competition is a 24/7 reality and countries like us and Vietnam can’t think of competition as a campaign that starts and stops. It never stops. Beyond rigorously addressing the shortfalls in our global competitiveness rankings, it is important to recognize that the critical elements of competition are ticking all the time: somewhere a hundred miles away if not a thousand or ten thousand miles, there is someone investing and upgrading their technology in order to come out with the latest innovation for their product and the learning cycle is simply elevating the skills of their people thus creating an innovation culture that gives them the ability to capture new and dominate current markets. [I wrote this longish sentence after two separate teams of Eastern Europeans had presented their game plans before traveling to Germany and Hong Kong because these markets are keen about their products. In the Philippines we talk about the shrinking global economy because we are yet to internalize what competitiveness is about.]

And thus especially for a nation like us that has been scraping bottom for some time now – i.e., we lag Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam in gross investment, FDIs, exports and, not surprisingly, have a greater poverty challenge – we must recognize and gear up to overcome this ever daunting challenge. And not applaud our oligarchic model founded on influence peddling and monopoly power and thus dominance in the local market. It explains why, as some legislators have noted, vested interests have been blocking foreign investments – and why we are starved of technology and innovation and consequently are globally uncompetitive, underdeveloped and poverty-stricken.

Thankfully we have the JFC (Joint Foreign Chambers) stepping forward with Arangkada Philippines – designed to raise $75 billion in investments and drive 7 strategic industries that will generate millions of jobs and deliver incremental GDP of over $100 billion. So why aren’t we grabbing and running with Arangkada?
President Aquino’s “daang matuwid” has encouraged foreign investors to give us another look especially now that others have been shooting themselves in the foot. Our own black marks are not few and thus Juan de la Cruz ought to display a greater sense of urgency. And that means we have to learn to operate beyond our own world – call it culture or whatever – and demonstrate that we have brought competitiveness down to our heart and to our gut. For example, we must demonstrate that we can put the power issue to bed! Or do we like to think that we’re market-economy champions and that local investors are already on top of it? Sounds like the oil industry in the US writing the road map of the industry? That is not how the Asian tigers became Asian tigers. Their governments defied the US model and crafted a unified development plan such that in a relatively short period of time they became First-World economies.

The bottom line: resolving our key challenges – power, basic infrastructure and strategic industries – must be our mantra. And the test of the pudding is in the eating. And that means the world especially foreign investors are able to see through the transparency of our game plan – not that we are giving a wink and a nod to our favored few. To foreign investors that is the real story of corruption in the Philippines; but in corporate speak it sounds tactful: “Our policy is to invest in countries where there is a level playing field.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thinking outside the box

Beyond the fight against corruption – where we must remain vigilant – we’ve made progress in raising our competitiveness as reflected in the most recent global rankings. Yet given we are ways away from becoming a robust and a sustainably growing economy, like in the fight against corruption, we must step up our efforts in driving competitiveness. For example, we must develop the instinct to think outside the box.

Has our sheltered culture – to shelter us from the influence of the secular world, a carryover from the parochial and hierarchical structure of the church – tempered our inquisitiveness and expansiveness critical in the 21st century world? And it’s no different from what Rizal saw during his days – and so he took up the cudgels for the rest of us – and no different from the debate within the Vatican? And today our culture mirrors aspects of the church that we are in fact proud of – like our “opo” and “mano po?” My daughter with most of her grade school years done in Manila is profuse with her “opo” when with Filipino elders but on a dime, with non-Filipinos, turns into a western. Like me she grew up wanting to please her parents. But what does that really mean? Intuitively, as parents, we assume we must be obeyed? And so we take it for granted, for instance, that we can snap at our children – because parenthood gives us the rank and the privilege? That’s fine if in return we won’t mind our children snapping back at us? “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them . . .” [Ephesians 6:4]

Our hierarchical society has kept us behind the times. And it was refreshing that a cardinal (May he rest in peace!) would raise the issue with the church. While a priest-columnist recently discussed academic freedom; and hopefully we take it beyond lip service? As Steve Jobs would explain, it was California’s tolerance for the counter-cultural that opened his eyes to look and think outside the box – that is at the heart of the Apple brand. (And analysts estimate the record sales of iPhone 5 will buoy up US GDP this year.) Around the world and irrespective of culture, people are glued to their Apple gadgets whenever they need to shut the world out – in trains and boats and planes. My wife and I were recently on an 11-hour train trip from New York to Montreal and my Eastern European friends had access to me and vice versa.

Yes, every human idea has a downside and man can choose evil over good! And it’s easy to point at others – be it our notoriety in corruption or our being economic laggards? But where is our failure to innovate, for example, coming from? Do we instinctively see kids or subordinates as inferior? The boss has all the answers? And so in the 21st century we’re paying the price for missing the imperative of innovation, and thus have the least patents to show in the region? We have our “muchachas” and in the west they only have “cleaning ladies.” It is not the label that matters it is how they are perceived? In the Philippines I was called “sir” or “bossing.” In Eastern Europe early on I needed an assistant, a translator and a driver. And in the Philippine that would mean hiring a staff of three? But the incremental two jobs I would have created can’t compare with the multiplier effect of an efficiently functioning economic activity! Unfortunately, we could miss such a reality because of compassion – e.g., like our failed land reform program?

I hired one young college kid to be all three and he called me like my friends did. He kept normal working hours (being a working student) five days a week, beyond which my wife and I would have to make special arrangements. He would see his work from different perspectives: “I could see how the dots were connecting.” Beyond translating he found himself explaining in their language the nuances of discussions and decisions. “Tell me what you need and why and I will get you a user-friendly report in the intranet,” he once said to a senior manager. And our managers access our intranet constantly because it facilitates decision-making – even when on a train in North America.

Should we then be asking: Why haven’t we created a society that is progressive, that is forward-looking and an economy that is value-creating and robust and growing? No wonder a tycoon can put a gun to our head because we are hanging by a thread – with no track record in attracting investments?