I am writing this sitting in a train, more out of sheer frustration, than something that I had planned to do. What I would dearly love to know at this point is the price of DXY, the Dollar Index and the EURUSD rate. Armed with two laptops, two smart phones, and a 3G to wi-fi router modem, sitting in the first class coupe of a superfast train still in Mumbai, I am unable to get the rate.
None of the phones or modem can catch the broadband necessary to load Reuters or Bloomberg. I tried asking for the rate on Twitter that loads intermittently. No replies that I can see. That is just another grim confirmation that despite all the progress we have made, we just cannot take any service for granted.
I don't think we as a society realise how much we lose in terms of additional layers of cost that get added to simple things because we cannot take them for granted. Consider.
I do not need two laptops, two smart phones with three different ISPs, and a 3G wi-fi router as an additional backup. I am forced to duplicate this expensive equipment to be sure that they work when I need them because individual vendors are not reliable. It doesn't matter that they fail only five per cent of the time and work 95 pc of the time.
Because I need 100 pc reliability, I am forced to more than double my investment in equipment to cope with the unreliability of the service. Even so it has failed me. I may or may not end up losing money because of this shoddy service. That is a different matter. But the very fact that I have to more than double my investment in equipment to cope with unreliable service adds to my costs and leaves me at a crippling disadvantage in relation to my competitors.
It is not just phones or bandwidth. These things span every aspect of our infrastructure, from backup generators for power, public transportation systems, to shopping malls. The inability to take anything for granted compels you arrange for backups that double and triple your investment just to level with competition.
It is not that we as individuals are inefficient, lackadaisical, or indolent. Rather, it is that we have not understood productivity in the modern world. Personal productivity is about how effectively you do your job.
Person for person, Indians are as good as any of the best there is. But productivity in the modern world is more complex than just personal efficiency and effectiveness. You also have to be collectively productive because today a person's output depends less and less on his or her personal effort and more and more on the support system of which he or she is a part of.
My productivity is a function of my own effort, but also that of the support I get from the public infrastructure around me, the organisation that I may be part of, my colleagues who work with me and complement my work, and a whole host of other things not excluding the general level of wages and incentives that the economy sets up for my kind of work.
It is here, in the collective productivity sphere, where collaboration with others is concerned, that we fail miserably.
One aspect of the problem is the lack of realisation that collective productivity is critical to an individual's productivity. The second is that, as your job gets more complex and capable of high value addition, your dependence on the productivity and reliability of other people, systems and processes around you, grows exponentially.
Indeed, reliability of the service levels and collaborative effort of others become more important than their productivity per se. To compensate for the unreliability of service levels from others, you are compelled to invest in redundancy in your own systems in order to maintain your service levels.
Let's assume that you need three critical services from your vendors to maintain your service levels at say 100 pc. Assume these three vendors are reliable 80 pc of the time. The probability that you will fail, given these three 80 pc inputs, is [1- (.8 x .8 x .8)] = 49 pc! In short you will fail to deliver half the time.
How many of our services that you depend on are 80 pc reliable? In turn, your vendor himself probably depends on similar three 80 pc reliable inputs from his vendors. Factor that in and you can see how the unreliability and uncertainty build up exponentially in complex systems.
Now think in terms of having two vendors for each input to take their reliability up collectively from 80 pc to 99 pc. [The probability that both vendors will fail is 0.2 x 0.2 = .04. So the collective reliability of the two vendors goes up to 1 - .04 = .996.] By doing so you double your investment costs.
It is the investment cost of building redundancy into the system that cripples competiveness. The slightest unreliability of a subsystem can cripple a complex system because it builds up exponentially.
We are as good as the best anywhere in the world as individuals. If you take an average manager, research worker, engineer or doctor and place her in the United States, the performance and productivity are phenomenal. But the same worker is probably less than average in the local ecosystem because the systems and process she depends on are riddled with uncertainty.
Since you can't clone yourself to build redundancy, there is no way to increase your productivity beyond the upper limit imposed by the critical weak link in the system, whatever that may be. That is our weakness as a nation. We have not yet internalised the need for reliability in our schema to emerge as an industrial society.
You may recall Alvin Toffler who said that one of the main aims of a modern schooling system in the industrial age was to imbibe in the young the immense value of synchronicity. The ability to be productive and competitive collectively requires a very different skill set than what comes with individual brilliance.
Moreover, the organisation and role-playing skills required are an order of magnitude more complex and difficult than personal skills. Teaching them is neither easy nor cheap. Nor are they easy to teach in a classroom. Perhaps the best place to learn such skills and their value is in team sports.
Sadly, team sports, while critical to development of the young, remains the most neglected aspect of our school systems. Most parents consider it a waste of time. A society that doesn't provide toilets for kids in schools can hardly be expected to triple or quadruple its investment to provide playing fields and equipment for team sports.
But learning to be an effective team player, the ability to envision your role in a larger system or process and to acquire the skills to collaborate and compete productively with colleagues can only be acquired on the playing field and not through classroom lectures.
Moreover, these skills are habits, not knowledge. They need to be internalised before they come into play and require emotional learning. That takes a long time, which is only available in schools.
We need to move our focus from being individually brilliant to being collectively productive as a society while preserving personal freedoms.
Sonali Ranade is a trader in international markets