Monday, December 14, 2009

The new lean economy

I have commented earlier (link here) on the phenomenon of the jobless recovery that the US economy (and definitely many of the more 'open' economies) are likely to be facing in the next few years. Of course, this precludes any serious effort by the government to create jobs through stimulus like efforts - though there is going to be a limit to that as well, given the relation of stimulus efforts to future debt creation.

In my opinion, the 2008-09 Great Recession has forced companies to seriously evaluate their cost structures. A lot of what passed before has been cut (in the fat bubble years) and companies have begun to realize serious benefits from cutting out fat, leveraging efficiencies at the work place by eliminating redundancies, moving their applications to open source platforms and so on. And my intuition is that many of these changes are not going to be just a reaction to the downturn. Companies are seeing that the quality of output has not significantly suffered because there aren't enough people to do the work, or because the work is no longer being done by expensive software. Thomas Friedman, in a piece in the New York Times, wrote that the Great Recession has also brought about a Great Inflection.

According to Friedman, the Great Inflection is "the mass diffusion of low-cost, high-powered innovation technologies — from hand-held computers to Web sites that offer any imaginable service — plus cheap connectivity. They are transforming how business is done." Friedman talks about two examples in his piece. One is a small, not-for-profit that needs to create an ad campaign. Given constrained budgets, the need of the hour is to be innovative, but with cost efficiencies firmly in mind. The ad creator uses a mix of collaboration tools (enabled by cheap and high throughput communication), online sourcing (through the availability of online marketplaces for media products) and multimedia editing (enabled by software and hardware improvements) to deliver a solution that is both innovative and appealing as well as one that fits in the client budget.

The second example, of the furniture manufacturer Ethan Allen, talks about transformations the business has had to make to drive productivity improvements. The transformations have been both traditional: workforce reductions of over 25%, multiskilling of the remaining workers to make them more fungible, consolidation of manufacturing and process engineering. Additionally the company has also adopted other non-conventional means to conserve cash and survive. This has included moving a lot of the advertising activity in-house leveraging the multimedia desktop tools that are available today.

Finally, Friedman makes a point that the flow of credit (which is still very constrained) would make these companies create jobs. I disagree. I think it is going to take a lot for companies to start hiring again. And when they do, they are going to be the multiskilled talent that is now constituting the workforce at Ethan Allen. Companies across the spectrum have tasted blood - of keeping productivity and output high and costs low. They are not likely to go back to being fat again anytime soon.

In Indian banks, I am seeing an increasing phenomenon in the growth of branches. Most big banks are expanding their branch networks - like HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank and even the venerable State Bank of India. But the branches increasingly are being staffed at low staff levels. Staff is usually multi-skilled. Specialists are assigned across branches and are mobile. As a customer, if you need any specialized service, the representative at the branch contacts the specialist who then makes an appointment within 24 hours. Instead of having committed staff in every branch, the staffing model comprises fungible generalists allotted to branches and shared, mobile specialists across branches.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I didn't understand the concluding part of your article, could you please explain it more?