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The numbers game aka “When 1 + 2 doesn’t = 3!” (or elephants have 2 trunks)

I can’t help but observe that folks love their data in India… lots of lovely numbers, preferably in pretty charts or graphs. Which are generally accepted as ‘truth’ and ‘correct’.

When I contrast the work I do in India vs say Indonesia or Malaysia, there is generally a wealth of data tracked and reported by companies here compared to sometimes quite limited data points in other markets.

But here is the thing, it can be absolutely maddening if you have to DO something with those lovely numbers.

Because, you see, 1 doesn’t necessary mean 1 and 2 doesn’t necessarily mean the 2 you think it does so as a result when you try to put them together you don’t get 3 but instead 4 or 5… and that result definitely does not match that other figure from another report or source that is supposed to be the same thing!! Arrrghh!!

During a recent project, I was reminded of this – full force! With much angst, long hours and considerable effort required for things that should have been simple to provide, understand and then use effectively.

Why? It seemed no one had ever probed deeper into the numbers. They were simply accepted. At the board level.

Yet as soon as I attempted to compare those lovely statistics across different reports and distribution channels, then attempted to validate with my own calculations, sense checking what I found during a diagnostic, nothing added up.

So I had to go back – asking what may have seemed like extremely obvious things but revealed quite different assumptions and completely different methodologies which meant those pretty numbers presented for years were actually not correct… or more precisely were correct only if the different definitions, assumptions and calculation methodology were disclosed.

Without such disclosures, one side looked really healthy whereas the other side looked like complete laggards… which when using the same definitions, assumptions and calculation methodology provided a slightly different picture. Hmm…

In another case, it was a classic ‘elephant’ scenario… each was busy describing the tail, trunk, leg and other body parts in isolation. So while the elephant trunk is a trunk and correct exactly as described on its own, when asked to show the elephant as a whole (i.e. put the pieces together), two trunks were added, making for a rather strange looking elephant.

Except just as this potentially misleading elephant photo proved, when the image is questioned and examined further rather than simply accepted as a freak of nature, another story (or in this case another elephant!) is revealed.

Had I simply accepted that elephants can have two trunks and reported this marvel at the shareholders meeting, we would have missed completely the 2nd elephant and continued to perpetuate the myth of the exceptional two-trunked pachyderm!

In a land where creative accounting is an art form and there is an army of experts to help dodge taxes, it is no wonder that blindly accepting numbers as fact without checking and making the effort to understand in context is a dicey thing.

This is not just in a corporate context but political too. Just take Scroll’s recent ‘fact check’ articles on the Prime Minister’s Independence Day address… or assertions on the effectiveness of demonetisation. If you probe a little deeper, do not accept ‘facts’ and ‘data’ at face value, an alternate perspective emerges.

In fairness, the complexity and range of variables found in India means simple measures may not be sufficient. That is a large part of why trying to neatly fit things together isn’t so easy.

I have a great deal of respect for the calibre and quality of the people at the companies I work with and an appreciation that the reality may be (and often is!) different than someone externally expects.

A standard global report or approach may simply not account for all the factors. Sometimes what it takes is creating a bridge between the two that helps provide the context or story so that everyone can see there really are two elephants.

Living India Tip #4

Moral of the story? The numbers you are given may not be ‘wrong’, however they just may not be ‘right’ as you initially interpret them!

Don’t be afraid to check there isn’t a 2nd elephant hidden behind! And help make it easier for others to quickly spot that 2nd elephant too…

Related posts:

Pppffft Provident Fund Follies in India – Part 3

Everyone likes a nice story book happy ending? Right?

And guess what? Spoiler alert! I’m about to give you one…

To recap… once upon a time I had real salaried jobs in India.

With each job at each company there was a little thing known here as a “Provident Fund” i.e. something you contribute to towards your retirement.

Which is a great thing!

Except that if you are not actively contributing to your Provident Fund (PF), it goes dormant and lies there withering away with no interest accumulating.

Yeah… you got that right… it gets frozen.

Factor in inflation… rupee devaluation… and basically what could have paid rent may not even buy a cup of coffee when you try to retire. I exaggerate… somewhat… but not completely…

So what happened?

Job #1 – Zippidydoodah!!

  • Remarkably quick… merely took a few calls, getting the right forms, supporting documents in place and that was it!
  • Redeemed in weeks… that’s correct! Under a month!

Job #3 – Get smart!

  • Began with the usual “We lost the paperwork” and “Ooops! We didn’t set it up with your middle name…”
  • Re-submitted paperwork with a different ID and different bank account without my middle name. Smart lass, eh?
  • Redeemed in only a few months… that’s correct! Under a year!

Job #2 – Umm…. 

There is a reason the middle job comes last in this story…

There was more than one obstacle in this case… Like any good tale there were villains aplenty!

Villain #1 – Good old M&A

Original company merged with its global competitor… Combined company again went through a further acquisition… each change meant a further complication.

Villain #2 – Good old incompetance

Original PF registration had the wrong date of birth. Yeah, I know, how could that be when all supporting documents has the correct date of birth? Simple… someone… somewhere… wrote or typed a “0” instead of a “9” and voila! We have a problem.

Villain #3 – Good old ignorance

Once navigating a defunct PF was managed, date of birth corrected, someone got the bright idea that I was disqualified from withdrawing due to my citizenship. Seriously???

Yet like all good stories, we have heroes too!

Hero #1 – Good old boys…

Unbelievably, remarkably, astoundingly… despite all the changes, the Finance guys at my erstwhile employer remain.

Even more amazingly, they respond to my emails and til this day do not ignore my calls.

Without them nothing – and I do mean nothing – would have happened.

Hero #2 – Good old persistence

Even with the right people behind you, without consistently, persistently following up, resubmitting documentation, checking and rechecking… submitting new documentation, checking and rechecking… submitting yet new documentation, following up, checking and rechecking…

Only with pesky sometimes annoying prodding could any progress be achieved.

Hero #3 – Good old info

When ignorance reared its ugly head, more help was needed.

Even the right people, with persistence, gets nothing accomplished without the right “proof” that what someone less informed thought impossible was indeed possible and proper. Information is power. Proof of that information is even more powerful!

Documents were duly submitted dispelling ignorant assumptions that foreigners – and more specifically Canadians – have no access to their Indian Provident Fund.

So then what happened?

The heroes prevailed and defeated the evil villains and my beautiful lovely provident fund was won!

Redeemed in only a few years… that’s correct! Under a decade!

dragon-slayer

Moral of the story?

Living in India Tip #2

Remain friends with the finance and admin guys of your former employer!!! You never know when you may really really really REALLY need their help!

Related posts:

Dethroning “King Cash” – daily life post demonetization

While it is true I spent much of November and December in Indonesia, I’m home in India now and discovering the new day-to-day reality of life post demonetization.

For those not familiar, on November 8, 2016 the Prime Minister of India with a swipe of his pen made the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes no longer legal tender – effectively taking 86% of the currency out of circulation.

The rules of how to exchange or deposit any cash kept changing and, more challenging, the new Rs 2,000 then also Rs 500 notes were a different size so ATMs didn’t immediately work. Then when re-calibrated, apps popped up informing where you could get cash – finding an ATM (or bank branch) with cash became a more elusive race than catching Pokemon Go!

(more…)

“Madam you must put your permanent address!” Aka a logic defying day

Sometimes you simply have to accept what life throws at you. There is no choice. Fighting won’t help. Getting upset won’t help. Today was one of those days…

Rather than rail at the universe, it got me thinking about different definitions of what is accepted as “proof” of address for various official (and perhaps unofficial) requirements.

Permanent Address

The stumbling block today, aside from some mysteriously missing paperwork, was a little thing known in these parts as “permanent” address.

Now… for those not familiar with the term, permit me to introduce you to this pesky little thing. (more…)

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