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Change Agent

Partha Ghosh helps business and political leaders across the planet get their goals straight

Change Agent

FUNDAMENTAL change. The phrase keeps popping up all the time in Partha S. Ghosh's conversation. Change that speeds past overhauling, beyond re-engineering, into the terra incognita of re-definition. "When companies come to us for restructuring, we ask them: why do you need to restructure? When you ask that question, you're getting closer to the fundamentals. Like, do you need to redefine your benefit delivery systems to your customers? Do you actually need to rede-fine the very concept of your business?"

 A globe-trotting management consulting career, 12 years of which were with arguably the world's most respected consultancy, McKinsey & Co, has left its mark in the ubiquitous dark suit, pale blue shirt, yellow kalki-patterned tie, and the benign I'm-in-control composure. For the last seven years, he has been on his own, running the Tokyo-based Partha S. Ghosh & Associates, advising megacorps and governments. Annual turnover hovers between $7 million and $10 million; staff strength: 18. "We'll never be more than 30 people. I firmly believe that the consulting process in the 21st century will be more of the James Bond type than the CIA/KGB type—large structures, army of field agents. Especially if you are true change agents attacking fundamental issues. Because then you may have to go for months without billings, since people don't want to pay you to hear the bad news. You can't support a large company in this sort of business. You need to be 007."

 And blow things up. Though—crucial difference with M's emissary—only to rebuild. "For instance, we told a very large Japanese paints company: paints is a narrow way to define your business. Look at it as the fashion and function business through coated surfaces. Coated surfaces perform all types of functions, from microchips to paintings. It's an easy statement to make: think coatings, not paints, but when you make that change, you need to start thinking very very differently."

 After the conceptual surgery, Ghosh goes into workshops focused on specific problems. He sets extremely ambitious targets. Like, bring the product development cycle down from 36 months to three. "Apparently impossible targets force people to think in wholly new ways. In fact, in one company, we've managed to bring down cycle time from 36 to 18 months in two years. Thirty-six to six, I think, will be a three-year process. Then, six to three will be far more difficult, but now that people have seen what they can achieve, the initial cynicism has evaporated, and the target is far more acceptable." While he is telescoping time, he is also building values like teamwork. "That's something Indians don't have: teamwork. We can produce Rays and Tagores but no good soccer team."

 Paradoxically, 20 years of advising top corporations in the US, Europe, Latin America, South-east Asia and Japan have strengthened his Indian core. A smidgen of passion creeps into his calm voice whenever the topic shifts to India. "We have to ask ourselves: do we want to just keep running, or do we want an Indian to win the Olympics 100 metres sprint? Having been to the Harvards and MITs and Princetons of the world, the most brilliant minds I have ever come across remain some of the professors and students I met during my undergraduate days in IIT, Kharagpur." Where did they go, he muses...just vanished into thin air.

But you went away too, didn't you? Wry smile. "If you graduate from IIT, you can obviously write a good scholarship application to a US university. So MIT gives you a scholarship. What do you do? You go. Then you get your MIT degree (Ghosh got an MS and an MBA from there), and someone recruits you. And you're in the race."

But Ghosh intends to bring something back. For the last decade or so, he has been coming back to India several times a year, speaking at various fora, airing his ideas. The core of his message: that industrialisation has been imposed on India, top down from out-side; "it hasn't taken root in the souls and hearts of the people." "That's why after 50 years of effort, we remain non-competitive. India requires bottom-up industrialisation which serves grassroot needs. We need Rs 50 radios and Rs 10,000 tractors, not products that have been developed in Japan and the US for a much richer consumer base. In India, people who're buying something are sac-rificing something else. Only when you have the sort of industri-alisation that your environment wants can you end up making products that the world will want. All those new industries in states like Haryana and Karnataka cater only to the top 5 per cent of the population, and anyway all they're doing is assembly work." 

Some of his ideas percolated upward to receive attention from political circles, most notably from Jyoti Basu. For the past couple of years, Ghosh has been working with the West Bengal government to develop a 21st century gameplan for the state. The objective: to make West Bengal an industrial powerhouse. "We're not talking of 10-15 projects, we're looking at bottom-up appropriate industrialisation: manufacturing capabilities that begin in garages across the state, and then evolve and grow." Ghosh has prior experience of strategising for entire societies. Some years ago, he was asked by Turkey's then Prime Minister Sulaiman Demeral to develop a strategy for his country: Turkey as a bridge between Asia and Europe, East and West, Soviet deconstruction and NATO realignments. That was a very satisfying intellectual exercise; in the Bengal assignment, Ghosh is, one gets the feeling, investing more than his grey cells.

THE messages that we are developing for Bengal have very important implications for the entire country," he says with as much excitement that his consultant's credo allows. And no peruser of his blueprint can fail to be struck by its sheer audacity/vision, misplaced idealism/ideological power, imaginative excess/creative insights. But then, manifestos of fundamental change would perhaps always evoke uneasy Janus-faced first reactions.

Ghosh's plan calls for a radical effort to redeploy the same racial characteristics accused of having led to the Bengali's fall from eminence, into positive energy. Reawakening, says he, should be based on four core competences of the people: agriculture, culture and education, sports, and social service. "All other industries will be feeder industries." Social service as a core industry? 

Set up hundreds of well-run cheap clinics and old-age homes, says Ghosh. Millions of old people in the developed world are looking for cheap comfortable homes. Culture and education? "Most great schools in India were set up by Bengalis. If Bengali culture enjoys teaching, why not give them that tool to develop schooling systems and spread it across the world? Bengalis—in fact, all Indians—love pontificating, so why not do that as a potent economic activity? Every state should look at what they are good at, and go for appropriate, bottom-up development, something that grows organically from the environment. I think the way Indian states are going about it—getting two large projects or so many dollars of foreign investment—is not something that will help us get globally competitive in the long run." But confusion of goals and not perfection of means characterise our age, he says, quoting Einstein, one of his heroes. "What we need in India today is the courage to say what we actually stand for." 

It may have been that sort of courage that propelled him to go on his own. "Firstly, I always wanted to set up a brand name for India. Secondly, most consulting firms are essentially western; not one works on Eastern philosophies. I'd worked across the world, so there was this great opportunity, particularly at a time when people were talking of Japanese concepts, which are nothing different from Indian ideas.

Thirdly, 21st century consultancy will belong to James Bond, not CIA/KGB. Besides small-team agility, the 21st century consultant will also need range, to be able to engage with both prime ministers and common farmers. Like Bond can walk into 10, Downing Street shake the prime minister up, yet hold his own in a Jaipur bazaar."

And work 28 hours a day, seven days a week. As Ghosh speaks, the next plane he has to catch hums in quiet impatience at Delhi airport. He is flying to Calcutta, to make the final presentation to Basu. Any plans of coming back permanently to India? "Only when I feel that I can make a difference by coming back, and not become part of the system and get cosy: that's a real danger. Right now, I believe that I can make more of a difference by staying on the edge. When I dive in, I'll dive in fully, make sure that I can engage with India." Till then, it's endeavour as outsider. But if a paint maker is in the business of fashion and function through coated surfaces, and Bond possibly in the trade of terminating national security problems with extreme prejudice, what business is a consultant like Partha S. Ghosh actually in? "I think, fundamentally, I help leaders get their goals straight."

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