Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Ontology of Quality

For some time now, I've been pondering the notion of Quality in the light of the fact that Indian providers of IT / Enabled Services have achieved more in the area of assessment and certification, compared to their competitors from the Western world.

From a historical perspective, in order to compete in the Western markets and make a credible claim to be ‘world-class’, there was (obviously) a need for non-Western hemisphere based aspirants to prove that they were, at the very least, on par with the established incumbents in those markets. Clearly, the stamp of approval from a first-world certification authority provided the basis to qualify as a competitive bidder in international RFPs. In comparison, first-world service providers had been around for several decades (some even over a century old), with a sound track record and a classy reputation carefully and painstakingly built over time. Their CXOs were part of the same ‘old boy’ networks as their customers’ CXOs. This was the club that players from emerging markets wanted admittance into, and quality certification was their ticket.

What may not be so obvious is the subtle but important difference in the understanding of Quality in what has traditionally been a market-driven economy (where the Customer is, and has always been, king) and the understanding of Quality in what has traditionally been a controlled economy and has only recently begun to enjoy the fruits of liberalisation (where customer-centric strategies are seen as revolutionary new ideas). In materialistic America, for example, where existence has always preceded essence, the concept of Quality is superseded by (and defined by) the concept of Customer Satisfaction, and subsumed within it. If you have someone buying from you and paying you, it means you're doing a good job with whatever it is that you’re selling. Obviously, they had a choice - you always have a competitor, even if it is nobody. And they chose you. Ergo you are good. Methodology frameworks and the need for established processes, standards, testing, measurement, benchmarking etc. are seen as academic pursuits of the more intellectually-minded geeks in the engineering / production / delivery functions, by a seemingly benevolent and indulgent business-minded leadership, for whom the ultimate test is out there in the market, where a valiant sales force battles tough bids and wins. More business, more repeat business (especially by beating competition) and not necessarily certification, is proof of good quality.

In spiritual India, on the contrary, where essence has always preceded existence, Quality (like nirvana) tends to be an ideal, to be pursued as an end in itself. Practitioners and managers in this environment may ignore or even oppose customer requests, citing the need to comply with ‘our own internal’ standards. I've always found it ironical that we understand servility and servitude, but not service. It is more important for us to be warm and friendly to our customers than to provide efficient service (as opposed to the Western world, where people are generally cold and business-like but strive to provide good service). To be fair, such markets are fighting hard to overcome legacy issues such as state-owned monopolies, government control through a draconian regulatory framework (especially when it comes to foreign trade), a socialistic mind-set where profit is sometimes a bad word, a culture of collusion among players who ought to have been competitors, and, to top it all, a business mind-set shaped by the economics of scarcity – where the Supplier ruled, and customers queued up only to be put on a waiting list. Even today, the attitude of a dominant player in these parts, towards a local customer, would be: “I am big. I am certified to kingdom come. I cater to a global clientele and get paid in dollars. If you are not happy with me, it’s your problem”.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it is all about balancing Customer Satisfaction with Quality, where the two are not necessarily coincidental. If demands of mature customers and pressure from competition do not drive evolution and growth, then the internal pursuit of excellence should. Whatever it is, the bar needs to be raised. Constantly.


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